FULL TEXT: Mrs. Bertha Gifford, the tireless “Good Samaritan” and death-bed watcher of Meremec River, Missouri, is in jail, suspected of 17 murders, most of them of children, of which, the police say, she has confessed three and admitted that there “may have been more.”
For the last 16 years, in her old farmhouse, known as the “Catawissa House of Mystery,” this strange character has held herself ready to dash for the bedside of every dying neighbor within 20 miles.
Uncomplainingly — in fact, eagerly—she would jump out of her warm bed-in the middle of the night, put on her nurse’s while uniform, which was always hanging on the chair, and drive her old car, or before that the horse and buggy, through any sort of weather. Even in blizzards, when no wheel could turn, she would plough her way on foot along cowpaths between ten-foot drifts. Nothing could slop this determined woman, who usually managed to get there ahead of the country doctor.
And “good old Bertha,” now 50 years old but once the belle of Meremec Valley, really was a Good Samaritan, provided her patients actually went through with the programme of dying as expected. In that case, with prayers, tears and tender ministrations, she eased their last moments, and she never asked money for her services.
The only trouble with Bertha, the police say, was that when her patients rallied and gave promise of recovery, she resented such attempts to cheat the grave and fed them rat poison.
Mrs. Gifford had a passion for death-beds and funerals of which she missed only one in 18 years. But just as youths sometimes become so overenthusiastic about running to fires that they finally get to setting some themselves, this death-bed fan, it is charged, could not resist the temptation, when anyone started to withdraw from the edge of the grave to just push him in with a little arsenic. She took command of the funerals too and liked to see everything done right, even going so far as to pay for the embalming of one of her victims.
Mrs. Gifford, though not n trained nurse, was a very competent volunteer one as the doctors well knew. She could keep temperature and nourishment chart, understood symptoms and drugs and therefore might be allowed discretion in administering medicines.
Bertha seems to have preferred children for her patients whenever she could get them. The police say this was because they would trustfully swallow anything she gave them as long as it did not taste too nasty, and they never presumed to correct any misstatement she might make to the doctor.
When Bertha took charge of a case she took command of the household, ordering this in and that out of the sick-room and impressing the family in countless ways with her superior knowledge and experience. Early in the evening, in her kindly but firm professional manner, she would turn to the mother and say:
“Now, my dear, I want you to go to bed and get a good night’s rest, so you can take my place tomorrow. Don’t worry—I am here.”
This was really n command, and a reasonable one. The mother, relieved to know that her child was in more competent hands than her own, would always obey.
Thus Mrs. Gifford had a whole night, free from witnesses, alone with the helpless child.
Shortly before the rising hour next morning, when she roused the family and telephoned for the doctor, the little patient would be too far gone to dispute the nurse’s statement that the turn for the worse had just come in. And the parents would comfort themselves with the thought, that their baby had had the best of care in its last hours. And Bertha wept harder than any of them.
As might be expected, it was the women who first suspected Bertha, thinking it strange that whenever that ministering angel “plunks herself down in a sick-room, the patient never gets well.”
The men scoffed, but the women kept right on putting two and two together, and when Ed Brinley died, the ninth in the house of mystery itself and the seventeenth under Bertha’s care, all with the same symptoms, they demanded an investigation of this “bedside saint” who had consecrated her life to good works. The authorities look notice and questioned the impressively indignant Bertha.
Mrs. Gifford explained each one of the deaths plausibly. They were from acute gastritis caused by the rural habit of eating a heavy dinner at noon and then laboring on a full stomach instead of having the main meal at night after the day’s work is over, as the city man has learned to. The physicians must have been satisfied because they had issued death certificates. Could a lot of ignorant gossips know more than the doctors?
Dr. James Stewart, State Health Commissioner, must have thought they could because he had the records of drug stores in the neighboring towns examined and learned that Mrs. Gifford had been a steady customer of arsenic rat poison which produces symptoms quite similar to gastritis. Also she had made her purchases in some cases just before the deaths in question. Bertha, a picture of outraged innocence, and threatening slander suits, was brought over before the grand jury.
The chain of coincidences went back to 1909, when nobody thought it strange that Mr. Graham, the public benefactor’s last husband died of cramps in the night before the doctor arrived.
The next to succumb of “ptomaine poisoning,” in 1913, was her new mother-in-law, Mrs. Emilie Gifford, in spite of Bertha’s seemingly heroic efforts. Here Bertha’s grief was not so great but was considered adequate for a mother-in-law. A year later her thirteen-year-old brother-in-law, James Gifford passed out in Mrs. Gifford’s arms with those same symptoms of stomach cramps and vomiting.
George Stuhlfelder told the Grand Jury how this “ministering angel” for whom he felt nothing but gratitude at the time, had nursed his three children, Bernard, 15-months old, Margaret, two years and Irene, seven for small ailments which promptly turned into acute gastritis and ended in the death of all of them.
George L. Shamel, a hired man who had worked at the Gifford place testified to the deaths of his two boys:
“I worked off and on for the Giffords about 18 years. I went to the Gifford place once in 1925, on a Saturday night. On the very next day, the Sabbath, my boy, Lloyd, nine years old. had stomach cramps. Two days later he died after being sick at his stomach all the time. The doctor said it was acute gastritis but didn’t know what caused it. There was no post mortem. Five weeks later my other boy Elmer —he was seven years old—got sick, with stomach cramps. He lived two days too. They said it was the same gastritis. There was no post mortem. I always trusted the Giffords and thought it was just my luck when the boys died.”
Hardly a month after Elmer’s funeral, Mrs. Gilford learned that Mrs. Leona Slocum, Shamel’s sister, a tuberculosis sufferer was “sinking.” Bertha put on her nurse’s uniform of white, rushed to the bedside and took charge. Sure enough Mrs. Slocum rallied so strongly that they were just telling the ‘Good Samaritan” that there was no longer any need of taking advantage of her kindness when the patient suddenly developed alarming stomach pains, nausea and died.
“Before I lay down she asked ‘Where’s Eva’ meaning Mary’s mother. She seemed satisfied. I then dozed off.
After that the survivors of the Shamel family, while not exactly suspicious, decided that Mrs. Gifford was unlucky. But the Sluhlfelders took a chance once more on Mrs. Mary Sluhlfelder, aged 74, with the invariable result, death from gastritis.
Quite similar were the last moments of James Ogle, a hired man of the Giffords who had incidentally complained that he could not collect the money they owed him. Bertha however, paid the money in time for it to be spent on the funeral.
S. Herman Pounds, one of the strongest physical specimens in the neighborhood indulged a bit too much in his own hard cider and went to sleep in the Gifford pasture. Bertha had him brought into the house and gave him something to sober up.
“Acute gastritis, superinduced by alcoholism,” she told the doctor who arrived too late.
There was the sudden onset of this same stomach trouble, carrying off “Grandma” Birdie Unnerstall just as Bertha dropped in for a visit while everyone was away.
Mrs. Laura Brown, of East St. Louis, aunt of little seven-year-old Mary Brown, one of Mrs. Gifford’s alleged poison victims, tells a sample of Mrs. Gifford’s nursing.
“One afternoon about two and n half months before Mary died,” Mrs. Brown said, “she was lying ill in the bedroom. I entered. Mrs. Gifford was sitting by the bedside- She seemed annoyed by my presence.
“I had come all the way from East St. Louis to Catawissa to visit the sick child and mentioned that I was tired.
“Mrs. Gifford urged ‘Why don’t you lie down and take a little nap.’
The last of the list was Ed. Brinley, a neighbor and another cider victim who rested for a fatal moment against the mailbox post, outside the Gifford house. Bertha’s watchful eye spotted him there and she ordered her husband to carry him in. When two hours later he also had met his death from the same old symptoms, even the men admitted that it was queer.
The Grand Jury thought so too and indicted Bertha for murder but she still persisted in her denials until Andrew McConnell, chief of police of Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, took a hand. He noticed that the prisoner seemed specially annoyed at the suggestion that, she had poisoned Beulah Mounds, three-year-old daughter of S. Herman Pounds. He harped on that case until, according to McConnell, she finally snapped at him:
“Well, anyway, I did not give any arsenic to that Pounds child.”
“To whom did you give it?” the chief asked quietly. Her answer, he says, was a confession that she had poisoned Brinley, the Shamel boys and perhaps some others. Her excuse was that she wanted to put them out of their misery.
Brinley’s body was exhumed and its stomach showed traces of arsenical poisoning, according to the police. Since the confession, Bertha’s chief ambition has been to avoid being photographed.
She sits in her cell with a blanket, ready to throw over her head whenever she hears a footfall in the corridor. She exhibits remorse, too, and says she does not care to live.
If she is guilty of the crimes charged against her, there seems no reason why she should live.
[“Dealt Out Death in the Guise of an Angel of Mercy – Kindly Mrs. Gifford Was Always Glad to Nurse a Sick Neighbor for Nothing, but So Loved to See Them Die, the Missouri Police Charge, That She Fed Them Rat Poison if They Showed Signs of Getting Better,” The American Weekly, San Antonio Light (Tx.), Magazine section, Oct. 13, 1928, p. 7]