Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bertie Wrather, Suspected Tennessee Serial Killer - 1939



FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 4): Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 19 – Mrs. Bertie Wrather, middle-aged wife of a mattress manufacturer and active in church circles, was held today without bond on charges of poisoning her son, a brother-in-law and a father-in-law.

Her arrest yesterday culminated an investigation that began two months ago, Attorney General J. Carlton Loser said, with the death of Enoch B. Wrather, Jr., an only son.

Calmly, Mrs. Wrather pleaded innocent a few hours after her arrest in general sessions court and was sent to county jail without bond to await action by the county grand jury.

An autopsy performed on young Father by Dr. W. J. Core, county autopsy physician ''disclosed a poison present" in the body, Loser declared. The warrant also charged the woman with the deaths of Richard Wrather, 50, a brother-in- law who died last year, and Andrews Johnson Wrather, 80, her father-in-law who died in 1936.

The attorney general said "some insurance was involved in the boy's death, and there were some estates in the other two cases."

Mrs. Wrather, a large, efficient looking person, worked as a bookkeeper in the small mattress plant of her husband, Enoch B. Wrather, Sr., but found time also to engage in church affairs and parent-teacher activities.

[“Woman Charged With Poisoning - Nashville Church Worker Accused of Causing Death of Three Relatives,” syndicated (AP), The Biloxi Daily Herald (Ms.), Oct. 19, 1939, p. 1]

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FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 4): Nashville, Tenn., Oct 20. – District Attorney General J. Carlton Loser announced he is investigating a number of deaths in addition to those of three persons whom Mrs. Bertie Wrather, 46-year-old housewife is charged with having poisoned.

Mrs. Wrather is held in jail on charges growing out of the alleged poison death of her son, Enoch B. Wrather, Jr., 23, last September, her brother-in-law, Richard Wrather, 50, last year; and her father-in-law, Johnson Wrather, 80, in 1936.

The attorney general declined to reveal the number of additional deaths he was investigating, but said that some of them were relatives of Mrs. Wrather who have died within the past few years. Mrs. Wrather is the wife of the manager of a small mattress manufactory.

[“Other Deaths Are Investigated In 'Borgia' Case,” syndicated (INS), The Racine Journal-Times (Wi.), Oct. 20, 1939, p. 15]

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FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 4): On September 6th, 1929, Attorney General J. Carlton Loser, of Nashville, intently regarded the physician who was seated across from him. Dr. Rogers N. Herbert polished his glasses with obvious preoccupation; finally he looked up and spoke calmly, deliberately –

“It is not my intention to imply anything sir – I merely wish to relate a medical experience as frankly as possible.”

“I understand,” assented the attorney general.

“I lost a patient three days ago – Enoch B. Wrather, Jr., of Murfreesboro Road, who is scheduled to be buried this afternoon. Her was 23 years old, and, in my opinion, organically sound; but I found him suffering from arsenic poisoning. In view of this fact, I do not think it advisable to sign the death certificate until your office has made an investigation.

“In July of this year his mother brought him to my office and explained that he was losing weight; this appeared obvious because he was six-feet two inches tall, yet weighed only 130 pounds. I found him suffering from a muscular atrophy, which affected the control of his limbs, and considered his condition sufficiently serious to hospitalize him so that we could make a more complete diagnosis. To my surprise, and in defiance of my orders, young Wrather left the hospital after staying only one say.

~ Improved in Hospital ~

“The boy’s illness persisted, and on August 1st the mother and I induced him to go back to the hospital. There he showed a rapid improvement and, when discharged on August 13th, was well on the way to normal health … Yet, only three weeks later, the boy died in violent agony with all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning!

“Before this unfortunate lad is to be buried this afternoon, I suggest that a thorough examination be made of his remains.”

Attorney General Loser agreed.

After the physician was gone, Lose summoned Detectives Thomas J. Aldred and R. L. Tarkington, veterans of many manhunts in the State of Tennessee, and informed them of the suspicious circumstances under which Enoch E. Wrather had died. They were detailed to make an inquiry into the case while the attorney general himself handled the legal moves necessary to delay interment of the body.

The detectives began with the commonplace routine of establishing the deceased’s background. They learned that he was an only child who had lived with his parents, Enoch B., Sr. and Bertie Wrather. The family was in moderate circumstances and well thought of by their neighbors. Enoch Jr. was a handsome, ambitious, well-balanced boy, very popular among his set and seemingly destined fore a bright future. He had been keeping company with an attractive girl named Lena Holm whom he had planned to marry in the not too distant future.

In checking the boy’s movements of a few months prior to his death, the officers found what they believed to be a singularly strange circumstances in his illness. His serious attacks always occurred under his own roof; whereas he showed great improvement when away from his home – once while staying for ten days at the home of a relative, and also while in the St. Thomas hospital from August 1st to August 13th. This led the investigators to the Wrather house.

They explained their suspicion of foul play to the bereaved parents and asked if Enoch Jr. had any enemies.neither parent could think of anyone who would want to harm their only child, nor could they ever remember his ever having any serious trouble.

“Who prepares the food in your home?” asked Tarkington.

“Our colored maid, Louelle,” answered Mrs. Wrather. “She’s in the kitchen now if you want to talk to her.”

The girl was round-eyed with fear at the police officers’ visit. She stated that she had prepared all the meals for the sick boy but that she never served him food personally.

“Who did serve the food?” insisted Aldred.

“Why, Mrs. Wrather – and sometimes Mrs. Baldy helped.”

“Who is Mrs. Baldy?”

“A relative, cousin of Mrs. Wrather; she lives near here and comes in once in a while when Mrs. Wrather needs help.”


~ No Poison in Home ~

While talking to the girl, the detectives examined cans and bottles on the pantry shelves.

“Ever use roach powder around here?” asked Tarkington.

“No, suh, never hasd no need,” the servant seemed to substantiate her.

Baffled, but more determined, the officers left. They resolved to dig still deeper into the background of the family … and from this painstaking and tedious effort they unearthed even more sinister and mysterious implications …

In the meantime an autopsy report revealed that the boy’s body contained sufficient arsenic to kill. To it was attached a toxicologist’s statement that explained the action of arsenic. It stated that arsenic when taken internally is gradually eliminated from the body in about twenty-four days. To cause death, doses must be taken or administered regularly; and since the boy had been sick for months it was logical to assume that the dosage had been fairly regular. In conclusion the statement read that there could be no question of the amount of arsenic retained by the deceased after death because arsenic is a metal and remains long after tissues have disintegrated …

Reporting back to Attorney General Loser, Aldred and his partner gave the results of the latest phase of their investigation: “Robert Wrather, brother of Enoch and uncle to the dead boy, had given an accurate picture of the family setup. He is a supervisor at the Nashville Post Office and he tells us that the head of the family was A. J. Wrather, who had three sons and two daughters. The male line included Robert, Richard and Enoch.

“On September 29th, 1936, A. J. Wrather – then 81 – died in the home of his son Enoch. And not long after, on February 9 th, 1938, his bachelor son Richard followed him – at the age of 57 – also in the Enoch Wrather home!”

“Did they leave any money,” asked Loser quickly.

~ A Money Motive ~

“Well, the old man left an estate of around $5,000 which was divided equally between his five children so they each got $1,000.

“Hmm – interesting. Who got the money Richard left?”

“He left some $4,000 which was divided equally between the surviving sisters and brothers.”

“This may point to a motive. What were the circumstances surrounding the death of the grandfather and the unclue?

“They both died from sudden, violent internal disorders while ostensibly in good health.”

“How about Enoch Jr?” asked Loser. “Was he insured?”

“We discovered that Bertie Wrather had taken out a life policy on her son in the amount of $2,000 – without her husband knowing it!”

Loser reflected for a moment and then said: “All three deaths that have taken place in that house are of sufficiently suspicious nature to make a thorough examination of the house. In a corner of the cellar, among some rusty garden tools and cob-webbed trash, they found a small, shiny, half-filled can that was labeled “Arsenic of Lead.” No one in the house was able to account for its presence.

The officers decided it was time to turn a horrible suspicion into proof; so Loser got a court order for the disinterment of the bodies of A. J. and Richard Wrather.

When the bodies were taken to St. Thomas Hospital and a scientific examination of the remains made, Dr. W. J. Gore, County Physician, submitted the cause of death in both cases was: arsenic poisoning!

Aldred and Tarkington hurried to question Mrs. Baldy, cousin of the dead boy’s father. She quickly and frankly told him that she had often helped nurse the boy.

“Did you at any time eat any of the food prepared for Enoch Jr?”

“No – the cook prepared it especially for the patient and his mother always fed him.”

Aldred noticed that she hesitated, so he encouraged her, “Well –”

~  Took Milk Away ~

“One thing might seem peculiar to you as it did to me: the doctor had ordered us to give Enoch milk, yet every time I tried to give him some his mother took it away.”

That was all they learned from Mrs. Baldy – but it was enough! Milk is an antidote for arsenic!

Next they questioned Lena Holm, the boy’s pretty, level-headed young fiancee; she said she had visited Enoch while he was sick, but at infrequent intervals because “Mrs. Wrather didn’t like me. I think she hated me, because I noticed she went out of her way to show me that I was unwelcome in her home.”

This information, added to what had been gathered before, slanted in one direction. Could it be possible that a woman would raise an only child to the age of 23 and then poison him? Because of the enormity of such a crime, however, the detectives had to be extremely cagey; they began a door to door canvas of neighbors and storekeepers for shreds of evidence to bolster their entirely circumstantial case.

A neighbor, wife of an odd job man, supplied this information.


“I was over to visit Bertie one day while her boy was sick, and I heard him tell his ma he was going to marry Lena Holm just as soon as he got well. Bertie carried on something terrible – she cried about being thrown aside for some snip of a girl by her boy whom she had raised for twenty-three years.”

Tarkington turned a significant eye to his partner – their theory was being corroborated.

When they got away, Tarkington commented: “Maybe jealousy for a motive ..”

“Yes – with a dash of insurance!” retorted Aldred with unveiled sarcasm. And he continued: “Her husband profited from the death of the old man and that of his brother – a profit in which she undoubtedly shared. One day, in fact, she stood to inherit the whole thing – if her husband died …”

“You mean that another victim is in the making!”

The two detectives next came to a local beauty parlor where Virginia Shackleford that she would be rich soon, and asked the beautician how long it was proper for a widow to wear weeds!

Aldred and Tarkington decided it was time to act – before another victim had eaten his way to an agonizing doom. Loser agreed with his ace detectives and quickly convened a grand jury that heard the purely circumstantial evidence; nevertheless they indicted Bertie Wrathers [sic] on and she was placed under arrest.

The woman remained calm, insisting she was “not guilty.”

She immediately employed counsel to obtain her freedom on bond, but this was promptly denied her. In her cell she spoke only to a woman reporter, to whom she insisted her husband would come to her aid “now when I need him most.” But Enoch Wrather did not come to her assistance, for he was too ill with symptoms of poisoning – fortunately discovered in time!

~ A Mystery Woman ~

Mrs. Wrather’s youthful past remained a mystery. All that could be learned was that she was a native of Ohio who had, as Bertie Wene, come to Nashville and lived on Paradise Ridge; therte she met and married Enoch Wrather Sr.

The prisoner came to trial in June, 1940, charged with only one murder: that of her son. To the consternation of the prosecution, her counsel claimed that embalming fluid contained arsenic and therefore the substance in the body of Enoch Jr. had been injected by the undertaker.

To refute this contention the prosecution offered the testimony of H. S. Echols, Herbert Schmidt and W. K. Jones, chemists of the three companies who furnished Pettus-Owens Funeral Parlor with embalming fluids used in the three Wrathers. These representatives testified that their fluids contained no arsenic.

All the evidence presented by the prosecution, though damning, was entirely circumstantial – and this seemed to have its effect upon the jury who became deadlocked at 11 to 1 for conviction and had to be discharged.

A second trial took place the following May; the same charges and defense were made, and for ten days the same array of witnesses took the stand. And then there was a deadlocked jury – this time the count was 7 to 5 for acquittal.

Attorney General Loser never faltered in his conviction of the woman’s guilt, he brought Bertie Wrathers [sic] to trial in October, 1941, for a third time.

Throughout these three trials Mrs. Wrather retained a composure that faltered only once – and then briefly. It occurred during her own testimony when she wept softly as she described her son’s lingering illness and death.

The sensation of the third was the statement of Enoch Wrather Sr. that he believed his wife guilty of their son’s murder. And this undoubtedly weighed heavily with the jury because, after five hours a verdict of “Guilty of murder in the first degree.”

The unnatural mother showed no sign of emotion when she heard the verdict, nor when Judge C. K. Hart fixed her punishment at ninety-nine years in the state penitentiary. She merely turned to the reporters and announced: “They have convicted an innocent woman.”

[Terry McShane, “Nashville’s very odd Three-in-One Murder”) King Features Syndicate) St. Petersberg Times (Fl.), Jun. 13, 1942, magazine section, p. 2]

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FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 4): Nashville – Mrs. Bertie Lee Wrather, acquitted last June in the poison death of her son. Enoch Wrather, Jr., was awarded a divorce in circuit court Saturday. Mrs. Wrather was convicted on the murder charge in October 1941, after two previous trials ended in deadlocked juries. Sentenced to 99 years in the state prison, the conviction was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court and a directed verdict of not guilty was given last June on recommendation of the district attorney.

[“Mrs. Wrather Is Granted Divorce,” syndicated (AP), Feb. 13, 1944, p. 6]

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