Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lillie Winter, Illinois Serial Killer Grannie - 1947

3 Suspected murders & 1 attempt:

1921 – Lorena Clark, Lillie Winter’s sister (inquest, no indictment)
1941 – Clinton Clark, Lillie Winter’s brother
1946 – Donald Martin (3), Lillie Winter’s great-grandson (trial, acquitted)
Apr. 1947 – attempts on Mary & Marjorie Burton, 14 (trial, acquitted)

FULL TEXT: The excitement in the old plank farmhouse, four miles southwest of the little town of Fairfield (pop. 5,000), broke the June calm over the rolling farm county of Wayne county, Illinois.

Grandma Lillie Winter clutched the writhing form of her 3-year-old great-grandson in her capable arms.

“Look at this baby!” she cried. “He’s turning blue!”

“Oh, give me Donnie, Grandma. I’ve got to get him to town to a doctor,” beseeched the boy’s pretty 22-year-old mother, Mrs. Jean Burton Martin.

Grandma Winter shook her gray head decisively and clutched the child closer.

“He wouldn’t last the trip,” she warned.

“If only there were a telephone – but there isn’t,” Jean cried. She turned and ran to the car in the yard and drove off pell-mell toward Fairfield.


She was back within 20 minutes but without the doctor, who said he could not make a rural call for an hour. The handsome, blonde youngster, still cradled in the arms of his little apple-cheeked great-grand-mother was obviously worse.

“Maybe the neighbors can find a doctor who can come right away,” said the young mother. She ran across the fields on this mission, then dashed back to the old farm-house. Her other child, Judy Ann, 2, crooned at her happily but the child in Grandma’ Winter’s arms was no better.

When Dr. D. B. Frankel finally arrived, 3-year-old Donald Eugene Martin was dead.

“I can’t imagine what happened,” sobbed Jean. “I fixed Donnie a bologna sandwich this noon and just a little while after he ate it he threw up and started to have convulsions. And now – ”

Dr. Frankel cleared his throat and spoke gently.

“There will have to be an inquest because there was no doctor here when Donnie died,” he explained.

Numb with grief, Jean nodded.

The next few days following the child’s death, June 15, 1946, were busy ones at the Winter farm. Altho there could be no funeral until after the autopsy and inquest, members of the family gathered.

Claude Eugene Martin, 26, the father of Donnie and Judy Ann, arrived from Camp Campbell, Ky., where he was stationed after re-enlisting in the army. Jean’s parents, Gerald and Mary Winter Burton, and her sister, Marjorie, 14, came out from Fairfield to stay at the farm. The sudden tragedy had united them all, and their petty quarrels and family differences were forgotten in the general grief.

And then came the investigators.

Chemical analysis shows 4.5 grains of arsenic in that child’s body in the form of arsenic of lead. Any idea how he got it?” detectives wanted to know.

No one at the farm had an answer to this question. Grandma Winter said she never kept insecticide or rat killers.

“Donnie didn’t feel well the night before he died,” she told them. “He refused to eat the supper I fixed for him. His mother was working. She’s a night shift waitress in Fairfield. Well, anyway, I sat him up on the kitchen table and I washed his little face so he could go to bed.”

When Jean returned from work in the morning Grandma, fully clothed, was slumbering beside the sleeping child. The boy refused his breakfast and went back to sleep until lunchtime when he ate the sausage sandwich Jean prepared, and then fell sick.

“But there wasn’t anything wrong with that meat. I bought it the day before and I ate some of it myself,” Jean protested.

The investigators returned to Fairfield to ponder, and meanwhile Jean ran like wildfire thru Wayne county.

She was “too popular” with the town boys. Maybe, so the whispering ran, that’s why her husband re-enlisted shortly after his honorable discharge from the army at the end of the war. Maybe two children were “a burden” to a comely young woman bent upon “gadding about.”


Mrs. Martin heard these rumors and she went straight to State’s Attorney Virgil Mills.

“I didn’t kill Donnie. I wouldn’t kill my own child. You just give me a lie detector test and you’ll see I didn’t.”

Mills took Jean at her word and the two went to Chicago for the test, which proved as conclusively as such tests can that the young mother did not kill her little boy. However, lie detectors are not infallible and Mills did not know what to think. His attention now turned to Grandma Winter.


The neighbors were staunch in their support of Mrs. Winter.

“She was certainly good to that little fellow,” more than one told Mills. “She a good woman and she’s had a lot of trouble in her long life. She’s 76 now, tho she hardly shows it. There was her brother, Clin, and her husband. Best – ”

Mills asked what happened to them.

“It’s true Clin did die sort sudden-like without a doctor and they held an inquest,” one neighbor remembered. Mills listened carefully, taking with one Wayne county old-timer after another.

Clinton Clark was 87 when he died in February, 1941, the state’s attorney learned. Some time before he had inherited 200 acres of farm land from his parents. He was a bachelor, “sot in his ways,” and his sister, Lillie, and her husband, Bert Werner, moved in to take care of Clin.

“Lillie sure got fooled when Clin died,” a farmer’s wife observed. “Lillie had told it all around that Clin was going to will her the farm for being so good to him and taking care of his house and all such. But when he was taken they found he hadn’t made a will. The property was divided up among the family, and Lillie and Bert had to move back to the Winter farm Bert’s parents left him.”

Mills learned that at Lillie’s insistence Bert had registered his farm as their joint property and shortly thereafter had died as suddenly as Clark.

Mills asked the Wayne county court for permission to open the grave of Clinton Clark and exhume the long buried body.

At midnight July 15, 1946, a little group of men invaded Koontz cemetery and opened Clark’s grave.

A few days later a St. Louis toxicologist telegraphed his findings to Mills. Clark had died with an estimated 5.1 grams of arsenic in his body.

That afternoon Sheriff Delbert Morris took Grandma Winter into custody.

At first, Grandma was held without a formal charge and she helped Mrs. Morris with the housework – including the cooking.

Then Mills took the scanty evidence he possessed before the jury summoned by coroner Walker Young and on July 26 the jury recommended Mrs. Winter be held for the action of the grand jury.

Justice of the Peace E. L. Spriggs issued a warrant charging her with the murder of Donald Martin and, reluctantly, Morris locked Grandma into a cell.

“I don’t care what you do; I’m not guilty,” Mrs. Winter insisted as she rocked back and forth in an old rocking chair provided by the Morrises.

Mills took Grandma to Chicago for a lie detector test. But Grandma’s heart was not strong and regular like that of her granddaughter, Jean, and the experts said the test was a failure. She was then taken to St. Louis, where more lie detector experts said the results were “inconclusive because of her age and health.”


Mills began to feel he had a legal bull by the horns. Grandma might be guilty, but, as yet, he was far from proving it.

The state’s attorney hired a private detective, Harry L. Fisher, one-time police chief of nearby Evansville, Ind. Freer spent days searching Grandma’s farm for arsenic and finding none. Then he talked to Grandma for 12 long hours at a stretch. It was he, not Mrs. Winter, who has exhausted when he left her cell.


Wayne County opinion was unevenly divided. Most of its citizens suspected Mrs. Winter was guilty, not only of poisoning Donnie but of killing other relatives. However, there were some citizens who declared she had been so good to every member of her family that she couldn’t be guilty of poisoning anyone.

“She took care of her in-laws Alpheus and Louis Winter, from the day she married Bert in 1894 until they died in 1909,” these good folks said. “What if they did die two days apart? One had a stroke and the other had pneumonia, and both were old.”

“But,” argued the anti-Winter gossips, “what about her sister, Lorena Clark? Remember how Lorena died back in 1921 while Lillie was taking care of her? She left Lillie her money and her jewelry.”

“Shucks, Lorena was 53 and sick. She was planning to have an operation. Anyway, she didn’t have very much to leave anyhow.”

“But,” persisted Grandma’s detractors, “you can’t get around the fact that Clin died of poison and maybe Bert did too. He was taken sudden the very next year.”

The authorities exhumed two more bodies on Aug. 7. They found two more bodies on Aug. 7. They found no poison in the remains of Bert Winter but an estimated 1.1 grains of arsenic was discovered in the body of Lorena Clark.

“I can’t understand it,” protested Grandma vigorously. “If arsenic was found in Lorena’s body it must have been given her by the doctor. And if Donnie ate poison it must have been in something our little dead Rocky, dragged in. He was always dragging things in. I love Donnie. I took care of him just like I took care of his mother before him – just like my own child.”

And no one could truthfully deny what she said. During many of the years when the Winters had not live on their farm, their daughter, their daughter, Mary, mother of four, was in bad health when Jean was 17 months old and so Mrs. Winter, despite her advancing age, had taken the child and had reared her from that time on.

When Jean married, Grandma threw open her door to Martin, the young husband, and when he went off to war and his wife to work, the old lady kept house for the family.

After the war, when Martin preferred the army to farming . Grandma made no complaint, but merely sold all but one cow, to reduce the farm work, and went on keeping house, while Jean continued to work in the restaurant.

On Aug. 12, the Grand Jury returned an indictment charging the 76-year-old great-grandmother with the willful murder of her great-grandchild.

The hot summer wore on and October had turned Fairfield leaves as red asd the bricks of the Wayne county courthouse when Grandma, dressed in mourning for Donnie, bustled in to her counsel’s table to have her day in court.

Three hundred townsfolk watched her seat herself calmly behind her lawyers. H. T. Kerr and former State’s Attorney Charles W. Creighton, who, as everybody knew, had been one of Mrs. Winter’s pupils when she taught school, many years before.

When Jean married, Grandma threw open her door to Martin, the young husband, and when he went off to war and his wife to work, the old lady kept house for the family.

After the war, when Martin preferred the army to farming. Grandma made no complaint, but merely sold all but one cow, to reduce the farm work, and went on keeping house, while Jean continued to work in the restaurant.

On Aug. 12, the Grand Jury returned an indictment charging the 76-year-old great-grandmother with the willful murder of her great-grandchild.

The hot summer wore on and October had turned Fairfield leaves as red as the bricks of the Wayne county when Grandma, dressed in mourning for Donnie, bustled in to her counsel’s table to have her day in court.

Three hundred townsfolk watched her seat herself calmly behind her lawyers. H. T. Kerr and former State’s Attorney Charles W. Creighton, who, as everybody knew, had been one of Mrs. Winter’s pupils when she taught school, many years before.

The spectators gazed with pride at Judge Caswell Crebe, who, at 34, was the youngest circuit court judge in Illinois and was about to hear his first murder case. Six men and six women were selected for the jury.

Mills outlined to the jury what he knew was a weak case – weak because it lacked motive. Then Creighton rose to say that his client denied the charge and that she was a God-fearing woman who had never bought arsenic, never had arsenic and never knew what arsenic was.

Thru it all, Grandma was imperturbable.

Witness told how Donnie had been well, how he had died suddenly and how arsenic had been found in his body.

The child’s mother, pretty and pathetic looking, was the state’s star witness. She testified Grandma kept her from taking Donnie to a doctor, told how Grannie had emptied the pan into which the child had thrown up, instead of saving it for the doctor to examine, and said Grandma had told her to be “very careful what you tell the officers.”

“I’ve already told them what happened and I don’t want to get you mixed up and give them a different story,” Jean quoted her grandmother.

Neither Jean nor her mother, Mrs. Burton, looked at Grandma during the trial. Once, when Mrs. Burton broke down in tears, the gnarled little defendant left her seat and placed her wrinkled hand upon her 44-year-old daughter’s head. Mrs. Burton did not look up, ignoring what was either a gesture of great forgiveness or of supreme callousness.

Mills, admitting that he had no direct evidence and could pin no motive on Mrs. Winter, based his case against the old woman on the simple fact that Donnie had died of arsenic poisoning and upon the assumption that Lillie was the only person available to give it to him. Mindful of the defendant’s years, he asked for a prison term, nor for the death penalty.

Attorneys Creighton and Kerr were all smiles when they opened the defense.

Swiftly they paraded 13 men and women to the witness stand to testify to the good character of Mrs. Winter. Farmer W. H. Jewel’s testimony was like that of all the rest.

“I’ve known Mrs. Winter for at least 35 years and she is a good, honorable citizen. If you want help, she gives it to you and if you don’t, she don’t butt in. There isn’t anybody perfect, but Grandma’s good woman, all right.”

Creighton made a great point of the fact that no arsenic was found on Mrs. Winter’s farm and that no arsenic was found to say he sold or gave her any substance containing arsenic. Finally he called:

“Mrs. Winter!”

The elderly defendant walked more briskly than many of her younger neighbors as she moved to the stand. Thruout the gentle questioning of her own lawyers and a long and merciless cross-examination by the state, she wore a tight smile and spoke in a small but clear voice.

She told of her love for the  Burtons and their children. In detail and unhesitatingly she described she described the happenings of Donnie’s last day alive.

Mills was unable to shake her as, for example, when he demanded to know why she washed the pan which held the contents of the sick child’s stomach.

“Bless you!” she exclaimed, “I clean forgot I shouldn’t.”

Throughout the four-day trail the townspeople remained divided in their opinion as to Mrs. Winter’s guilt or innocence.

The jury made up its mind in just 30 minutes.

“Not guilty,” intoned the forman.

“Bless you! Bless you! Cried Grandma, running to the jury box, wringing the hand of each juror.

Then, turning her bright old eyes, she looked about for her daughter and granddaughter.

“I guess they’re gone along home,” she sighed and turned away from the courtroom alone.

“She outsmarted the jury,” said Mills ungraciously. “I shall not press any further charges.”

Where Grandma spent the remaining fall months no one seems to know. There was snow on the fields when she reappeared and the Burtons invited her to make her home with the three of them. Mary, Gerald and daughter Marjorie, in Fairfield.

Early in April, 1947, Mrs. Winter returned to her own farm for a brief visit, bringing away several bundles and packages of “things I may need sometimes.” Two weeks later Mrs. Burton arose one morning, declaring she took from a bottle in the refrigerator. The following morning she, too was sick.

Dr. Frankel – the physician who had been called for Donnie – found Marjorie violently ill. He took one look at the girl and at her mother and gave them both antidotes for poison, when he found they had drunk milk from the same bottle.

Chemical tests showed that Marjorie had received a dose of arsenic of not less than .2 of a gram and Mrs. Burton was suffering from a dose of the same poison.

Burton rushed to State’s Attorney Mills.

“Grandma’s done it again!” he exclaimed.

Mills promptly charged Mrs. Mrs. Winter with attempted murder and, undaunted. Grandma went before Magistrate Spriggs to deny her son-in-law’s accusation.

“Why, I don’t see how anyone could even think such a thing,” Grandma said sweetly. “I think it’s awful the way I’ve been treated and by my relatives, at that! I drank from the same bottle of milk as they did!”

Nevertheless, last May 9, a grand jury returned two indictments against Mrs. Winters, charging her with the attempted murder of the Burtons. Again Lillie took up  residence in the Wayne county jail while the townspeople gossiped and the children of Fairfield chanted:

“Lillie Winter, old and frail,
Rocks and rocks in the county jail.”

The state’s attorney again had suspicious circumstances but little proof and no motive. This time he moved slowly and cautiously, while for seven months Grandma rocked in jail.

The new sheriff, Hal Bradshaw, called in Robert Walker, investigator for the Illinois state bureau of criminal investigation and he searched Grandma’s farm as it had not been searched before. In the attic he found a box of insecticide containing arsenate of lead.

Grandma stoutly insisted that she never in her life had seen it and didn’t know how it got there. Furthermore, she insinuated – but very gently – that the poison might have been planted in the attic.

Altho she was 77 years old now, Grandma stood the summer and fall in jail very well and she was spry as anything when, last Dec. 10, she went on trial in Wayne county courthouse for attempting to kill Marjorie.

This time Mills was confident as he took his case before a jury and Judge Ben W. Eovaldi. Mills had living witnesses to accuse Grandma and the box of lead arsenate to offer as the box of lead arsenate to offer as circumstantial evidence.

“Grandma told me,” Marjorie testified, after she had related how she became ill, “that sometimes ‘God tells us to do certain things. We can’t understand why but we just have to do them.”

But, at that, Marjorie was more gentle toward Grandma than her father, who was a bitter witness.

“You seem to know so much about arsenic poisoning – have you made a study of it?” asked Attorney Sydney Ward, who was defending Mrs. Winter. It was not the right time for sarcasm. Burton snapped back:

“You’re right. I’ve made quite a study of poisons in the last 18 months, since all those things have been happening. If you want to know it, I also think she poisoned her brother and my grandson.”

Mrs. Burton was almost as bitter when she testified against her mother.

Harshest of all was State’s Attorney Mills, who, in summation, shouted:

“If this jury returns a verdict of acquittal, I am giving this box of poison back to Mrs. Winter. It is her property?”

But this jury , like the last remained unimpressed by Mills and in just 30 minutes, it, too, returned a verdict of not guilty!

“I am very happy  about this, but it is only what I expected,” said Mrs. Winter, beaming at the jurors.

Mills sighed and admitted his defeat again, asking for a nolle prosse of the second indictment, because he could not hope to convict Grandma at another trial.

Again Mrs. Winters dropped out of sight for a time. When she reappeared she went to her own farm.

The first Sunday after her return she walked quietly into the Community church, her familiar black hat perched four-square on her white head. She smiled shyly at members of the congregation. Some turned their heads away.

As they were leaving church, one elderly farmer tipped his cap and said politely, “Howdy, Lillie.” Then others followed his example.

Thus, Wayne county took Grandma Winter back as its own, and there she lives today, almost as spry, hardly older at all than when she last sat before a jury, her own best witness against the marshaled forces of the State of Illinois.

[Ruth Reynolds, “Grandma is Own Best Witness In 2 Murder Trials,” The Post-Standard (Syracuse, N.Y.), May 2, 1948, Magazine section, p. 7]

Note: The spellings “tho” (though) and “thru” (through), in vogue at the time the article was published, have been retained.




Lorena Clark, sister, died 1921.
Clinton Clark, brother died 1941.
Donald Martin, 3, grandson, died Jun. 15, 1946.
Bert Winter, husband, died 1941 (no poison found).
Mary Burton, 47, daughter, attempted murder.
Marjorie Burton, 16, step-daughter, attempted murder.


1921 – Lorena Clark, Lillie Winter’s sister (inquest, no indictment).
1941 – Clinton Clark, Lillie Winter’s brother dies.
Jun. 15, 1946 – Donald Martin, 3, dies.
Jul. 20 week, 1946 – Clinton Clark (brother) body exhumed (“last week” before Aug. 27).
Jul. 27, 1946 – LW ordered held by grand jury.
Aug. 7, 1946 – exhumation of bodies of Bert Winter (husband), Lorena Clark (sister).
Aug. 12, 1946 – Lillie Winter (76) indicted for murder of Donald Martin, 3.
Sep. 6, 1946 – arraigned, Martin murder.
Oct. 11, 1946 – acquitted, Martin murder.
Apr. 1947 – attempted murder, daughter, Mary Burton, 47.
Apr. 19, 1947 – attempt on Marjorie Burton, 16 (trial, acquitted).
May 1, 1947 – arrested on 2 attempted murder charges (daughter and step-daughter).
May 10, 1947 – indictments, 2 attempted murders.
Dec. 13, 1947 – verdict not guilty for murder of grandson, Donald Martin, 3.




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