Thursday, September 22, 2011

’Soup Killer’ Thinks Life Term ‘Too Long’: Anna Louise Sullivan, Husband-Poisoner - 1939

FULL TEXT (Article 1 if 6): Milwaukee – Departing for the women's state prison today, Mrs. Anna Louise Sullivan, 50, remarked that she thought the life term imposed for the paris green murder of her stepson, James Sullivan, 18, was “too long.”

The confessed slayer's fate was decided before Municipal Judge Max W. Nohl less than 38 hours after she admitted the murder of young Sullivan and her second husband, Fred Ricklefs, to Dist. Atty. Herbert J. Steffes. Less than 24 hours after sentence was imposed she was on her way to prison today in the custody of Deputy Sheriff Max Brunner and Police Matron Mrs. Almyra Carrie. She appeared to be in good spirits after she left, having given way to tears only once before Judge Nohl.

Although the officers removed her from the scene of her crimes, she left her third husband and two of his children lying in the hospital, as well as a broken home for three of her daughters by previous marriages.

Mrs. Sullivan told authorities she killed her step son because he was dirty and unwilling to obey her.

[“’Soup Killer’ Thinks Life Term ‘Too Long’” syndicated (UP), The Wisconsin State Journal (Wi.), May 6, 1939, p. 2]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 6): A thin, big-eyed little girl celebrated her twelfth birthday Friday at county general hospital with birthday cake, gifts and a party with 12 other little girl patients.

Theresa Sullivan, one of the persons poisoned by her stepmother, Mrs. Anna Louise Sullivan, smiled shyly at nurses and visitors. For five months she has lain in the hospital, recovering slowly. Visiting the party in a wheelchair was her father, Michael Sullivan, thin from his six months struggle against arsenic.

The death of Jimmy Sullivan, Theresa’s brother, stirred an investigation and Mrs. Sullivan was convicted of murder and sentenced to a life term in the woman’s state prison at Taycheedah.

A doll with a wardrobe was a gift to Theresa from hospital nurses, and there also were a paint set, cut-out dolls and beads.

[“Girls in Hospital Help Little Patient Mark a Birthday,” The Milwaukee Journal (Wi.), Jul. 22, 1939, p. 2]


FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 6): Michael Sullivan will be “horrified” when he learns that his wife has confessed she poisoned him and his daughter, Theresa, 11, and that she fatally poisoned his son, James, 18.

So said Drs. Frances J. Murphy, medical director of the county general hospital, and Dr. Harry Sergeant, superintendent, who have supervised the case.

“The father has absolutely no suspicion that he and members of the family were poisoned,” Dr. Sargeant said.

Michael Sullivan will be given his first word of the poisoning Thursday afternoon. He will be told of the wife’s confession by Dist. Atty. Herbert J. Steffes.

~ Paralysis of Arms, Legs ~

In a joint interview, the two physicians told this story about the poisonings:

“The father first came to the county general hospital Dec. 12, 1938. He had paralysis of his arms and legs, and there was a drooping of the wrists, indicating either lead or arsenic poisoning.

“Hair and nails of the father were checked but no evidence of poisoning was discovered. He was soon released.

“He came back Jan. 10 for further treatment, at which time he showed the same symptoms. Since then he has been treated at the hospital.

“On Feb. 20 the daughter, Theresa, was brought to the hospital also. She had symptoms of neurotic paralysis, identical with those of her father. She also had a kidney ailment, which indicated poisoning.

“Resident physicians examined her carefully, but found nothing indicating poison. The physicians were highly suspicious, though, because the two cases were so similar.

~ Boy Died Next Day ~

“Apr. 27 the son, James, entered the hospital. He was suffering from severe enteritis (bloody diarrhea). He also had a severe infection in his mouth. He died the following day.

“The resident physician now felt certain that the members of the Sullivan family had been poisoned, and on Apr. 29 he submitted all the facts to the coroner for investigation.”

Dr. Sargeant said he did not know whether the coroner was definitely informed at the time that poisoning was suspected. Steffes was not notified, Dr. Sargeant said.

Dr. Sargeant refused to give reporters the name of the resident physician who made the report.

[“Healthy Family Taken Ill; Neighbors Whisper,” Milwaukee Journal (Wi.), May 4, 1939, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 6): They were all so healthy before she came. But Mike and the kids have been sick almost all the time since his marriage a year ago.”

Thus went the talk Thursday in the neighborhood of the simple, one story frame cottage at 1514 N. Astor st., wherein lived Mrs. Anna Louise Sullivan who, the district attorney says, has confessed poisoning four persons, two of whom died.

The neighbors know and like Mike Sullivan, a county park commission employe working in Juneau park. He has lived in their neighborhood 15 years.

About Mrs. Sullivan they know little. After she became Mike’s second wife last year, also stayed pretty close to home, they said. There were no quarrels nor other indications of discord in the Sullivan home.

One thing, however, the neighbors remember. When a maid was taking care of Mike Sullivan’s three children – James, Robert and Theresa – they were healthy.

“James came back from a CCC camp last summer in fine physical condition,” the neighbors added. “A little while after he came home, he got sick. Now he is dead.”

“James used to come over to our house complaining that the food at his home made him sick,” said Mrs. Frances Dougherty, 1708 N. Marshall st., a sister of Mike Sullivan. “He said his stepmother gave him vegetable soup and tell him that “it is good for sick people.”

“Mrs. Sullivan brought a loaf of bed and batch of doughnuts to our house eight weeks ago. My husband refused to eat it. We threw the stuff out.”

“Theresa – she’s 11 – got sick a while ago,” recalled Ursula Busaalcchi, who lives at 1518 N. Astor st., next door to the Sullivan cottage. “Mrs. Sullivan complained that every time she fed Theresa, Theresa got sick. We took Theresa into our home for three days and fed her toast and eggs. She got better. She didn’t have any trouble with the food we fed her.”

On the steps of the Sullivan cottage Thursday a dog of no particular breed sat waiting, eager for the return for the return of persons whom he knew and loved. And in the trim garden in the rear of the house, the flowers and shrubs which Mike Sullivan had planted were bursting into their early spring bloom.

[“Killing of Two Told in Probe; Warrant Out – Second Husband, Stepson Named as Victims; Third Mate, Stepdaughter Are Ill in Hospital,” Milwaukee Journal (Wi.), May 4, 1939, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 5 of 6): Mrs. Anna Louise Sullivan, 50, who confessed having poisoned and killed her stepson and the second of her three husbands, was bound over to municipal court for trial on a murder charge after a preliminary hearing in district court Thursday afternoon. She was charged with the murder of the stepson, James Sullivan, 17.

Mrs. Anna Louise Sullivan, 50, of 1514 N. Astor st., Thursday confessed she had fatally poisoned the second of her three husbands and a stepson by her third marriage, and had tried to kill her third husband and a step-daughter by the same method.

“I didn’t like them, so I put paris green in their soup,” she told Dist. Atty. Herbert J. Steffes.

The confession followed an all-night grilling in which Mrs. Sullivan first had maintained innocence.

The murder victims were:

Fred Ricklefs, the woman’s second husband.

James Sullivan, 18.

A first degree murder warrant was issued for Mrs. Sullivan at noon, based upon the death of James Sullivan.

James’ father, Michael J. Sullivan, 60, and James’ sister, Theresa, 11, to whom Mrs. Sullivan also administered poison, according to her admission as quoted by Steffes, are in the county general hospital. They are expected to recover.

~ $1,700 Insurance Told ~

Steffes said that Mrs. Sullivan told him she had collected $1,700 insurance upon Ricklef’s death, but denied that the insurance money was the motive for the killing. Ricklefs died at the county hospital here Jan. 30, 1931.

 “He was in the war and kind of crazy. I didn’t like him,” Steffes quoted her as having said.

In telling of Ricklefs’ last illness, she smiled, Steffes said.

“It was funny when he went to the hospital,” she said, according to Steffes. “They thought he had appendicitis, because he had a pain in his belly.”

James Sullivan died at the county general hospital Apr. 28. he had been taken to the hospital Apr. 26, a few hours after, Mrs. Sullivan was quoted as saying, she had put a couple of “pinches” of paris green in his food. Six days before she administered the fatal dose, Mrs. Sullivan was quoted, [as saying] she had put poison in James’ food. It made him ill, she said, but he did not require hospitalization.

~ Third Husband Ill ~

Mrs. Sullivan was quoted as saying she gave her present husband poison on Dec. 12, 1938 and again on Jan. 10. Sullivan was in the hospital continuously in the second attempt to poison him.

Steffes said Mrs. Sullivan told him:

“I gave Theresa poison some time after Thanksgiving last year. I don’t remember the date – and again Feb. 20.”

The girl became ill the same day and was taken to the hospital, where she has been since.

Besides James and Theresa and other of Sullivan’s children by his previous marriage. Robert, 14 and three of Mrs. Sullivan’s daughters by her former marriages lived with them. The girls were Helen, 17, and Elaine Murphy, 12, born of her first marriage, and Norma Ricklefs, 8, daughter of the first poison victim.

Mrs. Sullivan had three other daughters by her first marriage, two of whom live in Milwaukee. They are Mrs. Annabelle Hibert, 2840 N. 8th st.m and Dolly Tappin, 731 N. 30th st. The other is Mrs. Mary Lampi, Fond du Las, Wisc.

~ Quarrels Are Disclosed ~

Mrs. Sullivan told Steffes, he said, that she and her husband had quarreled frequently over his refusal to sign over to her a half interest in the Sullivan home, which he owned. She also complained, Steffes said, of Sullivan’s “too ardent lovemaking” and his “habit of running and telling the priest every time he didn’t like what I did.”

She claimed, Steffes said, Steffes said, that she had been given the paris green she used to poison the Sullivans by a woman whom she met last summer in Juneau park.

Steffes’ investigator, Detective John Zilavy, took Mrs. Sullivan to her home Thursday morning to search for paris green but found none. Mrs. Sullivan told him she burned it several weeks ago, Zilavy said.

~ “They Got Me Mad” ~

When a reporter asked Mrs. Sullivan Thursday: “Why did you try to kill your husband?” she replied:

“They got me mad, and when I get mad I could kill anybody.”

“Why did you try to kill Theresa?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to,” said Mrs. Sullivan. “I must have got her soup mixed up with my husband’s.”

The interviewer reminded her that Sullivan was in the hospital at the time the girl was poisoned.

“She must have got me mad, too,” Mrs. Sullivan answered.

~ Probe Asked by Friend ~

The investigation culminating in Mrs. Sullivan’s confession was begun Monday afternoon by Steffes, at the request of a friend of the family, whose identity Steffes withheld.

The friend called on Steffes and related incidents connected with James’ death and the illness of the father and daughter which he considered suspicious.

Steffes then obtained the consent of Sullivan for an autopsy to determine the cause of James’ death. James’ body had not been buried.

The contents of James’ stomach were sent to Dr. Foseph C. Bach, professor of chemistry of Marquette university, for analysis. When he reported Wednesday afternoon that the tents had revealed arsenic, Mrs. Sullivan was arrested.

In the interim, Steffes had called the hospitals for details of the illness of James, his sister and his father. When he requested the data he was told by hospital officials that they suspected James had been poisoned, Steffes said.

~ Woman Is Questioned ~

Mrs. Sullivan was taken to the prosecutor’s office at 8:30 p. m. Wednesday. Steffes, his chief deputy, George A. Bowman, Zilavy, and Detectives Wallace Armstrong and Terry Mitchell, participated in the questioning. Mrs. Sullivan is hard of hearing and the interrogators frequently had to shout.

They inquired into her family background and her marriages.

A native of Medford, Wis., her father was of French-Indian blood and her mother was Irish. She married her first husband. Edward Murphy, in Tulsa, Okla., she said. He died of natural causes at Fond du Lac in November, 1927, and in August, 1928, she married Ricklefs. Her marriage to Sullivan, an employe of the county park commission, took place May 7, 1938.

~ Quizzed for Hours~

From her personal history, the interrogators switched to inquiries concerning James’ death. When questioners accused her point blank of killing her stepson she flared up and shouted: “It’s a lie.” For hours they hurled questions about the youth’s death, but she persisted in angry denials.

It was 2:30 a. m. when, with a wink at his confreres, Steffes said:

“It’s no use talking to her any longer. Have her locked up. She won’t tell the truth. I’ll issue a murder warrant in the morning.”

He told Detective Mitchell to take Mrs. Sullivan to a cell. Then all but Mitchell and Mrs. Mitchell and Mrs. Sullivan walked out of the office. Mitchell, who had played a friendly role toward Mrs. Sullivan throughout, told Mrs. Sullivan she was making a mistake in not telling the truth.

After a few more minutes of conversation, Mrs. Sullivan, Mrs. Sullivan said: “Alright, I’ll tell. I poisoned him.”

Mitchell then called in the others, who were waiting in the anteroom, and Mrs. Sullivan repeated the confession.

Not once as she related the details of the poisoning did Mrs. Sullivan show any remorse, Steffes said.

She is tall and dark and extremely thin. She wears glasses.

[“Killing of Two Told in Probe; Warrant Out – Second Husband, Stepson Named as Victims; Third Mate, Stepdaughter Are Ill in Hospital,” Milwaukee Journal (Wi.), May 4, 1939, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 6 of 6): After less than five hours of constricted liberty, Mrs. Anna Louise Sullivan, Milwaukee poison murderess, was back in confinement Friday at the state prison for women at Taycheedah, from which she had attempted to escape Thursday.

Mrs. Sullivan, who had been assigned to outside tasks because of her health, was reported missing at a checkup at 11 a. m. it was believed at that time that she had walked out the unguarded gates of the honor institution. Several hours later, however, she was discovered hiding in a copse on the 244 acre prison grounds.

Because of her escape attempt, Mrs. Sullivan’s privilege of working outside has been revoked.

Mrs. Sullivan was sentenced to a life term for murder here in May, 1929. She had confessed that she killed her 17 year old stepson and her second husband with poison and had poisoned her third husband and stepdaughter, although not fatally. She was convicted of the killing of her stepson.

[“Woman Fails in Prison Dash – Milwaukee Poison Slayer Is Found Hiding on Grounds of Taycheedah,” The Milwaukee Journal (Wi.), Jun. 13, 1941, p. 23]


EXCERPT: “Did you kill Jimmy Sullivan?” “Yes I did.” “Why?” “He wouldn’t do anything for me, and when I get mad I can do anything.”

[“Poison Woman Gets Life Term in Prison – Mrs. Sullivan, Who Slew Stepson and One Husband Here, Shows No Emotion at Sentence,” The Milwaukee Journal (Wi.), May 5, 1939, p. 1]






Jan. 30, 1931 – Fred Ricklefs, husband #2, died
Feb. 20, 1938 – Theresa Sullivan, 11, step-daughter, enters hospital, survives, crippled
Apr. 28, 1938 – James Sullivan, 18, step-son, dies
Dec. 12, 1938 – Michael J. Sullivan, husband #3, first entered hospital, survived
Jan. 10, 1939 – Michael Sullivan again enters hospital, survived, crippled



For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


For more examples, see Step-Mothers from Hell.


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