Monday, September 24, 2012

Bernice Zalimas, Arsenic & the Ostentatious White Knight Lawyer – 1924


Bernice Zalimas was tried and convicted for the murder of her husband. The conviction was regarded as an extraordinary event in Chicago, where it was almost impossible to get a jury to convict an attractive woman of murder.

On appeal the conviction was overturned and prosecutors chose to try her a second time. This time she was acquitted due to the extraordinary actions of her attorney. See:



On appeal the conviction was overturned and prosecutors chose to try her a second time. This time she was acquitted due to the extraordinary actions of her attorney.

For another case of extraordinary chivalry that save a woman accused of murder, see the legendary Beulah Annan case:

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PHOTO CAPTION (Article 1 of 4): The doctor's certificate held the death of Dominick Zalimas, 38, of Chicago, was due to natural causes. But friends insisted upon an autopsy, and the funeral was halted and the post-mortem examination made. It revealed a heavy dose of poison, evidently placed in his food, had killed him. His wife, Mrs. Bernice Zalimas, 23, was arrested for his murder. She protests her innocence.

[“Held for Husband’s Death,” syndicated, The Manitowac Herald-News (Dec. 5, 1924, p. 6]

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FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 4): Chicago, May 11. – The notion that Cook county can produce no beauty-proof juries has been exploded with the sentencing to 14 years in the penitentiary of Mrs. Bernice Zalimas, “the lady with the classic profile and the rose-bud mouth.”

When Mrs. Zalimas appeared in court for trial last week, charged with poisoning her husband, it was apparent that her defense would be the same as that which has proven so successful for “lady killers” in the past. She was in the mode. She had engaged a dressmaker as well as an attorney.

On one side was Mrs. Zalimas and her beauty set off with a complete change of costume daily. On the other side was the prosecutor with a logical sequence of facts. He showed that Bernice had quarreled with her husband; that he had threatened to divorce her for intimacy with another man; that she had threatened to poison him; that she had purchased poison; that her husband had died and that poison was the cause of his death. Motive, opportunity and the fact that crime had been committed were the pillars of the state’s case.

The jury found Mrs. Zalimas guilty in 45 minutes and she was sent back to her boudoir in the county jail, the first murderess in years whose beauty had meant nothing to 11 good men and true.

[“Beauty Fails To Save Woman On Trial For Killing,” syndicated (United News) The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Fl.), May 11, 1925, p. 12]

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FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 4): Chicago, May 23. – You seriously wonder whether there can really be a soul stirring in the depths of Mrs. Zalimas here.

That is the impression you get after talking to her in the jail, where she is being held preparatory to going to the penitentiary for 14 years for slaying her husband by poison.

Plump, blond and suave, she is the last of the season’s “arsenic widows” who for one reason or another sought to rid themselves of husbands without due process of law.

Bernice, in her gingham jail garb, is rather mad at the way the law has treated her.

She had rather expected to go free and join the female band of 32 who have killed and escaped during the past five years. Instead she finds herself as No. 14 in the coterie which has been convicted.

They found a pound of arsenic in the loft of the Zalimas home shortly after Dominick, the husband, died.

Bernice was at his bedside when the end came and wept many tears.

There was another man for possible motive and some insurance and money in a strongbox, the State claimed in evidence at the trial.

Bernice affected bewilderment over the charges and shook her strawberry locks to perplex the jurors.

They were scarcely influenced. Instead of the pleaded rope they gave her half a normal lifetime behind bar and key.

If a man had done what Bernice has been found guilty of doing the case would be of but little interest.

But Bernice is interesting because she typifies the order of the day.

When they found her guilty she pretended a few hysterics and then settled back into the shell from which she has since failed to emerge.

In jail she laughs and is voluble in sing-song denials of guilt.

The husband whose life was taken by the arsenic paste intended for rats, never seems to cross her memory.

She thinks, rather of the crowds and smart dresses she wore last year and the society which accepted her, much after fashion of receiving a gladiator or court fool into its midst, because Bernice provided pleasure.

She cannot distinguish that her ambition to become a part of the city’s circles of culture, wealth and refinement was doomed to failure.

She does not know that she was smiled on not as an equal, but as a superb animal.

She only knows that she should say “It is horrible. I did not do it.”

Kipling once wrote about the rag and the bone and the hank of hair – the woman who did not and could not care.

He should have been Bernice, the well-groomed animal, trying to catch a glimpse of her reflected self in the window of a jail – thinking of such things in the midst of dramatic trouble.

[“Beauty in Toils Forgets of Murder,” The Providence News (R.I.), May 28, 1925, p. 3]

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Why the Lawyer Ate Poison to Save His Lovely Client

The Desperate and Dramatic Gesture that Startled the Court Room and Won His Case When Every Other Expedient Had Failed

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FULL TEXT: (Article 4 of 4): Freedom, happiness, beautiful gowns, gaiety, luxury and possible romance—

Or fifteen years of hard labor in the penitentiary, coarse clothing, coarse food, sodden drudgery scrubbing floors by days, and hideous, .endless nights locked up alone in an. iron cell.

Mrs. Bernice Zalimas, beautiful blonde cloak model, sat trembling a few weeks ago in a Chicago courtroom, wondering which of these two alternatives would be her fate.

She had already been once convicted of poisoning her husband, but had protested her complete innocence to the last, and had persuaded her attorney, Eugene McGarry that she really was being made the martyr to another woman’s jealousy.

His faith in her had caused him to move heaven and earth for a new trial—and at last he had obtained it.

But now the second trial seemed on the verge of going against her, as the first had.

The State had ruled up circumstantial evidence that seemed overwhelming, and the prosecuting attorney had depicted her as a beautiful fiend, a cruel, calculating, deliberate murderess, who deserved neither pity nor mercy.

The faces of the jurymen were hard and cold. After the death of her husband, an autopsy had revealed traces of arsenic in his stomach. The State contended that she had killed him by putting a poisonous cleaning powder, containing arsenic, in his food.

The defense insisted that Dominic Zalimas had died from natural causes, and that tin arsenic found in his stomach was nothing more than the traces of a medicine he had been taking of his own volition, pills containing small quantities of arsenic, frequently prescribed as a tonic.

But the case seemed to be going against her. Vainly Attorney McGarry argued that the amount of arsenic discovered in Zalimas’ body could not have killed anybody.

To convince the jury, he took up a little bottle containing the pills which the defense contended had been found in the vest pocket of the dead man, and said that he proposed to swallow some of them then and there, as proof of his sincerity in saying they were not dangerous.

Harold Levy, Assistant State’s Attorney, leaped to his feet and stopped him. “That’s no good,” he cried, appealing to both judge and jury. “We do not contend that those pills killed him, or could hurt anybody. We contend that he was poisoned by this box of powder. We have it here, and we know it is a deadly poison. Let Mr. McGarry eat some of that, if he dares!”

The prosecuting lawyer had no idea that Attorney McGarry would “take” the dare. It was just his way of clinching an argument. But McGarry’s “Irish” was up, as the saying goes. In addition, lie had absolute faith in the innocence of his beautiful client.

And in addition to that, he had been making a careful scientific study of the affects of arsenic.

He had learned that it was a deadly poison, but that it did not kill except when taken in a larger quantity than even the prosecution alleged Mrs. Zalimas had put in her husband’s food.

“Why don’t you eat some of the powder that killed him?” taunted the lawyer for the State. McGarry glanced at his fair client, who was sobbing.

He looked at the jury, and saw from their faces that they felt the prosecution had scored a point.

His offer to take the pills from the bottle had been a boomerang that the prosecution had cleverly turned against him.

Suddenly, before the judge or bailiffs could stop him, he seized the paper box of powder from the table, poured out a large spoonful into the palm of his hand, and gulped it down!

The judge had risen in his seat with astonishment. The prosecution was thunderstruck. Some of the jurors laughed hysterically – and others turned pale.

Mrs. Zalimas, whose bend had been bent forward in her hands, screamed and seemed to be about to faint, when she realized what had happened. McGarry, after swallowing the poison, stood with beads of perspiration breaking out on his forehead, and said, quietly:

“I am sorry I had to do that. This powder was intended for cleaning purposes. I think it is possible that it may make me very sick, but I insisted to you, gentlemen of the jury, that it would not produce death. I sincerely believe that. And there was no other way to prove to you that I had the courage of my convictions.”

The attorneys for the prosecution, pale and startled, but busily whispering, were soon on their feet, claiming that Mr. McGarry’s gesture was “improper pleading,” but the judge let matters proceed.

And McGarry, after drinking half a glass of water, took his stand before the jury, and began his final argument to save his client. It was a long, impassioned plea. He became so eloquent that judge, jury and spectators almost forgot that they were listening to a man who had just voluntarily taken poison, and who stood before them even with the poison working in his veins.

At the end of about twenty minutes, in the midst of a long, emotional sentence, the lawyer’s knees suddenly sagged and his face turned deadly pale. He clutched at the railing of the jury box, to prevent himself from falling to the floor.

The courtroom was in a hubbub of excitement. Physicians rushed forward. “He’s going to die,” exclaimed a juror. “It’s horrible.”

The doctors were all for stopping the proceedings and carrying the attorney into an anteroom and using a stomach pump on him immediately to save his life. But he was still able to speak, and forbade it.

“My client’s future is at stake,” he said. “I still insist that I was right, and I insist on going on. I do not feel any pain. I think I collapsed merely from nervousness and exhaustion.”

The whole thing was so unusual, and so much hung in the balance, that the judge still allowed matters to proceed. A man who had taken such a dramatic risk to prove himself right, should have the privilege of going through with it if he could.

McGarry recovered his self-possession presently, and began the continuation of his final plea. When it was over, he refused to leave the courtroom, for fear it would give the prosecution a chance to suggest that he had rid himself of the poison with an emetic. He sat through it to the bitter end.

“I am certainly not comfortable,” he said, “but I am sure that it won’t kill me.”

The judge’s charge was brief, and the jury’s deliberation was even briefer. In a very, short time they were back in the courtroom with a unanimous verdict of “not guilty!”

Mrs. Zalimas broke down completely from joy.

“I owe my life and freedom to you,” she cried, and covered the lawyer’s hand with kisses. It was one of the most dramatic moments that had ever occurred in a modern courtroom.

McGarry didn’t wait for many congratulations.

Accompanied by two physicians, he hurried from the courthouse – and what they did afterward was nobody’s business.

The sensational acquittal was the culmination of one of the most dramatic criminal cases the Middle West has known in years.

The beautiful defendant had known the shame and misery of actual imprisonment, for following her conviction in the first trial, she was locked up for weeks in the Cook County jail. She had escaped being sent immediately to the penitentiary and hard labor, because of the appeal which was pending.

“I knew God would take care of me,” she exclaimed in her cell, on the night when news was brought to her that a new trial had been granted, and that she would be temporarily released on heavy bail.

“I knew that this would happen, for I am innocent, and I felt the Lord would hear my “prayers. I shall be so happy to be out of prison,” she continued at that time, “but I shall be sorry just the same to leave the babies.”

“What babies?” the reporters demanded, “We didn’t know you had any babies.”

The jail matron explained that Mrs. Zalimas had assumed the role of foster-mother to two little babies whose mothers were in the same jail, and ill. One of the babies was three months old, and the other only five weeks.

That the action of Attorney McGarry was unparalleled in dramatic courage, is conceded by his fellow members of the bar. He himself is inclined to make light of it, declaring that he had made a careful study of the effects of arsenic, and was convinced that no matter how ill the poison made him, he was in no actual danger of succumbing. Had he become violently ill, as in apparent danger, the court would have insisted on an emetic or stomach pump, and the demonstration would have injured rather helped his fair client, but he took that chance.

[“Why the Lawyer Ate Poison to Save His Lovely Client – The Desperate and Dramatic Gesture that Startled the Court Room and Won His Case When Every Other Expedient Had Failed.” The Salt Lake Tribune (Ut.), Jun. 13, 1926, p. 2]

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For more on this topic, see Chivalry Justice Checklist & Links

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