Friday, November 1, 2019

Ada Bilbrey, Suspected Serial Killer – Texas, 1948

FULL TEXT: Fort Worth, Aug. 8. – Mrs. Ada Bilbrey was freed Monday of an indictment charging her with poisoning three members of her family.

She had been charged with the death of her husband. G. C. Bilbrey; her daughter, Dorothea Duke, and her son-in-law, Richard Duke. They died last October.

District Judge Willis McGregor dismissed the indictment on recommendation of District Attorney Stewart Hellman.

In his three-page motion, Hellman said:

“I cannot ask a jury to convict this defendant when I myself am not convinced that she is guilty.”

“It is a great relief to hear such news,” Mrs. Bilbrey said.

Today’s action ended legal proceedings in one of the most sensational and widely publicized cases in recent Tarrant County history.

[“Mrs. Bilbrey Is Freed Of Poisoning Charges,” Tyler Morning Telegraph (Tx.), Aug. 9, 1949, p. 10]


FULL TEXT: Fort Worth, Aug. 8. – Mrs. Ada Bilbrey was freed Monday of an indictment charging her with poisoning three members of her family.

She had been charged with the death of her husband. G. C. Bilbrey; her daughter, Dorothea Duke, and her son-in-law, Richard Duke. They died last October.

District Judge Willis McGregor dismissed the indictment on recommendation of District Attorney Stewart Hellman.

In his three-page motion, Hellman said:

“I cannot ask a jury to convict this defendant when I myself am not convinced that she is guilty.”

“It is a great relief to hear such news,” Mrs. Bilbrey said.

Today’s action ended legal proceedings in one of the most sensational and widely publicized cases in recent Tarrant County history.

[“Mrs. Bilbrey Is Freed Of Poisoning Charges,” Tyler Morning Telegraph (Tx.), Aug. 9, 1949, p. 10]



FULL TEXT: The Bilbreys, who lived in the neat white cottage on Chestnut St. in Fort Worth, presented a charming picture of family life to their neighbors.

There was 56-year-old George Clark Bilbrey, who worked hard in the railroad shops and seemed to enjoy slippered contentment when he was home. There was his 51-year-old wife, Ada, a fine housekeeper, an ardent churchworker, and a diligent mother. There was their daughter, Dorthea, 26, and her bridegroom of four months, Richard Duke, who were living with "the folks" until Duke, a postal clerk after hi3 World War II service, could "get on his feet."

“A truly happy family,” their neighbors agreed, knowing nothing at all of what seethed within the walls of the Bilbreys’ modern, well-kept home.

Actually, Mrs. Bilbrey's religious fanaticism, plus the effects of the menopause, led her to disagree with everything her family wanted to do.

Billbrey was trying desperately to extricate himself from an extra-marital romance.

Dorthea was unhappy because Dick was less attentive than he had been four months before. And Mike was determined to get out of the Bilbreys' house and into a home of his own as quickly us he could.

Thus matters stood on Feb. 7, when Dorothea was taken suddenly ill. The family physician, Dr. T. J. Cross, was called. "Oh, give her some of this." Dr. Cross scribbled off a prescription. "She'll be all right."

~ Dorthea's Illess Called Influenza ~

Ten days later when he was called again, Dr. Cross discovered that Dorthea was far from well. "It's influenza," he decided.

Duke and the doctor took Dorthea to a hospital about 2 P. M. on Feb. 17. and Duke vowed he would not leave her side. At midnight Dr. Cross stopped by. His patient seemed to be doing better. At 3:30 A. M his home telephone rang.

"Mrs. Duke doesn't feel right," her nurse reported. When the doctor arrived at the hospital 15 minutes later, Dorthea was dead. "

This thing just doesn't sound right," observed Dr. Cross. "I think we should have an autopsy."

Neither parents nor young widower could bear the thought of having Dorthea "cut up."

Duke continued to live with the Bilbreys, but his determination to get away never lessened. He talked of buying a place at a lake resort where he could make money selling beer a project which his mother-in-law, a fanatical dry, bitterly opposed.

And then, at 2 A. M., Friday, Oct. 30, Dr. Cross was summoned again to the neat white house on Chestnut St.

Duke was sitting on the front steps when the doctor jumped from his car.

"You'd better hurry," the young man greeted the physician.

Dr. Cross found Bilbrey lying rigid on his bed. Mrs. Bilbrey, holding his hand, sat on the edge of the bed. "lie must have had n heart attack. Can you do anything?" she besought the doctor.

But Bilbrey had been dead for quite some time. Dr. Cross made what examination he could before breaking the news to Mrs. Bilbrey. "Ada, you must be brave. These things " A scream from the next bedroom interrupted him. Rushing in, Dr. Cross found Duke doubled up in agony.

"My stomach! My stomach!"

Dr. Cross rushed to the kitchen to prepare medicine. A call from the hospital delayed him. When he returned to Duke's bedroom he found the young man in the throes of death.

"That's just how Clark looked!" Mrs. Bilbrey exclaimed.

NEXT morning the hearts of Fort Worth's 300.000 citizen went out to the widow when they read in their newspapers how her husband died of heart trouble, and how this excitement caused her son-in-law to suffer a fatal heart attack 45 minutes later.

Then, on Nov. 2, Justice of the Peace Frank Hurley revealed that he had ordered autopsies upon the bodies of Bilbrey, his daughter, and hi3 son-in-law because Dr. Cross had refused to sign death certificates for Bilbrey and Duke.

Later that day Tarrant County District Attorney Al Clyde announced that all three had died of strychnine poisoning. His assistant. Jack Love, was assigned to conduct an investigation "to uncover the dastardly murderer."

Love came up with two important pieces of information.

The first was that one week before the double death, Mrs. Bilbrey and her son-in-law visited the home of J. C. Sherley in Haslet, a small town near Fort Worth. Sherley wasn't home at the time, and when he returned somewhat later, a bottle of strychnine which he used to kill rodents was missing from his back porch.

The second bit of information is that strychnine had been found in the Bilbrey bathroom in a bowl normally filled with salt for toothbrushing.

Everyone in Fort Worth agreed with the District Attorney that murder had been done. However, public opinion was fairly well divided on the identity of the murderer.

One theory held that Duke had first killed, his wife and then tried to kill his mother-in-law. But when Bilbrey was poisoned by mistake, Duke, in remorse and possibly fear, killed himself, this group said.

The other school of thought backed the District Attorney in his charges against Mrs. Bilbrey.

"She's psychotic," Clyde declared.

"That's just plain silly!" scoffed Mrs. Bilbrey. "If you'd like me to take a lie detector test, I'll be glad to do so."

Clyde accepted this unexpected offer and on the afternoon of Nov. 6, Mrs. Bilbrey was sped by automobile over 200 miles of highway to the State Police Headquarters at Austin.

There, strapped to a lie detector, she was questioned over and over upon her relations with her family.

Q. Did you love Richard Duke?

A. Yes.

Q. Did you love him with a motherly love?

A. Yes.

Q. Aren't you lying? Didn't you kill your husband and your daughter because you loved Duke?

"That doesn't make sense," retorted the calm, emotionless woman. "If that's true, why would I kill Dick?"

Throughout the test, Mrs. Bilbrey denied all knowledge of how her family received the poison, and showed little reaction to the questioning.

En route back to Fort Worth, officials expressed dissatisfaction with the test.

"Is there some other test you'd like me to take?" Mrs. Bilbrey asked. "I'd be glad to."

"We do have a truth serum test," someone answered. "But it might be fatal."

"Good!" retorted Mrs. Bilbrey. "I don't care whether I wake up or not. I've lost everything -- even my reputation."

Thus Mrs. Bilbrey took sodium amytal at Harris Hospital in Fort Worth. Under its influence, she underwent a "twilight sleep" memory stimulant test. Dr. Cross watched over his patient. Dr. John C. Powell, a psychiatrist, and District Attorney Clyde asked the questions.

AFTER the long ordeal, Clyde walked wearily from the room into a bevy of reporters.

"I'm convinced Mrs. Bilbrey knows nothing of the case." he announced dispiritedly.

"I'm just going to sit down and hold my head in my hands."

During the days which followed, the widow, weak and tormented, took to her bed in her Chestnut St. home. Friends, heatedly proclaiming her innocence, rallied about her and fended off the curious.

~ Prosecutor Charges Widow With Murder ~

But Clyde, a fiery young World War II veteran, hadn't been elected prosecutor for nothing.

One morning late in November, he arrived at the Bilbrey home with reporters, photographers and County Physician W. B. Petta.

"Mrs. Bilbrey," he announced solemnly, "I have filed a. charge accusing you of the strychnine murder of your husband."

Mrs. Bilbrey lay motionless.

After a long while, she spoke.

"Mr. Clyde, why did you say you were convinced I had nothing to do with this ease?"

"I feel no need to give an explanation," the District Attorney replied stiffly.

But later, outside the house – after Dr. Petta had declared that the woman was too ill to be kept in jail and it had been arranged that she should remain in technical custody at home until a $10,000 bond was arranged – reporters again put Mrs. Bilbrey's question to Clyde.

"Oh, that was just to throw her off guard," he answered cheerfully.

While Clyde prepared to submit evidence against Mrs. Bilbrey at a hearing before Peace Justice Hurley, reporters returned to see the sick woman.

She was what they called a "typical Texas pioneer" tall, gaunt, with a strong, firm face.

For 34 years, she said, she had been married to Bilbrey. She had cared for her husband, her home, her garden, and her church.

"And I've been punished for my sins," she murmured, patting the Bible she kept on the pillow beside her. "This murder charge climaxes my punishment. I've had my hell on earth."

This made good copy and developed interest in the case to such a pitch that Peace Justice Hurley, setting the hearing date for Nov. 30, took over a district courtroom to accommodate as many spectators as possible

Seeking to establish a motive for murder, District Attorney Clyde called O. W. Walker, relief man at the Texas and Pacific Railroad shops, where Bilbrey had worked.

Q. Mr. Walker, do you know whether there was a woman in Mr. Bilbrey's life, other than his wife? A. There was. I do not know her name, hut I do know that after her husband's death, Mr. Bilbrey began advising her.

"About a near ago," Walker continued, "Bilbrey called me on the telephone and asked me to come to work early and relieve him. He said the reason he wanted off work was to see a lady and break off an affair. He said he used to meet this lady in Trinity Park and he was afraid his wife and daughter had seen her. He said, 'You know sometimes things like this can get tint of hand and be dangerous.'

"After that I began to notice that some woman was always calling the. short and asking for Bilbrey. She called the night Bilbrey's daughter was getting married and when 1 told her Bilbrey wasn't there she said, 'Oh that's right – he's giving the bride away.'"

When Walker's testimony was done, Clyde announced that he did not care to name the "mystery" woman at that time, but that he had questioned her and was ready, if the case west to trial, to produce her in court.

TEMPERS of counsel for both sides were strained and Peace Justice Hurley did his best in the interest of both peace and justice. Dr. Cross, who was the next witness for the State, detailed the circumstances of Dorthea's death, and the fatal seizures of her father and husband.

"When Dorthea died," Dr. Cross recalled, "her father and husband were very much upset. Ada certainly wasn't showing her emotion as much as the men were. She was extremely calm, too, when Clark and Dick" died."

~ Doctor Describes Speed of Poison ~

The doctor testified that in his opinion both men took strychnine in capsule form.

Throughout this testimony, opposing lawyers jumped, figuratively. at each other's throats.

"Now, doctor," cross-examined Attorney Clifford Mays, "will you tell us how long it takes strychnine to work?”

"It's a quick acting poison," replied Cross. "It begins to show effects within 15 minutes after it is administered."

Mays beamed and nodded with satisfaction.

Q. How long were you and Mrs. Bilbrey with Bilbrey? A. Oh 23 or 30 minutes.

Q. So that during that period Mrs. Bilbrey could not have been giving strychnine to her son-in-law? A. No; the was right with me.

Q. Now was she at the hospital prior to her daughter's death? A. No; she was not.

Q. But Richard Duke was at his wife's bedside? A. Yes; he was.

By the time Mays finished this cross-examination, his line of Questioning was clear. Clyde reminded him that Mrs. Bilbrey was accused of murdering her husband. Mays retorted that the person who killed one killed all and Mrs. Bilbrey did not have the opportunity to poison Dorthea or Dick.

When these fireworks subsided the District Attorney called Grady Haire, a detective who had worked with Iove. Again the pendulum of doubt swung. Haire said:

"We would never have filed a case if we hadn't talked to a lot of people about it."

Q. And established a motive? A. That is right.

Q. You found that Mrs. Bilbrey was a jealous woman? A. Right.

Q. She was jealous of a certain particular individual who was meeting her husband in the park several times a week? A. That is right.

Q. And the last such meeting occurred Tuesday before his death? A. That is right.

Q. And Mrs. Bilbrey had made the statement that she couldn't stand to see another woman riding in the automobile bought by Dick and Dorthea? A. That's right.

Q. And she made the statement that she could never stand to see another woman living in her house? A. That's right.

Q. And that Dick Duke had had another woman in his automobile? A. Right.

Q. She knew all those facts? A. Right.

This was damning testimony, but Mrs. Bilbrey's lawyer was undaunted. In his cross-examination of Detective Haire. Mays suggested that Dick might have put a strychnine-filled capsule in the bathroom and that Bilbrey might have taken it for something else by mistake. Mays recalled Dr. Cross's testimony that, in his death throes, Dick wore an expression of terror.

Q. Assuming my theory is correct that Bilbrey inadvertently got Dick's capsule wouldn't Dick be terrified by his act?

Haire's brow wrinkled.

A. Well, my experience is that if Dick knew he'd taken strychnine himself, or if the doctor told him he was poisoned, he'd look scared.

Q. I ask you if Dick could leave green the strychnine to Clark and then taken some himself? A. It could have happened that tray.

Again defense counsel beamed.

Mays did not smile, however, when Detective Lt. Cata Hightower, a prosecution witness, recalled the words of Glenn C. McLaughlin, Department of Public Safety expert who helped administer the lie detector test to Mrs. Bilbrey at Austin.

McLaughlin said Mrs. Bilbrey was a pathological liar upon whom the lie detector Would not work."

Mays demanded that the state define "pathological liar." Clyde obliged.

"One who has no moral inhibition to lie," he said. "Truth becomes fiction and fiction becomes truth in that person's mind, so that the blood pressure and respiration are not affected. A pathological liar has no organic reaction. Thus his lies do not register on the lie detector machine."

AT the end of three days of testimony and cross-examination, Clyde announced that the state rested. Mays rose quietly to his feet.

He referred to Mrs. Bilbrey's cooperation during Clyde’s investigation.

"However, so that there will be no doubt in anybody's mind, including Mr. Clyde's" Mays paused dramatically, "and then continued "as to the willingness of Mrs. Bilbrey to testify in this case and of her desire to continue to ferret out the truth in this matter, we, at this time, Mr. Clyde, tender Mrs. Bilbrey to you as your witness if you desire to interrogate her."

Visibly surprised by this defense offer, the District Attorney declined. The hearing was done.

"Defendant bound over to the Grand Jury without bond," droned Peace Justice Hurley.

There was a stir, murmur, and then a roar in the courtroom. Surprised and angered anew, Clyde frowned.

For in Texas, where a peace justice must bind a defendant over to the Grand Jury after a hearing, Hurley signified his own belief of insufficient proof of guilt when he failed to place Mrs. Bilbrey under bond.

The defendant, who for three days had been described as one "without emotion," burst into tears. Friends rushed to her and wept with her.

But "hell on earth" wasn't over for the religious Mrs. Bilbrey.

Clyde brought 30 witnesses – including the mysterious, gray-haired Mrs. X – before the Tarrant County Grand Jury. On Dec. 14 Mrs. Bilbrey was indicted for murder in all three deaths in her family.

Shortly after, an election shunted District Attorney Clyde out of office and swept Stewart Hellman in Justice of the Peace Frank Hurley Hellman said he would make his own investigation of the Bilbrey case.

For eight months nothing happened. Then, on a sweltering July day in 1949, a newspaper reporter called upon Mr. Bilbrey.

The accused widow told him how she had ticked off day after day, waiting for some word to tell her where she stood. She gardened, embroidered and crocheted to relieve her suspense, and stayed with a relative at night "because I'm too big a coward to stay alone and I'm lonesome.'' Mrs. Bilbrey said at first she hoped for dismissal of the indictments, "but I've got so now that anything just anything so long as it is action would be a relief." Ending his interview, the reporter hurried to District Attorney Hellman's office.

~ Reporter Prods District Attorney ~

"What about the Bilbrey case?" demanded the newsman.

"What Bilbrey case?" asked the District Attorney.

Less than one month later Hellman went before District Judge Willis McGregor to disagree completely with Clyde, his predecessor.

"Your Honor," Hellman began, "in the case of Ada Bilbrey, my assistant and reviewed 300 pages of Grand Jury testimony. We questioned city detectives who made the original investigation into the deaths of Mrs. Duke, Mr. Bilbrey, and Mr. Duke. We consulted with medical authorities who testified before the Grand Jury. "

“I cannot ask a jury to convict this defendant when I myself am not. convinced that she is guilty. I will not ask any jury to do that which I would not do myself. I therefore ask that false indictments be dismissed."

And they were dismissed.

Half of Fort Worth let out a roar of pleasure the other half a roar of protest. Mrs. Bilbrey accepted both brickbats and bouquets with her usual reserved politeness. Then she obtained a civil court order by which she collected her husband's $2,000 life insurance policy.

And that was the end of it.

[Ruth Reynolds, “What Was justice In This Case?” Sunday News (New York, N. Y.), Jan. 21, 1951, p. 80]


Feb. 7, 1948 – Dorothy (Dorthea) Duke (27), daughter, becomes ill.
Feb. 18, 1948 – Dorothy Duke (27), dies.
Oct. 28, 1948 – George Clark Bilbrey (56), husband dies; Richard Duke (31), son-in-law, dies.
Oct. 30, 1948 –
Nov. 2, 1948 – autopsies ordered.
Nov. 19, 1948 – charged.
Date? 1948 – Ada held a press conference. A police guard was posted at Ada’s house.
Dec. 2, 1948 – released without bond.
Dec. 14, 1948 – 3 indictments; Tarrant County.
Aug. 8, 1949 – Indictments withdrawn.
1951 – Ada remarries Landon J. Glenn, born Nov. 19, 1893, Hood, Texas.
Jul. 27, 1962 – Landon J. Glenn dies in “an unusual accident.”


EXCERPT: Bilbrey maintained her innocence and eventually even remarried. That apparently ended in tragedy, as well. "Her [new] husband supposedly died of an unusual accident," said Larry O'Neal (nephew of Ada Bilbrey). [Todd Unger, “A serial killer in Cowtown? 70 years ago, Ada Bilbrey was the front-page sensation,” WFAA, Nov. 8, 2018 Updated:  Nov. 14, 2018]














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