Friday, February 7, 2020

Erminia (Big Emma) Colavito, Serial Killer “Poison Queen” – Ohio, 1921

As the “Poison Queen” of her community, Big Emma, a Sicilian immigrant, was reputed to have supplied the poison used in a number of murders. Members of the Italian community in Sandusky were tight-lipped when her activities were investigated. “Omerta,” it is called in Sicily.


FULL TEXT: Mrs. Emma Colavito, 35 years old, "Poison Queen" of Cleveland, faces the electric chair for the murder of Marino Costanzo, a crime committed four years ago.

The startling confession of a wife who tried to break her husband of the drinking habit was the factor that caused the conviction Friday, of the Colavito woman. Her testimony in the sensational poison murder of Daniel Kaber, Cleveland publisher, sent the publisher's wife to prison for life. Fannie Costanso, wife of the murdered man, was sentenced to three months in jail for contempt of court because ah refused to testify in the trial of the poisoner.

~ Tried case before.  ~

Mrs. Colavito stood trial for murder once before. In connection with the Kaber case. At that time she was acquitted.

It was she, according to testimony in the various trials in connection with the Kaber case, who furnished the poison used in the first attempt to kill the aged publisher. When the poison failed to do more than make Kaber ill, hired assassins knifed him to death.

 It was charged during the former trial, that Mrs. Colavito for several years had been selling "medicine," which in reality was poison, and that she was responsible for numerous deaths. She was not convicted in that case because fellow Italians refused to testify against her. She was feared In the Italian colony as a sort of witch doctor who could kill at will.

Costanzo died mysteriously, four years ago, shortly after the death of Kaber. His body was exhumed January, 1924, and Coroner Hammond, of Cuyahoga county declared in his testimony at the trial that he had found traces of a metallic poison in the organs of the man, even though four years had elapsed since his death.

~ She Makes Confession. ~

In Mrs. Costanzo’s confession, which the police obtained last January, she stated that a $2,000 life insurance policy was the motive for the crime. The same motive was present in the Kaber poison murder.

Mrs. Costanzo told the police that she had driven Mrs. Colavito away when the latter had suggested getting rid of Costanzo. But Mrs. Colavito returned and said that she was going to cure Costanzo of drinking and bad habits. The wife agreed to this.

“I didn’t know my husband had been poisoned,” Mrs. Constanzo decared, “until a few days before he died. They wanted to take him to a hospital, but Mrs. Covalito wouldn’t let me. She kept talking about what would happen if anybody found it out. I was afraid to do anything, and Mrs. Colavito would allow me to do nothing for him, so he died.”

The wife of the murdered man, who had been held without bond since last January, will be released when she has completed her three month sentence for contempt.

[“Confession Convicts Kaber Case Figure – Widow Tells How Husband Was ‘Gotten Rid of’ by Modern ‘Borgia.’ The Detroit Free Press (Mi.), Jun. 7, 1924, p. 1]


FULL TEXT: Mrs. Emma Colavito, 35 years old, "Poison Queen" of Cleveland, faces the electric chair for the murder of Marino Costanzo, a crime committed four years ago.

The startling confession of a wife who tried to break her husband of the drinking habit was the factor that caused the conviction Friday, of the Colavito woman. Her testimony in the sensational poison murder of Daniel Kaber, Cleveland publisher, sent the publisher's wife to prison for life. Fannie Costanso, wife of the murdered man, was sentenced to three months in jail for contempt of court because ah refused to testify in the trial of the poisoner.

 It was charged during the former trial, that Mrs. Colavito for several years had been selling "medicine," which in reality was poison, and that she was responsible for numerous deaths.

[“Woman Convicted – Cleveland ‘Poison Queen’ Faces Penalty of Death,” The Border Cities Star (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), Jun. 27, 1924, p. p. 1]



The Widow-Maler: That's what the neighbors called a crystal gazer who specialized in giving advice to women who began to tire of their husbands. The detective reported that it was a chilling experience to sit in the dark while Big Emma muttered incantations over her crystal hall.

~ ~ ~

The final-act curtain ascended on one of the strangest murder cases in modern crime annals when an aged man, leaning heavily on a cane, hobbled into the Cleveland offices of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency.

The visitor was Moses Kaber, founder of Kaber & Sons, a printing and publishing company. He had come to engage the Pinkertons to penetrate the mystery cloaking the slaying of his middle-aged son, Daniel, a month previously – a crime that had baffled the Cleveland Police Department.

Daniel Kaber, bedridden' in his mansion from a mysterious paralysis that had struck him several months prior to his murder, had been dispatched in the dead of night by 20 stab wounds. A buffet in the dining room, a floor below the murder chamber, had been forced open and costly silverware removed. Mrs. Eva Catherine Kaber, the victim's 45-year-old wife, and a prominent civic and welfare figure, was away from the city visiting relatives the night of the crime.

The Pinkertons immediately suspected the robbery to be a trumped-up job to shield the real motive for the murder. Why would burglars, making their haul downstairs, have found it necessary to go upstairs and savagely kill a bedridden man? They found, too, in the refrigerator, a three-pronged icepick that made markings identical to those found on the forced-open buffet drawers.

Analysis of Kaber's vital organs disclosed them to be shot through with arsenic the cause of his paralysis. Obviously, then, the murderer had first tried poison and that failing had taken his victim's life behind the screen of the fake robbery.

In combing the premises for clues the Pinkertons came upon a four-ounce medicine bottle half filled with an amber liquid. The liquid turned out to be nothing more than stale ginger ale. Why had it been placed in a medicine bottle? The Pinkertons thought they knew.

Cleveland, in 1919 when this took place, had many fortunetellers who palmed off flat ginger ale or colored water on gullible clients as a magic concoction to serve various purposes. Eva Kaber, the widow, was, the Pinkertons learned, a steady client of the city's fortunetellers.

Neighbors of the Kabers had on several occasions prior to the murder seen a large woman dressed in Oriental costume entering the Kaber mansion. The strangely attired visitor had first been observed shortly before Daniel Kaber had been stricken by paralysis. She had last been spotted on the afternoon 'of the day that Kaber had been murdered.

Infiltrating themselves into the city's occult realm, sleuths of The Eye, as the Pinkerton Agency was known in both official and criminal circles, became interested in a medium named Erminia Colavito. The medium, a widow known as Big Emma, weighed about 250 pounds. Her shoe-button black eyes, surrounded by puffs of white fat, were frightening to behold. A woman operative of The Eye, going into Big Emma's to have her fortune told, reported that it had been a chilling experience to sit in a darkened room looking at Big Emma, swathed in Oriental attire, gazing into a crystal ball, the while muttering incantations in guttural tones.

Gathering gossip around the neighborhood where Mrs. Colavito presided over her crystal ball the Pinkertons learned that Big Emma was also known as the Widow Maker, because the husbands of several of her clients had suddenly died.

Interesting, but what "if anything had all this to do with the death of Daniel Kaber?

The Pinkertons mapped a three-way strategy. First, they would place Mrs. Kaber under night-and-day surveillance. Secondly, they would do the same thing to the Widow Maker. Thirdly, they would focus a searching gaze on old Mrs. J. A. Brickel, mother-in-law of the victim, and 17-year-old Marion McArdle, the dead man's-stepdaughter. Both the old lady and the girl had been in the house in bedrooms near that of Kaber when the man was fatally stabbed.

Weeks, then months, passed and nothing happened. Then the shadows covering Mrs. Kaber learned that she had a boy friend in Cleveland. The affair, the sleuths discovered, had been going on for more than a year prior to the murder.

Now The Eye had a, bright idea. They enlisted the aid of a Mrs. Ethel Berman, a friend of Mrs. Kaber's but a woman who was willing to work against her friend in the interests of justice.

Mrs. Berman pretended to confide in Mrs. Kaber that she had tired of her husband and taken up with a lover in Pittsburgh. This, the Pinkertons hoped would, from Mrs. Kaber's viewpoint, put Mrs. Berman in the same boat with her. Then Mrs. Kaber would confide in Mrs. Berman a confidence designed to bring about damaging admissions.

Mrs. Kaber accompanied Mrs. Berman to Pittsburgh, where they registered at a hotel. Mrs. Berman's supposed lover, one Jack McCoy, in reality a Pinkerton detective, appeared in the hotel and went through protestations of undying love for the woman in Mrs. Kaber's presence. Mrs. Kaber's lover was to come to Pittsburgh later.

That night, while the two women were lying in bed, Mrs. Berman said, "Eva, I wish I were as lucky as you. Your husband died and you're free to get married again. But me I can't even get a divorce to marry Jack."

"If you really want to get rid of your husband," Mrs. Kaber said, "maybe I can help you."

“You mean you know some lawyer who can get me a divorce?"

Mrs. Kaber laughed. "No. I know somebody in Cleveland who can fix things up another way."

That was all Mrs. Kaber said just then and Mrs. Berman didn't press the matter further.

Meantime, back in Cleveland the Pinke'rtons, on the trail of Big Emma Colavito the Widow Maker", saw her leaving a bulky package with another fortuneteller. As soon as she left they seized the package. It contained the very silverware that had been taken from the buffet in the Kaber mansion during the spurious robbery!

Sleuths on the third investigating front that covering old Mrs. Brickel and young Marion McArdle trailed the two to a chop suey parlor and took an adjoining booth. "I think," the detectives heard the old lady saying to the girl, "detectives are watching all of us. If any of them ever questions you keep your mouth shut tight."

Now the Pinkertons, secretly adjusting Mrs. Berman to development, contrived different strategy. When the woman sleuth and the woman she was trying to trap awakened one morning Mrs. Berman said: "You were talking in your sleep a lot last night, Eva."

The suspect stiffened. "What did I say?"

"You were talking about how Dan was murdered," said Mrs. Berman. "But don't worry, Eva," she said, "I'll never breathe a word. Just tell me where I can find Big Emma so I can get her to fix up my husband."

Mrs. Kaber, convinced that she had babbled everything, confessed the details of the entire plot. First, she said, Big Emma had sold her the bottle of stale ginger ale for $100. When that failed, the fortuneteller had sold her some arsenic. When that did nothing but paralyze Kaber, Big Emma supplied, for $5,000, two gangsters men named Salvatore Calla and Vittori Pisselli and they had finished the job, said Mrs. Kaber.

Mrs. Kaber's mother and daughter were implicated in her story in that she claimed they helped her fake the robbery before she left town and the killers arrived.

Simultaneous arrests were made of Mrs. Kaber, Big Emma Colavi to, old Mrs. Brickel and the McArdle girl all charged with murder. Mrs. Brickel confessed, corroborating what Mrs. Kaber had told Mrs. Berman. One of the gangsters, Calla, was picked up but the second one, Pisselli, fled to Italy.

Eva Kaber was sentenced to life in prison. She died after serving ten years. Calla, too, got life. Marion was acquitted on the grounds that she had been a tool of her domineering mother. The indictment against old Mrs. Brickel was nolle prossed because of her age. Pisselli was caught in Italy and sentenced to prison.

The Widow Maker? She decided to bargain with the law. She was willing to plead guilty to second-degree murder. However, the state, convinced she had supplied the killers to Eva Kaber, tried her for first-degree murder. She was acquitted a verdict that met with widespread disapproval. The law, determined that the Widow Maker be punished, unearthed evidence that she had supplied poison to kill another man. Of this murder she was convicted and sentenced to life.

Calla died in prison last June. Big Emma is still alive, almost a third of a century after the murder of Daniel Kaber. Only last October the Widow Maker, asking for a parole, received a cold turndown.

[Alan Hynd, “The ‘Widow Maker’,” The American Weekly, Mar. 30, 1952, p. 18]


FULL TEXT: Emma Colavito, once known as the "Poison Queen of Cleveland," died Sunday at Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysvllle at age 84.

"Big Emma," a practical nurse, entered the reformatory in Colavito to serve a life sentence for the poison murder of one of her patients, Marino Costanza.

She had been tried in 1924, three  years after being acquitted of first-degree, murder in connection with the slaying of prominent Lakewood publisher Daniel J, Kaber. Kaber was stabbed 24 times in his sleep in 1919.

Mrs. Colavito was charged in his 1921 trial with selling poison given to Kaber by his wife. When Kaber did not die from dosages of arsenic, his wife allegedly hired two immigrant assassins to stab him to death.

The slayers testified they killed Kaber because Mrs. Colavito threatened to put a curse on them if they refused carry out her orders.

Mrs. Kaber was convicted first-degree murder and sentenced lo Marysville, where died in 1931. The two assassins were given 20 years in prison.

Police who began checking Mrs. Colavito's background after the Kaber trial discovered she was a nurse to Costanzo when he died in 1920.

Mrs. Colavito was convicted In Costanzo's death after one his children testified she saw Mrs. Colavito give her father some medicine in a glass of water. Mrs. Colavito left Marysvllle only once in 48 years, to the funeral of her mother in Cleveland in 1929. Her husband divorced her and took their five children in New York.

She pleaded for parole several times but was turned down.

She was proclaimed a medical miracle in 1955 when she survived two serious operations for the removal of almost all digestive system.

[“’Poison Queen Of Cleveland’ Emma Colavito Dies At 84,” The Circleville Herald (Oh.), Aug. 30, 1972, p. 18]



FULL TEXT: Daniel Kaber was a wealthy publisher of Cleveland, Ohio – as old man who had married a young wife. One night old Daniel was heard screaming in his bedroom. When his nurse, who had been sleeping in an adjoining room, reached his side, he found the publisher with a dozen stab wounds in the stomach.

“The man in the cap did it. Mrs. Kaber knows --- “Kaber gasped,” and died.

Thus began one of the most extraordinary mysteries of crime in American history.

An autopsy showed that the publisher had been given arsenic over a period of time. Enough of the poison was found in his organs to have killed two or three strong men. but old Daniel must have had some peculiar resistance to it – on no other grounds could his immunity be accounted for.

The police first built up a case on the theory that Kaber, the only one to benefit by her husband’s death, had administered the poison, but finding it too slow had turned to the knife for quicker results. But no purchase of poison could be traced to her, and her alibi for that night was perfect.

Nevertheless, the police arrested her, her daughter and several others.

Among these others was a Mrs. Emma Colavito, a quiet, serious looking, almost motherly woman of Italian parentage, excellent education and comparatively well-to-do.

There were sinister rumors about Mrs. Colavito. The men of the Italian colony in Cleveland and prominent Italians were always most courteous and polite to her. They even went out of their way to avoid offending her. Some of them were known to mutter prayers and give the sign that wards off bad luck after she had passed them.

Gradually, as time went on, the rumors began to crystallize into rather surprising shape. Mrs. Colavito, so the whispers ran, was “a poison queen;” she was the head of a “murder syndicate.” She had made a study of poisons and of ways to administer them without the suspicion of her victims being aroused, and would undertake to remove from this world husbands whom, because of their age or because of their habits, their wives did not like – or other reasons. For a price, of course!

If poison was not desirable, or failed, as in the case of old Daniel Kaber, then she had men to do her hiding with sharp knives. It was she, so the prosecution thought, who got the poison top the old publisher. They thought, too, that they had evidence to show that it had been administered – mixed with sugar and put on strawberries! And her assassins, the poison failing, had stabbed him to death in his bedroom.

But they could not prove it. The case went before the jury. The widow, Mrs. Kaber, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Her daughter was exonerated. Her daughter was exonerated. Two knife-men were caught, one in Italy and one in this country. The one in Italy was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment there, and the other to life imprisonment at the Columbus penitentiary. There was no doubt that they had used the stilettos on Kaber, and there was no doubt that they had been closely in touch with Mrs. Covalito – but they could not or would not implicate her.

And so Mrs. Covalito was set free.

On the Cleveland detective force is an able citizen named Frank Cavolo. The authorities were disturbed about Mrs. Colavito. There had been, before the death of Kaber, other mysterious deaths. In some of these autopsies had been held and poison found. In others the families, through fear or other reasons, would not allow autopsies to be held. And the authorities more than suspected that there were strong reasons for the fear in which Mrs. Covalito was held.

And so Cavolo was sent into the Italian colony to give all his time to finding out whether Mr. Covalito was either one of the most maligned women or the most cold-blooded, hearless murderer since the days of the Borgias, the arch-poisoners of mediaeval Italy.

There are those who scoffed at the possibility of there being such a thing as a “murder business” in this day. Cavolo, however, knew his history, and this told him that in the olden days such things had been common, and that both wicked men and women had made a profession and an art of poisoning. Back in ancient Rome there was the infamous Locusta. The Roman writers, Juvenal and Tacitus, refer to her, saying that she was employed by many Romans of her time to concoct poisons to put out of the way inconvenient husbands and wives and rivals. She is supposed to have made the poison which the Emperor Nero gave to Brittanicus, his own brother, whom he ferared.

There were the Borgias of Italy and in France, in the time of the Fourteenth Louis, there were the beautiful Marchioness de Brinvilliers and the evil woman called “La Voison.” To “La Voison” went the ladies of the court and cavaliers to secure the deadly powder and draughts that dealt out secret death. Indeed, so highly placed were some of these clients of the poisoner that at the subsequent execution of La Voison it is related that her tongue was torn out to prevent her from shouting the names of these persons from the scaffold. The beautiful Marchioness confined her murders to her own family and after torture was beheaded.

But even to the end of the eighteenth century certain kings and queens and nobles had their own alchemists, who in their strange laboratories distilled death for them.

So Covolo, knowing this, did not think it all fantastic to suppose that there might still be some who, taking a leaf from the past, were doing a lucrative murder business.

And at last he came across a death that seemed suspicious to him. Back in the Spring of 1920 a certain Marino, Costanzo, a well-to-do Italian merchant, had died of what doctors had said was “toxic myocarditis” – a disease of the heart that can be brought on by certain poisons. Working only on rumors at first, but finally, he says, with well-established clews, Cavolo caused the arrest of Mrs. Costanzo on a first-degree murder charge.

With this arrest, the police allege, came confession. Upon that confession a warrant, also charging first-degree murder, was sworn out against Mrs. Colavito. The police have not yet found her to serve it.

Mrs. Costanzo’s confession, as the Cleveland police give it out, presents, if true, a remarkable picture of how a professional poisoner goes about his or her wicked business. The callous, cold-blooded indifference to death and suffering can be no better revealed than in the actual answers of the accused widow, as the Cleveland police say she gave them when questioned. These follow:

Question (by police) – Tell us what you know about the death of her husband.

Answer (by Mrs. Costanzo) – About six or seven months previous to the death of my husband, Mrs. ---- and Mrs. Emma Colavito came to my house. I was then living at East Thirty-sixth street, near Woodland avenue. My husband was home intoxicated at the time these two women called, and Mrs. ---- said to me, “Why don’t you get rid of your husband, as he is always drunk?”

After about four months Mrs. Colativo came to my house. I was then living at Scoville avenue. I was then living at Scoville avenue. I was then living at Scoville avenue. I then asked her if there was anything she could give my husband which would make him stop drinking. She said, “There is, and I’ll get it for you.”

Then she went away and came back the next day, and said she would send it over to my house. Next day, a man came to my house and he had the medicine. It was in powder form and it was wrapped up in papers. I kept the medicine in the house, but did not give any to my husband. And two days later, Mrs. Colavito came to my house and pout one of the powders in a glass of water. She took another glass of water and drtank it. Then she said to my husband, “Do you want a glass of water?” and he said, “Yes.”

And she gave him a glass that contained the powder. Then she went away, came back two days later and my husband was in bed sick. She asked how he was and I said he was sick, and she said, “That’s good, the medicine is working.”

Then she said, “I will give him something better,” Then she stayed at my house. My husband was getting worse and I called Dr. ---- to see him. He prescribed some powders and told us to give him one every hour. Then Mrs. Colavito would give him the medicine, but instead of giving him the powders that the doctor doctor prescribed she would give him one of her powders in water every hour.

“Then my husband got worse. I told Mrs. Colavito that he was getting worse. She started to laugh, and said, “He is all right and if he dies he is better dead than alive.”

I said, “What did you mean, ‘better dead than alive’?” and asked her if she had given him poison. She said, “Yes.” About two days after that my husband died two days after that my husband died and he was buried. Mrs. covalito left and I don’t know where she went to.

Q. – How much insurance did your husband carry?
A. – Two thousand dollars.
Q. – How much of this money did Emma Covalito get, after you had collected the insurance?
A. – Two hundred dollars.
Q. – Is this all the money Emma Colavito wanted you to give her?
A. – No, she wanted $300; I only gave her $200.
Q. – Did she ask you about his insurance before she gave your husband the powders?
A. – She did.
Q. – How long did you have this money before you gave Emma Colavito the $200?
A. – It was about two weeks ago after I got the money. She came to my house and said, “I want $300.” I told her I would only give her $200. She made a little fuss about it, but finally she accepted the $200 and left.
Q. – When you wanted to send your husband to the hospital and Emma Colavito said, “No, don’t send him there, as the doctors will know what we have done and we will all be in jail,” you knew then that Emma Colavito had poisoned your husband, did you not?
A. – Yes, I did.
Q. – Did you report this to the police?
A. – No, I did not.
Q. – And you know that after this first woman had asked you why “You don’t get rid of your husband?” and told you that she had a nurse right with her, that this nurse would give him poison to kill him instead of medicine to cure him of the liquor habit?
A. – Yes, I did.
Q. – And you know that, after your husband died, it was the powders that contained poison that Emma Colavito had given him had caused his death? And that the $200 that you gave Colavito was for payment to her for killing your husband?
A. – I did.

On the strength of this confession a warrant charging first degree murder against Mrs. Colavito was issued.

The police also dug up the unfortunate Costanzo’s body and parts of his organs are in the city laboratory now, being tested for the poison that is alleged to have killed him. For, of course, if those mysterious powders the Colavito woman gave him are what caused his death there will be traces of them left. And so Costanzo has been raised from his grave as a silent but dreadful witness against Mrs. Colavito.

But if the scientists do not find poison that does not necessarily mean that no poison was given Costanza. One of the most deadly and extraordinary poisons used by the old professional murderers left no trace, and its ingredients are unknown to-day to science. This was the “aqua tofana” which was invented by a woman poisoner named Tofana. It was the favorite poison of Queen Catherine de Medici in the fifteenth century. When  Catherine came to France as the wife of King Henry the Secondbshe brought with her a Florentine pharmacist and alchemist, ostensibly to make her perfumes and cosmetics, but actually to rid of her enemies. Rene could make the “aqua tofana.” A little injected into a peach or pear and then sent to some one who had incurred the Queen’s ill will would kill without trace. Sometimes candlesticks were saturated in it and when the candle was burned the fumes slew – one of the first forms of poison gas! The Duke d’Alencon, the Queen’s favorite son, is reported to have been killed by a woman by means of the poisoned candle. King Henry of Navarre’s mother, Joanna, was killed by Catherine, so history charges, by a pair of gloves which Rene had treated with the deadly liquid.

The effect of the “aqua tofana” was that of a paralytic stroke, from which the victim never recovered consciousness.

Mrs. Costanzo has pleaded guilty to the first degree charge.

Mrs. Colavito has disappeared, but a nation-wide search is being made for her. Nevertheless, say the police, the awe and terror which she has inspired in so many of her peoplee going to make it extremely difficult to find her.

[“Mrs. Colavito and Her Mysterious Powders,” San Francisco Examiner (Ca.), American Weekly (Mag. Sec.), Feb. 17, 1924, p.  9]










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