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Welcome to criminalize a production of chandeliered audio in partnership with I heart radio. Hello and welcome to Criminality.


This season, we are exploring the lives and motivations of some of the most notorious lady poisoners in history. I'm Holly Fry and Emery Aramaki, and in today's episode, we are talking about the life of Bertha Gifford. Bertha was born Bertha Alice Williams on October 30th, 1871, in Morse Mill, Missouri. She was the daughter of William Poindexter Williams and his wife Matilda, and she was the ninth of their ten children.


The Williams family worshipped in the Church of God, which was the fundamentalist church, and was considered one of the areas and we quote, finest and most respectable families, Bertha would grow up to be a country nurse.


She didn't have any formal schooling in medical care, but that really wouldn't have been especially unusual at this time in the history of America.


But what is really interesting about Bertha is that she also became one of the United State's first female serial killers.


That is the most interesting, I think.


So let's talk a little bit about Bertha when she was younger. We're going to start when she's in her 20s. So Bertha was actually considered to be one of the prettiest women in her county where she lived.


She wasn't very tall.


She spoke with a slight lisp and she was best known for her cooking skills, which was something she was known for her entire life.


When she was 22 in 1894, she married Henry Graham in Morse Mill, where they both grew up, and about a year later, they had one daughter, Lila. I imagine that a lot of people I know I did might picture a town such as Morris Mill, Missouri, in the late eighteen hundreds is like a quaint, quiet farming community. Oh, I completely pictured it that way.


Like 500 percent farming.


Yes. Yes. But the reality was that it was actually a resort town that catered to the St. Louis elite. Although one story suggests that the Grahams ran a boarding house of their own, nearly all of the history around Bertha actually indicates that she worked at the Morse Mill Hotel, which is a very popular place for tourists to stay.


As a side note to that, when I was looking at research, there is today a Morris Mill hotel and I'm not sure if they're open or if they're about to reopen, but they do paranormal activities there.


And they I'm not sure that they have have any visits from her victims, but they're looking for visits from there.


So if you're ever in the area in Missouri, the Morris Mill Hotel is one of your destinations by now putting it on my list so we can have a criminal.


Your road trip, when the pandemic is over, we can leave the house.


So after a few years, her marriage to Henry ran into trouble. And that's because sometime around nineteen five or so, Bertha started spending a little too much time with a local man named Eugene Gifford. Eugene went by Jean, so we'll be calling him that from now on. Jean, by all accounts, was a really popular man around his community. He was a good worker. He was entertaining when he told stories. He was considered to be a good friend.


And he also was and this was the scandalous part of the story, about 10 years younger than Bertha. As you can imagine, Bertha and her husband Henry, started arguing a lot around this time.


Some reports suggest that it was about Bertha's affair, but others kind of indicate that both Henry and Bertha were not really faithful to the marriage amid their arguments.


One night, though, Henry suddenly became ill and then became weak and developed a violent stomach cramps. He died shortly thereafter at the age of thirty four of what was thought to be pneumonia. Honestly, nobody thought much about his cause of death.


And Bertha collected on the life insurance money and went about grieving her late husband.


About a year or two after this, she and Jean got married, and then shortly they moved away from Moores Mill and settled in the nearby Kota Wister area.


Jean took to farming and they had one child. James, one of the local neighbors, is quoted saying that Eugene Gifford was a successful farmer and everyone knew that Gifford's cattle was was a very rural area.


And there was just one physician for the whole county. Bertha took on the role of country nurse for her sick family and neighbors when they needed it. And at first she wore a white apron when she called on her patients. That's a term we're using pretty loosely here.


But later she started to wear a nurse's uniform. The community described Bertha as, quote, a tireless attender of funerals, a visitor of sick persons and a connoisseur of stories dealing with violence, illness or blood.


That's actually how I hope my biography goes after I die. She knew the violence, illness and one story.


Holly was a connoisseur of all the stories, especially the ones with blood.


I like to think that she later started to wear her nurse's uniform because she was really getting the character.


Know no obviously reason to to be like this is a fact.


But in my mind, she was really sort of honing her skills and she's like, I am a nurse now.


So she was known to pay visits to sick neighbors. She brought food. She stayed to administer medicine. All the kinds of things did you expect a nurse to do?


She would often dispense what the doctor had prescribed, but she had all sorts of medical and nonmedical things in her satchel.


And it's said that Bertha made her own potions, as she called them, interesting potions in her new community.


She had established herself, as always, willing to help. And she was always there when someone was ill or injured, even if it meant that she had to travel for miles to be there. She frequently took sick people into her home and nursed them, although this was not a case of nursing them back to life.


Right. She sounds like such a lovely woman until you find out you realized nobody got out of her house alive, right. Until you realized that among her patients, it turned out they were more likely to die in her care than they were to get. Well, and then you kind of go, hmm, not the best Samaritan that I thought she was.


Her victims ranged in age from 15 months to about 72 years. And those are the victims that we know of. They weren't strangers. They were neighbors, friends, relatives. And there was no discernible pattern to her victims other than the fact that they had been ill.


Initially, Bertha was not suspected of anything, but as her victim list began to grow. Authorities did begin to suspect her specifically of three murders, the first and second suspected murders for both of children. First, Lloyd Shamal, who was around nine years old, whose mother had died two months earlier, perhaps three worth care, but maybe not. It's a little unclear. Unclear. And then Lloyd's brother, Elmer, who was either six or seven, and he died less than six weeks after his brother Lloyd and Elmers father, whose first name completely escaped me.


And all of our research said at the time that he didn't suspect anything was going on. And we quote him as saying that he liked the Gifford's fine and he thought that it was just his bad luck.


He had a lot of territory to cover, but the deaths of those boys aroused the suspicion of the county doctor, Dr. W.H, homecourt. We mentioned there was only one doctor there and that's why Bertha was so leaned upon for her nursing care. He recommended an autopsy after Elmer died. However, the boy's father did not agree to this procedure, so Hammacher reported the cause of death as acute gastritis.


So the third person who Bertha was suspected of killing was a man named Ed Brinley, who was a known alcoholic around town. One night, he fell inebriated on the concrete walk outside of the Gifford's home.


And of course, they took him in and they cared for him until he passed away.


Ed's death was the one that renewed Dr Hammacher suspicions about a birth, and he consulted with another physician. The two were not able to agree on a cause of death, and Ed's death certificate reported that he died also of acute gastritis.


That's really not a bad diagnosis if there's no suspicion that poison is involved. Symptoms of gastritis include many of the symptoms that we've talked about over and over he did with arsenic poisoning.


Right. So stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, sometimes bloody and a burning sensation in the stomach, which can make a diagnosis of poisoning even if the doctor is suspicious, kind of difficult. Those are issues that pop up with a lot of other problems.


Exactly. One of the great things about arsenic as a poison is it mimics everything else, right?


So I think it's a good time to take a break from our hour, talking about poison for a word from our sponsor. And when we come back, we'll talk about how the community began to suspect foul play. Welcome back to Criminal. Let's get to talking about whether Bertha was the, quote, angel of mercy of her community. So after the three deaths, the community rumor mill started to talk about foul play and many suspected that there were more than just these three victims.


And some of them urged the county's prosecuting attorney to open investigation into Bertha. But there was no official action taken at that time.


It wasn't until after a St. Louis newspaper printed an article about patients mysteriously dying while under Bertha's care that the prosecutor ordered a grand jury to look specifically into Ed Bradley's death.


Bertha at this time, though, tried her hardest to scare off anyone who considered testifying against her by threatening libel lawsuits for one and all like like Oprah. You know, you get a lawsuit, you get a lawsuit.


Everybody in town is going to get a lawsuit.


And it must have worked because the jury failed to indict her at this point. Bertha and Jean moved not too far away, but far enough to hopefully get out of the spotlight of all of this controversy. Still, though, the prosecutor summoned another grand jury.


The bodies of Ed Brinley and the Shamal brothers were all exhumed during the second investigation into Bertha, and large quantities of arsenic were found in the vital organs in each body.


Shortly after, on August 25th, 1928, Bertha was arrested at Eureka, Missouri, and she was charged with murder.


Until then, their neighbors found the Giffords to be and we quote, such nice people, everybody like them.


She was also called and this is another quote, one of the best biscuit bakers in the county, poison free.


So when they questioned her about why she poisoned these people, Bertha had an explanation and she tearfully went on to talk about that her intentions were to help anyone who was sick, not not to kill them, and actually to give her a tiny, teeny, tiny bit of credit. At this time, people actually used arsenic for medical reasons. So her argument wasn't necessarily a total lie.


This is where that medical training might have come in handy. It weren't for you, right?


You know. Yeah, dosing will be banned.


Anyway, when she signed a statement confessing to her crimes, Bertha reported she had placed arsenic into the medicine that the doctor had provided for both Lloyd and Elmer Shamal. She stated that she had done the same for Ed Brinley.


However, learning that her confession had been made public, Bertha became hysterical and she began with great effort to deny everything about it.


Her husband suggested she was just nervous when she confessed and she didn't know what she was saying. And so he hired a lawyer who entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf.


Bertha was put on trial in nearby Union, Missouri, and once it finally began, her trial lasted for three days. On the first day of the trial, more than one thousand people crowded into the courtroom. That made up a crowd that spilled into the hallway outside.


Can you even imagine? So in the courtroom, it's reported that Bertha was actually really quite well put together. She she came in wearing a black coat.


Her dark hair was freshly bobbed and she was made up with two bright spots of rouge on her cheeks.


But she also sat slumped in her chair and some among the community who had known her well said that her eyes seemed dead after testimony that Bertha had several times purchased arsenic at drugstores around the county.


She defended herself by saying it was all for getting rid of barn rats that had been bothering the chickens on their farm floors. Look, sure.


Yeah, I mean, people used arsenic for that specific purpose all the time. But circumstantially, her purchases seem to coincide with the deaths of her patients. Now it's a little more problematic.


The jury indicted her for first degree murder in the poisoning deaths of Elmer Shamal and Ed Brimley. The charge of murdering Elmers brother Lloyd was added to the indictment, but not until subsequent investigation.


So during the trial, there were many, many people to take the stand and there were five doctors who were sent to testify that they had determined the mental health of Bertha. And they said all five, we quote, insane. In rebuttal to psychiatrists which were known as alienists at this time in history, I love them. I love and wish we still use we're also called to the stand, but they didn't disagree with the assessment of her mental health.


Both of them actually concluded the same as the other five doctors that Bertha was not of sound mind. So it took just three hours for the jury to find.


Bertha had indeed fatally poisoned her victims.


They agreed she had been insane at the time and they considered that she still was.


She was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sentenced by Circuit Judge Brewer and committed to the Missouri State Hospital. Number four, that was a psychiatric institution and she lived there until her death on August 20th, 1951.


Her death certificate lists her as having lived with paranoia praecox, psychosis, which today we would know better if schizophrenia.


But getting back to her victims, Elmer Lloyd and Ed weren't the only three who died under mysterious circumstances while in Bertha's care. There's actually quite a list. So maybe settle in while we name some of them.


And this list is not complete.


So there was Emily Gifford, who was Bertha's mother in law, and then there was James Gifford, her 13 year old brother in law, and then Schurman Pounds, the 53 year old uncle of her husband, as well as Sherman's three year old granddaughter, Bula, the Giffords 53 year old hired hand around the farm.


A man named James Ogle also became a victim. Then there were the stallholder children, Irene, who died at age seven, Margaret at age two, and Bernard, who was just 15 months old. Bernard was Bertha's youngest known victim. Mary Brinley was only seven years old when she was poisoned and died.


Leona Slocum, 37, died under Bertha's care.


The oldest victim, Grandma Bertie, in her style was 72 when she was Bertha's victim.


By some counts, Bertha may have been responsible for between 17 and 19 fatal poisonings over the span of about 20 years. So here we are with Bertha, Bertha is buried in an unmarked grave at the Soul Sleeper's Cemetery in her hometown of Mooresville.


And in the years since her death, the Missouri Department of Mental Health has permanently sealed her record, barring a court order or request to open them from immediate family.


When we come back, we will talk a bit about what makes a serial killer. Welcome back to Criminal Yet. Let's get into talking about the profile of a serial killer, specifically a female serial killer, which is different according to a newspaper article from the time of the trial. We quote, interest in the case is nationwide and stories of the trial are being carried in all of the great newspapers of the country. This interest in Bertha was not only because of the number of deaths that had occurred, but also because the serial murderer was a woman, which was and still is rare.


It's really easy to call many of the women that we've talked about so far this season, as you call them, serial killers.


But during our research, we see that term applied so often to those who actually are not serial killers.


It's true, many of them did kill more than one person, but most of the time they didn't fit the profile.


Eartha, however, is interesting because she is considered a serial killer by the defining characteristics. She is the fourth female serial killer identified in the United States behind Lydia Sherman, who is included as part of our season of poisoners, Jane Toppin, a nurse who killed 31 people, and Nanny Doss, whose favorite pastimes included reading romance novels and killing her relatives, 11 of them in total. What's not true about serial killers is that they're always men. Granted, it's just a small percentage of serial killers who are women.


So small, though, that back in 1998, a former FBI profiler was quoted saying there are no female serial killers, but that's not really true.


Female serial killers do exist.


They are few in number, and they aren't motivated in the same way as their male counterparts.


Unlike male serial killers who usually target people they don't know, female serial killers tend to kill people who are emotionally and physically closest to them.


So victims of female serial killers are often lovers. Also, very often they include children and the elderly, which are two groups that are very unlikely or unable to fight back for themselves. And as we just mentioned, while male serial killers tend to choose victims, they don't know, studies of known female serial killers suggest that as many as 80 percent, 80 percent knew their victims.


In fact, nearly two thirds were related to their victims.


One third killed their significant others and nearly half killed their own children. According to the FBI's profile of a serial killer, male or female, these are people who have killed a series of three or more victims, but it doesn't end there.


While male serial killers are more likely to use violent methods such as a gun or strangulation, female serial killers are much more likely to use a more low profile method, such as suffocation or, as we see a lot poisoning.


What we do know about the profile of female serial killers is that they're typically white and conventionally attractive, and 100 percent of known female serial killers identified as Christian. They typically have killed between seven and 10 people. So more than twice the requirement to qualify for their title. Right.


Two to three is not going to get to a serial killer title, according to the profile.


So this is really interesting, especially to Bertha's situation.


Nursing is an occupation that is overrepresented among female serial killers.


So nearly 40 percent had worked in health related fields as nurses or AIDS, and about 22 percent worked in caregiving roles such as mothering and nannying or caretaking of an elderly relative.


And also, interestingly, one of the main motivations for female serial killers is to get attention or sympathy, such as following the death of a relative or someone that they've cared for.


So while it's difficult for any of us to get into the mind of a male or female serial killer, we can take a minute to remember that.


In Bertha's confession, she said in all three cases, the patients were suffering from severe pains.


And I put arsenic in their medicine to quiet their pains and. All I think of when I think of as a birther talking about her confession and her in court, is that that phrase to quiet their pains? It's quite haunting.


It is, she's a tough one to to research and write about because of the whole serial killer factor and the fact that she was well, but but I mean, like, I'm addicted to watching serial killer documentaries.


But I was really they don't they don't do many documentaries on female serial killers, you know, so knowing how well she was liked in her community and what she was practicing was really sort of difficult to get my head to wrap around. Yeah.


Yeah. She's she's one that it's we have talked so many times about how usually in a lot of these cases there's something about the person involved that we come to like or delight in. But it's quite difficult with her to find one. She's one of those few that it's like there's nothing in this story that's like comfortable or laughy. Exactly.


Exactly. So, Holly. Yeah. Which poison this week I hear it might be a little appellee.


It is still appellee and a little lemony. I wanted to make a cocktail for Bertha that reflected her image as an angel of mercy and as a nurse. So this drink is sweet and it's quite pleasant when you sip it, but it will really knock you on your keister. And I am calling it the Angel of Mercy, just like Bertha. Exactly. So I started with a spirit that is not one of my usual go juice. But this entire season has been a good lesson in trying new things to gin in.


So two ounces of gin, two ounces of unsweetened apple juice, one ounce of simple syrup and a splash of lemon juice, just mix that together real quick and then also stir in about six ounces of lemon lime soda. And it's yeah, just put it with something in there and stir it. So it's a little bubbly. It tastes like apple juice. The reason that I went with unsweetened apple juice is because by the time you include the soda and the simple syrup, it would get really cloying if you cherry sweetened apple juice.


So that makes sense. It's also a recipe you can dither with the amounts of of certain things to your taste. So if you prefer a little more of a crisp bite flavor rather than a sweet, you can up the lemon juice and drop the simple syrup to a half ounce as it is. It's it's sweet. But to me, not to painfully sweet, but yeah, it's it's very yummy. It does taste like just fizzy apple juice. And then I was like, oh yeah, I can't tolerate gin the way I can tolerate other things.




I can't stand up like a bug.


So that is the angel of mercy which will help you quiet your pain. So yes, please drink responsibly.


Thank you for once again joining us on another episode of criminality. We will see you again here next week.


Criminality is a production of QandA Land Audio in partnership with I Heart Radio for more podcasts from Shadowland Audio. Please visit the I Heart radio app, Apple podcast or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.