Welcome to criminalize a production of scandal and audio in partnership with I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to criminality. I'm Maria Aramaki, and I'm Holly Fry. We know that humans have always managed to commit crimes, almost certainly before there was even recorded history.
So we decided that we would start looking at those crimes and get our hands dirty. We wanted to dig in and look at some of history's crimes and criminals to understand them better. And in doing so, we're curious if we can find commonality with our modern world and our modern problems and whether these crimes look different. A little bit of distance on the timeline and whether any of these perpetrators emerge as more sympathetic characters. This first season is going to be all about poisoners, specifically women poisoners.
Poison is often called a woman's weapon, despite the fact that roughly two thirds of the poisonings committed throughout time have been the work of men.
So let's start looking at these women and their motivations and see if any patterns develop. This week, we're looking into the life and crimes of Tili Klimek, a Polish immigrant who killed at least one and possibly as many as 20 people and at least one dog between the years 1914 and 1922.
I will confess that when you were telling me about the research you were doing initially on this and you mentioned the dog, I was like, well, I hate her. Not that it wasn't terrible.
It could kill people, just, you know, so that was for me, the worst thing that she could have done as well. Well, yes, she was born Teofilo Berrick to Michalina and Nicole Berrick on October 22nd, 1877, and Tili was probably right around four years old when her family immigrated to the United States. They moved from Poland to the little Poland neighborhood of Chicago. One of the seven children in the family, Ottilie, as she was called, was the eldest.
Chicago has a long history of Polish immigration, and Polish Americans have lived in the area for well over a century. In 1890, around the time Tilly was born, there was a wave of immigration to the United States. At that time, the number of Polish immigrants in the city blossomed to more than 25000. By 1930, a few years before she died, that number had grown to 165 thousand. Most, though, live below the poverty line is the tale of immigration.
Yes, in so many ways. So let's set the scene of the actual situation we're talking about today.
So this is Chicago in the early 20th century. You couldn't necessarily count on your food and drinks to be clean, Upton Sinclair started publishing the serialized version of his groundbreaking exposé of the meat industry in the U.S., The Jungle in 1985. And while that led to the creation of the Meat Inspection Act in 1996, food safety legislation was still in its infancy. But if you were at a restaurant or a club or a hotel around the city, there were other dangers when it came to what you consumed at the table.
In particular, waitstaff were known to target patrons who didn't tip well, not like the content of the Chowder and Fight Club, although honestly, maybe a little of that.
They usually chose poisons and various other things. You really don't want to be in your food.
So remember, always tip well. But moreover, it turns out that you couldn't really count on food safety at home either, at least if you lived with the tellie klimek.
During the time that Chicago's most visible criminal element was organized crime, Tilly was quietly becoming the city's most prolific female serial killer. She'd allegedly killed between six and 20 people, like we said, but that was all through arsenic poisoning.
So we're going to talk first just about what arsenic actually is. It is a naturally occurring element in the earth's crust and in its raw state, as much as it has this instant conjuring of poison, it's not actually harmful the way it naturally exists.
Arsenic only really it becomes poisonous when it's converted into arsenic trioxide, which is better known as white arsenic. White arsenic not only is odorless, but it's tasteless and it's white or transparent in form.
So it's easily confused with sugar or flour, but it's highly toxic when it's inhaled into your lungs or when you ingest it.
And it might surprise you that even white arsenic is actually fairly benign in relatively small amounts because it is very lethal at higher doses.
In fact, doctors have actually prescribed white arsenic through the years in its low dosage as a treatment for things like asthma, typhus, malaria, even menstrual cramps. And it continues to be administered intravenously as a chemotherapy for a specific type of leukemia.
When arsenic is ingested initially, it causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea. That's often being accompanied by bleeding and vomiting. It's terrible as the dose gets more and more lethal in the body, though, the symptoms also begin to include convulsions, cardiovascular problems, hair loss, liver and kidney problems and even organ damage.
So not a peaceful way to go. Definitely not sugar, no. And despite its potency, it has been used in the production of semiconductors. It's been used as wood preservative, and it's also sometimes found in pesticides. Manufacturers in the 19th century started using it for it's a green pigment in products like paint and wallpaper fabrics, beauty products. And as food coloring, the list goes on because green is very beautiful color. So sometimes those products would actually make people sick.
But at the time, no one was suspecting that the arsenic in them was the problem that was causing their ailments in the early 20th century when Tilly was busy murdering people in her community.
The average American's medicine cabinet was stocked with all sorts of toxic things like radioactive radium for acne. And mercury is a topical antiseptic for cuts and scrapes and burns. Morphine showed up in everyday products and everything from teething medications to cures for heroin addiction from roughly the late 18th and into the early 20th century is considered to be the golden age of poisoners.
And during that time, arsenic specifically caught the nickname the Inheritance Powder. And you can probably imagine why the police really didn't have any of the tools to test the corpse for poison.
Arsenic wasn't only easy to acquire, it was hard to detect as a cause of death, which was a win win for the golden age of poisoners.
It was common practice for doctors to treat suspected poisoning with leeches, bleed it out, or try to identify the poison involved by sniffing the contents of the person's stomach. Remember how we said arsenic was odorless?
Yeah, so you just sniff those contents for nothing.
But it was also just unusual for a doctor or a coroner to suspect arsenic is a cause of death, mainly because the symptoms of arsenic poisoning that you just talked about, diarrhea and vomiting and abdominal pain are so similar to a lot of other disorders.
It's also really hard to place a poisoner at the scene of the murder.
Dying can typically take hours or longer if you administered the poison gradually, such as with someone's meals.
So the perpetrator could easily have a seemingly airtight alibi for their whereabouts because the window of time had such fuzzy edges when it actually wouldn't be until the late 19th century that a chemist named James Marsh would come up with a reliable chemical test for arsenic poisoning. Today, arsenic poisoning is treated with chelation therapy, which uses special drugs that bind to metal ions in your blood.
So Rough on Rats was the product that became popular in the late 1980s. It was composed mainly of arsenic and a little black coal for masking the poison. And while it was advertised for use in killing rats, mice, bedbugs, flies, roaches, it occasionally was used for the very off label purpose of killing husbands. Believe it or not, the marketing slogan for this poison rough on rats was Don't die in the house. The thinking, of course, being that the creature you have poison would scurry away to die.
It was also really easily available at the local store until we actually got her first bottle of rough on rats from her cousin Nelly Coolac.
And it would turn out was also a fellow poison or murder and husband. According to accounts from her neighbors, Tilly was said to have precognitive dreams, meaning that she could predict the future in real life. Her sort of sixth sense ish kind of way, she began to predict the deaths of neighborhood dogs and she was surprisingly accurate, but it turns out she was just scheduling their deaths. We're getting a little ahead of ourselves, though, in the progression of Tilley's activities with Raffone rap.
So we're going to back up to 1895.
Welcome back to Criminalist. By 1895, Tilly was married to John McKay with his name may have been Joseph, not John, records aren't entirely consistent. But we're going to go with John because that's what the majority of records from the time refer to him as.
That is one of the delights word I'm using, ironically, of doing historical research, particularly when you are talking about immigrants, because there was not a vested interest always in the government in keeping accurate records about them. So you often have these these people stories that get really muddy because their names do shift around in the historical record anyway. By all accounts, this couple, Tilly and John, were well liked in their community and their marriage appeared, by all accounts, to be happy.
Tilly made her life as a housekeeper, but it was also during this time that Tilly started telling neighbors about some visions that she was having.
She was, as we mentioned before the break, an alleged psychic who was skilled specifically at predicting deaths. This included predicting the death of her own husband, John, who had left her a thousand dollars when he died in 1914. The coroner's report listed his death as a result of heart trouble. Nothing suspicious.
There was no reason at the time to suspect that John had been poisoned by his wife. The nickname Black Widow, which is often given to women who kill their lovers in order to inherit their wealth, would eventually be bestowed upon Tilly, but not just yet.
Here's a little more detail on John's sudden end. OK, in the beginning of 1914, Tilly began telling friends and those in the community that she dreamed that John was ill. She expected he would be on his deathbed in just a few weeks, and when he died in January 13th that year, the cause of death was listed as heart trouble. And he collected a thousand dollars in life insurance.
I guess after 19 years, she just didn't want to gun it to 20.
She's sick enough after receiving that payout on John's life insurance policy till he actually remarried pretty quickly.
See, now that's the thing. She remarried quickly, often. And I have I always sort of wonder, like, if she would fall in love with someone new and be like, oh, I'll kill my husband and we'll start out fresh with, like, this new thousand dollars.
It's just my own personal theory.
Yeah, I think there's merit there. But her new husband, Joseph Piskorski, died just three months after they got married and he happened to leave his widow. Twelve hundred dollars in cash and seven hundred twenty two dollars in insurance money. Not only did Tilly predict Joseph's death, she went on to predict the deaths of her third husband, although they may or may not have been married, it's a little sketchy. And her fourth husband, as well as children, she cared for a few neighbors and possibly some other family members.
And not only did she joke with neighbors that her fourth husband, Frank, had, quote, two inches to live, which is a really interesting and fascinating turn of phrase.
She allegedly taunted him on his deathbed and said things like, it won't be long now and you'll be dying soon, which is in my own home, like you got to it just to live.
Right. It's like callous on a level that's hard to comprehend. Right? Right.
She also, in an act of both cruel and creative, knitted herself a mourning hat as she sat by his bedside while he was dying.
She even so far as to purchase a 30 dollar bargain coffin to keep in the basement of her house waiting for his death.
That storage agreement was a little unsettling request made of her landlord, who began to be a little suspicious of Chile after that came in.
Frank did die on April 20th, 1921, and it is said that when it happened, Tilly played dance music in the room.
The coroner listed Frank's cause of death as bronchial pneumonia, Tilley's poisonous predilections unnoticed. She once again collected on his life insurance, this time the amount of 675 dollars nearly as much as the last year.
I know she's downgrading the insurance situation with each one. They're going faster now, you know, just not enough time to build up to the thousand.
That's another theory I have.
It's interesting and grimly fun to note that, Frank, until he's home at nine 24, Winchester, its house in East Village in Chicago, shows up on the old Foursquare's social networking site as old Lady Tilly Klimek haunted house even today, who simply was still not arrested, though that didn't happen until after she botched an attempt at poisoning husband number five.
That was Joseph Klimek. She and Joseph had gotten married in July of 1921, again not long after Frank's demise.
Just a few months at Klimek is said to have been a relatively wealthy man. But Tilly did not like that. He also apparently had a wandering eye. And by October of 1922, he was in the hospital experiencing arm numbness, leg paralysis and other symptoms consistent with severe arsenic poisoning.
So while he was in the hospital, Tilley's husband recalled that his food had tasted strangely lately. And here's one big red flag. He remembered the dog dying after eating scraps of food till he had cooked. Her husband also stated he'd plan to press charges against her until she kissed him.
Such a strange dynamic at play.
But it was not poisoning Joseph that she went on trial for while Tillie was arrested, initially for the attempted murder of Joseph Klimek, who would survive her poison in his hand after an investigation into the deaths of her previous husbands. The crime, till he was eventually tried for was the murder of Frank, her third husband.
But even as she was taken in, she appeared completely indifferent to the whole situation. It is said that she told the arresting officer, who was Lieutenant William Malone. The next one I want to cook dinner for is you.
You made all my trouble after 18 hours of interrogation till he confessed to her crimes, admitting to mixing rat poison into her victim's food and drink. Note, plural. It's interesting, right?
Like 18 hours of interrogation is considered extreme.
It is. And she just gives it all up. Then there's that whole thing of like, is this a coerced confession at that point? But her later behavior makes it seem like she's she's pretty down with this information being one true and part of public record.
Yeah, she's a bad ass. Just two grains of arsenic is enough to kill almost anyone. And as much as eight grains were found in Frank's organs, so enough to kill four people, authorities decided to exhume Tilley's other husbands and found their stomachs. Each contained lethal doses of arsenic. And although evidence existed to convict her of as many as 20 murders by arsenic, only one charge resulted in a conviction.
Although she was not the only woman and wife in her community to be arrested for suspicion of poisoning, she was the only one of them who was sentenced.
You know, remember how we mentioned her cousin earlier? Yes. Authorities went on to investigate. A possible poison ring in the little Poland neighborhood, arresting other local women in what the assistant state attorney at the time that was a man named William McGlaughlin called, quote, the most astonishing wholesale poisoning plot uncovered.
He wanted the death penalty for Tili, but without better evidence, the other women who had been rounded up just had to be released.
As Tilly's story unfurls, it becomes apparent that it wasn't just husbands that she poisoned, she played fast and loose with raffone rats, poisoning people who irritated her and dogs who bark too much in the neighborhood.
Life was especially risky if you were one of Tilly's cousins in 1912. Tilley's cousin Stanley Zawadski, died at the age of 16. Tillie, who was in her mid 30s at the time, tended on him while he was ill. Another cousin, Stanley's sister Stelle, died in 1913. She was 23 at the time, and again, Tilly played the role of caregiver.
After her husband Frank's death, he started seeing a man named Joseph Grant Korski. Like lovers before him, Joseph died in 1914 after jilting her and back to cousins in 1915. Tilley's cousin Helen died at age 15. Another cousin, Nick Myco, became sick from arsenic poisoning, but he was lucky enough to actually recover. In 1919, Tilley's cousin Rose died after attending Tili and Frank's wedding party in 1989.
He may have been involved in the poisoning of Wojtek Strummer, who was the husband of her cousin Nelly. The same Nelly from procured her rat poison.
It turns out that Tilly wasn't only cooking arsenic in two meals, she was also a confectioner.
Twizzlers may make Miles happy, but you definitely want to skip Tilley's treats. So Stella Gostkowski, sister of Tilly's former boyfriend Joseph, got sick after she ate a candy that was given to her by Tilly after the two women had an argument.
Joseph died from tainted candy as well, Rose Split had also stated he gave her arsenic infused candies after Joseph Klimek talked to her so jealous Tilly was willing to go after innocent women who her husband even dared to converse with.
So let's keep going because we're only about halfway through the body count. There was also a woman named Bessie Kubasik, sister in law of Tilley's husband, Frank, who fell sick after eating Tilley's cooking. But Bessie recovered.
Children, primarily relatives, were also on Tilley's hit list. At least four children until his Sfeir were poisoned between 1917 1918. Dorothy Sparer died at age two twins, Sophie and Ben. Stoermer also died. John Sturmer was the only one to recover. Lillian Sturmer, who was in her early teens, lived at Tilley's home for a year when she became deathly ill from the food and suffered heart trouble. So skip ahead just a few years to March 1923 and a man named Mires goes missing, suspicious, maybe he might have been one of Tilley's husbands, but he was more likely just a boyfriend.
Records from this time, as we've mentioned, not always robust. And a lot of times people would just claim to be spouses without going through the paperwork, kind of like common law, but more like they were just like, well, we lived together and we lived as a married couple. Either way, the risk of dying was obviously considerably high for any of Tilley's paramour's legally wed or not. I don't think she cared about the paperwork. Just just the life insurance.
At her trial, Tili wore the black hat that she had made when her third husband, Frank, had been on his deathbed, she had also wanted to his funeral, as she had planned historically in Chicago in the early 20th century, women who were brought to trial for murder, which was usually murder of their husbands, were almost always acquitted.
With a woman was unlucky enough to be convicted, she was generally going to be given an amazingly light sentence in comparison to men who had stood trial for murder. And it really helped your case. If you were very feminine, weeping a bit and flirting would always help.
In the years leading up to Tilley's trial, 28 women had been charged with murder.
In Cook County, where Chicago is located, 24 were acquitted.
It is probably no coincidence that all 24 of those women were considered conventionally attractive. Up to 28. Only four were found guilty. Hilda Åkerlund, who is not considered needy here at Trepanier, who was middle aged, Ms. Simpson, who was determined to be insane, and Dora Waterman, who also was not known for her, looks. On the other hand, well-dressed, well groomed women who shot her boyfriend over his cheating walked free.
Tilly, though, did not have these advantages. She was nothing like stylish Belva Gaertner and beautiful Bula Annam, the killers who inspired the place Chicago.
According to Genevieve Forbes, a crime reporter who covered the trial for the Chicago Tribune, Tili was neither beautiful nor charming.
She was described as a middle aged woman, 45, who was squat, wooden with a greasy complexion and a lumpy figure. Her dull brown hair was pulled back into a knot at the back of her head, despite having lived in Chicago since she was just a little kid. She spoke only broken English and it was reported that, she growled.
I shudder to think what Genevieve for during the proceedings, prosecutors read a list of 20 alleged victims of Tili pausing after each name to ask her, did you kill this person? And each time she would reportedly shrug, responding to each of the simple, yeah, I wish I could have been in this trial.
The trial judge asked for something called a psychopathic lab report. According to the examining doctor, Tilly was a, quote, subnormal mentality with an intellect. And I quote again, no higher than that of an 11 year old child. As we just mentioned, she didn't really speak English especially well.
So let's take these results with a grain of salt. And it was reported she was afflicted with dementia praecox, a diagnosis today that would be schizophrenia.
She was also described as a rattlesnake, as a heartless woman. And due to the murders around her, she got the nickname we mentioned earlier, Black Widow. Because of the evidence beyond the single murder, investigators obtained permission to exhume the corpses of Tilley's dead husbands for arsenic toxicity testing. Newspaper headlines covering the trial featured headlines like Three More Bodies to be exhumed in Klimek case and bodies of other relatives will be exhumed.
All those cousins, all those cousins, all. All the children.
Yeah, the children and dogs thing. I just obviously killing anybody is bad. But on Tilly, though, stuck to a story that Frank had died of alcohol poisoning and that she had absolutely not killed her spouses, she said, quote, I loved them. They loved me. They just died, same as other people. She continued, I'm not responsible for that. I could not help if they wanted to die.
Contrary to her statement during the trial, the coroner accusingly asserted, quote, There is no question that Mrs. Klimek poisoned everyone she wanted to get out of the way after the jury deliberated for just an hour and 20 minutes till she was found guilty of the murder of her third husband, Frank Kubasik, in 1923, Judge Marcus Cavanaugh sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That was the harshest sentence ever given to a woman in Chicago. At that time, four jurors thought she should be given the death penalty.
At the time, no woman had ever been sentenced to death in the state of Illinois. The Chicago Tribune reporter Forbes called her gruesomely cruel and went on to say that Tillie is a spectator in her own drama.
While on all accounts, Tilly is considered to have been friendly to the other prisoners when she was incarcerated, she definitely did not want to talk about the poisonings.
It is said that she would yell, quote, I didn't rob nobody. I didn't shoot nobody. I didn't poison nobody. I didn't everybody picks on me. Everybody makes eyes at me like they're going to eat me. Why do they make eyes like that? I tell the truth. Anything I did, I did to myself. Nobody else. She was incarcerated at the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet with one stipulation.
It said that while Tilly enjoyed the few food served to her in prison, the judge declared that she never be allowed to cook for her fellow inmates after 13 years of incarceration. She died on November 20th, 1936.
So Tillie clearly does seem to have had a certain detachment and a callousness about the crime she was found guilty of, and that cannot have helped her case.
But we also can't disregard another significant influence in the outcome of her trial, which we briefly touched on, though you might hope something like physical appearance wouldn't matter today in the courtroom, as it clearly did until this day.
You might be surprised to hear that the judge and jury can still be swayed by a pretty face.
What we know from study upon study is that most people, even without being conscious of it, consider physically attractive adults to be healthier, more intelligent and to have better personalities than those who are not considered as aesthetically pleasing.
In fact, in economics, there's a phenomenon known as the beauty premium. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, there's what's called the ugliness penalty. But that's just not limited to economics. It's just how humans work with each other.
In recent years, studies have also found that as humans, we generally consider attractive people in our society to just be better people, whether that's in the workplace, at school, in relationships or in the courtroom, where you would hope and expect to find impartiality. Studies in the last few decades have found that juries tend to be biased in the favor of good looking defendants.
This can mean people considered to be attractive or not only found guilty less often, but that they also receive less severe sentences when they are found guilty unattractive. However you define it, defendants, on the other hand, were more likely to be served with longer and harsher sentences, an average of 22 months longer in prison. And that's even today. So while Tilly, we could never paint as a good guy in any of this, she definitely still was also a victim of this kind of weird bias that people won't even acknowledge that they have.
Right. We feel that we're above it now, but we're not we're clearly not know. And the thing is, it's one of those things that's insidious, right? Like we all have it. We all have these biases. So you can't presume that in recognizing that they exist, that you have overcome your own because it's hardwired almost in some ways. It's not really hardwired. You can relearn it, but it takes an awful lot of conscious effort.
And a constant conscious effort probably for the rest of your life. You're always practicing it.
Yes, but in less downer talk.
Hey, Maria, it's my favorite time of the show.
Cocktail hour. Yes, indeed. What's your poison? Our our time where we come up with a little something, something that will relate to the show in a fun way. And since we've been talking about Tili and since she was a Polish immigrant, I wanted to do something in honor of her Polish heritage. So I squirrelled around on the Internet for a while because I couldn't come up with anything on my own. And I discovered this recipe. It's called A Few Different Things.
The name that I enjoy is Polish Kiss. And what this is is Xu Vodka, which is a bison grass, vodka.
Did you say bison, grass, vodka? I did. That's interesting. Yeah, I don't know if it's the grass that bison prefer, like five bison everywhere. I don't know. I swear by this grass. Is it just Polish bison? I don't know. It has a blade of grass in the bottle.
I also came across this drink called a frisky bison, a.k.a. the Polish kiss.
So clearly so the Polish kiss is the version that I found was one point five ounces of this bison, grass, vodka, and then five ounces of apple juice. And the way it was touted when I read about it was that it tastes just like apple pie and does it.
It does not at least not the version I made. Now let me back up the truck for a minute, because I don't want to blame the recipe maker. I but it's delicious. It's just not like apple pie. I think probably you are making it with normal apple juice from the store. It probably does start to taste like apple pie.
But I bought organic unsweetened hippie apple juice to go with the brand vodka.
I totally so what happened is that it tastes like you have just picked a fresh apple off of a tree and taken a bite of it because that vodka has that grassy flavor that makes it feel like a fresh plant based item. And it's absolutely beautiful, it's very crisp, sounds delicious. It's like it's a summer day cocktail for sure. It was very delightful.
I could see that she would probably drink that while she was waiting for her husband to die, like while she was meeting her.
And she's like, oh, I did something refreshing to drink. While I will say this, I will say this, that cocktail vibes to me a little too fancy for her. I picture her is like a bear drink. It does seem a little fancy. And remember, Chicago in the 20s, probably not like I want to see imported vodka. I doubt I would like the imported bison grass vodka from my homeland.
It probably didn't come up much, I guess, for them.
But I guess now. But that is this week's What's Your Poison? And thank you for joining us again on criminality. If you'd like to subscribe to the podcast, we would like you to do that as well. And you can do that on the I Heart radio app at Apple podcast or wherever it is you listen. 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 podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.