UNION, Mo., Aug. 25, 1928 – Mrs. Eugene Gifford, 50 years old, wife of a farmer, living near Eureka, St. Louis County, was arrested at her home at noon today on two indictments charging her with the murder of a man and a boy. This afternoon, Mrs. Gifford made a statement to Chief Andrew McDonnell of Webster Groves in which she admitted putting arsenic in medicine prescribed by a physician for both Lloyd and Elmer Schamel, and putting arsenic in medicine also prescribed by a physician, for Edward Brinley. She said she placed the poison in the medicine because she wanted to ease their pains.
Frank Withington said he used to visit the white house when he was just a boy. He is 81 now and lives with his wife just off old Route 66 in Pacific. But in the ’20s, back before the Schamel boys died, before they buried Edward Brinley, long before they arrested Bertha Gifford, Withington would come here after school with young Jim Gifford and have supper with the family at the kitchen table. And then, many times, he’d spend the night – upstairs in Jim Gifford’s bedroom – while she slept downstairs. “Well, Leo, she could have poisoned me, ’cause I went down there and stayed all night, and so did my brothers and so did Pete Lynch,”Withington said. “They didn’t catch on for a long time,” said Leo McKeever, 89, who has lived near the Bend all of his life. There aren’t many who remember what happened. Not first-hand anyway. Oh, they may know the story. Or they may know a part of the story. They may have heard about it from their mothers, or their grandmothers. Or from those little “remember when” articles that run once in a while in the local papers. But it was 65 years ago, and not much is left. There is the house on the Bend, and the old Nicholson place where Bertha and Gene Gifford lived before that, and, down along the old St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad tracks, there is the old “tin house” where the Giffords stayed when they first came here from Jefferson County. There are the granite headstones in the little country cemeteries, a handful of photographs. And the old newspaper clippings so brittle now that they break into pieces when they are unfolded, break like the wings of long-dead butterflies.
Catawissa, Missouri, August 28, 1928: Mrs. Bertha Gifford, who has admitted administering poison which caused the deaths of three persons and is being questioned in several other deaths here, was a tireless attender of funerals, a visitor of sick persons and a connoisseur of stories dealing with violence, illness or blood.
ONCE THEY SAID, she was a great beauty who ran a hotel near Hillsboro with her first husband, a man named Graham, until he died under mysterious circumstances. After she married Gene Gifford, the two moved to Catawissa. He farmed, and she went about the work of being a farmer’s wife. Her cooking was legendary. People here still say she made some of the best biscuits in the county, and strangers often stopped by the Gifford home at meal time in hopes of being invited to their table. Often they were. But Bertha Gifford’s real passion was not the kitchen. Women who visited her said she had a peculiar relish for stories of “illness, operations or deeds of violence,” according to one newspaper account. Once, she regaled her kitchen audience with comment on a then-famous murder case “as she puttered about the stove, salting the potatoes or turning the pork.” But Frank Withington said he didn’t know all of that about the woman who lived in the white house on the Bend. All he knew, he said, was that she was pretty and pleasant and never turned him away from the table. “Now about that poison,” Withington said. “She bought that from old Doc Powers. Arsenic to kill rats in her chicken house. But that old Doc shouldn’t have sold all that arsenic to her. She didn’t have that many rats. Well, I think old Doc Powers had a suspicion. A lot of people had a suspicion but it was like that story about the mice who wanted to bell the cat so they would know when the cat was coming. Who was going to bell that cat? Nobody wanted to be the first one.”
Union, Mo., August 29, 1928 – Bertha Gifford, 56 year old farm wife who is under indictment for poisoning three of nine person who died in her home – a bleak house where illness always was fatal – has become hysterical in her top-tier cell in the Franklin County Jail. The unperturbed calm with which she at first faced charges of administering arsenic trioxide, the deadly derivative of arsenic, to three person who were only slightly ill beneath her roof, has been shattered by a three day jail confinement. Today, she wept almost continuously.
AT FIRST, there were only three – Brinley, a known drinker, who fell outside the white house on the Bend and was taken in by Gene and Bertha Gifford and fed hot lemonade and stewed tomatoes until he died; little Lloyd Schamel, 9, whose mother had died two months earlier; and then Lloyd’s brother, Elmer, 7, who died less than six weeks after his brother. But there were others who died under mysterious circumstances while they were in Bertha Gifford’s care: James Gifford, her 13 year old brother in law; Bernard Stuhlfelder, 15 months old; Sherman Pounds, the 53 year old uncle of her husband; James Ogle, the Giffords 53 year old hired hand; Beulah Pounds, Sherman Pounds 3 year old granddaughter; Margaret Stuhifelder, 2; Irene Stuhlfelder, 7; Mary Brinley, 7 “Grandma” Birdie Unnerstall, 72… Eighteen by some counts, 19 by others. Officials exhumed Brinley’s body and the bodies of the Schamel boys and found large quantities of arsenic in the organs of all of them. She had given it to them, Bertha Gifford said, because she wanted to help them, not kill them. Bertha Gifford was arrested in Eureka, where she and her husband had moved shortly after the death of Ed Brinley, about the time the people in the Bend finally began to bell the cat. “Oh, you can imagine it shook some people up,” said Emily Geatley, now 94, who was born in the Bend, “Because they always seemed like such nice people. Everybody liked them.”
Union, Mo August 30, 1928 – Mrs. Bertha Gifford of Eureka, a 50 year old father’s wife was a penchant for visiting sick rooms and funerals was involved here today in a total of 11 deaths in the last 15 years. Mrs. Gifford is held in jail on indictments charging her with two murders and on her confession to administering arsenic to these two persons and to a third before they died. The number of fatalities for which Mrs. Gifford is being questioned roost to eleven today with receipt by Franklin County authorities of a letter from Mrs. Harry Ramsey of East St. Louis, Illinois. Mrs. Ramsey said her daughter, Mary, 7, died three years ago, and her first husband, Caswell Brinley, several months later, both after treatment by Mrs. Gifford.
Union, Mo. Sept 1, 1928 – The number of person at whose death bed Mrs. Bertha Gifford 56 year old confessed prisoner was present reach seventeen today, when it became know she had attended Mrs. Birdie Unnerstall, 72, who died Feb 9, 1926 and Mrs. Leona Slocum, 37, who died Oct 12, 1925. Mrs. Gifford is in the Franklin county jail here, awaiting a grand jury hearing on indictments charging her with the poisoning of Ed Brinley and Elmer Schamel. The women said she gave poison to her two patients to “quiet stomach pains.”
I finally was able to watch the episode of “Deadly Women” featuring Bertha Gifford. I just want to say and get this off my chest, Damn, you guys butchered that up. Candice DeLong, the FBI profiler on the show, is a well-respected woman in her field, but she’s way off in her allegation that Bertha knew what she was doing. Bertha was suffering from a mental illness and was often depressed. While it’s true she was administering arsenic to them you have to know this. During that time, medical science wasn’t like it is now. There were some remedies that had a very small amount of arsenic in them. Bertha herself used arsenic. She said so herself. Did she intentionally mean to poison them? No, I don’t believe she did, except for maybe Henry Graham, her first husband. The best thing was seeing both Kay Murphy (Bertha’s Great-Granddaughter) and Marc Houseman (Washington Historical Society) on screen telling Bertha’s side. The show though, made it that she was bloodthirsty and wanted to kill her victims. Candice DeLong described it as “She saw them as rats and they had to be destroyed.”I find that quite an off-based assumption. Miss DeLong was not there and has no idea what really happened. I’m going to quote Kay. This came from her blog.
“For the record:Bertha was not convicted of 17 or 18 or 19 or 20 murders, nor was any evidence produced to substantiate that number. Seventeen people, at a grand jury hearing, gave testimony regarding loved ones she had cared for who died. Bertha was a “volunteer nurse” over a period of close to twenty years. We have no record of how many people she cared for who didn’t die. After the grand jury hearing, two bodies were exhumed. Both were found to contain arsenic. Enough arsenic was present in the body of Ed Brinley to “kill seven men.” Keep in mind: If your own body were tested today, arsenic would be detected. There is arsenic in the water you drink, even if it comes through a filtering system. Arsenic is present in ground water and well water. Ed Brinley was a heavy drinker during prohibition when the alcohol consumed came from neighborhood stills. Bertha Gifford was in the habit of ingesting arsenic as it was thought to be “good” for the circulation. This was a common practice in the 1920’s. As a volunteer nurse, Bertha admitted giving arsenic to people. Her motivation, as she declared in a signed statement, was to help them. Ain’t nothing crazy about that. Misguided, perhaps. Arrogant. But not crazy.”
Bertha was not an evil person. Strange? Maybe. She was really attracted to morbid stories and she did go to all the funerals except for little Beulah Pounds. She was angry at Beulah’s mother was her reason. And Kay is right. Seventeen passed away but how many did survive. Doc Hempker should have shouldered some of the blame but was so inept or drunk and maybe both. Again, we’ll never know. I’m tied into Bertha’s story. It’s amazing that after ten plus years I’m finding out more and more about Bertha. There’s a reason for it even though I may not know it now. Maybe I’ll find something that’ll unlock the mystery. I don’t know. I just want the truth to be known about her. The real truth and not what “Deadly Women,”Candice DeLong, or the moron that runs the Morse Mill Hotel believe. This is my quest, whether I have help or ride it alone. But by damn I’m going to do what I can and the best I can to make sure the truth about Bertha is known.
There’s long standing rumors of Bertha’s ghost haunting certain buildings and other area’s. One of the most speculative is the Morse Mill Hotel, where she once lived and helped her first husband, Henry Graham, run. It is also rumored to where she poisoned Henry and where he later died. In my own humble opinion, I do not believe she haunts here, because this was a place she wanted to get away from. There’s no reasons for her spirit to hang around here. Another rumored haunt in Morse Mill is the cemetery where she is buried. From 1951 to 1998, there was nothing to mark her grave, which does happen in cases similar to this. Do I believe she haunts the Cemetery? No, I don’t think she does. Another rumored place is the old house on Old Bend Road where some of the alleged deaths took place.There’s so much energy there, it’s crazy. Driving by there several times, I always felt a certain “pull” to the place. (At the time I knew nothing about Bertha.) I remember hearing rumors when I first heard about Bertha, about being seen walking through the fields, even one said she saw a little old lady on the porch in an old-fashioned outfit, though no one lived there at the time. I don’t know if whether or not that’s true, here-say isn’t much to go on. Another place that is rumored to be haunted by her is “Old State Hospital #4” where she was incarcerated for the last twenty-three years of her life. I do know that place is really haunted, but so far there hasn’t been any sightings of her there. So for the most part there’s not a single logistic shred of evidence that she haunts anywhere, but her spirit is very much felt around by those that try to come to terms with her. So if you end up walking any stretch of the Bend on a warm clear day or if you happen to stroll along the former paradise that was Morse Mill; that gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) breeze that you feel is Bertha, making herself known that she is still strong-willed and feisty and hoping for that absolvment that she deserves.
I try to do justice to Bertha’;s story. It’s a mission for for me to make sure the facts are reported correctly. I’ve been known to argue with people over what they report as the “facts” The biggest and most disturbing is the amount of victims. I want to set the record straight on this. Her alleged number of victims range from 3 to 17.
Henry Graham Emilie Gifford
James Gifford Bernard Stuhlfelder
Sherman Pounds Jim Ogle
“Little” Beulah Pounds Margaret Stuhlfelder
Beulah Ardella Pounds Irene Stuhlfelder
Mary Elizabeth Brinley Mary Stuhlfelder
Lloyd Schamel Elmer Schamel
Leona Slocum Birdie Unnerstall
These are the 17 victims that most associate with. There may be as many as 4 more that I’ve researched but not sure of.
Caswell Brinley (Doubtful. Was injured in a car wreck and may have been cared for by Bertha.)
Mary Brown (Doubtful)
Some people claim that she poisoned some 30 or more people and that most were children. NO! NO! NO! NO! Out of the 17 “alleged” victims, nine were children. Just a bit over half. That’s not mostly. A lot of that has come from the owner of Morse Mill Hotel, the same motel that Bertha and her first husband Henry ran during the early part of the century. No children were poisoned there either. Another rumor found to be untrue. Also, a paranormal investigator and a man I respect in that community has also said the same thing on his website. Simply not true, folks. Also, any rumors of Bertha haunting the motel or the court house, not true either. There is no truth to her haunting the State Hospital in Farmington either. As for her old house, I can”t say for sure. There is an eeriness about the place. I’ve always felt that, even before I knew who Bertha was. And there are reports of an older woman in 1920″ s clothing seen out in the fields near the house, but that could be anyone. I feel bad for Kay, with the new-found surge in interest in Bertha’s story, all the negativity. Seen one on her blog, several on find-a-grave, and countless others around the Internet. The portrayal of Bertha on “Deadly Women” didn’t help any. People are going to be that way, that’s human nature. It’s just a shame that people have to be this way. So when you’re out there looking for new info on Bertha, be careful of that information. It may not be right. If you’re wanting to know more of the truth, let me know and if I’m not sure, I know people who probably do know. For the sake of everyone involved, let’s get the story straight and then maybe Bertha’s spirit can rest in peace.
I first became interested in the Bertha Gifford story back in 2002. On Halloween I had traveled to my Mom’s house in De Soto so my kids could do some trick or treating. When I arrived my mom handed me a sheet of paper with some local ghost stories. Among them was a little story about a woman called the “angel of mercy” from Pacific. At the time I lived in Robertsville with my wife and children. So I began to do some research. I found the house first. What struck me was I recognized it and passed it many times in the past. I had always gotten a strange feeling about the place. Me and my wife had almost rented a trailer near there several months earlier, so already I was off to an eerie start. I then went to the Pacific Library to see if they had any information. It would be the first time I would come across the bitter feelings people still felt about Bertha. At first the librarians were nice and helpful, but when I described what I knew about Bertha’s story, their attitudes became cooler. I had described Bertha as an “angel of mercy,” but the reply I got was scathing. “She wasn’t no angel of mercy,” the lady had said. “She destroyed a lot of lives and families.” She then proceeded to tell me about the Joe Popper article and handed me the magazine. As I flipped through it, she asked if I wanted copies of it to which I readily agreed. That article changed the course of my research. Here was incredible proof of a story so tragic and disturbing that I could hardly believe it had happened so close to where I lived. I felt I was on to something. But unfortunately nothing new came across me for a few years.
I searched the Internet for many long hours but found relatively nothing. There was an article about Morse Mill which mentioned her but not much else. Fast forward to 2004. Through a rootsweb search, I came across a lady from California, whose name was Denise Murphy. She told me that her husband’s sister (who was related to Bertha) was working on a book about Bertha. After promising I wasn’t trying to make money off of the story, she sent me some scanned photos and copies of the scanned copies of the newspaper articles from the trial. It was fascinating. Here was something a little more tangible. Two other things stood out. A book was being written and the person writing it was related to Bertha. But the next five years would be really dry in terms of new material.
In 2008 I went to the Washington Historical Museum, where I met Marc Houseman, who was the director of the museum and, as I found out, the most knowledgeable person on the Bertha Gifford legend. I had swapped emails with him a couple of years before on a haunted location in Washington, Mo. He allowed me access to Bertha Gifford information that I had never heard or seen. He pulled a few things out that I wasn’t allowed to see yet because “someone was writing a book and it hadn’t been published yet.” So here it was, another reference to a book by someone from Bertha’s family. As I sifted through the articles, photos, and stories of this most fascinating woman, I realized her story was just beginning to be told.
In early 2010, I came across the website of Kay Murphy and through emails, she informed me her book, Tainted Legacy, was now published. The Park Hills Library didn’t have it but they ordered it and in February I finally was able to read this wonderful book. The weird sequence of events which led me here was not lost on me. Though I lost contact with Kay at the time, nearly two years later I reconnected with her. I sent her an email telling her who I was and what I was planning. (A Bertha Gifford website)The most important thing to me was having her blessing on the matter. She even gave me the title. And though it hasn’t been online as much as I’ve liked, I’m proud of the site. And because of Kay, I met Ginger Justice-Collins, an incredibly gifted medium. In 2012, me and Ginger met for the first time at the grave site of Bertha’s final resting place. It was awesome and quite a surreal moment for me. It was the first time I had ever been at that cemetery.
In June of 2014, I finally was able to meet with Kay, who also brought along Ginger. Time went by way too fast that day but it was probably the highlight of my summer.
The thing with me and Bertha is a weird one. Whenever I stray away, I feel like she pulls me back in. I can’t escape it and I don’t think I want to. Even after fourteen years, the story of Bertha fascinates me and drives me to find the truth.