Bertha Gifford Stories & Anecdotes 2

UNION, Mo. Nov 19, 1928 – Her dark locks freshly bobbed and with two bright spots of rough on her lined cheeks, Mrs. Bertha Gifford of Catawissa, Mo. who like to wait on the sick, came into court here today to stand trail for her life. Laura McKeever was not even born when Bertha Gifford lived in the Bend, or when she went to trial. But her grandmother tells the story of the day Bertha came to visit. “My mother was about 16 or 17 years old and she was real bad sick and grandma said Bertha Gifford came over to the house with her starched white dress and her starched white apron.” Laura McKeever said, “She said she was carrying a satchel. Grandma said she turned her away.” On the opening day of the trial, more than 1,000 people crowded into the courtroom and into the hallway outside. She sits slumped in her chair, but there is no despondency in her attitude. Her hair is black and bobbed with a trace of permanent waving. “She is neat in her black coat, not a dowdy farmer wife…Heavily lidded eyes watch the witnesses as they testify against her, persons she has known for years,” a newspaper account reported. “If my mom and dad were here today and she admitted it to them, I think they still would have said, Oh, no, she couldn’t have done that. That woman wouldn’t kill nobody,” Withington said. “She did it though,” Leo McKeever said. “You know they put her in the insane asylum down in Farmington. And the joke was they made her a cook,” Withington said.

UNION, MO, 21 November, 1928 – Mrs. Bertha Gifford, poison murderess, was found insane by a jury here to-night after three hours of deliberation. The verdict was that she was not guilty because she was of unsound mind when she administered poison to Ed Brinley, a neighbor, in May, 1927, and still is insane. She will be remanded to a state asylum.UNION, MO., Dec. 18, 1928 – Mrs. Bertha Gifford confessed prisoner of Ed Brinley and of two young boys, will be taken tomorrow to the State Insane Hospital at Farmington by an order issued today by Circuit Judge Brueur. The element of financial profit, or any other apparent benefit, to Mrs. Gifford from the deaths, was absent in most cases, but in a few cases family difficulties have appeared as a possible motive.

“I wanted to help them. I wanted to do good,” was her declaration when she finally admitted some of the poison murders. These expressions convinced the prosecutor, as well as the physicians, that the woman was insane.Bertha Gifford, never left the hospital in Farmington. She died in 1951. Her husband, Gene, died a few years later. The Missouri Department of Mental Health has permanently sealed her record, barring a court order or a request to open them from a close family member. It is doubtful that will ever happen. It was a neighborhood back then, Withington said, and the people of the Bend were like one big family. “She just likes to take care of the sick,” Emily Geatley said. “That’s the truth. Nobody had any idea, whatsoever, that she wasn’t sincere about it. I guess she was just a little screwy. You know, that’s been so long ago. We don’t even talk about it anymore. You just kind of forget about it.” The Mary Brinley mentioned in the above, was daughter of Caswell Brinley. Caswell and Edward Brinley were 2nd cousins. Caswell’s son Charles still lives in Illinois, near St. Louis. (1994) About 1980 Charles said he was at the Gifford’s home and wasn’t feeling very good. Mrs. Gifford brought him some peaches and he took one bite and noticed that no one else had any except him so he high tailed it to home. He said his dad always told him, he just didn’t get enough of those peaches to make him die.

Alice Lee is rehabilitating two old Morse Mill houses, including one on Highway EE that was once the home of the town’s most infamous resident, Bertha Gifford. After Gifford was married around 1900, she moved to Catawissa, just over the Franklin County line. In the 1920s, she often volunteered to care for sick neighbors, and her friends came to trust her homemade remedies. They called her the Good Samaritan. When the 15-month-old child of Bernard Stuhlfelder, Lloyd Schamel, 9, and the young girl, Beulah Pounds, died in her care, few were suspicious. Children often died before the age of antibiotics.But then Elmer Schamel, 7, and his Aunt Leona died in her care, and the townsfolk began to catch on. In each case, Gifford allegedly predicted their deaths, and each suffered extreme stomach pain before death. When the Giffords’ hired man, Edward P. Brinley, died in her care, Gifford was arrested. Autopsies revealed Brinley died from ingesting arsenic trioxide, a derivative of arsenic. Gifford wept for three straight days in the Franklin County Jail. “But I wanted to do them good,” she was quoted as saying in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in August 1928. Gifford was convinced that arsenic was a panacea. She claimed she had taken small doses to appear younger and cure heart palpitations. “Mrs. Gifford has black bobbed hair, streaked with gray, and a ruddy complexion,” the Globe-Democrat wrote. “She is the typical Midwestern farm wife, tanned by the sun and accustomed to hard labor. During those years of hard labor, her principal diversion has been attending funerals, neighbors in the Catawissa area said. “As the investigation expanded, Gifford blamed her “downfall” on the newspapers, “declaring if they had made no mention of the deaths, she would not now be held in jail on . . . charges of murder,” the Globe-Democrat wrote. A grand jury in Franklin County found that Gifford had poisoned 17 people, according to Post-Dispatch articles covering her trial. It was proven that nine of the murders happened in her home, which the Globe-Democrat called “a bleak place where illness always becomes fatal.” Gifford was found permanently insane by a jury that year and spent the rest of her life at a state mental hospital in Farmington.”The irony is they made her the cook,” Lee said. Lee has a special connection to Gifford. Beulah Pounds, one of Gifford’s child victims, was the aunt of Lee’s late husband and the daughter of Gifford’s cousin, Marguerite.

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