Some Bertha Gifford Stories & Notes 1


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 Gifford’s 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.”

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.

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