Some consider Bertha Gifford (October 1872 – August 20, 1951) to be America’s third female serial killer. This wicked woman was accused of murdering at least 17 people with large amounts of arsenic. Unfortunately, Gifford’s victims were forced to endure a very slow and agonizing death. The majority of historians agree that the murders had occurred over a period of twenty-one years.
The Early Years
Bertha Alice Williams Graham Gifford was born in Grubville, Missouri. During the early 1900s, she was a farmer’s wife in rural Catawissa, Missouri. In 1907, she married Eugene Gifford and was the mother of one child named James. People in her small farming community saw her as a good Samaritan who was always willing to help those in need. Gifford eventually earned the name “angel of mercy.”
The Woman Who Was Far From A Good Samaritan
Gifford was far from an angel. She deceived her community into believing that she was a loving person who was always willing to take care of the sick. However, they were not aware that she was actually a wicked serial killer. Although Gifford had no medical education and didn’t even make it to the fourth grade, she acted like she was a nurse. When caring for the sick, she would carry supplies with her. Despite all of her efforts to save the sick, not all of her patients recovered.
Gifford’s Fascination With Death
People in Gifford’s community would often hear her talking about the stories she read in the newspaper. The stories were about deaths caused by fatal accidents and murderers. Gifford was fascinated with death, and loved to read about it. After hearing Gifford talk about it over and over again, people likely thought she was no just a little odd, but more fascinated with death, than life.
Unfortunately, not all of Gifford’s sick patients fully recovered from their illnesses. In fact, some of them would end up dying. The first three possible victims were members of her husband’s family.
The same night her mother-in-law came to visit, she became ill. It was Bertha who chose to take care of her. Sadly, she died the next morning. There was no autopsy or even an examination.
Eugene’s Young Brother James
A year after the death of Gifford’s mother-in-law, Eugene’s younger brother James came to visit. Like his mother, he ended up becoming very ill and eventually died at the age of just thirteen.
Eugene’s Little Cousin Beulah
Despite all the unexpected family deaths, they didn’t even arouse suspicion. Gifford was still trusted to continue caring for relatives, including Eugene’s little cousin Beulah. Although she arrived in good health, her mother had returned only to find her extremely ill. She eventually died.
Although Gifford likely caused the death of her husband’s three family members, she was never charged with murder. People were not even suspicious as they believed she was only out to help others. Plus, even if people were suspicious, there was really no way to determine whether they became ill because they took something that was harmful in the Gifford household, or if they had actually been sick before they came to the home, and got much worse once they got there.
So do you think these 3 deaths were caused in spite of, or perhaps because of Gifford?
Bertha’s body count extended beyond her husband’s family. She was not only killing family members, but also members of the local community. Her first confirmed victim was Ed Brinley.
Brinley originally thought he was going to be taken care of by visiting Gifford. However, he had no idea he was never going to get better. He would only get worse. After just one night of being in Gifford’s care, he became ill. Brinley died the next morning. After being informed of her husband’s death, Brinley’s widow was suspicious and insisted that the district attorney should investigate.
To begin the murder investigation, exhumation and post-mortem exams of victims Edward Brinley, Elmer, and Lloyd Schamel had taken place. Interestingly, the bodies of both men contained large amounts of arsenic. The amount of arsenic in their body was capable of killing at least seven adults. Gifford was arrested in Eureka, Missouri and charged with the murders of three people.
Prosecutors only needed one murder conviction to hang Bertha Gifford. In November of 1928, after a three-day trial, the jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to a mental institution in Missouri. Gifford remained there until her death of natural causes in 1951.
How Gifford Was Able To Purchase Arsenic Regularly Without Raising Suspicion
According to The New Yorker, through much of the 19th century, a third of all criminal cases of poisoning involved arsenic. A big reason is because it was not difficult to obtain. You can easily just walk into any chemist’s shop and say you need to get rid of rats. Although Gifford would purchase arsenic on a regular basis, her excuse for needing it was that there were many rats in her barn.
If you were vulnerable, sick and knew Gifford, in order to survive, you had to stay far away from her and her little bottle of arsenic. She obviously had a fascination with death and somehow managed to get away with murdering at least 3 people. Unlike most serial killers who eventually get caught, convicted, and forced to face serious consequences, Gifford was an exception.
Pretending to be a good women who took care of the sick, Gifford earned the name “angel of mercy.” Although she may have murdered as many as seventeen (or more), people were fooled into believing that Bertha Gifford was innocent. Clearly, she was more like a devil than an angel.