(1872- August 20, 1951) was a farmwife in rural Catawissa,
Missouri during the early 1900s who was accused of murdering 17
members of the local community. While some consider her to be
America's first female serial killer, that dubious honor was
earned 100 years previously by Lavinia Fisher near Charleston,
Bertha Alice Williams Graham Gifford was born
in Grubville, Missouri, the daughter of William Poindexter
Williams and his wife Matilda, née Lee. She was one of 10
children. She was married to Henry Graham and this union produced
one daughter, Lila. Following Graham's death, she married Eugene
Gifford and they had one child, James.
In 1928, Gifford — known in her community for
her cooking skills and caring for sick neighbors and relatives —
was arrested at Eureka, Missouri and charged with the murders of
three people. Following the exhumation and post mortem exams of
Edward Brinley and Elmer and Lloyd Schamel whose bodies were found
to contain large amounts of arsenic, Gifford was put on trial in
Union, Missouri. Following the three-day trial, she was found not
guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Missouri State
Hospital #4 (a mental institution) where she remained until her
death in 1951.
Although counts vary, most historians and
family members agree that Gifford actually killed at least 17
people over a period of 21 years. Most of her victims were
Daughter of William and Matilda Williams.
Married Henry Graham (December 1894)in Hillsboro, Jefferson
County, Missouri. After his death she married Eugene Gifford
(1907) Hillsboro, Jefferson County, Missouri.
Alledged to be one of the most beautiful women
of Jefferson County with dark hair and a dark complexion.
Gene and Bertha moved to Catawissa (Morse Mill
area), Franklin County, Missouri. Neighbors reported she was an
She was reported to be a friendly, caring woman
and would don a white dress and carry her satchel to ailing
neighbors. Reportedly, many of her patients died violently of what
was called "gastritis".
She also was reported to have bought
considerable amounts of arsenic for rat infestation in her barn.
Eventually, an investigation on the numerous
deaths of her patients, caused her arrest and conviction of three
counts of murder due to arsenic poisoning. She claimed to have
used the arsenic to aleve their suffering.
She was found to be criminally insane and was
sent to State Hospital in Farmington, Missouri where it was said
she was a cook.
Bertha Gifford, Missouri Serial Killer,
Murdered Sick Children - 1928
Mrs. Bertha Gifford, the tireless “Good Samaritan” and death-bed
watcher of Meremec River, Missouri, is in jail, suspected of 17
murders, most of them of children, of which, the police say, she
has confessed three and admitted that there “may have been more.”
For the last 16 years, in her old farmhouse, known as the
“Catawissa House of Mystery,” this strange character has held
herself ready to dash for the bedside of every dying neighbor
within 20 miles.
Uncomplainingly — in fact, eagerly—she would jump out of her warm
bed-in the middle of the night, put on her nurse’s while uniform,
which was always hanging on the chair, and drive her old car, or
before that the horse and buggy, through any sort of weather. Even
in blizzards, when no wheel could turn, she would plough her way
on foot along cowpaths between ten-foot drifts. Nothing could slop
this determined woman, who usually managed to get there ahead of
the country doctor.
And “good old Bertha,” now 50 years old but once the belle of
Meremec Valley, really was a Good Samaritan, provided her patients
actually went through with the programme of dying as
expected. In that case, with prayers, tears and tender
ministrations, she eased their last moments, and she never asked
money for her services.
The only trouble with Bertha, the police say, was that when her
patients rallied and gave promise of recovery, she resented such
attempts to cheat the grave and fed them rat poison.
Mrs. Gifford had a passion for death-beds and funerals of which
she missed only one in 18 years. But just as youths sometimes
become so overenthusiastic about running to fires that they
finally get to setting some themselves, this death-bed fan, it is
charged, could not resist the temptation, when anyone started to
withdraw from the edge of the grave to just push him in with a
little arsenic. She took command of the funerals too and liked to
see everything done right, even going so far as to pay for the
embalming of one of her victims.
Mrs. Gifford, though not n trained nurse, was a very competent
volunteer one as the doctors well knew. She could keep temperature
and nourishment chart, understood symptoms and drugs and therefore
might be allowed discretion in administering medicines.
Bertha seems to have preferred children for her patients whenever
she could get them. The police say this was because they would
trustfully swallow anything she gave them as long as it did not
taste too nasty, and they never presumed to correct any
misstatement she might make to the doctor.
When Bertha took charge of a case she took command of the
household, ordering this in and that out of the sick-room and
impressing the family in countless ways with her superior
knowledge and experience. Early in the evening, in her kindly but
firm professional manner, she would turn to the mother and say:
“Now, my dear, I want you to go to bed and get a good
night’s rest, so you can take my place tomorrow. Don’t
worry—I am here.”
This was really n command, and a reasonable one. The mother,
relieved to know that her child was in more competent hands than
her own, would always obey.
Thus Mrs. Gifford had a whole night, free from witnesses, alone
with the helpless child.
Shortly before the rising hour next morning, when she roused the
family and telephoned for the doctor, the little patient would be
too far gone to dispute the nurse’s statement that the turn for
the worse had just come in. And the parents would comfort
themselves with the thought, that their baby had had the best of
care in its last hours. And Bertha wept harder than any of them.
As might be expected, it was the women who first suspected Bertha,
thinking it strange that whenever that ministering angel “plunks
herself down in a sick-room, the patient never gets well.”
The men scoffed, but the women kept right on putting two and two
together, and when Ed Brinley died, the ninth in the house of
mystery itself and the seventeenth under Bertha’s care, all with
the same symptoms, they demanded an investigation of this “bedside
saint” who had consecrated her life to good works. The authorities
look notice and questioned the impressively indignant Bertha.
Mrs. Gifford explained each one of the deaths plausibly. They were
from acute gastritis caused by the rural habit of eating a heavy
dinner at noon and then laboring on a full stomach instead of
having the main meal at night after the day’s work is over, as the
city man has learned to. The physicians must have been satisfied
because they had issued death certificates. Could a lot of
ignorant gossips know more than the doctors?
Dr. James Stewart, State Health Commissioner, must have thought
they could because he had the records of drug stores in the
neighboring towns examined and learned that Mrs. Gifford had been
a steady customer of arsenic rat poison which produces symptoms
quite similar to gastritis. Also she had made her purchases in
some cases just before the deaths in question. Bertha, a picture
of outraged innocence, and threatening slander suits, was brought
over before the grand jury.
The chain of coincidences went back to 1909, when nobody thought
it strange that Mr. Graham, the public benefactor’s last husband
died of cramps in the night before the doctor arrived.
The next to succumb of “ptomaine poisoning,” in 1913, was her new
mother-in-law, Mrs. Emilie Gifford, in spite of Bertha’s seemingly
heroic efforts. Here Bertha’s grief was not so great but was
considered adequate for a mother-in-law. A year later her
thirteen-year-old brother-in-law, James Gifford passed out in Mrs.
Gifford’s arms with those same symptoms of stomach cramps and
George Stuhlfelder told the Grand Jury how this “ministering
angel” for whom he felt nothing but gratitude at the time, had
nursed his three children, Bernard, 15-months old, Margaret, two
years and Irene, seven for small ailments which promptly turned
into acute gastritis and ended in the death of all of them.
George L. Shamel, a hired man who had worked at the Gifford place
testified to the deaths of his two boys:
“I worked off and on for the Giffords about 18 years. I
went to the Gifford place once in 1925, on a Saturday night. On
the very next day, the Sabbath, my boy, Lloyd, nine years old. had
stomach cramps. Two days later he died after being sick at his
stomach all the time. The doctor said it was acute gastritis but
didn’t know what caused it. There was no post mortem. Five weeks
later my other boy Elmer —he was seven years old—got sick, with
stomach cramps. He lived two days too. They said it was the same
gastritis. There was no post mortem. I always trusted the Giffords
and thought it was just my luck when the boys died.”
Hardly a month after Elmer’s funeral, Mrs. Gilford learned that
Mrs. Leona Slocum, Shamel’s sister, a tuberculosis sufferer was
“sinking.” Bertha put on her nurse’s uniform of white, rushed to
the bedside and took charge. Sure enough Mrs. Slocum rallied so
strongly that they were just telling the ‘Good Samaritan” that
there was no longer any need of taking advantage of her kindness
when the patient suddenly developed alarming stomach pains, nausea
“Before I lay down she asked ‘Where’s Eva’ meaning Mary’s mother.
She seemed satisfied. I then dozed off.
After that the survivors of the Shamel family, while not exactly
suspicious, decided that Mrs. Gifford was unlucky. But the
Sluhlfelders took a chance once more on Mrs. Mary Sluhlfelder,
aged 74, with the invariable result, death from gastritis.
Quite similar were the last moments of James Ogle, a hired man of
the Giffords who had incidentally complained that he could not
collect the money they owed him. Bertha however, paid the money in
time for it to be spent on the funeral.
S. Herman Pounds, one of the strongest physical specimens in the
neighborhood indulged a bit too much in his own hard cider and
went to sleep in the Gifford pasture. Bertha had him brought into
the house and gave him something to sober up.
“Acute gastritis, superinduced by alcoholism,” she told the doctor
who arrived too late.
There was the sudden onset of this same stomach trouble, carrying
off “Grandma” Birdie Unnerstall just as Bertha dropped in for a
visit while everyone was away.
Mrs. Laura Brown, of East St. Louis, aunt of little seven-year-old
Mary Brown, one of Mrs. Gifford’s alleged poison victims, tells a
sample of Mrs. Gifford’s nursing.
“One afternoon about two and n half months before Mary died,” Mrs.
Brown said, “she was lying ill in the bedroom. I entered. Mrs.
Gifford was sitting by the bedside- She seemed annoyed by my
“I had come all the way from East St. Louis to Catawissa to visit
the sick child and mentioned that I was tired.
“Mrs. Gifford urged ‘Why don’t you lie down and take a little
The last of the list was Ed. Brinley, a neighbor and another cider
victim who rested for a fatal moment against the mailbox post,
outside the Gifford house. Bertha’s watchful eye spotted him there
and she ordered her husband to carry him in. When two hours later
he also had met his death from the same old symptoms, even the men
admitted that it was queer.
The Grand Jury thought so too and indicted Bertha for murder but
she still persisted in her denials until Andrew McConnell, chief
of police of Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, took a hand.
He noticed that the prisoner seemed specially annoyed at the
suggestion that, she had poisoned Beulah Mounds, three-year-old
daughter of S. Herman Pounds. He harped on that case until,
according to McConnell, she finally snapped at him:
Well, anyway, I did not give any arsenic to that Pounds child.”
“To whom did you give it?” the chief asked quietly. Her answer, he
says, was a confession that she had poisoned Brinley, the Shamel
boys and perhaps some others. Her excuse was that she wanted to
put them out of their misery.
Brinley’s body was exhumed and its stomach showed traces of
arsenical poisoning, according to the police. Since the
confession, Bertha’s chief ambition has been to avoid being
She sits in her cell with a blanket, ready to throw over
her head whenever she hears a footfall in the corridor. She
exhibits remorse, too, and says she does not care to live.
If she is guilty of the crimes charged against her, there seems no
reason why she should live.
[“Dealt Out Death in the Guise of an Angel of Mercy – Kindly Mrs.
Gifford Was Always Glad to Nurse a Sick Neighbor for Nothing, but
So Loved to See Them Die, the Missouri Police Charge, That She Fed
Them Rat Poison if They Showed Signs of Getting Better,” The
American Weekly, San Antonio Light (Tx.), Magazine section, Oct.
13, 1928, p. 7]