Bertha’s Feint

Bertha’s Feint

Bertha Liebbeke looked for all the world like the pretty, corn-fed daughter of an Iowa farmer. Clifton Woolridge, a Chicago detective, described her as a “girlish young woman, with the baby dimples and skin of peach and cream, the innocent blue eyes, and the smiles that play so easily over her face as she talks vivaciously and with keen sense of both wit and humor.” Woolridge was clearly smitten with Bertha and he was not alone.

She was born in March 1880 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Her father, William, was an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Her mother, Mary, was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in 1870 in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. They had a large family — nine children in all.

When Bertha was in her mid-teens her father died. Shortly after his death she was diagnosed with Saint Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease that results in uncontrollable twitching and jerking movements of the victim’s face, hands and feet. The diagnosis got her sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Due to age restrictions she was later transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda. She remained at the state hospital for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane

After her release from the mental hospital, Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” She proved to be an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to the profession that took full advantage of her good looks. Bertha would locate a prosperous-looking gentleman in a crowd of people and smile demurely at him. Intrigued, he came closer. When he got next to her she would suddenly be overcome by a dizzy spell. The gallant gentleman would catch the lovely lady just in time to rescue her from hitting the ground. She heaved a sigh, came to and thanked him, but not before she’d picked her savior’s pockets so skillfully that he didn’t notice the theft until she was long gone. When her victims reported their losses to the police, few of them suspected Bertha as the culprit.

Even after news reports about “Fainting Bertha” made her the most notorious female pickpocket in the Midwest, men continued to walk into her trap. She could steal anything — a wallet, a diamond stickpin, a gold watch — without batting an eyelash.

Bertha traveled from Council Bluffs by boat and train to all the big Midwestern cities, robbing conductors and passengers along the way. She also used her nimble fingers to steal from department stores, including Chicago’s Marshall Field’s, where Detective Woolridge made her acquaintance. Her photo was in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. Over the course of her career she used at least nine aliases, including Jennie Jennings, Carrie Jones and Bertha Siegal.

Three times it was reported that Bertha had plans to marry, but the engagements were all broken, apparently because she couldn’t stop thieving. Nonetheless she smiled beguilingly when she was photographed, as inmate #5693, at the Nebraska State Penitentiary after her conviction for grand larceny.

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Despite her success as a thief, all was not well with Bertha’s mind. She suffered periodic bouts of insanity so intense it was impossible for prison guards, doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which often occurred at night, she had been known to break every window she could reach while screaming profanities at the top of her lungs. Her mood swings were extreme — one minute she was calm and the next she was crying hysterically.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing jewelry and cash, she also had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. In 1905, when she was a patient in an insane asylum in Kankakee, Illinois, she escaped and tried to set fire to herself. By 1907 she’d been housed in seven different penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from them. She also frequently threatened to commit suicide. Back and forth between hospital and prison Bertha went.

By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing problem of what to do with Bertha. No one wanted her and the question of whether she belonged in a prison or an asylum seemed to be impossible to answer.

Finally she was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. Three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich. The report stated that Bertha “has delusions or hallucinations as shown by her talking to imaginary persons and having the sensation of insects creeping under the skin. Immediately after physicians left her she became violent, which is a daily occurrence, running up and down the hall, bewailing her condition and position, running from one room to another to evade the physicians and berating them because of her belief that they would not look after her welfare.”

The doctors weren’t sure if Bertha was permanently insane, however they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. Governor Aldrich disagreed. He sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her sentence, specifying that “special quarters” had to be provided by the Warden to protect both Bertha and those around her.

Rev Savidge

Charles Savidge

After her release from the penitentiary in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge, who’d been trying to reform Bertha since 1904, offered her a home at his People’s Church in Omaha. (It’s possible that, like Detective Woolridge, Reverend Savidge was infatuated with Bertha). He and his church members were convinced that with the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” would be cast out. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was designated to be with Bertha at all times.

The People’s Church congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. In November 1913 Bertha told a reporter she had “reformed for good.” She said she had plans to marry and move the West Coast, where she believed she could put her past behind her. (She didn’t realize that her escapades had been widely reported in the Western States.) But the effort to change Bertha failed miserably. Savidge and his flock gave up on her and threw her out. “I will not attempt to aid her again as I consider her case impossible,” he commented.

Like so many times in the past, Bertha’s marriage plans fell through. She ended up in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy in 1914. Now almost 35 years old, she was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska, from which she soon escaped. She stole a woman’s purse and was arrested. Twice she tried to commit suicide while she was in jail. First she took strychnine tablets but the police pumped her stomach. Then she set her clothes on fire and her limbs were badly burned.

She left a note to her sister that read: “I have ended it all as I told you I would. Kiss the children goodbye and ask my precious mamma to forgive me. In my package here I have $7 and my watch, which I want you to keep; also a chain which I bought at Ryan’s jewelry store. I don’t want to be buried, so sell my body to the Creighton Medical college. Farewell, dear mamma, sisters and brothers, and forgive me, all of you.”

Bertha was sentenced to one to seven years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. There her mental state continued to deteriorate. By 1918 she was back in the asylum, but she soon escaped again. The police soon located her at a hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. After she was taken into custody to be sent back to the mental asylum, she claimed to be “one of the Seven Wonders of the World.” In 1919 she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde in the woman’s face and partially blinding her.

Bertha lived in the state asylum for the next 20 years. In an effort to control her violent outbursts she undoubtedly endured the psychiatric treatments of the era, such as mechanical restraints, surgical removal of internal organs and chemical shock therapy. In 1930, when she was listed as an asylum inmate on the federal census, Bertha was not well enough to hold even the simplest job at the hospital.

On May 5, 1939 Bertha died at the Lincoln State Hospital. She was 59 years old. Part of her obituary in the Lincoln Journal Star read: “When arrested she would readily admit what she had done, and would gloat over men being easy marks. At the hospital it was reported that she had been a very difficult patient, and had caused the authorities much trouble.”

Featured image: Bertha’s 1899 mugshot card, History of Nebraska

Other images from the History of Nebraska and Rootsweb

Family Secrets

Family Secrets

Note: I’m breaking with my usual blog routine. This is a story about a possible crime that happened in my own family.

Family secrets tend to lurk, like rotten apples, in family trees. But eventually they have to fall on the ground. One of the best-kept secrets in my family was the fate of my grandfather’s sister, May Plowman Moody.

May died on November 4, 1913 at the People’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. She was 27 years old when she died. According to her death certificate she moved to Chicago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa in April 1913, about seven months before her death. Her husband, Frank Moody died of natural causes in Cedar Rapids in May 1912. The couple had two small sons at the time of Frank’s death.

On the night of November 3, 1913, May, suffering from intense abdominal pain, was taken to People’s Hospital in Chinatown, several miles south of where she lived. She suffered intense pain throughout the night and died the next morning.

According to Hugh Cameron, the informant on her death record, May lived at the Valencia Hotel in Chicago and worked as a cashier before she died. Located at 1311 Michigan Avenue, the hotel is listed in the 1910 Chicago city directory, but it’s not listed in any later directories. It was probably more of a boarding house with aspirations than an actual hotel. The building was torn down decades ago.

May Moody death

Cameron, a life-long Chicago resident, was old enough to be May’s father. Though he spelled her first name incorrectly, he knew her well enough to correctly provide her father’s name and country of birth, along with her precise date of birth for her death certificate. I never figured out how they met, but it’s possible it was on a visit Cameron made to Cedar Rapids in March 1913. The details of their relationship remain a mystery.

Evidently Cameron knew how to get in touch with May’s father, because her body was sent back to Cedar Rapids. My grandfather and his brother paid for her burial. End of story? Not quite.

An unexplained death necessitates an inquest. The inquest into May’s death was held at People’s Hospital the morning she died. I. Clark Gary, the founder and physician in charge of the hospital, testified that May’s doctor brought her to People’s Hospital the night before her death. She was admitted, but for some unexplained reason she was given no treatment at the hospital.

Cameron’s inquest testimony tells a different tale than the one he told for her death certificate. He claimed May lived with him in a flat at 61 E. 12th Street, a block and a half from the Valencia Hotel. The area, close to the railroad tracks, was then full of industrial buildings and warehouses. The building where they lived would have been just west of two famous Chicago landmarks, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, though neither was there in 1913. 12th Street was renamed Roosevelt Road in 1919 and 61 E. 12th Street succumbed to the wrecking ball years ago.

Cameron also stated that at the time of her death, May worked as his “house keeper.” He gave his occupation is “restaurant keeper.” However he’s listed in Chicago city directories from that time working as a bartender.

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1910 Rand McNally map (detail) of Chicago with locations flagged

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Albert McEvers in 1916.

The doctor treating May before she died was Albert McEvers. His office was located at 1201 Wabash, just a few steps away from 61 E. 12th Street.

McEvers was listed as a veterinary surgeon in the 1912 Chicago city directory, but by 1913 he was listed as a physician in the city directory. The Official Register of Legally Qualified Physicians,  lists McEvers as having graduated from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery in 1912.

With the goal of serving working class patients, Peoples’ Hospital was a block and a half west of the notorious vice neighborhood—the south side Levee District. According to Chicago as a Medical Center the hospital was “well supplied with operating rooms.” After undergoing several name changes it closed in 1991 and the building was torn down.

Shortly after she died Dr. Joseph Springer performed a postmortem on May’s body at the hospital. Springer found that she bled to death after her “tubular” pregnancy ruptured. When a tubal (ectopic) pregnancy occurs, the embryo implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus. When the embryo grows too large the tube ruptures.

Springer

Dr. Joseph Springer in 1914

Timely surgical intervention might have saved May’s life. By the early twentieth century, surgical treatment of ectopic pregnancy was well accepted and available in a large cities, provided the patient was taken to a good hospital with experienced diagnosticians, surgeons and operating rooms. If the intention had been to try to save her life, May could have been taken to St. Luke’s Hospital at 1439 S. Michigan Avenue. It was a large hospital with operating rooms that was very close to where she lived.

The inquest was carried out by the Cook County Coroner’s Office, which was then headed by Peter M. Hoffman. Hoffman, who would later be elected sheriff of Cook County, was indicted on corruption charges and served a month in jail in 1925. However Hoffman was not present at the inquest. It was handled by one of his deputy coroners, William Ostrum. Ostrum falsified the statements of Hugh Cameron and two other witnesses, Arthur Goldstein and John McCambridge, by writing their statements and signing the men’s names himself.

According to Cameron’s statement May was “operated upon” by Dr. McEvers about a month before her death. Cameron claimed that May had not had her period (“her visitors”) for six weeks before her death, making her about eight weeks pregnant. Nonetheless he stated he was satisfied that May was “not aborted.” He was not a medical expert, so presumably this comment was included to shield him from suspicion that he tried to obtain an abortion for her. Abortion, of course, was illegal at the time. Cameron was the only witness whose statement included a mention of abortion.

Arthur Goldstein (who I was unable to find in any Chicago city directory) was listed in the inquest as a “waiter.” He attested to the truth of Cameron’s statement, though his relationship to Cameron and May, if any, was not explained. McCambridge, a police officer, gave his opinion that May died a “natural death and no foul play to the case.” The officer also claimed there were no other witnesses to the case.

Since Ostrum wrote out and signed the statements of the three men, it’s impossible to know how accurate their testimony was.

The three doctors—McEvers, Gary and Springer—wrote and signed their own statements. The statements were brief and amounted to affirming that May had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured, resulting in her death.

The inquest jurors, some of who could barely sign their names, appear to have been men who were patients at the hospital.

The inquest leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Why did Ostrum fill out some of witness statements and sign them himself, including the signature of his boss, Hoffman? Why did May have no belongings, not even clothing (other than a “shield” or menstrual pad), according to the “effects and estate” evidence sheet? She must have been wearing something when she arrived at the hospital.

Dr. McEvers didn’t mention in his statement any treatment he provided to May. What was the operation a month he performed before her death? Was it an abortion? A doctor who performed an abortion and got caught would lose his license and might even go to prison. (Search on the word “abortion” for case examples.)

Being an inexperienced physician, possibly McEvers didn’t realize May had a tubal pregnancy—a condition that would have made an abortion unsuccessful. Maybe when she had abdominal pain a month after he aborted her, he tried a second abortion. Or possibly he realized then that the pregnancy was tubal and, fearing that the earlier abortion would be found out, he took her to People’s Hospital.

History of medicine and surgery and physicians and surgeons of C

Why did May receive no treatment at People’s Hospital? It seems unlikely to have been because she had no money, since the hospital was created to treat people from the working class. Was it a place where women who had undergone an abortion and were dying could be taken, for a fee, with no questions asked? If so, the decision to take her there was a death sentence.

May had two small children to support and her family was not in a position to help her financially. Where did she meet Hugh Cameron? Did she relocate to Chicago because Cameron told her there was a good job waiting for her there? Did she work as a cashier and live at the Valencia Hotel or was she Cameron’s live-in housekeeper/girlfriend? Was Cameron the father of her unborn child? Did she hope to marry him? If so she was in for a disappointment. According to the 1913 Chicago city directory, Cameron had another home on Commercial Avenue, 11 miles south of 12th Street. He also already had a wife and a child. According to the 1920 census, his oldest child, Hugh Cameron, was born in 1911.

May’s children, Robert Sanford Moody and Wesley Walter (Moody) Ward were raised by their paternal aunt Jessie Moody Ward. Wesley was officially adopted by Jessie and her husband, Charles Ward, and changed his surname to Ward. Robert, the older son, was not adopted and kept his original surname.

My grandfather never talked about his only full sister (he had two half sisters). We have no photographs of May or her children. My family had no contact with her two sons, even though Robert and Wesley lived in Chicago about a mile from mom’s family during the 1930s. My mother didn’t even know she had an aunt or cousins. You know how genealogists are: they love a mystery and a challenge, which makes it hard to keep things hidden. I found out my grandfather had a sister and I assumed she’d gotten married, but I didn’t know her married name. I discovered it through a careful search of the 1910 census, using her first name and the fact of her father’s birth in England and her mother’s birth in Missouri to narrow my search results. I got four hits and figured she was the one who lived closest to Cedar Rapids. Bingo—there she was, living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with her husband and two young sons.

Then I found her death certificate and, hoping to understand what happened, I wrote to the Illinois State Archives for a copy of the inquest record. It took months but eventually I was sent the file. I was very lucky, because since then inquest files dated later than 1911 seem to have vanished.

I know more now than I did before I started digging, but more knowledge has brought more questions. Now I may never find out exactly what happened to my great aunt, because everyone who knew her has passed away.

Rotten apples leave a sour smell, you know?

To read the 11-page inquest, here’s a link to download the PDF: May Moody Inquest

Featured photo: 12th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1915. Photos of Springer and McEvers from the Chicago Daily News.