A Chicago detective named Clifton Woolridge described Bertha Liebbeke 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 the only man to fall into her trap.
She was born in March 1880 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Bertha’s parents—her father was an immigrant from Germany and her mother was born in Switzerland—met and married in Pottawattamie County, Iowa in 1870. Over the next 17 years they would have nine children; Bertha was their middle child.
When she was in her mid-teens, Bertha’s father, William, died. Soon after his death she was diagnosed with St. Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease resulting 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 there for less than a year.
After her release from the mental hospital, Bertha claimed a man named Gunther seduced her. She also claimed he 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 pickpocketing that took advantage of her beauty.
Bertha would locate a prosperous-looking gentleman in a crowd and smile demurely at him. Intrigued, he would come closer. When he got next to her, she would be suddenly overcome by a dizzy spell. The gallant gentleman would catch the lovely lady just in time to keep her from hitting the ground. She heaved a sigh, came to and thanked him, but not before she’d picked her rescuer’s pockets so skillfully that he didn’t notice the theft until she was long gone. When they reported their losses to the police, none of Bertha’s victims suspected her 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.
Before long Bertha was traveling 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 Marshall Field’s in Chicago, where Detective Woolridge made her acquaintance. Over the course of her career she used at least nine aliases. By the turn of the century her photo graced the walls of every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest.
Being photographed by the police didn’t bother Bertha in the least. She smiled beguilingly when, as inmate #5693, she was photographed at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where she’d been sent after a conviction for grand larceny.
It was becoming clear that 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 the hospital and the prison Bertha went.
In July 1911, officials in Nebraska were again faced with the vexing problem of what to do with Bertha. No one wanted her, but officials were unable to decide whether she belonged in a prison or an asylum.
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 Nebraska Governor Chester Aldrich. Their report read:
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.
That last part proved Bertha was not completely out of her mind.
Nowadays she would likely be diagnosed with schizophrenia. But back then, physicians were just beginning to decipher some of the symptoms of that illness and had only recently come up a term for it—dementia praecox— meaning premature dementia or precocious madness.
The doctors weren’t sure if Bertha’s illness was treatable, but 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” be provided for her by the Warden in order to protect both Bertha and those around her.
Reverend Charles W. Savidge had been trying to reform Bertha since 1904. He offered her a home at his People’s Church in Omaha after her release from the penitentiary in 1913. 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. Bertha told a reporter she had “reformed for good.” She said she had plans to marry and move to the West Coast, where she believed she could put her past behind her. (Apparently she didn’t realize her story had been widely reported by the press in the Western States.)
The church’s 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 to a reporter.
Bertha’s marriage plans fell through and she ended up in custody in Milwaukee, where she was held in jail on a charge of vagrancy in 1914. Now almost 35 years old, she was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital in Yankee Hill, Nebraska, but she soon escaped. She stole a woman’s purse and was arrested. Twice she tried to commit suicide while in jail. First she took strychnine tablets, but the police pumped her stomach. Next she set her clothes on fire and her limbs were badly burned.
She left a pathetic note to her sister:
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 survived the fire and was sentenced to one to seven years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. Her mental state continued to deteriorate in prison. By 1918 she was back in the asylum, but soon escaped again. The police located her at a hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. After she was taken into custody, 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.
For the next 20 years Bertha lived in the state asylum. In an effort to control her violent outbursts, she would have endured the useless treatments of the era, including mechanical restraints, surgical removal of internal organs and chemical shock therapy. In 1930 she was listed on the federal census as an inmate of the asylum with no occupation. Unlike some of the other patients, Bertha was not well enough to hold down even a simple job at the hospital.
Bertha died at the state hospital on May 5, 1939. She was 59 years old. According to her obituary in the Lincoln Journal Star: “ 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.”