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.
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.
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.
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