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.

bertha-liebbeke-notorious-pickpocket-in-il-ks-ia-mo-and-ne-fainting-bertha-stumbled-into-men-fainted-and-robbed-them2

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

The Shorts Burglar

The Shorts Burglar

The burglaries started in November 1931. Witnesses described the culprit as a well-built man with thick blond hair. He was in his early twenties and about 5 feet 10 inches tall. The homes he robbed were all in St. Louis, Missouri.

The bizarre thing was that he removed his clothing before breaking in. Stripped down to his underwear and athletic shoes, he stole cash and whatever valuable items he could carry. On the occasion when he was interrupted, the agile burglar was able to get away by leaping through a window, down a staircase or over a fence.

But there was more to the story than just his nearly nude burglaries. In several cases a woman had awakened during the night and discovered him in her bedroom. And in one case the woman found him sitting on her bed. It was creepy. She screamed and he ran.

The newspapers in St. Louis dubbed him the “Shorts Burglar.”

The St. Louis Star and Times reported that a homeowner had discovered the Shorts Burglar in his daughter’s room, lying on a rug on the floor next to the girl’s bed while she slept. “You must be in the wrong house,” the homeowner said to him. “Yes, I must be,” he replied as he bounded to his feet, leapt across the room, raced down the hall and stairway. He ran into the street and disappeared into the night.

By the spring of 1932 he was a suspect in almost 100 burglaries. Efforts to catch him intensified after he broke into the apartment building where the chief of police lived but he managed to escape. The whole situation had become an embarrassment for law enforcement.

Two women spotted a man who matched his description lurking around their neighborhood and immediately phoned the police. The message went out to radio cars and more than 50 officers arrived in the vicinity of where the man had been spotted. Clad only in his underwear, he was arrested inside the garage of a former city detective on April 22, 1932.

 

John Eaves more photos - Newspapers.com

St. Louis Star and Times, April 22, 1932

The Shorts Burglar’s name was John Raymond Eaves. Born in St. Louis in 1911, his father left the family when he was two years old. His mother, Anna, soon remarried and had another child; a daughter named Madeline.

“I went around in my underwear because I thought that if I were surprised in a house the people would think I was a member of the household,” was Eaves’ explanation for why he’d removed his clothes before committing the burglaries. “I really entered the places to rob them. I did not molest anyone,” he told police. He also admitted that when he noticed an attractive woman on the street he sometimes followed her home and returned later to break in and rob the woman. He said he’d also robbed some of the homes where he’d worked as an odd job man. He was also accused of committing several armed robberies during which he’d been fully clothed.

His criminal record extended back to 1926. He and three teenage companions had forced a young couple that had been driving through a city park to stop and get out of their car. Then the boys held them up at gunpoint. Fortunately for the victims, two police detectives saw the robbery in process and arrested the four teens. They were booked for attempted highway robbery.

More than a hundred witnesses showed up to police headquarters to try to identify Eaves after his arrest in 1932. He confessed to 24 burglaries and several armed robberies. Some of the jewelry he’d stolen, including a Veiled Prophet Maid’s tiara, had been pawned as far away as Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Shortly after Eaves was arrested it was reported that a copycat burglar, dressed only in underwear, had been surprised in the process of ransacking a woman’s trunk while she slept nearby. The woman awoke, saw the robber and screamed, scaring him off. The copycat got away.

Eaves pleaded guilty to two charges of armed robbery and five charges of first-degree burglary, in June 1932. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In July 1938 he was released on parole and he returned to St. Louis. He was convicted of burglary again on January 6, 1939, but he was granted a new trial. At the second trial he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to the State Hospital for the Insane in Fulton, Missouri. After a year in the mental hospital he was sent back to the penitentiary to complete more of his first sentence.

He was paroled on December 14, 1940. He stayed out of the clutches of the police until August 1942, when he was arrested, fully clothed, and charged with burglary. Eaves wasn’t convicted of that charge. He got married and had twin sons in 1944.

In 1947 his wife, Mildred, was charged with witness tampering. Eaves had been arrested for burglary again that year and Mildred tried to get the state’s star witness, a woman named Billy Jean Davis, to write a letter renouncing her identification of Eaves as the culprit. Davis wrote the letter and accepted a $500 bribe from Mildred Eaves to leave the state.

John Eaves and wife try to buy witnesses off. photos. - Newspape

St. Louis Star and Times, February 11, 1949

While he was free on bail the following year — 1948 — Eaves broke in to a St. Louis residence during a party. He forced nine people into the kitchen at gunpoint and stole all the money he could find in the home. He was arrested and charged with armed robbery. He’d made no effort to hide his face and one of the victims identified him at his trial. Mildred testified that her husband suffered from crying spells, depression and periods of being socially withdrawn. She said she believed he was mentally ill.

He was found guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon and of being a habitual criminal, which earned him a mandatory life sentence in prison. However his lawyer claimed that Eaves was insane due to an untreated venereal disease he’d had when he was younger. The lawyer argued that his client deserved a new trial. After some discussion between the defense and prosecution attorneys regarding Eaves’ mental state, the judge granted him a new trial.

Eaves was sent to the Malcolm Bliss Psychopathic Institute in St. Louis so that psychiatrists could study him and try to determine whether he was sane or suffering from some kind of mental illness. After four months the doctors decided he was sane and released him.

While he was out on bail awaiting his second trial (his bail was supposedly paid by a wealthy, unidentified female admirer) he tried to commit another burglary. He broke into the basement apartment of a sleeping husband and wife. The couple woke up while the burglary was in process. The man, a well-muscled laborer, slugged Eaves while his wife, who was described in the newspaper as a former circus elephant rider, grabbed Eaves’ flashlight and pounded him on the head with it. Eaves, who was dressed in pants and shoes but no shirt, was able to get out of the apartment, but he ran into a police officer in the alley outside the building. No longer young and fleet of foot, the officer chased, captured and arrested him. Eaves was taken to the hospital with a head injury, from which he recovered.

John Eaves arrested after altercation with couple he tried to ro

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 29, 1949

The bribery charge against Mildred Eaves was dropped in 1950 on a technicality.

At his court hearing in 1952, the doctors from Malcolm Bliss announced their decision that Eaves was sane. They said he’d “simulated mental illness” at his earlier trial. Eaves pleaded guilty to the 1948 burglary and to six other burglaries he’d committed while he was out on bail. The “habitual criminal” charge was dropped and the life sentence was set aside. His new sentence was ten years in the penitentiary.

While he was in prison his wife divorced him and both his mother and stepfather died. He was released from prison in April 1958. A week later he was arrested after neighbors called the police and reported him for behaving suspiciously outside the St. Louis home of his ex-wife and children. He told the officers who arrested him that he was only hanging around because he wanted to see his kids.

Two months later he was arrested for suspected child molestation after he talked to three little girls playing in a vacant lot. The children told the police that Eaves stopped his car, got out and he said, “I like blondes.” They claimed he picked one of the girls up and held her. The other girls screamed and he put the child down, got back in his car and drove off.

In September he was arrested again for child molestation. This time it was alleged that he invited two eight-year-old girls into his house. They claimed he abused them after they went inside.

John Eaves arrested for possible child molestation - Newspapers.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5, 1958

He was tried for the “strongest” of the five cases of child molestation against him in October 1958. His time card was submitted as proof that he was at work when the incident was supposed to have occurred. The trial resulted in a hung jury. A plea bargain was struck with Eaves’ attorney for the other four charges against him to be dropped if he agreed to plead guilty to one charge of child molestation. According to comments the judge made to the press, the agreement saved his court-appointed lawyer, who’d already spent several days on the case, from being “tied up by it” any longer. The plea deal resulted in a four-year sentence in the penitentiary for Eaves.

There were no reports that he committed any more crimes after he was released from prison in the early 1960s. John Raymond Eaves died in St. Louis in 1987.

It’s unlikely that the original glass plate negative of Eaves’ mugshot photo still exists. Luckily it was later rephotographed as a glass lantern slide (a precursor to 35mm slides, which have now given way to digital images), possibly for lecture use by the St. Louis police. It was almost certainly selected because the Shorts Burglar had such a long, strange and sad history in St. Louis.

Featured Photo: John Eaves standing for photographs in his underwear for his police record, taken on April 22, 1932. Police lantern slide from the collection of the Missouri History Society.  

The Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The mystery of the disappearance of Raimonde Von Maluski, 3 years old, believed to have been kidnapped a week ago near his Washington Heights home, continued unsolved yesterday. Seventy detectives under Acting Lieutenant Edwin England continued the hunt, searching again through High Bridge and Fort George Parks and canvassing Houses.

The New York Times, April 6, 1925

SonnyRaimonde Von Maluski III, known as “Sonny,” was last seen on the sidewalk near his family’s apartment building on West 178th Street. The day, Sunday, March 29, 1925, was clear but far from warm, with an afternoon high of about 45 degrees. The small boy was outside on his own, apparently watching a Salvation Army prayer meeting and parade that took place in the street. Washington Heights, where the Von Maluski family lived, is in the narrow northern strip of Manhattan bordered by the Hudson River to the west and the Harlem River on the east.

By sometime on Sunday evening Sonny’s parents, Raimonde and Alice, realized that their three-year-old was gone so they alerted the police. Despite a massive search of the area, which included dragging a nearby City reservoir and the Harlem River, the child was nowhere to be found.

Initially the police theorized that Sonny had been kidnapped for ransom because the building where his family lived was home to some fairly affluent people. However Sonny’s family lived in the basement — his father was the building superintendent. With three young children — 5-year-old Gertrude and baby Robert — in addition to Sonny, there was no money to pay a ransom. In fact the family also had a lodger. Harold Jones, aged 25, worked as a handy man for Raimonde and lived with the family in their cramped apartment.

Mary Jones newsOne day into the search for Sonny, Harold suggested that his 40-year-old estranged wife, Austrian-born Mary Jones, might have been responsible for the boy’s disappearance. He said Mary had become mentally unbalanced the previous year when their baby died shortly after it was born. Harold claimed that Mary held a grudge against Sonny’s father because Raimonde informed the police that she’d stolen something from the building. During a visit to Harold, Raimonde had thrown Mary out of the apartment house due to a display of what Harold described as “disorderly conduct.” Harold claimed Mary was a bigamist, with two prior marriages but no divorces from her previous husbands.

The police arrested Mary, who lived alone in a flat on 3rd Avenue in the East Village. She insisted that she knew nothing about the child’s disappearance but the police charged her with kidnapping Sonny.

HaroldHarold told the police that he believed his wife contacted a man named Alexander Albert and offered him $100 to knock off Raimonde. Alexander was questioned and told police that the information was true but he’d declined the offer. Harold named several other “Bowery stew bums” (homeless alcoholics) he believed Mary tried to bribe to harm Raimonde. Police located the men but could find no evidence of a plot so they were released.

Sonny wasn’t mentioned as a target of Mary’s revenge.

At Mary’s grand jury hearing a ten-year-old girl identified her as the woman she’d seen in a cab that followed Sonny during the parade. However a woman who’d also been nearby failed to identify Mary. A cab driver named William Mahon testified that he’d picked up a woman he identified as Mary, along with a young boy who matched Sonny’s description, near the Von Maluski’s building on the evening the boy went missing. He said the boy was crying. He testified that he’d driven them over a bridge and dropped them off near a vacant lot in the Bronx.

Sonny’s mother, Alice, testified that she and Mary argued about why Harold had moved into her family’s apartment. Alice said that Mary told her she thought Harold moved in so he could carry on an affair with another woman. Alice also admitted that Mary had offered her children toys when she’d visited their apartment, but Alice hadn’t allowed the children to accept them.

The grand jury indicted Mary for the kidnapping of Sonny Von Maluski.

The prosecution witnesses at the trial consisted of cab driver Mahon and another cab driver. The second driver claimed a woman approached him several weeks before Sonny’s disappearance and offered him money to “get a sick child away from a dopehead mother and a drunken father.” He refused the offer but he identified the woman as Mary. A man described as a “volunteer witness” (apparently he wasn’t called by the prosecution but he was allowed to testify) said he’d been in a cab behind the Mahon cab and had gotten a good look at the woman and child who got in the cab. He swore that the woman was Mary.

Mary displayed no emotion throughout her short trial and was the sole witness in her own defense. She admitted she’d been married three times but insisted she wasn’t a bigamist. On that Sunday she had lunch with friends at the restaurant below her apartment, then attended services at nearby St. Ann’s Church. After church she said she went home and took a nap until 9 p.m. Then she woke up but decided it was too late to go out again, so she got undressed and went to bed.

The jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding Mary guilty of kidnapping. At her sentencing the judge stated, “I believe you are utterly bad. I believe you killed that child.” He sentenced her to 20 to 40 years in Auburn Prison. He demanded Mary tell the court where the child’s body was hidden. In reply, Mary said, “Why don’t the Von Maluskis tell the truth?”

The family

The following year Mary wrote to the Von Maluskis from her prison cell and promised to tell them what she knew about Sonny’s disappearance if they would visit her. The couple had given up hope of finding Sonny alive, but they went to Auburn hoping to discover the location of his body. However all Mary told them was that she believed he was alive and living near East 51st Street in Manhattan. Prison officials noted that Mary frequently rambled and seemed to be losing her grip on reality.

In 1927 a woman in Hagerstown, Maryland reported to the police that a year or so earlier she’d taken in an abandoned young boy. She heard about the Von Maluski case and wondered if her boy might be Sonny. The woman and the Von Maluskis exchanged photos and descriptions and Raimonde visited in person. Sonny had a large burn scar on his chest, but the Maryland boy didn’t have a scar and he didn’t recognize Raimonde. It was decided that the boy wasn’t Sonny.

Harold Jones moved to Mills House #3 on 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan by 1930. The Mills hotels (there were three in NYC) offered spartan accommodations for working men. Harold is listed on the 1930 census as a 29-year-old unmarried man who worked odd jobs for a living. Harold’s whereabouts after 1930 could not be determined.

Alice gave birth to a daughter, Adele, in 1926. By 1939 Alice either died or she and Raimonde divorced, because he married 32-year-old Enid Whitney in May of that year. The following year the couple had a little boy they named Frederick.

Mary was moved to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Dutchess County, New York, by 1940. During the 1940s, Matteawan inmates were subjected to electric and insulin shock treatments. The facility also housed more than three times the number of people it had been built to hold. Mary’s date and place of death are currently unknown, but my research into her later life is ongoing.

Alive or dead, Sonny Von Maluski was never found.

Featured photo: news photo of Mary Jones at her grand jury hearing, April 1925. Collection of the author.