She was an expert pickpocket who would steal a man’s diamond stickpin, using her well-known fainting trick, without batting an eye. But she was also mentally ill, suffering periodic bouts of insanity so intense that it was impossible for doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which sometimes 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 intense — she was calm one moment and crying hysterically the next. By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing question of what to do with “Fainting Bertha” Liebbeke.
Bertha was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1880 to William and Mary Liebbeke. William was a cobbler and an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Mary was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in Pottawattamie, Iowa in 1870. The Liebbekes had nine children and seven of them, including Bertha, lived to adulthood. William died in 1896.
Soon after her father’s death Bertha 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. Her diagnosis was likely what caused her to be sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Possibly due to age restrictions she was transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda, where she remained for less than a year.
Between hospitalizations Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” Despite her psychiatric problems, she was an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to her profession, taking full advantage of her blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks and stylish appearance. Bertha would get into a crowd of people and swoon. The gallant gentleman who came to her rescue by catching her got a reward he wasn’t expecting — his pockets were picked. It was done so adeptly that most didn’t realize their loss until Bertha was long gone.
Bertha became notorious. She took trains to all the big midwestern cities, robbing train conductors and passengers along the way. She not only robbed individuals, she used her nimble fingers to steal from large department stores, such as Marshall Field & Co., in Chicago. Her photo was said to be in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. It was reported that three times she had plans to marry, but the engagements were broken when she couldn’t stop thieving. Despite all that, she looked pleased as punch to be photographed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary, as inmate #5693, for her undated mugshot.
Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing cash, watches, furs and jewelry, she had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. By 1907, she’d been housed in seven separate Midwest penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from those institutions. She’d attempted suicide at least once. Back and forth between hospital and penitentiary she went. No one wanted her, but the question of what to do with her remained.
She was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. At Hastings, three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich, in 1911. The following description of Bertha was part of their report.
The evidence (is) that she 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 of whether or not Bertha was insane, but they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. The governor disagreed and sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her latest sentence, specifying that “special quarters” be provided for her.
After her release from the penitentiary, in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge of the People’s Church in Omaha offered her a home in the church. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was available to be with her at all times. The congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. With the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” might be cast out! The experiment didn’t work and the congregation gave up on her. By 1914 she was in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy.
She was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska. She fell out of the news until 1919, when she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde at the woman’s face and partially blinding her. We can only guess at what treatments Bertha endured in an effort to control her violent outbursts. She lived in the asylum for over 20 years and died there on May 5, 1939.
Her obituary in the Lincoln Evening Journal noted, “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 photo: Bertha Liebbeke, carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.