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 Crazed Mother

The Crazed Mother

Leo Harp, passing the home of Mrs. Johanna Healey Bacher in 138 Railroad Avenue, Greenwich, Conn., late Sunday night on his way home, found an insurance policy and a sheet of paper on the sidewalk in front of the house. The policy was covered with blood stains and on the back of it had been written with a lead pencil: “I am going to kill myself and the children.” On the sheet of paper was written: “Give this to one of the cops or to Mr. Talbot.”

— New York Herald, March 28, 1922

Johanna Healey was born in Ireland in 1891 and came to America when she was seven years old. Her family settled in New York City, where her father, James, found work as a longshoreman. By 1910 the Healey family — James, his wife, Margaret, and their six surviving children out of eight — lived in a crowded tenement at 39 Bedford Street in the West Village. Johanna and her older sister, Nettie, worked in a factory to supplement that family’s income. The family also took in a female boarder to help pay the bills.

Johanna moved Greenwich, Connecticut, after she was hired to work as a maid for a family there. She met a house carpenter in Greenwich, Henry Jacob Bacher, who was born in 1889 in New York to German immigrant parents. Henry occasionally boxed under the moniker “Kid Onion” and he was fond of playing craps.

Henry was married when he met Johanna, but in November 1915 he got a divorce from his wife so that he and Johanna could get married. Their marriage occurred on December 3, 1915, in Westchester, New York.

The couple moved into an apartment owned by Henry’s mother in Greenwich. Their first child, Margaret, was born in 1917. The following year another daughter, Johanna, was born. Henry Jr. came along in 1921.

Johanna healey bacher photos - Newspapers.com

The Bachers had marital problems. By the time their son was born, Henry was involved with an 18-year-old girl and she was pregnant with his child. Henry told Johanna he wanted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. (Apparently she was the cruel one.)

To get her to agree to the divorce Henry threatened to take the children from Johanna and she couldn’t bear the thought of that. She went out and bought rat poison with the intention of killing the children and possibly herself.

Greenwich wasn’t a big city like New York. Word of people’s problems got around. Andrew Talbot, the chief of the Greenwich police, got wind of the fact that Johanna was distraught over her husband’s divorce suit. He’d also heard rumors that she might try something desperate. He brought her and the children into the station where she admitted she’d bought rat poison to use on the kids rather than letting Henry take them from her. Andrew made her hand over the poison and promise she wouldn’t do anything crazy. He vowed to give her any assistance she needed and asked her to check back with him in a few days. He gave each child a box of candy before they left the station.

On the night of March 27, 1922, Johanna was overcome with grief. She wrote a suicide note on Henry’s life insurance policy and took a butcher knife into the bedroom where the children were sleeping. She cut each child’s throat and stabbed each one a few times to make sure they were dead. She staggered to the window and threw the policy out. Then she went into the kitchen, tore her rosary apart and fatally cut her own throat.

Later that night Leo Harp found the bloody insurance policy on the sidewalk and took it to the police. The police went to the Bacher home where they discovered the bodies of the mother and her children.

Henry J. Bacher may be insane - Newspapers.comHenry was out gambling in Stamford when his children were murdered. Upon being told what had happened he “went violently insane.” He was taken into police custody while the murders were investigated and later he was released. Physicians expressed concern that his insanity might be permanent.

Five months after the murders Police Chief Talbot felt ill at work and went home. He died of a stoke a few hours later. He’d been on the police force for 15 years.

Henry recovered his sanity and married his girlfriend Dorothy. They had five children by the time the federal census was taken in 1940.

Some authors have described Johanna as a serial killer, but she doesn’t fit the definition. She was an unstable, desperate woman who was driven to a heinous act after being abandoned by her husband. She had to live in a society that expected women to stay home with children but gave them no support to do so without a partner.

Featured photo: Johanna Healey Bacher, Daily News (New York) photo, March 28, 1922.

Granite Man Walks

Granite Man Walks

After a pathetic Christmas day spent along the banks of the drainage canal in the vain hope of clearing up the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her mother, Mrs. Kate Mitchell Trostell, 11 year old Eleanor Trostell was taken to the detective bureau last night to confront Arthur Foster, charged with the murder of her mother.

 

All through the night and into the early hours of the morning, the child alternately sobbed and pleaded with him to reveal her mother’s fate.

Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1922

The days when a detective could bring a kid into an interrogation room and keep her there for hours in order to wring a confession out of a murder suspect are long gone. Also gone are the days when a newspaper photographer was allowed to take posed photos of the interrogation, including the chief of detectives (in this case Michael Hughes) smack in the middle of the photo.

Evidently finding an unbiased jury was not a major concern in Chicago during the 1920s.

Kate Trostell, a widow, hadn’t been seen since December 2, 1922, when she failed to come home after her evening shift at the Chicago Western Union office. Her family — two sisters and a brother — was convinced that Arthur Foster had murdered her.

The police grilled Arthur for days on end. Twice they brought in Kate’s 13-year-old daughter, Eleanor, to confront him in jail. When her sobs and pleas didn’t crack him she ran over to him, flung herself into his lap, twined her arms around his neck and begged him to bring her mother back for Christmas. “I’d like to honey, but I don’t know anything about her,” he said.

Foster and Kate photo - Newspapers.comArthur was a truck driver who’d dated Kate and asked her to marry him. He continued to pursue her even after she cooled on him and tried to end the relationship. Kate’s family and coworkers claimed Arthur was a violent man who’d chased her, shot at her and thrown rocks at the window of her office.

The police found blood on the running board of Arthur’s car and on a blanket in his vehicle. At the time it was impossible to determine whether or not the blood was Kate’s. They also found a yellow pencil — the sort she used at the telegraph office — with her teeth marks on it in the car. Arthur said that Kate often rode in his car and the pencil proved nothing.

Arthur insisted he had no idea if Kate was alive or dead but he loved her and wouldn’t have harmed her. He said he hadn’t seen her the night she went missing but he knew she’d been depressed and talked about killing herself. He believed she might have done what she often threatened to do — throw herself into the Chicago Drainage Canal. Beyond that Arthur had nothing to say. In fact he was a man of so few words the newspapers dubbed him the “granite man.”

In late December the police dragged the canal, where they found Kate’s coat and purse. It didn’t bode well for her making it home for the New Year.

Kate's body found in drainage canal - Newspapers.com

Kate’s body surfaced at the dam where the canal ended, in Lockport, Illinois, on January 23, 1923. The deputy coroner said she was alive when she went into the water, but there was a bruise on her forehead and several more on her knees and hands. Her injuries might have resulted from a violent struggle before she went in, but they also could have occurred during the fall. The police theory of her death, which had been that Arthur killed Kate and threw the body into the canal, changed to Arthur hitting her on the head, throwing her into the water alive and watching her drown. It would have taken a granite man full of hate to commit that crime.

A witness claimed to have heard a woman scream near the canal the night Kate went missing. That, along with the blood and pencil in Arthur’s car and that he’d phoned her the evening she vanished was the sum total of evidence against him.

Arthur was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. His attorney appealed on the basis that the evidence was circumstantial and that the state hadn’t proven that Kate had been murdered. A judge agreed and ordered a new trial.

The second trial never happened. In October 1926 the state dropped the case and Arthur walked out of jail a free man. The following year he married a widow whose name, as fate would have it, was Katherine.

Kate’s daughter, Eleanor, grew up, got married and raised a family.

“Go get ‘em Mike” Hughes became the head of the Chicago Police Department in 1927. He resigned after only a year in office but remained with the department until 1935, when he retired.

Whether Kate’s death was the result of murder or suicide remains an open question.

Featured photo: news photograph taken for the International Newsreel Corporation of the police interrogation of Arthur Foster, December 14, 1922. Collection of the author.