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Missouri's Murderous Matrons: Emma Heppermann and Bertha Gifford: w/ author Victoria Cosner
At the turn of the twentieth century, people in Missouri experienced unexpected and horrible deaths due to arsenic. Two different women in two different areas of Missouri, and for two different reasons, used arsenic as a means to get what they wanted. Emma Heppermann, a black widow killer, craved money. Bertha Gifford, an angel of mercy, took sick people into her home and nursed them to death. Follow the trails of these women who murdered for decades before being tried and convicted. From Wentzville to Steelville, Emma left a trail of bodies. And Bertha is suspected of killing almost 10 percent of the population of the little town of Catawissa. Authors Victoria Cosner and Lorelei Shannon offer the gruesome history of Missouri’s murderous matrons.
Vicky, thank you so much for joining us on Crime Capsule. It is such a pleasure to have you.
[00:00:05.880] - Vicki
Thank you guys for inviting me. This is fun. We love talking about our books.
[00:00:13.730] - Ben
Before we get deep into the saga of Missouri's murderous matron, tell us a little bit about yourself. You have been fascinated with lost stories for years, haven't you?
[00:00:30.150] - Vicki
Background. I'm a public historian by trade. I've been in public history for 30 years. My mom wrote children's books, so I had that background. And when I was in high school, my mom took me with one of my health teachers and one of my mum's friends and an Arizona historian. And we went to a Cemetery. And Marshall Trembles, the historians started telling me stories and we walked from gravestone to gravestone, and honestly, I just fell in love. I have worked with Cemetery history restoration. My master's degree is in the cultural landscapes of cemeteries. Why people do what they do, why they bury them and that type of thing. And then me and my little friend group, which includes Lord Lie Shannon from high school. We've been friends since high school. We were a bit of on the dork side. So you have the little Sci-Fi people, the horror people. Lorelei is a horror writer by trade, and that's just where we came about.
[00:01:48.810] - Ben
I like to believe that when it comes to the nerds, the dorks, the outcasts, the readers of our world, we find our own, don't we?
[00:01:57.800] - Vicki
Keep them once we find them?
[00:02:01.530] - Ben
So you spent decades and decades honing and developing your interest in these matters, and now you work for the state of Missouri in its parks Department. It sounds like there is ample opportunity for research, for new kinds of research on the things you're interested in, isn't there?
[00:02:21.630] - Vicki
Missouri State Parks and Sites has 92 sites. And it's kind of funny because the best I can figure after talking to staff, I've been with state parks about 16 years, and there always seems to be a ghost story at almost every park, certainly every historic site. And they're not too excited if we talk about ghost stories. But paranormal tourism is huge right now. And there's a history behind why ghost stories exist in a particular place. There's always a backstory, right?
[00:02:59.730] - Ben
There's always some blood found on the trail somewhere, some sharp rock used as the implement. And then, of course, the tail gets slightly weirder every time it's told, right?
[00:03:12.690] - Vicki
Not in state parks, but in Missouri. We do have encrypted, so you'll be happy to know that.
[00:03:18.580] - Ben
[00:03:19.370] - Vicki
He's a Missouri monster. He's a sasquatchish gentleman.
[00:03:24.510] - Ben
Okay, I have to ask if you've ever seen Momo?
[00:03:29.880] - Vicki
Seen Momo? There have been no sightings recently. He's out of Louisiana. Missouri, which is north of St. Charles, which is where I am. I'm outside the St. Louis Metro area, but not too far. And I can tell you that people have a sense of humor about Momo in Louisiana because there are several Momo statues hiding behind trees as you drive down the highway.
[00:03:57.490] - Ben
Well, maybe he's just planning his comeback tour. He's taking a bit of a break, and we'll see him again in years to come. Tell us, apart from Murderous Matrons, you have written several other titles for Arcadia and History Press. For listeners who may not know your previous work, can you tell us just a bit about those other volumes?
[00:04:14.370] - Vicki
Our first book was Mad Madame Laurie, New Orleans most famous, Murderous Unveiled. It was a once in a lifetime. I had gone on a ghost tour, and they were talking about Delphine Laurie and her heinous acts and the ghost behind her. And I was fascinated how much historical content they had. And when I asked them, the guide said, It's all still in the archives. And I said, well, why isn't there a book written about it? And whenever you ask that, if someone, they always say, Well, I'm writing a DA DA DA. And so I started sniffing around and, oh, my gosh, it was all still there, and nobody had ever looked at it. She'd only been included in ghost stories, and it was phenomenal.You are our first official Missouri book on the Crime Capsule podcast. And unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, Missouri has a reputation in the American mind as being the place where your wagon team departs from on the Oregon Trail, that beloved computer game that graced nearly every classroom of the 1990s. As someone who logged probably far too many hours on the old OT in the back of those classrooms, I have to ask how true to life is that depiction? And I'm asking you, Vicki, please don't break my heart. Please, I'm begging you.
[00:07:56.870] - Vicki
First of all, I did not grow up here. I grew up in Arizona. So I am not an insider. I'm not a Missourian, despite the fact being here for 20 years, the reputation of the down homeness and the bucolic farms, once you're 45 minutes out of St. Louis, you're in farmland. There's not a lot of I mean, the big cities are fairly well scrunched together. And that was one of the things that fascinated me when I got here. St. Louis is different than the rest of the state because it started with French Louisiana coming up the Mississippi, whereas the bulk of the rest of Missouri was taken from westward expansion. And so, yeah, it really is. They're sturdy, they're tough, they're farmers, they're opinionated. And a lot of what we talk about with Emma and Bertha, they are kind of that matriarchal personality that you expect these farm matrons to have.
[00:09:22.290] - Ben
Well, that's the thing. This is a book about a sturdy, tough, down home kind of lady who also happens to be a cold, calculating serial killer. How did you first discover the stories of Emma Hepperman and Bertha Gifford?
[00:09:48.810] - Vicki
I was at work. I was at a historic site in St. Charles, Missouri, and someone came in, I was working at the front desk and said, do you have anything on that woman who killed all her husbands here in St. Charles? And I said, I'm sorry, what? And she repeated the question, and I'm like, who is that? And she's like, I can't remember her name. So I started delving into the netherworlds of female serial killers Missouri. And every time Bertha Gifford came up, every single time. And as a matter of fact, if you Google her, she comes up as in the top ten serial killers, women throughout the country, but nobody knew anything about Emma. And so when we first started looking at it and saw that they were killing concurrently with just a couple like a decade or so in between them, I thought, this is good. And then when I found out they both had been tried in Union, Missouri, which is south of St. Louis County, I thought, this can't be better to try to interview. And I was hoping they knew each other, but they didn't, at least not that we could be fine.
But that's how I got on to Emma. And then it was kind of like Madame Laurie. Everywhere you looked, you found things, but nobody had ever talked about her and nobody had ever put that together. We generally don't like doing newer stories. And when I say newer, I mean 20th century.
[00:11:27.690] - Ben
[00:11:28.140] - Vicki
And Emma turned out to be one of the reasons why that is. I couldn't get her death certificate until after the book was published because she was too recent.
[00:11:43.810] - Ben
The perils of a historian, I suppose. She was a piece of work, a black widow killer. And a good one, a skilled one at that. It's not often that we get one of those two to look at. She was born in a small village. And you write that we don't actually know all that much about her early life. Why is that?
[00:12:13.850] - Vicki
She was a woman. She was a woman in a small town in Missouri. The census records weren't really put together that well at that point. You're coming up on the Civil War. It's just everything was counting against her, and she didn't do anything that they knew of outstanding. But then again, when you start digging, the amount of people who sorry, the digging was a pun, but it didn't mean to be. When you started looking at the research.
[00:12:46.490] - Ben
It was so subtle, Vicky, that it just completely passed me by. Well done. Well done.
[00:12:52.700] - Vicki
Thank you. People die around Emma. People die and they die. Not in a good way. It's not like mom passes away in her bed. It's bad. Oh, so bad. As I used to tell my children when they asked me what I was working, I'm like, it's a bad lady. It's a bad. So then when you start following Emma's trail, she was smart and was able to figure out an Mo fairly early that the police didn't catch up until husband number six.
[00:13:37.530] - Ben
Yeah, it's extraordinary. So she enters Missouri history around age 19 when she marries her first husband, and if I recall correctly, her first husband, actually. It's terrible to have to say this, Vicky, and I can't believe it. But out of all of them, he kind of made it the longest with her. That shouldn't be an achievement. But when you're married to Emma, Hepperman it kind of is. So tell us about husband number one.
[00:14:13.290] - Vicki
Charles was his family went back a couple of generations, which was surprising because that town was, I don't want to say, fairly new. But at this point, yes, they were all fairly new. A trail of tears came through that town, and Charles was just like most of her other husbands. He was blue collar. He was hard working. You start seeing weird things, though, with Emma when she marries him. One, we're not really sure when she was born, and that's not unusual for the time period because a lot of people were born at home. But sometimes there was up to a nine year difference in her age that she would quote. She also said that she had ten to twelve kids with him. Yeah. I don't know that they existed. You can find four of them. Four of them have birth certificates at different times. But ten to twelve kids, mathematically speaking, she should have been having one once a year, but yeah. Now while he is supporting her, mother dies, kind of unusually, his brother dies. There was another schwack that died. Nobody attributes this to her yet. Well, you got to wonder you got to wonder when people die around you all the time.
You know what I mean? How many more should we attribute to her? But one of the things I loved about when I was doing the research is, like with Charles, we were able to get his draft card so we know what he looked like, which is kind of a neat thing when you're doing your history. But again, things like that. He was a blacksmith, then he worked for the telephone company. Why would he change? But then you had the Civil War. So I know I'm just babbling, but this is how you start sorting through history is like, why the anomalies?
[00:16:54.990] - Ben
Let me just ask you to speculate, actually for a second. That great tool of all interested researchers into the past, that will have plenty to say about motive once the body count has gotten a little higher. But do you think that at the beginning of Emma's murderous spree, if you mentioned that her mother had passed away, do you think that she might have suffered some sort of psychotic break that sort of changed who she was or what she thought her fortunes in this world would be? Do you think that there might have been rupture in sort of the fabric of her mind at that point?
[00:17:36.250] - Vicki
My gut is, yes. I always wondered if perhaps that she was abused, probably by her very strict Bavarian mother. And the reason I think that is because of how she treated kids, how she treated family, and how she got people out of her way. I would have voted her on the narcissism scale with that psychopathic. I don't know that when we're talking about mental illness, I'm kind of of the opinion that if you start killing multiple people, there is a mental illness. Whether it was a break that made her, one would think, not guilty by reason of insanity, I don't know. I don't think so because she was methodical and that had to be because of hatred is the best I can figure. But honestly, Laura is better at doing the psychology than I am. But what I see is that she starts out with random killings. I don't think, like you said, her motive becomes very clear later on. But was she tired of Schwac and decided to get him out of the way? Why did her brother in law die mysteriously in St. Louis when she was there? That type of thing. And that sounds more methodical to me, but abuse goes a long way in triggering things.
[00:19:24.550] - Ben
And we may never know. We probably will never know with respect to her. So Charles makes it 15 years. He gets the gold medal as far as Spousal longevity goes to Emma. And then how does he meet his end?
[00:19:41.170] - Vicki
He meets his end. We have a running I don't want to say joke, but it is kind of a joke about I think it's okay. And anytime anyone asks what either Emma or birth is like, gastritis. And they're like gastritis. And I'm like, yes. And then they'll say, well, what causes gastritis? And you're like, well, according to the corridor, everything causes gastritis. But he died of what they were calling. I'm trying to read his Dysentery with overheating. And that's actually on his birth certificate as a contributing factor, which is basically she claimed he was out working and ate something bad and then had these symptoms. And it's an arsenic poisoning. And we know that now. But back then they would have said, oh, gastritis Dysentery happens all the time type of thing.
[00:20:47.830] - Ben
Look, it's what killed off all of my pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Just year after year after year, they would make it to Fort Hood or wherever. And then one by one, man down, they would go.
[00:21:00.990] - Vicki
Sorry, that's just sad.
[00:21:05.770] - Ben
[00:21:06.220] - Vicki
You're welcome. One of the things that I found interesting about Charles, though, is that there's no headstone for him or there wasn't at the time. And we couldn't find it. We couldn't find his grave. We found Mods grave. Why isn't there a headstone for him? And that reason didn't come up for us other till later. My guess is because she left town and didn't Mark his grave because she didn't care anymore. She took two or three of her daughters with her when she left there, and she's out of Steelville and heading for bigger cities after Charles is dispatched.
[00:21:53.630] - Ben
It's more fish in the Lake, what can you say? So her second husband is a little bit more of a mystery compared to Charles. Why is her second husband a little harder to track down?
[00:22:08.150] - Vicki
There was no marriage license that we could find, frankly, is an incredibly common name. Unfortunately for me, there were literally like dozens of them in St. Louis. And before the book came out, I found nothing about frankly. And I didn't know why he was included in the story because the story is always written, like once. And then people keep referring back to where they found it, a local historian or a blog. And it was the same with little Lori. Everybody kept using the same story. And then maybe they'd add something a little salacious onto whatever. But she says that they divorced, but there is no divorce record. But again, if you're common law, you wouldn't have had that document if you didn't get married, if you were, whatever. But the thing that is bizarre about that is that she uses his last name on and off throughout the rest of her life, and I can't find him. And it was very angering for me. Most people put him as husband number three. I suspected he was husband number two because of her use of the last name. But she also could have made him up.
So we count him as a victim because we can't find him, and we're not going to go with the no body, no crime. But after the book came out, I had somebody come and show me a picture of a newspaper. And it was one of the type of newspapers where they're reporting gossip. And there's a picture of Frank Lee in there. But again, there are hundreds of them. And he wasn't standing with Emma, if I remember correctly. I have to double check that for you.
[00:24:10.850] - Ben
Right there's no corroboration there. It's just sort of here. You have a guy. Yeah.
[00:24:17.630] - Vicki
Maybe he was smart. Maybe he disappeared on purpose. So he was a tough one. That actually put my deadline back because I couldn't find him. And it makes me cranky when I can't.
[00:24:31.010] - Ben
I'm not trying to reopen old wounds, Vicki. I promise you, there's no retraumatizing here at Crime Capital. Now, who is next? Who is next on the shopping block?
[00:24:42.410] - Vicki
Which, again, nice blue collar guy. Had kids, kids, had grown up, wife had died. She actually died during the 1918 flu epidemic, which nobody either Bertha or Emma used as an excuse. Was the Spanish flu as a means of death or sickness in their family. I thought that was interesting because a lot of people died of that. The reason why I like Frank so much is because she abandoned him after she had him cremated. His remains are still at Bahala Cemetery. I was able to go see them. I went to visit Frank. They didn't know that he was a murder.
Yeah, just interesting that they would be unaware of. Well, maybe they don't keep records for that sort of thing. Who knows?
[00:25:45.580] - Vicki
Well, because she brought him in. She was the person who brought him in. And if the wife says that he died of gastritis, they don't care. They're just there to do the final wishes of the people. One of the things that this really put Emma into perspective for me is in his obituary. She wrote, he was dearly beloved by his wife, Emma. Emma abandoned Frank Bresmer's Ashes at Bahala Crematory in St. Louis, where he's still interred, waiting to be claimed. That's from our Bush.
[00:26:26.790] - Vicki
She just dumped him and took off. She never came back after they did. And I called and they had a little bit of a sense of humor. And when you deal with dark history, you kind of have to. But I asked if they had a lost and found, and they hung up on me. And so then I waited a couple of days and I called back and was nice about it. And still there. So again, blue collar. I don't know what a stationary engineer and a brewery is. But he did was mechanical. That he did mechanical stuff. And in St. Louis, we do have our breweries.
[00:28:34.310] - Vicki
His official cause of death was hemorrhage due to ruptured lesion. There's a word we can't read. And part of stomach wall from falling from a ladder at residence. Emma was the informant, and that means that he died before she reported the accident. She was quoted as saying.
She was the one who was falling. The injury eventually brought on his death.
[00:29:13.730] - Ben
So we really can't trust her at all.
[00:29:15.610] - Vicki
Not really. And that old stomach death by falling from a ladder.
[00:29:25.830] - Ben
It gets you every time.
[00:29:26.820] - Vicki
Flippy. Yeah, spectacular.
[00:29:30.130] - Ben
That's why they put those warning labels on the sides of extension ladders. Nowadays, I have two in my backyard, and you have to read the fine print really carefully to see how much risk you entail of stomach injury when you're on one of those. Happens all the time. The lawsuits are a nightmare. Okay, number four, husband number four, where are we now?
[00:29:57.150] - Vicki
This one was challenging because he was buried in Sligo after she dispatched him. And it took us a while to figure out where they were. He was in Union in 19, 10, 20. He's in Dent County, but it turns out that he worked for the railroad. And once we figured that out, it was a lot easier to trace him. So they got married in Cuba, and Cuba is in Crawford County here in the old Missouri, and it eventually will be part of the Route 66. Now, when he dies, he dies at the Frisco hospital, which is why I initially thought they were in St. Louis. But actually it was because it was a Union. He was part of the railroad Union, and that was the hospital that served them. He died of acute gastritis, with acute gastritis being the contributing factor. And oddly enough, it was just months after their marriage in 1933. So like you would point out, Charles, she put up with for 15 years, Frank disappeared. Mr. Lee disappeared. Well, we don't know because we don't know that they were ever married, but it was a short time. And then Frank Schwac was, I think, six months.
1931 is when she said and he was dead by May 13, 1931. So not long at all. A couple of months after she married Burt Or, within that time, his mother fell and hurt her hip and died from it of gastritis. We figured that it popped out of her leg and indoor bloodstream somehow. But Myra was very ill, and they learned in 1940, when they were investigating Emma, they learned that Myra King became suddenly ill after eating potato soup that Emma had prepared. That's the first time that we hear the potato soup part of the legend come out, although people yeah, although people had mentioned that she was a good Cook before that.
[00:32:45.690] - Ben
I wanted to ask you at this point, the body count is at least four spouses, and then maybe some ancillary members, some hangers on. You say people just die around her. Did nobody notice or did nobody care? Missouri is a small state. Its villages tend to be its towns tend to be fairly close knit, especially in the rural areas. And did nobody think to investigate this trail of corpses that seems to be following this one?
[00:33:24.610] - Vicki
Not yet, which is kind of funny because that trusting Midwestern hospitality genre. You see it in this because some of them are related. I believe that Birds family married into the Schwac family. I know that the Vaughn family was related to Burt's family as well. Von is number five. He knew he knew Bert died of eating, quote, bad sardines. I think the way that she did it was that she moved all the time. And if you stayed below the newspapers because the newspapers would jump on anything that was murder related, it was very still catch your eye journalism. That's what she did. And so if you keep moving but then when you start to see her devolving, it's because the mistakes that she made, I think, had to do with family. Bird was a widower with grown children, but his mom lived with him. So she got rid of mom and then got rid of Burt very quickly. The same thing happens with Aloecies or alloys, as they call it, in St. Peters. And Tony, Hepperman in O'Fallon. And I think that this is where you start seeing her starting to slip because now she's getting a trail going.
Her husband, she's in St. Louis, which she probably thought would be a good place to hide. But his obituary was in the newspaper. They didn't know he was abandoned at Vahala. But I think that this is where she starts to slip. And plus, she's killing too quickly.
[00:35:34.730] - Ben
Right. This sort of interval of a couple of months between incidents is really just very precarious for her. Now, William Vaughan is an interesting case, and you write that he actually divorced her. He was the only husband that we know of to survive. And there was one very specific reason for that, which you guys conclude. What happened with William and how did he escape the chopping block?
[00:36:11.570] - Vicki
I think that he wasn't besotted with her. They said that some of the other ones were. He was smart, he was cranky, he was opinionated, and he loves his children. And this is where her Mo of the life insurance starts showing up, because he was able to tell authorities later on that she immediately started nagging him to change his life insurance to her. And he said no. And this is also the first time where she slips up and we think started a fire because she needed him to need her. And so his house burned. And then she comes back and he lets her back in for a little bit, and then she starts nagging again. And he's like, he was married four or five times himself. Don't think we didn't look at him, but I think he was able to figure it out and kicked her out. And that was his luck. And the fact that the people found him in the 40s, it was incredible because the amount of information that he gave basically set her entire Mo and the pathology that she was following and how he found her. But what really blew me away is that he knew birds and still married her, although he does tell a great story where let me see if I can actually get the quote.
[00:37:52.470] - Ben
[00:37:53.670] - Vicki
Because she came to keep house for him, which is the Mo that we're talking about, is she tries to get into Motherless households that need help.
He says that he saw her from time to time after Burt had died, and he hired her to keep house for him in 1935. This is William. This is the one that survived. He says the first I knew, we were on our way to Petosi, and I was married again on the way back from the ceremony and asked Vaughn to change his life insurance over to her. He refused. She did not take kindly to that. They fought a lot.
[00:39:05.950] - Ben
Yeah, sounds like it. I mean, if she's like saying, give me the money on the way back from the ceremony, you know, something's up.
[00:39:12.860] - Vicki
So I was sorry that he most of the people had passed by the time. I would have liked to have met William, I also would have liked to have met Tony. Hepperman's brother Steve, because he was really funny.
[00:39:29.030] - Ben
So, yes, there's a great loss there. So husband number six, Alucious Schneider. Unfortunately, he did not seem to share that same life saving level of suspicion of his new bride. He seemed to have trusted her, which I think, in your words, may have signed his own death warrant.
[00:39:56.010] - Vicki
Yes. The Schneider family is incredibly well known in St. Peters even prior to this. St. Peters has a very German Catholic population and he had a huge family. And Emma does the newspaper ad and gets in there. But his family visits him all the time and they really don't live all that far at this point. She's operating in St. Charles county. She moved out of St. Louis because she took care of two or three or four if Mr. Lee's there. And this puts her back out into farmland at this point, everybody's educated in alloys family, which I think makes a big difference because it means they're reading newspapers and she moves in after let's see, they were married somewhere, she says, in 37 or 38, less than a year after the wedding, he was dead. And as one of the police officers that I chatted with about how you when Frank was cremated, I asked my law enforcement friends, can you see arsenic in Ashes? Like, could you take Frank's Ashes and see if he was indeed a victim? And they said no, it Burns very quickly. Well, Aloecious family was a little stringent about having him buried, and so she buried them very quickly.
And he had what my friends refer to as an inordinate amount of arsenic in his system. Remember, one grain can kill. So he had four, I think it was.
[00:42:00.070] - Ben
Oh, boy. Yeah.
[00:42:04.490] - Vicki
Again, nobody really suspected it, but this time the family didn't really like her. They weren't pushy about it. They were just passiveaggressive is the fun word that they would use now. But one of my favorites was in his obituary, which Emma did not write. Emma referred to as just his wife. And then all of the kids and their family are listed by name.
[00:42:33.350] - Ben
We're doing this series right now, Vicki, on prominent women in crime history. And we always try to give the benefit of the doubt. We try to see through their eyes to try to understand what was going on with them and in their time and the challenges that these women faced and so forth. And I couldn't help but wonder as I read your account, your lower lies account, this is kind of a strange formulation, but just let me test it on you. You say that this is a woman who was born into kind of very poor rural circumstances. She probably didn't have a lot of opportunity available to her. Of course didn't have the vote at that time. There's a lot that is standing against Emma Hepperman just from a position of she's not born on first base. She's not born on second base. She's born in the dugout. Right. Is cold, calculating serial killer aspects aside, do you think that she thinks of herself here as, like, a businesswoman?
It's like there's this kind of gross analogy between almost like the real estate market. Right. Like she buys a husband and then sells them, liquidates them for assets so that she can do it again because that's the only way she knows how to survive. This is actually her business is taking advantage of these men and taking their resources and then having to do it again because that's really all that's available to her. Now, I know that sounds funny, and I think it sounds funny, but I'm trying to understand what's going on in her mind if she didn't have the opportunity to work or something like that, you know what I mean?
[00:44:38.710] - Vicki
No, I think so. Okay. I like to look at them, too, through their eyes, because why I'm a historian. I want to know the why, and I want to know how people do what they do and how it gets going. And the blue collar gentleman that she was trapping or hunting, so to speak, weren't going to give her a big pay off. But for her, growing up in a blue collar household, like I said, with the Civil War hitting the poverty was incredible. It's hard not to think that she might have that Scarlet O'Hara, I will never be poor again. But $1,000 doesn't go as far as it used to. And you can see, like, with Tony, she wants more. She was mad at that aloecious. She only ended up with a small amount of money because after the burial and everything, she was mad. She starts telling people in her marriage to Tony, allegedly. And this is where you start getting the eyewitness account. She allegedly told somebody, Owishes has got $1,000, and I'm going to get me that. Well, she buried him. So technically she had it. So I'm just not sure. I think that the break that you were asking about happens somewhere after William escapes, so to speak.
And that's when she freeze is what I was always thinking is that's when she starts making mistakes, that's when she's angry. That's when she failed for the first time that we know of. And she just gets sloppy with alloys. And Tony, I mean, really sloppy having a family that's there. And with Tony, who's the last one that we'll talk about, she tried to get him out of the town because she knew that she'd made a mistake by having the family so close because she had to get them separated because they were going to try to get them to a doctor. But you can see her panicking.
[00:47:03.810] - Vicki
You can see her panicking and starting to create alibis in advance in these last two marriages where she's like they were eating something that maybe had poison on it. And I got sick too. Cough, cough. It's really not her smart. She's not smart anymore. She seems like she's desperate.
[00:47:26.950] - Ben
The web is too entangled, too. There are too many people who know her now. And I think that probably creates a little paranoia in her mind that leads her to make some mistakes.
[00:47:36.800] - Vicki
That makes sense with Bertha. Bertha told people, yes, I put arsenic in their food because they were in pain and it's a pain killer. And you could conceivably say that Bertha didn't know she was going to kill them. But after 17 people, I was a little suspicious. One thing that Bertha's daughter brought up in her book about Bertha that I think is very applicable to Emma is when you were talking about was she a businesswoman? Emma never backs down on anything, but they were not tried by a jury of their peers. They were tried, as was the time period, by white men and their victims. Emma's victims were all white men, and that can't have been a fair trial. They did move her out of St. Charles county eventually to put her in Union because of that fair trial in the papers. But she still had an all male jury. And you can see yourself having your wife try to spike your potato soup. That's a hard thing to not get a little cranky over, especially if she was foul when she was there on trial. She was showing her bitterness side.
[00:49:10.210] - Ben
So pull the thread for us. That unravels the whole garment. Why with Tony, did it all come crashing down?
[00:49:19.990] - Vicki
Because Tony had kids in the family who cared immensely. And I think that the big turning point was that she tried to poison Tony's daughter, Ethel. So once Ethel started failing and Ethel's sister is it Lucian? Hold on. Isabel, I think, yeah. Isabel is an older sister. She sees that Ethel is not doing well and talks to Ethel. And Ethel tells her stories about what her stepmother is doing. And Tony starts getting sick almost immediately. So they're both starting to fail. And Emma starts like calling the police on fake things and she's setting up alibis. And when she finally takes Tony away from the farmhouse, Isabelle gets Ethel and saves her life. And then the big one is Tony had a very close brother named Steve, and Steve lived with them briefly and then moved out because she was such a Hag. Is that a good word?
[00:50:44.710] - Ben
I wasn't going to say it.
[00:50:47.470] - Vicki
I remember I told you I would have liked to have met Steve. It was because during the trial she threatened to kill me two or three times, and I thought she was just kidding at first. But then when Tony got sick, I started thinking that perhaps it was on purpose. And then he said, lucky thing I didn't eat the soup. A everybody started laughing in the courtroom. And I'm like, you just can't make this stuff up. That was great because they did ascertain that it was the potato soup that killed Tony. Eventually, Tony figures out he's being poisoned before he dies. Her biggest mistake was she didn't do an immediate kill on him because he had time to figure it out while she's fussing with Steve about whether they can take him to St. Louis or not. Coincidentally enough, both alloys and Tony died at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Charles.
[00:52:15.180] - Vicki
Well, you know what was neat is I got to talk to several of the students that were there looking out their classroom window when they started digging Mr. Schneider up. They're in their 70s now, and of course, no one had ever asked them about it, so they were very excited to tell me about the machinery and everything that they brought in. So I got a very unique look at that. But what they found is that he was riddled with arsenic, and we're always asked why she was only tried for two people. And it's because you can make a better case in poisonings. Poisonings aren't smoking guns, even though you say all of the poison was in them. They could have licked the fly paper, which is what she said somebody did. They could have done lots of things. You have to take a jump, a leap that someone would be so evil. We didn't really talk about how horrible this death is. Arsenic poisoning is horrible and throwing up and dysentery and extremely painful. And for both of these women to just sit and watch it and then to be aware enough to monitor how much was going in to make sure that the death wasn't going to be overly suspicious like a lawyers was.
She still had some of her facilities with her, despite the fact that you could see she was devolving at this point.
[00:53:50.770] - Ben
Yeah. The transcript from the trial is fascinating because it's still available. Anyone can search for it and read it. They describe in detail how she would soak the fly paper in water to transfer the arsenic, which was soluble in water, and then add that to whatever ingredients she might have been cooking. The whole thing is just so methodical. And you realize every bit of it was premeditated from the very beginning. It's kind of a lot to take in when you get into the detail of this case. Isn't it the case?
[00:54:26.820] - Vicki
And then when you look at her, the photography from the trial and her mug shots, she looks like a grandma. You cracked me up because both of those women wore pearls to their trial. They didn't have women to watch them, like when they were in the Sheriff's office. The Sheriff's wife had to take them home because they couldn't have a man doing that. They'd never dealt with women. And it is hard to take in, especially when you look at Emma and you see a grandma. But it's really funny because Emma made herself look older than she was or that ten years had finally caught up with her, that we don't know when she was born because she kept changing her name, she kept changing her age. But yeah, she stood through the whole trial mocking people, mocking witnesses. That also is hard to stomach. And again, sorry about the pun. I think that's all right. That's why that she wasn't found guilty, not guilty by insanity or guilty. I don't think they thought that she was insane because of the methodicalness of everything.
[00:56:02.110] - Ben
So let me ask you just a few questions about the aftermath of this particular case. She is sentenced to life imprisonment in the war is on by this point. And in Europe, at least, America has not yet entered. But we're watching the war overseas. But back home in this courthouse, she's sentenced to life. Did she have anyone that she could rely on at this point once she entered her term in the penitentiary? You mentioned that she had some daughters, but was there anyone who was able to, I don't know, sort of speak on her behalf or try to take care of her or just kind of respond to her conviction?
[00:56:53.870] - Vicki
Yeah. No. Two of her daughters were still speaking to her at the conviction. She sent them letters, evidently. And I've never been able to find anyone who had one of the letters. So she alienated them because she would be haranguing them for letting her go to jail. She was put in Ren's prison, which is the women's their fault, and stayed for a while. The aftermath is really kind of interesting because I couldn't write it. I had a deadline, a book deadline, and the death certificate didn't come out until it was like two days after the book came out. It was really funny. I was like, Dang it. But what the death certificate was able to do for us is tell the whole end of her story from that death certificate. I found out how she died. They had let her go in October of 1968 and with the assumption that she was dying because they had moved her to an insane asylum, which was really funny, ironic in a history way, because she was put in one that was not for people less well is how they phrase it. But Bertha was put in for one that was also for lesser.
[00:58:17.650] - Vicki
And they let Bertha work in the kitchen. They also let Emma work in the kitchen.
[00:58:22.540] - Ben
Oh, wow. Oh, wow.
[00:58:25.420] - Vicki
I don't think I would have done that, but that's okay.
[00:58:29.110] - Ben
No, ma'am, I don't think so.
[00:58:30.810] - Vicki
In 1968, they let people out of the insane asylum in a large number because they were overcrowded. And this was when the move to making mental health institutions more humane came in. So they took people who were at no risk to anybody and let them go with no money, with nothing, just basically a couple of dresses or whatever. So Emma ends up in a halfway house up in Kirksville and dies within a couple of months. And then they bring her back to Fulton because the halfway house was affiliated with the hospital, the insane asylum hospital that she was in, and she's buried there in Bolton with no headstone. Again, remember, I have my Cemetery background. I had to know where she was buried, and it was a government burial, so I found her. The maintenance men at the cemeteries always know where everybody is. And she is unmarked. And I don't know if that's because she had no family. But in the cemeteries that are connected to the hospitals, they have little tiny rock markers, nothing fancy. Emma's was completely unmarked. And we had a theory or have a theory that people who are serial killers, they don't Mark their graves as often because they don't want them dug up by the angry family or some Macabre.
Nowadays, some Macabre person, but she is buried in Fulton and died of cancer.
[01:00:21.590] - Ben
[01:00:22.690] - Vicki
No, not gastritis.
. So here at Crime Capsule, we love a good sleuthing. Everyone loves a police procedural, but we really like the Detective aspects. You had to do a lot of piecing together this story from so many different sources. What was most useful to you as you tried to follow Ms. Trail?
[01:01:04.380] - Vicki
Ancestry. Ancestry.com. They are so good now. When I was looking up Laurie, which I guess is about ten years ago, it wasn't very helpful. And I was still having to do a lot of initial primary research. But because they were so late in the time period, they were 20th century, there was a lot more documentation. And once you start pulling the documentation, you can trace her evolution and where she was a lot better than trying to do it through first hand accounts from the family, because oral histories aren't always that great. And granted, people who did the censuses, they didn't really care about their job. They were just making things up sometimes. But at least they got a name that gives you an idea of where she was after that. There was a blog, Ms. Andre, where did I just put my book. She does the most incredible research, unknown Msandry. Blogspot.com. She does all serial killers all the time. And I actually had to find stuff that she hadn't put because otherwise I wasn't doing my own work. You know what I mean? She was really thorough. And so when you start chatting with those type of folks saying, how did you find this?
And where did you find this? It's incredible. And then honestly, afterwards, when I started doing my book signings and stuff, family came out of the woodwork. I could easily do another appendices or two or three on Emma, including the Heppermint family recipe for potato soup.
[01:02:56.570] - Ben
The first question I had for you was if Emma dies in 1968, and she had been active for most of the first part of the century, I mean, this is absolutely within living memory. And she was on the way out, as you were on the way in, so to speak. So you would not have ever met her directly, but you would absolutely have had the chance to meet folks who knew her or knew the family members and the slain and so forth. I was just curious about that human resource that you had of interviewees or informants, given that we are so close in time to these crimes.
[01:03:41.810] - Vicki
Emma's family, not family. Tony's family was incredibly giving. They talked to me, they showed me newspapers, they had family histories to talk to. And because I'm a personality, history person, I would go and I would make sure that the timelines were correct. I would pull my hard documents, my history documents. They were very giving the Schneiders. I wasn't really able to get a hold of any of the Schneiders. And that's when I found the kids that had seen the excavation, because I was trying to find the Schneiders through their Parish. They married into some of the most influential families in St. Charles, but they were reticent to talk about it. And I find that a lot with these true crime things is that if they're victims families, they don't want to talk about it because they think it's going to be about the killer, which obviously is what many people and including us that we highlight the killer, but we also want to tell the stories of the victims. And you can't really convince anybody of that except by proving it. And so afterwards, I met a couple of the Schneiders, including another brother, not Steve Schneider, the one that was so funny, but a different brother.
He came to one of my book signings in Warrinton in his 90s. It was incredible. And like I said, I'm a geek. So I start drooling type of thing. And that was the good thing about doing this. The bad thing was you can get sued if you're talking about people from 1834. Nobody cares.
[01:05:37.970] - Ben
Well, you handled it with such care. And I thought as I was reading your book, that one of its strengths. And just one of the things that I love the most about it is that you really tried to tell all sides of the story. There is an antagonist, clearly, but you offer a humanizing portrait of her. You try to do her justice and try to understand what's going through her mind and her life. But then you also take each victim and family member and really offer this very generous portrait of them. And it struck me this red, like kind of a family saga over the years, but seven different families, and you intertwined them all together.
[01:06:21.100] - Vicki
Well, thank you. It's a neat history. It really is. And for someone like me that does primarily 19th century history, this was outside my comfort zone. And it was so neat to show up at places and talk to the family that's when they would bring me, like the newspapers that Lee was in was at one of the book Shinings down in Washington. And then, like I said, up in St. Charles county, people were coming to my work to chat with me after it came out. You don't get that with the I joke about New Orleans because I think I told you it was like someone at every book signing in New Orleans on Laurie asked me, why did you write this book? You're not from here. And my pissy answer was, why didn't you? Because it's all here. The only thing that I regret about Laurie is that I couldn't get the names of the slaves because I didn't have time to sit for seven months and go through birth records because they weren't online. There was a woman that published shortly after us that did have the names of the slaves. And I'm very grateful that they got named and they got a face.
[01:07:46.610] - Ben
Well, let me ask you just one last question, Vicki, and we really appreciate your taking some time for us. Every single reader of your book has access to the most important piece of information of all. And yet our listeners here today, they are probably on the edge of their seats wondering, where did you find the recipe for the potato soup?
[01:08:18.470] - Vicki
We made it up. No.
[01:08:24.990] - Ben
Say it ain't so.
[01:08:26.350] - Vicki
Actually, there is a Heiferman cookbook that we were able to access at one point, and it was just like any other potato soup recipe. I don't know why she was renowned for it, but it was really funny because we were just going to make it up. And then the final hour, somebody came through and said, but we don't even know if that was Emma's. It just came from the family, which we thought was kind of cool. So we couldn't get the biscuit recipe for birthday either. But we used the recipe that was time appropriate. So I'm sorry, everyone.
[01:09:13.790] - Ben
I think they will probably forgive you as captivating a story as you have told. I mean, there is a lesson to be learned that when you visit Missouri watch your waistline. I've had the GUI butter cake and the GUI butter cake is some formidable stuff. I'm not sure I could survive multiple doses or multiple helpings. Excuse me.
[01:09:31.790] - Vicki
We are renowned for our junk food just like Philadelphia toasted Rabbs.
[01:09:40.260] - Ben
You got to watch that it's delicious.
[01:09:42.270] - Vicki
And the German Cook that big hearty farm food. Yes, we're all thick.
[01:09:47.970] - Ben
Absolutely. You could raise a barn on a single breakfast and go for it, right? Vicky, thank you so much for joining us. This has been such a pleasure to have you. We hope very much to have side B of the album one day soon where we can hear more about your other murderous matron. Bertha Gifford. She sounds like another piece of work but for now, you're you have been so gracious to share this story and we are so grateful. Thank you.