Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bertha Gifford's Wrath

On Saturday, June 20, I climbed aboard a big shiny red touring bus with Marc Houseman, historian, and twenty or so people who are just quirky enough to appreciate the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour (which, Marc would explain, really had no real element of mystery; we all knew who’d committed the crimes). Dan, our bus driver, headed out of Washington, Missouri, toward the small town of Pacific, and I noticed when we hit the highway (speed limit: 50mph, with cars zooming by at 60 & 65) that he was chugging along at 35mph. Oh dear. We had only so many hours to complete our tour, and at this rate, we’d never get to all the cemeteries. What made it worse was Dan’s seeming distracted attention—until I realized that he was taking his mind off his driving as he strained to hear what Marc was saying. I smiled. For some reason, everyone is fascinated by the story of Bertha Gifford.
As we tooled along then, at our snail’s pace, Marc explained where Bertha was born, how she came to live in Catawissa, Missouri—and how I fit into the picture. He also—shame on him, as it turned out later—told tales on her. How she used to (rumor has it—I’m just saying, Great-Grandma) hide inside her barn and peer out at the school children as they walked past each day, and how two sisters were offered candy by Bertha. One would die the next day, having taken the sweet. The other survived because she didn’t like candy.
Throughout the tour, we went from graveyard to graveyard, piling off the bus to view yet another headstone, another victim of Bertha’s. Marc would tell the tale of the individual, and he would include as much history about that person as he knew (which I believe honors the dead, no matter how they died).
Finally, at 2:30p.m., we headed for Morse Mill, our last stop on the tour, where we would see Bertha Gifford’s grave and the hotel that Bertha and her husband Gene once ran. We were right on schedule, and everything had gone smoothly. Until we were less than half a block from our destination. As we rolled around a corner on a narrow country road, tall trees bordering us on both sides, a man came running down the middle of the road toward us, waving his arms, indicating that he wanted Dan to stop. (What else could he do?) The man explained that there had just been an accident—a motorcycle had run head-on into a car. We could see the bike on its side in the road ahead.
“It just happened!” the man said breathlessly. “He just came out of our yard and headed down the road, and then we heard the crash! The troopers aren’t even here yet!”
So we waited. Mercifully, Dan left the A/C on, as it was in the 90’s outside. We waited while the state troopers arrived, while the ambulance came and the man—who was moving his limbs as they loaded him, thank heavens—was taken away, while the troopers slowly, lethargically, measured skid marks and proximities, while the tow truck finally came and removed the downed motorcycle. Finally, the road cleared, and off we went—by this time, quite late. We didn’t stop to look at the boardinghouse, as there wasn’t time. We simply rolled up the road to the cemetery, which is next to a busy highway, where Dan slowed… but couldn’t make the turn into the driveway. He continued down the highway, looking for a place to turn around. He found it, down a narrow side road, but just as he got the bus completely sidewise across the road, a small pick-up truck came barreling toward us from the opposite direction. It was going too fast to stop, we could all see that. We were all watching, helplessly, as the driver hit his brakes. I grabbed the partition in front of me, waiting for the impact, but still watching, wondering how the day would go once the truck collided with us. Then, at the last moment, the driver of the truck simply veered completely off the road, driving into a culvert and up across someone’s front lawn, where he came to a stop in the grass. Dan, unruffled, completed his turn as we began to breathe normally again, and headed back to the cemetery.
He still couldn’t make the narrow turn in, so he parked about a hundred yards away, in a parking lot. As we walked toward the graveyard, the sky darkened, the clouds thickening overhead. We gathered around Bertha’s grave, Marc began to speak, and I felt the first big drops. Marc spoke faster. Rain pattered on the broad leaves of the catalpa tree overhead. People scurried around, trying to snap photos of each other next to Bertha’s new headstone. And then it poured. There was no way not to get soaked as we walked (or ran) back to the bus. Drenched, looking like we’d all jumped in the pool with our clothes on, we climbed back onto the bus for our ride back to Washington.
“Hey,” someone pointed out, when we were a quarter mile down the road, “the pavement’s not even wet here.” Seems it only rained over the graveyard.
I’ll have a couple more posts about the trip over the next few days. I’m still trying to get caught up on laundry… and cuddle time with Sugs.


  1. I just discovered this story and am fascinated! my family hails from Bonne Terre, near Farmington. I'd love to know if this Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour still occurs, and how to get in touch with the folks conducting it. Can you please help me? My email is