Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Truth about Bertha Gifford




I am Bertha Gifford's great-granddaughter.

She was my mother's grandmother, and my mother lived with her on a farm in Catawissa, Missouri on and off for a period of several years.  Since Mom--in her later years, when I was working on Tainted Legacy--told me everything she could possibly remember about Bertha, I feel I am uniquely qualified as an expert on Bertha.  The only person in the world who knows more about her than I do is historian Marc Houseman with the Washington Historical Society in Washington, Missouri--and he only "knows" more because his brain is a virtual file cabinet.  He remembers dates and names.  I remember nuances and impressions.  We've been great collaborators in our search for the truth about Bertha Gifford.

For the record:

Bertha was not convicted of 17 or 18 or 19 or 20 murders, nor was any evidence produced to substantiate that number.  Seventeen people, at a grand jury hearing, gave testimony regarding loved ones she had cared for who died.  Bertha was a "volunteer nurse" over a period of close to twenty years.  We have no record of how many people she cared for who didn't die.

After the grand jury hearing, two bodies were exhumed.  Both were found to contain arsenic.  Enough arsenic was present in the body of Ed Brinley to "kill seven men."  Keep in mind:

If your own body were tested today, arsenic would be detected.
There is arsenic in the water you drink--even if it comes through a filtering system.
Arsenic is present in ground water and well water.
Ed Brinley was a heavy drinker... during prohibition... when the alcohol consumed came from neighborhood stills.
Bertha Gifford was in the habit of ingesting arsenic as it was thought to be "good" for the circulation. This was a common practice in the 1920's.
As a volunteer nurse, Bertha admitted giving arsenic to people.  Her motivation, as she declared in a signed statement, was to help them.  Ain't nothing crazy about that.  Misguided, perhaps.  Arrogant.  But not crazy.  No more crazy than Dr. Conrad Murray was in giving propofol to Michael Jackson to "help him go to sleep."

Bertha Gifford was brought to trial in 1928 when most folks in small towns got their news from a weekly newspaper and/or their neighbors. A scandalous story such as Bertha's would keep folks buying papers for weeks.  After all, other forms of entertainment were limited compared to what we experience today.  Sensationalism in journalism was an accepted practice.  After all, editors were desirous of giving their readers a good story.  Courts, not newspapers, were responsible for presenting only factual evidence.

Forensics, in 1928, was a nascent art.

The doctor who continued to supervise Bertha as she cared for ill family members and neighbors was never called into question for any suspicious deaths--or for allowing her to continue nursing after patients died in her care.

My point in all this?  Too much time has elapsed for us to know the real truth about what happened with Bertha Gifford.  If I were to make the claim that she was not a homicidal maniac, my opinion would immediately be attributed to bias, and understandably so.  She was, after all, the beloved grandmother of my mother.  But as I mentioned, I do feel that relationship uniquely qualifies me to draw certain conclusions.

42 comments:

  1. Great blog, Kay. The story didn't mention her having children and Bob actually asked me. And I see a modern hysteria similar to this with opinion about fluoride being rat poison and should never be given to children as it could kill them.

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  2. I'm sorry but if you're great grandmother was on deadly women and she was a volunteer nurse as you would say why on earth would you give your patients arsenic poison. She had malice in her heart and where ever she is in this world today I hope she's feeling the heat

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  3. I totally agree with you regarding your great grandmother. No one can truly know what happened. If forensic science was what It is today it would be a different story. But with no forensics to speak of, tainted water in stills and the medical practice of administering arsenic we will never know for sure.

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  4. Thanks for your comment, Josh. This is one of the points I try to make in Tainted Legacy, the book I wrote about her. People do tend to believe what they want to believe about another person. But in this case, we have to look past the hysteria and mythology about her to try to determine what can be documented. The answer to that is: Not much. If only we could go back in time....

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  5. Wow, what an interesting connection you have to history! Your book may expose some additional evidence to consider, but at this time, I believe she was guilty. Arsenic was taken, but in small amounts (the royals used to take it to keep their complexions milky white), which is certainly not healthy, but will not cause immediate death. As Mrs. Gifford purchased it for "rat poison", she seemed to know what it would do in large doses. And yes, there was and still is expose to arsenic in water sources and whatnot, but there is a distinction between organic and inorganic arsenic. Also, there is not enough present to cause acute death. People with pneumonia don't usually have symptoms of vomiting and extreme stomach cramping. As for why people didn't speak up...who knows. It was a different time. People were not generally well educated, and a person born and raised in the country would not be aware of their options. After all, death was a frequent visitor to homes at that time. I don't doubt that your mother had a different impression of her grandmother than what is told in history books. One of the traits of a sociopath is their ability to charm. Have you heard of that neuroscientist who found he has the brain structure of a sociopath, but he is not one--he attributes that to a loving home, a very interesting take on nature versus nuture. Is much known about your great-grandmother's upbringing? As far as forensic science having the last say... Well, that is a new development, and for over a thousand years, people have been convicted of crimes on evidence such as that in the Bertha Giffords case. Prisons are always full of innocent people.

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  6. Nice try, but it don't fly. I admire your desire to clear your great grandmother's name but your arguments are facile at best.

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  7. I have to agree with Anonymous. People would enter Bertha's care who were FINE and then end up dead by the next day. Trying to embrace your great-grandmother and rewrite history in an effort to whitewash a serial killer is more than outrageous. You should be trying to distance yourself from the truth about Bertha....oh wait, that is exactly what you are doing. I cannot be gentle about this because people ended up dead.

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  8. Kay, I honestly do hope that what you have learned is true. Unfortunately, even if it is, it would be so very difficult to get anyone to see the truth. It would be like after all of these years discovering that an orange is not indeed orange but red. Even if you could prove it, everyone in the world sees it as orange, and, well...there you have it. I WILL say this, however, my great grandparents used to live just up the road from that house. My grandparents and great aunts and uncles still do. From as far back as my memory serves as a child, I was horribly terrified of that house. It would start upon approaching Bend Bridge and as we drove nearer to the house I would try to hide in the car. At night, the hair on my arms and back of my neck would stand up. I would beg my mother to take a different route, but she always drove the same way. She used to shake her head at me and tell me I was silly. A few years after I graduated high school, my younger sister found an article about the house and brought it to my and my mother's attentions. After 21 years of being terrified of something and not having any idea why, then being presented with something like that was astonishing. SOMETHING bad happened there. It may not have been by Bertha's doing, mind you, but SOMETHING by SOMEONE did happen. To this very day I can't drive by that house at night, even though the house looks very beautiful, and I am old enough to have children who can drive themselves. My daughter (without being told what I had learned) has always had the same aversions to the house. As you said, I wish we could go back in time to learn the absolute truth. I would love to learn that she was helping people and not hurting them. But, I also want to know why that house makes me feel the way that I have felt for nearly 40 years.

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    1. I so appreciate your honest, thoughtful comment here. Certainly there are many sides to this story. Where the truth lies, we will never know. But... perception is everything, isn't it? I've had others tell me that they grew up fearing the "House of Mystery," yet when I travel to Missouri, I can't wait to drive out over Bend Bridge and down Old Bend Road to visit the farmhouse, as I feel a sense of peace and connectedness there to my mother and my grandmother who both loved the place. (Of course, I never met my great-grandmother.) Fear is a terrible emotion, very powerful and difficult to overcome. At times, it taints us.

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  9. I just found out about Bertha Gifford. And I almost had a heart attack when I heard her name. My blood relatives are the Farmers, and the Giffords of Missouri. It turns out Bertha is a distant cousin of mine on my mothers side. My mother was born Stacy Gifford, her dad is Rickey Gifford, and I have cousins and great uncles with the last name of Gifford. This is a EXTREMELY interesting discovery for me, a 17 year old. Lol I always knew the Gifford side of my family was a little nuts ��

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  10. Hi Lydia, this past summer (2014) I spent time in MO researching the West side (my mom's dad) of the family. In a couple of cemeteries, we (Marc Houseman and I) saw headstones with the Gifford family name. You'll have to let me know if you trace your genes back to Gene! My mother always thought so highly of him!

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  11. I will try my best to look more into my family tree. So far all I know is that she's my cousin on my mothers side. I just turned 18 a little over a week ago so I'm thinking about getting online on a few websites to try and trace my lineage. Feel free to contact me though if you find any new information about her.

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    1. If you're very interested and don't mind investing some money, Ancestry.com is as amazing to use as it looks in the TV commercials. I've met new cousins that way, and my sister-in-law has now traced our ancestry on my dad's side back as far as King William III. Also, findagrave.com is a terrific site for information (and free). Good luck!

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    2. Peggy Newman PoeJune 4, 2017 at 2:15 AM

      Did Bertha have any sisters? My grandmother was Stella Gifford of Beachcorner , Mo. She married Gene Newman and moved to Senath , Mo.

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    3. Hi Peggy, Bertha did have a younger sister, but her name was Ella, not Stella. That's pretty darn close, though, isn't it? Let's do some more digging and see what we come up with!

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  12. Flipping channels I came across this is very sad story about B.G. on the show ID/deadly woman. Obviously she was a sick woman. A sick woman with intentions of cruelty, hatred, down right EVIL. Today, she would have gone to jail. Unless she became a Christian and asked for forgiveness and changed her life where she was sent to, she is where all the other bad demons go. That is the worst suffering and punishment she could have. She answered to a higher court. Only God knows her fate.

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    1. It is quite possible that Bertha was a "sick" woman, in which case we would have to wonder, I suppose, how culpable she would have been in the eyes of God (for of course it is not for us to judge). I would suggest that the point of view on the episode of Deadly Women concerning Bertha is not only severely slanted but it is sensationalized to the point of being fiction in some aspects. (Bertha never saved funeral programs as depicted.) If you're interested in a more balanced telling of her story, I would suggest reading the memoir, Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford.

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  13. Like Lydia Farmer, I also found Bertha in my family tree.
    Bertha was my Great Grand Aunt, on my father's side.
    I found this out only this morning. So, it's a lot to take in.
    I suppose I should order your book!

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  14. Wow, Jeff. Well... Welcome to the family! Do you live in Missouri? The photo above (not the one of Bertha) is of me, and I'm standing on the porch of the farmhouse in Catawissa, which is now owned by the Fiedler (Pounds) family. Contact me privately (find my website and you'll find my email address) for a less expensive copy of the book, if you prefer.

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  15. I was born and raised on the old bend road, all my immediate family are still there. I loved your book and hope to get an autographed copy some day. I'm glad the story has been told. My only beef is that I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the accounts of the locals. The thing about the Old Bend Road is almost everybody knows each other because the families have lived there forever, or connect through a marriage tie, or a church. The older generations are dwindling but still present. My GG grandparents immigrated from Germany and settled just down the hill around 1874 (ish). The family tree splits off in many directions from there. My great aunt on my dad's side lived in the farmhouse (her daughter married Bob). She had 3 other siblings as well, one being my grandpa born in 1899 (this is also Mildred's dad). Do you think the stories, gossip or speculation of events would really get that distorted in only 2-3 generations? I guess i'm skeptical, but realize it could be sensationalized. I know I couldn't tell the stories I heard precisely, but I can communicate the main ideas. I love to read through the "Big Bend News" sections in the old Pacific Transcript looking for tidbits of the old families social and business happenings. It is priceless and shows me a glimpse into the lives of my family and their neighbors. These are names I'm familiar with. Based on my experience living in the area, I would find it impossible to not speculate that something wasn't right with Bertha's care based on geography alone. I've never seen a plotted out map of the location's of the families who experienced the deaths (especially the alleged ones), but I'd love to see the radius away from the farmhouse. Based on social, business and church interactions of the neighbors, it would be hard to not notice a problem. People talk. Why didn't they speak out? Would a language or prior cultural custom have anything to do with it? Were other families fairly new to America as well? I haven't given it much thought until now. I guess my point is that I know 2-3 personal accounts my family shared regarding your great grandmother that were not documented in the book. One suggested that my dad's family had enough speculation to turn Bertha away when my great aunt was sick. Based on that story, I conclude that neighbors had to be talking. The other story is the personal accounts regarding the confrontation that happened between your great grandmother and Bertha Unnerstall shortly before her death. Maybe the accounts are in the court records, I've never taken the time to research it. Bertha is my great great grandmother on my mom's side. My mother's side of the family was also neighbors to Bertha. I have stories from both sides of my family. My mom is 79 and has a few interesting stores she still likes to tell. The truth is not all of them are bad, some people liked your grandmother. If you ever organize a meeting about Bertha please post it on Social Media. I'm trying to catch you sometime you are in the area to get an autograph. Best Wishes.

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    1. Wow, thank you so much for your well thought out comments, and I would love to autograph a copy of Tainted Legacy for you this summer when I'm back in MO. I didn't mean to give the impression--either here or certainly not in Tainted Legacy--that I discount what the locals say. But there are stories such as the one in which Bertha allegedly rolls candy in arsenic and hands it out to children that are frankly next to impossible to believe. As you said, people would talk, and if a maniac were doing such a thing, people wouldn't just tell their children to stay away, they'd have the woman committed. At least, I would hope so. One thing is certain, and that is that people did die, and families suffered grief. I have never doubted that, and my heart aches for all the families affected. I hope I get to meet you someday!

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  16. I just found an excerpt in the Pacific Transcript dated January 26, 1923. Church Services in the Peoples Union Protestant Church in Catawissa. German Services: 9am, Sunday School: 10am, English Services: 11am. This is the church I grew up in and my family has too for many generations. Honestly, I hadn't given much thought to a language barrier and potential cultural influences during the time period. That could influence someones decision to accuse someone of murder.

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    1. Oh, what a fascinating point! Thanks for sharing. I had no idea there were separate services, but it makes sense given all the German immigrants that settled in the area.

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  17. U lucky she didnt poisoned your mom!

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  18. I'd have to say that although dramatized....it definatly seems,as if your great grandmother was up to no good. Arsenic might have been misunderstood but it was a common POISON. Too many people along the way died suddenly to ignore. Your comment on Deadly Women in which you questioned if her doomed relatives might have been sick when they arrived is a bit naive. During those days travel and visits were not taken while sick because of the arduous journey etc. I'm sure your mom loved Bertha but working as a victims advocate for police departments it seems pretty clear what good ol' Bertha was up to. Crazy? Over the span of 20+ years these deaths took place? Highly unlikely. Evil? That's my bet.

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    1. Anon, you would not be the first to label me "naive," a descriptor I accept whole heartedly. I agree that arsenic was a common poison at the turn of the last century, but also do an internet search of "arsenic eaters" and you will find background on those who, at the time, believed it cured many ailments and would also contribute to "a rosy complexion," which is one reason my great-grandmother used it. She was very vain about her looks, as was my mother. This is something that seems to have skipped generations, as my grandmother was not and neither am I. As to your characterization of her as "evil" rather than crazy, you'll have to explain what that means.

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  19. Miss Murphy do you have any information on Bertha's parents? The Williams clan? If so, I would love to read about them.

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    1. Let me respond to your question a bit more privately; an internet search of my name should enable you to quickly find my direct email address. Write me there and I'll shoot you a quick answer. And thanks for reading the blog.

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  20. Over the past ten years I have worked on and off in Catawissa and I knew nothing about this. I've lived in St Louis most of my life. My daughter brought this to my attention in the past few days. I have to say it is certainly disturbing but also fascinating. It is amazing to me that a town of that size did not have greater suspicion when this many people died of essentially the same thing in the presence of the same person. How could a doctor not demand autopsies sooner. From her standpoint if your giving someone arsenic that is seven times the amount needed to kill someone and it does in fact kill them and others you don't have to be particularly bright to know there's a problem.
    I find it surprising she was given the sentence she was she seems to me to have been quite fortunate. It would have seemed to me in an area this small and for these charges it would have been worse. I should know this but it appeared to be an all male jury. Were women able to serve on juries at this time? Does anyone know if her husband maintained contact with her after she went away? What became of her children from both marriages? It's also incredible that she is buried in the same place as many of her supposed victims. Id be surprised if this has happened in any similar cases.

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  21. Hi Charlie, thank you for your thoughtful comment. The libraries in Pacific and Union have copies of Tainted Legacy, the book I wrote about Bertha Gifford (my great-grandmother) which might answer more of your questions. In brief here:
    No, women were not yet allowed to serve on juries.in 1928 Missouri.
    Due to lack of refrigeration and other challenges of the times, many people became ill or died from gastrointestinal issues, so it wasn't uncommon for a doctor to see this complaint frequently. If we consider how folks got their water--wells, cisterns--it's not surprising. The farmhouse on Bend Road in Catawissa still derives its water from a well and cistern. I was just there in July (2015). I will reiterate what I said previously; all ground water contains arsenic. Some sources have higher levels. It only takes the tiniest bit of arsenic to make someone sick.
    Yes, Gene maintained contact with Bertha for years after her incarceration. Her daughter from her first marriage (my grandmother) married, had my mom, and lived out her golden years in California. James, her son with Gene, also moved to California and lived into his 70's. My mother, Bertha's granddaughter (who was living with her when Bertha was arrested) lived to be 91. Oh, the stories she told!

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  22. Thanks for your reply. We will buy the book.
    I thought I read in an account that she was buried in an unmarked grave. Do you know who has placed the current headstone? I also thought I saw that the current owners of the house are Pounds. Same family as the girl who died?
    I would guess if her husband maintained contact he believed she hadn't done anything wrong. I spend a good deal of time in California and I have to say your relatives made a good move.

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    1. Charlie, if you want to purchase a signed copy of the book at a much reduced price, email me privately through my website, www.skaymurphy.com, and we can make those arrangements.
      Yes; the farmhouse is owned by the Fiedlers. Bob Fiedler married Claire Pounds. Same family.
      Gene always believed in Bertha's innocence.
      I, too, spend a great deal of time in Cali. I've lived here all my life and love it. Let me know when you're here sometime; we'll have to meet up and discuss the book!

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  23. I have just one question.. if you believe that perhaps she was innocent; why did she not figure out that the arsenic was killing her patients? Surely after the many deaths, all of which showed the same symptoms, Bertha should have realized that it was the arsenic. If arsenic could kill a rat at a certain dosage, it could certainly kill a human being.

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    1. Good question, and one I've pondered myself a time or two. But consider the question in the context of the time: Gastroenteritis was a common ailment due to water standards, lack of refrigeration, ignorance of proper health standards for cooking, sterilization, etc. (Most folks had ice boxes at best; no one had a dishwasher.) So those symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea were quite common in someone Bertha might be "sitting up" with. Doctors at that time prescribed some pretty nasty stuff as "medicine" (including strychnine, which is also used as a rat poison). It is possible--certainly not proven--that she might have thought she was helping people by giving them some of the medicine she used routinely herself.

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  24. It's great to hear from a relative of Bertha Gifford. It always good to read another very personal side of the story. While it's true we all have some arsenic in our system, it's not enough to kill 1 man, let alone 7 men, or we would all be dead. Arsenic in your tissues doesn't multiply after death. That's why they can tell if arsenic was enough to kill someone years after death. While forensics has grown immensely over time, a lot of chemistry was figured out a long time ago. They definitely knew how much arsenic it took to kill a person way back then.

    I do agree that we may never know how many people might have died due to arsenic poisoning by Ms. Gifford. But after digging up 2 bodies, why would they want to keep digging up another 15, causing grief to more families, when they already had enough to get a conviction.

    Good luck with your blog. It's very interesting.

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  25. Donna, thank you. I especially appreciate your perspective on not digging up more deceased so as not to upset the families. Makes sense. One thing to consider: The allegation that there was 'enough arsenic to kill seven men' in Ed Brinley's body was made by a reporter for the Post-Dispatch. Interestingly, such a claim was never made during the trial, or at least such a claim during the trial was not reported. Since a transcript of the trial no longer exists, we have nothing factual to analyze, only what that reporter said. You are quite right, though; a lot of chemistry was figured out a long time ago.
    Thanks for your kind words on the blog. Funny thing; I rarely write about Bertha. Mostly I write about life, books, my beloved dog, my silly cats, teaching, and the people I love. But just, sometimes... Bertha. She is, after all, my great-grandma.

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  26. I read your book, The Tainted Legacy yesterday. I recently found out that I am distantly related to Henry Graham, Bertha's first husband. I was told about your book, and could hardly wait to get it after ordering it on Amazon! What a fascinating story, and so well written. I'm new at all of this genealogy, but I think I am a second cousin, three times removed to Henry Graham, and your 5th cousin! I just wanted you to know how glad I am I got to read the book!

    I also live in California, and I think maybe not too far from you! It's definitely a small world!

    I will be passing the book along to my family too! Thank you so much for writing it!

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    1. Hello, cousin! I love that I keep meeting more new cousins through Tainted Legacy! Laurie, you probably have a question or two, now that you've finished the book. Feel free to email me directly: kayzpen@verizon.net so that we can get together for a cup of coffee and discuss the book or Missouri or the family tree!

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  27. The accounts I have read about Bertha are fascinating, but so far I haven't seen much about motive, other than to label her a serial killer. From what we now know about serial killers, particularly female killers, I don't believe your great-grandmother fits the profile. Arsenic can be tricky, and lethal doses hard to determine, particularly when arsenic is often found in water supplies, and in many foods. But it is possible, considering your GGM was drawn to being seen as a healer, that she suffered from Munchausen by Proxy syndrome. People with Munchasen by Proxy are addicted to being seen as the hero who comes to the aid of the victim. It often begins innocently when someone is able to 'save' another person, and becomes addicted to the attention. It is a legitimate mental illness, which sometimes leads to tragic ends. Your GGM seems to follow the classic example of M by P. She probably did not mean to actually kill most (if not all) of her victims, and simply meant to make them very sick so that she would be seen as the hero who brought them back from the brink of death. Like you said, there is no record of how many people were 'saved' under her care, but there may have been scores of people who felt she was a miracle worker. M by P sufferers often do not even recognize the fact that they are contributing to the victims ailments, and see themselves as saviors. A complex and confusing mental illness, but not the same as being a serial killer, even when the results are just as sad.

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    1. Thanks for your insightful thoughts here. I agree. Back when I was researching my book about Bertha, The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford, I interviewed as many family members as I could. Of course, no one her age was still around, but direct descendants were. No one could even speculate about a motive. But Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome (MBPS) was discussed quite a bit, and I've discussed that in the book because I think it almost fits. Serial killers MUST kill, and that just doesn't seem to fit her profile.

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