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.