Friday, May 27, 2016
The Infamous Female Poisoner of Germany by Charles Kingston 1921
The Infamous Female Poisoner of Germany by Charles Kingston 1921
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Gesina Gottfried was, as a girl, plump and pretty, bright and pert, and the young men of the town in Germany in which she was born never let her know what loneliness meant. She had, of course, numerous suitors; and, while the social position of her parents was a poor one, she did not hesitate to declare that she would only marry a man likely to make money and give her the luxuries for which she craved. This was regarded as a good joke by her acquaintances, for in those days the status of women in Germany was even lower than it is to-day, and they were regarded, after they had lost their youth and their looks, as on a level with the beasts of the field—it was no uncommon sight to see women harnessed to the plough—and they were expected to toil all day long.
However, pretty Gesina was humoured, and, after taking stock of all her lovers, her choice alighted upon one named Miltenberg. He had a small business of his own, was reputed to possess a considerable sum in the savings bank, and bore the reputation of being ambitious, and, therefore, certain to make more money. Gesina's parents cordially approved of her decision, and at the age of seventeen the girl became a wife. Within three years she was the mother of two fine children, and the small world in which the Miltenbergs lived envied them.
But the truth was that the marriage had proved a miserable fiasco. The young bride had not taken long to discover that her husband was an improvident drunkard, who was heavily in debt and who lived on the verge of the gaol. Whenever she remonstrated he treated her cruelly, and it was only Gesina's pride that prevented her denouncing him. But she was compelled to conceal her grief because she would not give her jealous girl friends and former rivals an opportunity to jeer at her, for she had boasted often that she was going to be a lady and that when she was married she would have a servant of her own. They had derided her then, and she would not tell them now that she had made a mistake in marrying Miltenberg, the drunkard and wife-beater.
So the girl who had dreamed of being a lady and had actually become a drudge was terrified every time she heard her husband enter the house. Food was scarce, but the cries of her children did not arouse a mother's love. She turned upon them and exhausted her rage by ill-treating them; yet Gesina was able to keep up appearances and her parents did not guess the real state of affairs.
About four years after her marriage Gesina paid a visit to her mother. She found her engaged in a war against the mice that were infesting the kitchen, her principal weapon being white powder which she had bought from the local chemist.
As Gesina sat and watched the bodies of the poisoned mice it seemed to her a pity that brutal husbands could not be as easily got rid of, and her thoughts dwelling for a long time on this injustice she finally abstracted some of the white powder when her mother was upstairs.
Gesina reached home that night with the precious powder, half an hour before her husband returned from one of the vilest cafés in the town. She was trembling with excitement and her pale cheeks were now flushed, and she looked something like the girl Miltenberg had married four years earlier. But he was too far gone to notice anything, and beyond the customary threats his only remark was to growl his appreciation of the glass of beer with which Gesina unexpectedly presented him. The beer was not yet poisoned, for Gesina had decided to give him one more chance. It was, of course, a hopeless one, as it was not possible that he would reform unexpectedly and never strike her again.
The drunken boor was sitting at the table clutching the glass when a knock came to the door, and a moment later Gesina had admitted a mutual friend, Gottfried, a young man who had shown for some time that he admired her. Locked within the ill-used wife's breast was the secret of her strange love for this weak youth, and now the sight of him inflamed her, as she knew that she had the means to free herself from the brute whose name she bore. Gottfried's coming there that night meant sentence of death on Miltenberg, and without any compunction the woman dropped some of the arsenic into his glass.
The doctor who attended Miltenberg during his brief fatal illness was aware of the fellow's dissipated life, and he readily certified that death was due to natural causes.
Gesina was now in a position to marry Gottfried, and there was yet a chance that she might be rich and happy.
Without troubling about mourning she renewed her acquaintance with Gottfried, who had by now, however, grown tired of her. Perhaps he had read her character that night he had called and sat beside Miltenberg whilst the latter drank the poisoned beer. Perhaps he had a suspicion of the truth, and was afraid lest he should meet with the same fate. But the poisoner ignored his coldness towards her. She had determined to marry him, and marry her he must.
She forced a proposal from him, and then an unexpected obstacle arose in the opposition of her parents. Gesina was astounded; Gottfried secretly delighted. He was always docile and submissive when in her company, but once he was out of her sight he hated her. She was too self-willed and masterful for him, and he was a genuinely happy man when he was informed that her parents considered him too obscure and contemptible to be worthy the honour of their daughter's hand.
In vain Gesina argued, implored and threatened. The old people would not give way. They told her that it was her duty to look after her children and not bother about a second husband, and as they had the law on their side Gesina would only fling herself out of the house and return to her own squalid one to ponder over her grievances.
A woman of her sort could come to only one decision, and that was to send her father and mother to their graves with the aid of the white powder which had proved so effective in the case of her brutal husband. She accordingly pretended to forget Gottfried, and sought a reconciliation with her parents, who, to celebrate the reunion, gave a pork supper in her honour. Gesina, who was particularly fond of this favourite dish, did full justice to it, although before sitting down to the table she had put arsenic in the beer her parents were to drink! When they were taken to their room in agony she calmly continued to eat, and she was so callous that when they died she shed no tears.
With three victims to her account Gesina went to see Gottfried. He affected to be overjoyed at meeting her again, and, fortified by the knowledge that the opposition of her parents rendered a ceremony of marriage between them impossible, spontaneously invited her to have dinner with him. But Gesina took away his appetite at the very beginning of the meal by informing him that her parents had suddenly died, and that there was now no reason why he should not fulfil his promise and make her his wife.
Gottfried went pale with terror, and so great was his agitation that she noticed it at once, and taxed him with trying to deceive her. The unhappy coward protested that she was doing him an injustice.
"I am grieved to hear of their death," he stammered, perspiration breaking out on his forehead. "I had a great respect for them, and your tragic news has upset me."
Gesina laughed contemptuously.
"Considering that they always treated you like dirt, you needn't wear mourning for them," she retorted. "Don't be a fool, Hermann. All I want to know is when we can be married? I'm tired of living alone."
The last sentence put an idea into his head. It reminded him that she had two children. In faltering tones he suggested that it would be inadvisable to marry. He swore that he had nothing saved, and that it would be too heavy a burden for him to provide for a wife who would bring with her another man's two children.
If Gesina had not been satisfied that she had the means of removing everybody who stood in her way she would have been extremely angry with Gottfried, but now she only became pensive, and a little later proceeded to discuss his objection in detail.
"You don't object to me, I suppose?" she asked, holding her clasped hands under her chin.
He protested with many oaths that he loved her to distraction, but that the children were so many barriers to their marriage because he was really poor.
"Very well," she observed, before changing the subject, "I will wait until the children are not a burden to anybody."
A fortnight later she met him again.
"My children are dead," she said simply. "They had convulsions a week ago, and quickly passed away. I am now quite alone in the world."
The man regarded her with horror. It is most likely that he was the only person who suspected that these unexplained deaths were no mysteries to her. But he could not have thought for a moment that she was a fivefold murderess!
Gottfried was an ignorant and superstitious man, and he knew nothing about poisons. All the deaths caused by Gesina's "white powder" had been duly certified by respectable local practitioners, and he had not the courage to create a scandal by voicing his suspicions regarding the two children.
There was something fascinating about Gesina, and Gottfried's will power always vanished when he was with her. But nevertheless, he made a brave struggle to resist her, and, although he agreed to an engagement, he never had the slightest intention of becoming her husband.
Gesina pretended to be satisfied with his promise, and even when, as the occasion arose, he put forward the flimsiest of excuses to postpone the ceremony, she was ever contented and apparently happy. A few months went by, and there were no more sudden deaths among her relatives. Gottfried's fears left him and he began to think of her as he had in the days when she was a young bride.
Yet he stopped short at marriage, and beyond an engagement would not go. As the young woman very seldom referred to the former he was very pleased to take her to the cafés and to the theatres, and generally have a good time in her society. But he totally misunderstood the character of the creature who called herself his sweetheart. Gesina was content because she had already devised a method by which she knew that she would accomplish her object. She had not poisoned five human beings without learning a lot, and she was now an expert. She knew exactly how to kill and how to cause an illness without fatal results, and she decided to dose Gottfried until she had so weakened him in body and mind that he would be mentally as well as physically at her mercy.
The infatuated fool never suspected anything, and when his mysterious illness began he did not draw any inferences from the fact that Gesina often sat by his side while he was drinking. Of course the vile creature had used every opportunity to administer arsenic in small quantities, and she had many, because she insisted upon nursing him.
It was a most scientific and crafty murder, because as Gottfried grew weaker he got more affectionate, and she gave him the poison so cleverly, and worked upon his feelings so astutely, that he came to regard her as his devoted nurse! He would allow no one else to come near him or give him his medicine, and every day his passion for her increased, and he shed tears when she was not with him. Gesina, after coaxing him to take poisoned soup, would sit by his bed and cheer him by painting their future together in rosy colours. She would not hear of a fatal issue to his illness, and what with her gaiety and her optimism the patient thought her an angel.
But despite her "nursing" he grew worse every day, until it was obvious that he was going to die. By this time he was too weak to be able to think of anything except his love for Gesina, and at last he asked her as a favour to marry him on his death-bed.
Within an hour of his proposal, Gesina, dressed in black, called upon a clergyman, and told a heart-rending story of a dying lover who had implored her to ease his last hours by consenting to be his wife. The minister of religion was touched, and instantly agreed to marry them. He repaired at once to the death-chamber, and there the dying man and the murderess joined hands and were made man and wife. Within twenty-four hours, however, Gesina was a widow again, for Gottfried passed away as the result of an extra strong dose which she administered twenty minutes after she had become Frau Gottfried.
She did not lose anything by the marriage even if she did not gain much. Gottfried left a few hundred pounds, and to this sum she succeeded. Her principal motive for marrying him was vanity. So many persons had talked sneeringly of her long engagement to Gottfried that Gesina knew it would surprise and mortify the gossipers if she did really become his wife, and to gratify this whim she slowly poisoned him!
But her successes were so numerous, that she took to poisoning people as a hobby. The "white powder" was her infallible remedy for removing objectionable men and women. She did not fear the doctors, and she laughed at their ignorance. Most of them were quacks, and none of them were a match for the quick-witted woman, who seemed to flourish on murder. She might dwell in an atmosphere of death, yet there were always men to court her, and the good-looking widow had several proposals.
The third opportunity to marry, which she decided to accept, came from a prosperous merchant, who was fascinated by the young face and the glib tongue of the poisoner. He met Gesina for the first time at Gottfried's funeral, and he had accompanied her home with a few other friends to comfort her, and after that he frequently called, until it was obvious that Gesina liked him. That unlucky merchant was, however, indirectly responsible for one of Gesina's most brutal crimes ere he, too, fell a victim to her devilish arts.
One night the merchant was chatting with the widow, when a tall, stout soldier staggered into the room the worse for drink. Gesina and the merchant started to their feet, and the latter would have turned upon the drunkard had not the woman recognized her brother, whom she had not seen for years. During those years Wilhelm had not improved; he was, in fact, after the stamp of her first husband, Miltenberg, a drunkard and a bully, and he now insisted upon being made welcome, behaved rudely, insulted Gesina's lover, and was only pacified by offerings of unlimited beer. When he had drunk sufficient he announced his intention of remaining in the house, and there was every reason to suspect that he intended to cadge and bully her out of her small means before taking his departure.
But the "white powder" solved the problem. Gesina woke him up in the middle of the night with a glass of beer in her hand, which he delightedly drank, and thanked her with brotherly affection. At nine o'clock he was a corpse, and when Gesina knocked on his door and called out the time she received no answer. She had not expected one.
The merchant, who had been thoroughly disgusted with the soldier's behaviour, could scarcely express conventional regret when he heard the news, and he gained Gesina's gratitude by paying the funeral expenses. Out of gratitude Gesina fixed the date for their marriage, but a week before the ceremony was to be performed her lover fell ill.
His days on earth were now numbered. Gesina, averse to becoming his wife, had poisoned him, but in the same way as she had done Gottfried. She dosed him into a state of utter helplessness, and when he was prostrate she induced him to make a will in her favour. This was the day before he died. The doctor was never even suspicious, and her lover was buried. Then she retained a clever lawyer to collect his effects, turn them into hard cash, and remit the money to her. A few relatives protested, but Gesina and the lawyer settled them, and the murderess entered with intense satisfaction into possession of three thousand pounds, a large sum to her.
A year subsequent to this crime she was again engaged, and once more she slowly poisoned her fiancé and he made her his heir. When his will had been drawn up she administered the final dose, and, having allowed a few days to elapse, proceeded to inquire into the extent of her inheritance.
Greatly to her anger and astonishment, she discovered that she had been hoaxed. Her victim had left nothing except debts, and she had wasted valuable arsenic upon him. To add insult to injury, rumours spread that Gesina had inherited a large fortune, and several persons who had lent her money began to press for repayment.
Besides being a murderess, Gesina was very mean. She could borrow from the poorest of her acquaintances, but she would not repay them even when she had a considerable amount to her credit. She loved money, and nothing pleased her better than to add to her store of gold coins. She was in the habit of carrying five hundred pounds about with her in notes and gold, and she gradually acquired a collection of jewellery.
It is difficult to write of her as a human being. One can hardly imagine that she ever existed, and yet all the details of her career I have given are on the official records of the German Criminal Courts.
Gesina with the blue eyes and the merry laugh went through life scattering death on each side of her. She could crack a joke with a man who was dying at her hands. She could dress in black and shed tears over a coffin, and at the same time debate with herself as to her next victim. She poisoned innocent and inoffensive persons just to keep her hand in. When she had over a thousand pounds she murdered a woman because she had asked for the return of a loan of five pounds.
The last-named affair occurred after the murder of the lover who had tricked her in death. Gesina's friend lived in Hamburg, and, having fallen upon evil times, and hearing that her old acquaintance was now a rich widow, she wrote asking to be repaid the money she had lent her. Gesina sent an affectionate letter in return, inviting Katrine to visit her, when she would not only pay her the debt, but add a present for her past kindness. It is only necessary for me to add that Katrine never returned to Hamburg for my readers to realize what happened to her when she became Gesina's guest.
But on account of her numerous crimes Gesina was compelled to change her residence frequently, and when she bought a house in Bremen it was the sixth German town in which she had settled.
The house she took was capable of accommodating several families, and she considered it a safe investment for her "earnings." But somehow things went wrong. She was an expert poisoner, but she was not good at business, and eventually she had to raise a mortgage on her property at a ruinous rate of interest.
Gesina's ambition had always been to appear better off than her neighbours, and now, in order to gratify her vanity, she forgot her old passion for hoarding money. She lived luxuriously and dressed well, and, realizing that her mind was beginning to be reflected in her face, she took to paint and powder to conceal her true character. Youth had fled from her, although she was young in years. She was thin, scraggy, and unpleasing to the eye, but Gesina acquired the art of making up, and she was able to pose as a young-looking widow who had known sorrow without having been hardened by it.
For two years she played her part so well that she escaped detection. The "pretty widow" became a well-known character in Bremen, and it was often rumoured that she was about to be married again. But somehow an accident always happened at the critical moment. Either it was the wrong man, and then Gesina simply poisoned him, or else the right man became uneasy and backed out of the engagement, and the murderess felt that she dare not protest too much lest she should expose herself and her past to inquiry. Anyhow, she was still a widow when the mortgagees foreclosed and took possession of her apartment house.
Gesina was now really poor. All her savings had gone, and with them her credit. She was actually in danger of starvation, and her condition was so forlorn that when the new owner of the house—he had purchased it from the mortgagees—came to turn her out and install his own family, he was so touched by her distress—and she looked so pathetically pretty as she sobbed in the darkened room—that he gave her the position of his housekeeper.
Herr Rumf was one of the most respected tradesmen in Bremen. A master wheelwright, he employed several hands, and was considered a generous employer. His wife and children adored him, and he was just the sort of man to be affected by a forlorn widow's grief, for he was large-hearted and easily roused to deeds of generosity.
Gesina was not long in Rumf's employment before she planned out a regular campaign of murder. She resolved to murder her employer's wife, and thus regain her ownership of the house, in addition to becoming the mistress of his fortune, for once she was his wife she meant to dispose of him as she had Gottfried and the infatuated merchant. As for Rumf, he unconsciously became a willing party to the plot. His own wife, aged by the cares of a large family, was not exactly an exhilarating companion, and he was charmed of an evening on his return from his shop by Gesina's ready wit and her stories of fashionable persons she pretended to have known when she was better off.
When Frau Rumf gave birth to a child it was Gesina who attended her, and who at night waited on Rumf, and banished his melancholia. He, too, began to cherish dangerous thoughts, and when his wife's illness took a turn for the worse, following the unexpected death of her infant, he was not nearly as distressed as he would have been had he never made the acquaintance of the widow who had "come down in the world," as she often assured him.
The unfortunate wife died, and Gesina was given the charge of the five little children. Herr Rumf could not neglect his business. It was of far more importance to him than his family; and, while he observed all the conventions in mourning for his wife, he was too good a German to allow her decease to interfere with money-making. Gesina, therefore, reigned over his household; and, recalling what Gottfried had said about children being an obstacle to matrimony, she poisoned all five in the most fiendishly cruel manner.
The amazing thing is that Rumf never suspected that the seven tragedies in his household were not mere accidents of fortune. He was suspected of aiding and abetting the murderess, but as he very nearly became one of her victims he was not prosecuted, especially as he actually brought her career to an end.
His last child had just been interred when Herr Rumf himself had a breakdown. For some days he had found it impossible to retain food, and he was wasting away, when he ordered one of the pigs he kept to be killed and a portion of the meat cooked for him. As Gesina was then visiting some friends the meal was prepared by a servant, and to Rumf's extreme delight he found that it agreed with him. It was the first food he had eaten for a fortnight that he was able to digest.
Pleased at the discovery, he had a goodly piece of the pig placed in the larder for future use, being determined to live on pork until he found something else to agree with him. Nearly every day he took a look at the meat, just to see that it was all right, and it was only by accident that Gesina did not get to know of this. Rumf had forgotten to tell her of his wonderful discovery, and when she came across the spare rib of pork in the larder she guessed who it was for, without realizing all that it meant to Rumf, and decided that it would provide a safe medium for administering another dose of arsenic to him. She accordingly sprinkled it with the white powder, not knowing how affectionately her employer regarded that particular piece of meat, and ignorant of the fact that he scarcely thought of anything else from morning until night.
One day Rumf came home earlier than he was expected. Gesina was gossiping with a neighbour, and did not see him enter the house. The wheelwright went to the larder to have a peep at his beloved pork, and he noticed immediately that it had been shifted. He picked it up to replace it, and then he saw the white powder. At once he remembered having seen similar powder before. It was in a salad which Gesina had prepared for him just before the beginning of his illness.
Without scarcely pausing to think, he wrapped the meat up in a cloth, and carried it to the police, who had it examined.
When the doctor reported that the white powder was arsenic Gesina was arrested. She instantly confessed in the most brazen-faced manner, recounting her exploits from the day she had murdered her first husband down to the attempt on Rumf's life, and, knowing that she would be shown no mercy, she reviled her gaolers, and defied them to do their worst.
Her trial and condemnation in 1828 followed as a matter of course, but Gesina went to her death with a mincing gait, and a sneer for mankind in general. She expressed only one regret, and that was that the notoriety her evil deeds had earned for her had resulted in the public becoming aware that her teeth were false!
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