Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Baffling and Tragic Case of Bertha Beilstein

My 3rd-great-grandfather Jacob Beilstein grew up in the home of his older sister Maria M. (Beilstein) Beilstein and her husband, John Frederick Beilstein (yes, a Beilstein married a Beilstein). Their father died when Jacob was a baby, and I still don't know what became of the mother. Jacob took after his brother-in-law and became a butcher. Jacob left the home when he married in 1873, around the time that Fred and Mary had their sixth child, a daughter named Marie. Fred and Mary's last child, Bertha, was born about four years later.

Things seemed to have gone really well for Fred and Mary's family for many years. He had a prosperous business as a master butcher (as his occupation was listed in the 1870 census), and real estate worth thousands of dollars. An older gentleman, David Reich, apparently an old family friend, moved in with Fred and Mary and lived with them. So close was he to them that Fred and Mary specifically provided in both of their wills that David was to be well taken care of, and when he died his burial was to be provided for out of their estate. All the six older children married and had children, leaving only Bertha at home with her parents and David by the late 1890s.

Then something tragic happened. Fred took sick in December of 1897. He apparently knew he wasn't going to survive, as he made out his will on December 15th, and four days later passed away. His death would have lasting consequences for the rest of the family. The newspaper accounts of the next several events vary on exactly why they occurred, but they are consistent in reporting that Bertha was very much affected by her father's death. She apparently just could not get over it, and it bothered her for months. Some reports say she sought out spiritual mediums while visiting relatives in Chicago, and that these mediums told her that her father was lonely in the spirit world, and desired Bertha and Mary to join him. Whatever the case, Bertha decided that the best thing to do would be to take her own life. However, apparently concerned over how her mother would react to her suicide, she decided to spare her mother the grief by killing her first, and then taking her own life.



The reports again vary on the exact course of events, but a few details are consistent - that the mother was shot in bed about 3am on October 2nd, 1898; that Bertha shot her three times; that Bertha then drank at least an ounce of laudanum (apparently a type of medicine of which opium was the primary ingredient) and then shot herself several times, once in the head and at least twice in the stomach. Mary's wounds were fatal, perhaps instantly so, but Bertha's were not. They were discovered later that morning by a brother, perhaps Edward, who found his mother cold and dead in bed, and Bertha lying and bleeding on the floor of another room.

Bertha was immediately patched up and given medical care, though physicians assumed she wouldn't live for more than a few hours (not an unreasonable assumption given the severity of her injuries). Within a day or so, David Reich (who was apparently not in the house at the time of the shooting) learned of Bertha's actions, became despondent, and went out and knelt in front of an oncoming train, and thus ended his own life. I haven't been able to find many records on him yet, so I don't know much about him, or why Mary's death or Bertha's actions would affect him so much, but he apparently cared deeply for Fred and Mary, who likewise returned the emotions as evidenced by their statements regarding David in their wills. But unfortunately the tragedies did not end with David's suicide.



When Mary was buried in the cemetery owned and/or founded by her son-in-law Nicholas Voegtly's family, Edward Beilstein, Mary's 4th child and second son, reportedly tried to throw himself into her grave. Failing in this, a few days later he went alone to his mother's grave at night, wrote a suicide note, and took poison (perhaps rat poison) and ended his life. He was married at the time to the former Margaret Grieves, and had two daughters, Erma (age 10) and Thelka (age 6). Margaret was so shaken by the news of her husband's suicide that several newspapers stated that her death would coming shortly as well. Fortunately, these predictions proved erroneous as Margaret went on to live another 41 years. So far as I can tell, she never remarried, and lived those 41 years a widow.

Once Bertha had had a few months to recover from her injuries, she was arrested and put on trial for her mother's murder. I can't imagine what the family was thinking and feeling at that point - having lost Fred in 1897, then Mary, David, Reich, and Edward in 1898, I cannot imagine how the surviving children and grandchildren must have felt to see Bertha arrested and taken away in a police carriage. The trial started in early May 1899 and lasted six days. While the papers don't go into great detail about much of the proceedings, they do state that Bertha was the first witness called in her own defense, and that she gave her testimony in a cool, clear voice the entire time she spoke. The defense's case rested on the proposition that Bertha was insane, at least at the time of the murder; that Bertha and her parents believed in "spiritualism", that it was possible for the living to make contact with the spirits of the dead; and that Bertha had been told by her deceased father that he desired Bertha and Mary to join him in death. Part of the prosecution's strategy was based on reports that Bertha had had "improper relations" with F. William Beilstein, a Chicago cousin of Bertha's, and that her mother had tried to arrange a marriage between Bertha and the cousin. Bertha reportedly rejected the arrangement, and supposedly killed her mother as part of a strategy to get out of it. The cousin apparently sent letters to Bertha written in milk, which she then read by applying soot to the pages to make the words visible. The cousin stated that his only purpose in writing the letters was advising her on ways to end her own life, and that the subject of killing her mother had never come up. The defense evidently made a more convincing case, as Bertha was found not guilty. She was briefly taken back to jail after the trial, and soon committed indefinitely to the Western Pennsylvania Asylum for the Insane at Dixmont (often referred to as simply Dixmont).

As I began learning about these events, at first I was focused on the immediate players in the family drama - Mary, Bertha, David Reich, and Edward. But as I began preparing to write this post, it occurred to me that Fred and Mary's children all lived in Allegheny county, Pennsylvania at the time of the murder and suicides. Between their six older children, Mary was grandmother to twelve children at the time she was shot (one more, a girl named Marie, would be born just a month later). That makes two dozen people - Mary's children, their spouses, and their children - that were directly affected. Then given the family's wealth and social standing (the articles repeatedly reference how prominent these Beilsteins were in their area) there were many others who shared in the shock and grief of these tragic events. It makes me wonder, given how many family members and friends the Beilsteins had, if there isn't a journal somewhere that records these events and their impact? But I digress. On with the story.

The articles that discuss her life at Dixmont are, like those that covered other parts of this story, somewhat contradictory. Several state that she was a model inmate, quiet if sometimes morose, not prone to causing trouble. Some articles say that she was still very much suicidal, though apparently she did not act on those tendencies even though she had time and means to do so. One article goes into great detail about how she would go out to a bridge, sit down, and stare at the water and sigh, just sitting there sadly for hours until it was time to go back inside. One thing that didn't make much sense was the statement in one article that because Bertha was apparently still so troubled, they gave her more freedom than other patients to cheer her up. If a patient had committed murder, attempted a very violent suicide, and was still apparently bent on their own destruction, how did they come to the conclusion that allowing that person more opportunity to roam freely about the asylum's grounds would be beneficial to her and the other inmates? It seems to me that such a person should be more restricted, in an effort to protect that individual and others. But then, I'm no psychologist.



In any event, Bertha stayed at Dixmont for the next seven years, when the unexpected happened. Accounts differ as to exactly what happened and how, but a few details are clear: Bertha seems to have had a sympathizer (or sympathizers) among the staff at Dixmont. She wrote and received letters (reportedly written in invisible ink) from relatives outside, and that through the help of those inside and outside the asylum, she escaped. Several articles state that she escaped down the fire escape the night of Sunday, September 23, 1906 to an automobile that was ready and waiting for her, which then sped her to freedom.

Dr. Henry A. Hutchinson, superintendent of Dixmont asylum, soon came under fire for allowing the girl's escape. He seems to have changed his story several times, stating at one point that she was abetted by two nurses, Zula Moore and Pearl Boston, who were briefly suspended from the institution. Dr. Hutchinson was investigated by the state board of public charities about the escape. He told the board he "always considered her a degenerate and lacking moral resolution but does not now think her dangerous or likely to do harm to anyone." Another article, one highly critical of Dr. Hutchinson, said that the doctor had kept Bertha's escape covered up for several days and did not intend to release the information, but that some hospital staff had accidentally let it slip that Bertha had escaped. Whatever the case, the board reportedly found no fault in Dr. Hutchinson and cleared him of blame.

One article stated Bertha was next spotted in Cleveland and had there given birth to a son, but the article also stated that the information could not be verified. Bertha seems to have made her way to Chicago, where her brother Frederick Beilstein was living. He and a former schoolmate named Edmund Wander (or Wanders) hid Bertha in Edmund's home, gave her some money, and suggested that she start going by the name Olga Miller. She made her way west to Los Angeles and found employment as a waitress in various hotels in the area.

While working in Los Angeles, Bertha (now going by Olga Miller) made a friend named Richard Hardin/Hardy. There is some suggestion that they were romantically involved, but Richard later stated that he and Olga were only friends who happened to live near each other. Olga became ill while Richard was away on a trip, and when calling on her after his return, found that she had been bedridden for several days. He helped her get to a hospital, and visited her there, but it was apparently too late. Just before Olga died on May 22, 1907, Richard was seen to have given her a glass of milk, which led to Richard's arrest on suspicion of murder. An autopsy showed no trace of poison, Richard was released. The autopsy further discovered a large brain tumor, and this was assumed to be the cause for her decision to murder her mother and suicidal tendencies.



It's not exactly clear how, but someone made the connection between Olga Miller of Los Angeles and the missing Bertha Beilstein of Pennsylvania. It may have had something to do with Richard Hardin's interview with a reporter from the Los Angeles Herald on June 7, 1907. Word appeared in newspapers beginning that same day, and soon the Beilstein family agreed to send Bertha's brother Frederick out west to confirm her identity. Bertha's body was put under armed guard until Fred's arrival, due to apparent threats or rumors that members of the family (none are mentioned by name) had threatened to steal Bertha's body, perhaps in connection with how Fred and Mary's estate had been divided as one newspaper suggested.

Fred made it to Los Angeles in early July (he had attempted the trip in June and made it as far as Albuquerque before turning back for unknown reasons) and confirmed that Olga and Bertha were the same person. Bertha's body, which was still under armed guard, was shipped to the Equitable Trust Company of Pennsylvania, who also confirmed Bertha's identity and then released the body to the family. Bertha was then cremated and buried near her mother.



The last event I found in connection with all these horrid events, though not directly related to them, was the death of Bertha and Fred's oldest brother, Charles Beilstein. It happened on December 3, 1907, only 7 months after Bertha's death, and completely by accident. His death certificate gives his cause of death as "accidental falling of step Lader and falling wth his head on meat counter crushing his head Killing him instantly". It almost makes you say enough with the tragedies already, give the family a break!

The more I read about the Beilstein family tragedies, the more disbelief and shock I felt. To quote one of the early articles, "the misfortunes which have overtaken the Beilstein family of Allegheny, Pa...reads more like fiction than an actuality." It seemed impossible to believe that so much tragedy and so many unusual events could happen one after another after another. I still have a lot of questions about the whole ordeal, some thing may never be answered. I've learned a lot about this family, and found more of my cousins and their descendants. It makes me wonder too what other stories are still out there, waiting to be discovered by a random Google search or Ancestry.com hint. I hope there are no more murders and murderers, but whatever there is, good or bad, it's my family and family history and I'm eager to learn it all.