If you were a beautiful woman who wanted to kill your husband, Chicago in the 1920s was the place to be. It was simple, really: all you had to do was shoot the cheating bastard in the back of the head and then show up in court, fragrant with perfume and biting your lip in remorse. Your lawyers might ask you to marcel your hair, taking inspiration from the lovely murderesses who walked free before you, like "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan, the killers who inspired the play Chicago. "Silken ankles" would help your case, along with a chic hat to cast "kind shadows" over your face. The all-male jury might murmur, "Don't be afraid, poor little girl; we are all your friends." Go on, let a single tear roll down the side of your perfect nose. You'll go free—but only if you are very, very beautiful.
Tillie Klimek was not beautiful. At 45, she was worn down by childbearing and housekeeping and four troubled marriages. She spoke in broken English. She was cursed with a "lumpy figure" and a "greasy complexion," and she had the audacity to try and play the husband-killing game without knowing the rules: the flirting, the rouge, the soft feminine weeping. Unfortunately for Tillie, Chicago's Prohibition-era justice system was an inconsistent mess, and her looks would do her no favors in the corrupt city.
Tillie came to the USA from Germany when she was about a year old as part of the first wave of Polish immigration to Chicago. This initial movement, which happened from the 1850s to the early 1920s, was known as Za Chlebem, which means "For Bread," and was largely an immigration of the lower classes. This would prove to be another strike against Tillie: when she began to gather attention in the press, she and her family were frequently described as "having the demeanor of peasants."
As an adult, Tillie's life seemed unremarkable. She married, bore children, buried her husband, married again. Chicago was a chaotic place at the time; wildness ran like an artery through the city. Bootlegging raged, Al Capone ruled, rival newspapermen shot each other, and murders-by-women jumped 400 percent in 40 years. So when Tillie's first husband died in 1914, leaving Tillie $1,000 in insurance, nobody panicked. Husbands died—life went on. Tillie remarried a month later, right after Valentine's Day, and her second husband dropped dead within three months, leaving her $1,200 in cash and $722 in life insurance. Again, nobody in Tillie's circles seemed particularly perturbed.
Tillie snatched up her second husband's insurance money and treated herself to a romantic trip to Milwaukee with her lover, Joseph Guskowski, who soon learned that Tillie was more than just an unfortunate widow. Tillie was jonesing for a proposal, but on their way back to Chicago, she let slip that her first two husbands hadn't exactly died of natural causes. They'd been poisoned, she explained. With arsenic. Repeatedly. By her.
Joseph panicked and refused to propose, but Tillie wasn't having it. She threatened him with prosecution under the Mann act—an act that could be used to prosecute "immorality," including consensual adult sexual behavior—and Joseph retaliated by threatening to reveal her arsenic tendencies. But one should never threaten a lady killer, and soon enough, Joseph had gone the way of Tillie's former husbands.
With two husbands and an inconvenient lover out of the way, Tillie married a man named Frank Kupezyk in 1919. The newlyweds moved to 924 Winchester—a house that, to this day, shows up on FourSquare as "Old Lady Tillie Klimek's Haunted House." Their marriage wasn't altogether happy, and Tillie soon took a lover named John, who would stop by to kiss Tillie on the porch after Frank had gone to work.
Two years into their marriage, Frank fell desperately ill and Tillie began acting strange.
One afternoon, while Frank lay sick in bed, Tillie came bounding out of the apartment holding a piece of newsprint. She showed it to her landlady, who was shocked to see an ad for a $30 coffin. It was a steal, and Tillie was going to buy it. "My man, he's got only two inches to live," she told the horrified woman, and then declared that she'd be stowing the bargain coffin in the landlady's basement. Next, she bought some nice black fabric and sat by Frank's sickbed, humming and sewing herself a lovely funeral hat as her dying husband watched.
Tillie only knew that Frank was "two inches" from death because she'd been poisoning him like clockwork, but her neighbors had no idea, and rumors of Tillie's psychic abilities began circulating through her social circles. Ione Quinby, a reporter who covered Tillie's trial a few years later, wrote that "hundreds believed she was possessed of supernatural powers."
Frank died on April 25, 1921, and as he lay in his funeral finest, Tillie blasted cheerful dance music from the Victrola sitting in the very same room. At one point, Tillie even reached into Frank's coffin, grabbed his ear, and shouted, "You devil, you won't get up anymore!" Once he was buried, she collected the $675 in insurance money and moved on with her life.
A man named Joseph Klimek attended poor Frank's funeral, partially to check out the newly single Tillie. Joseph was 50 years old, a gentle and hard-working widower who'd been living alone for years. Some said he was an alcoholic, but Joseph stridently denied those charges. At the funeral, Tillie didn't stay to flirt. "She felt too bad to see people," he explained later. After a few weeks, though, his friends were nudging him in Tillie's direction, and after years of bachelorhood, the idea of a wife was comforting. "I married Tillie for a home," he said. And what a cozy home it was! He loved her skill with the crochet hook, and he was really into her cooking.
Joe wasn't worried about the fact that the new woman in his life had a past, either. Tillie was reformed—he was sure of it. "As soon as we were married," he said, "she burned up all the photographs of her husbands and her man friends. And she tore up all her letters. She had my picture over the mantel; that was all."
Unfortunately, Tillie wasn't so happy with her little slice of domestic bliss, and a woman who's poisoned three husbands doesn't necessarily care about preserving the fourth. She began confiding in her cousin, Nellie Koulik, who had a dead husband of her own under her belt. When Nellie suggested a divorce, Tillie responded, "No, I will get rid of him some other way." One has to imagine that a significant look was exchanged between the two women, because Nellie then went over to her cupboard and gave Tillie a little tin marked "Rough on Rats."
Rough on Rats was a household poison, made up of arsenic tinted black with coal. It was easy to purchase at your friendly neighborhood drugstore, and its slogan was, believe it or not, "DON'T DIE IN THE HOUSE." Ever the skilled cook, Tillie began sprinkling Rough on Rats onto Joseph's food, and Joseph grew sicker and sicker. His legs stiffened and his breath began to smell like garlic, both signs of arsenic poisoning.
Joseph's insurance money was practically glimmering on the horizon when his brother, John Klimek, ruined everything by getting suspicious. Not only were Joseph's symptoms unusual, but two of Joseph's pet dogs had recently died, and John couldn't help wondering if that meant something. Despite Tillie's objections, John called in his own doctor to take a look at his brother. The doctor immediately recognized the symptoms of arsenic poisoning and took the ailing Joseph to the hospital, away from his killer wife.
On October 26, 1922, Tillie was arrested for the attempted murder of Joseph Klimek. The following day, her cousin Nellie was arrested for providing her with arsenic. The case against these two Polish women would unfold over the next year alongside a series of morbid exhumations, anonymous letters, poisoned candies, and gallows humor. In the long run, the city would lose interest in this "squat" Polish woman with the many dead husbands, but for awhile, Tillie piqued their interest, even though she wasn't young and beautiful like other murderesses they'd grown to love. After all, there's always something fascinating about a woman willing to kill.
As Tillie was carted away in the squad car, she turned to the officer next to her and said, "The next one I want to cook a dinner for is you. You made all my trouble."
It soon became apparent that Joseph Klimek's mysterious sickness wasn't an isolated incident. An anonymous letter tipped off the police, and they dug up old Frank Kupezyk's body. Lo and behold, the corpse was filled with arsenic—"enough to kill four men." Another anonymous letter urged the police to look into cousin Nellie's past. "Have the body of [Nellie's first husband], who died some years back, exhumed," it ran, "and you will see he was poisoned." His body was full of arsenic, too. Newspaper headlines began to take on a Frankensteinian quality: Bodies of Mates of Pair Ordered Dug Up; 3 More Bodies to be Exhumed in Klimek Case; Bodies of Other Relatives Will Be Exhumed.
Meanwhile, Tillie was taken to the hospital to see her last living husband. As he plied her with furious questions, she replied, "I don't know. Don't bother me anymore." When she overheard him asking a nurse for a glass of water, Tillie shouted at the nurse, "If he makes any trouble for you, take a two-by-four board and hit him over the head with it!" Still, she kissed him before she left, baffling onlookers.
As the police prepared to dig up Tillie's first few husbands, two of Tillie's cousins showed up and begged them to exhume four additional bodies—those of their siblings, all of whom died mysteriously after having dinner at Tillie's place. Three of them were allegedly killed because Tillie was embroiled in an argument with their mother; one was allegedly killed because Tillie was angry with her. The police also learned about Tillie's lover, Joseph Guskowski, who died after that ill-fated trip to Milwaukee. Another day, another exhumation order. Evidence against Tillie was, quite literally, being raised from the dead.
As Tillie and Nellie were formally charged with murder—Tillie for the murder of Frank Kupezyk, and Nellie for the murder of her first husband—the exhumations took an even more morbid turn. The "poison mystery trails" led detectives to three tiny graves: those of Nellie's twin infants and granddaughter.
Nellie had given birth to the twins while she was still married to her first husband, but he refused to acknowledge them as his. (At the time, Nellie was already embroiled in a tempestuous affair with the man who would become her second husband, Albert Koulik.) One of the twins died at eight months, the other died a month later. The third dead baby was Nellie's grandchild, allegedly poisoned because Nellie's daughter—the baby's mother—had criticized Nellie for "her manner of living." As soon her granddaughter grew sick, Nellie insisted on "treating" her. The baby's feet swelled, her face puffed, and she died under her own grandmother's roof.
Rounding out the victim count were various relatives, friends, and neighbors, all of whom had eaten at Tillie's or Nellie's and hadn't felt like themselves since. One of Nellie's sons who suspected he'd been poisoned was now helping the police form a case against his mother; another of Nellie's daughters suffered from perpetual "heart trouble" after eating at Tillie's house. Two of Tillie's neighbors testified that they fell "deathly ill" after a jealous, angry Tillie fed them poisoned candy. Even Nellie's sister, Cornelia, was brought into jail because her son-in-law suspected her of giving him poisoned moonshine. And last but not least, the police learned of a mystery man known only as "Meyers," who may have been another husband or lover of Tillie, and who was now missing.
The total alleged victim count was 20: 12 dead, seven alive but in poor health, and one missing. And that's just humans—one neighbor claimed their dog mysteriously died after Tillie had "voiced objections" to its obnoxious barking.
Authorities began to talk of a witchy "poison ring" that stretched throughout Little Poland, with Tillie as the "high priestess of the Bluebeard clique." The coroner declared, "There is no question that Mrs. Klimek poisoned every one she wanted to get out of the way." The cousins were now facing the gallows.
In jail, the accused women exhibited very different personalities. Nellie spoke less English and was "good natured" but prone to hysterics. She allowed photographers to take her picture, but not until she'd slicked back her hair. When asked about the case, she insisted that her accusing son had simply made a "joke" that the "big men" took too seriously. On the other hand, Tillie was silent, icy, controlled, and defiant, an "automaton of emotions." The only time she showed any real feeling was when she burst out in her own defense, "I didn't rob nobody!" She continued:
I didn't shoot nobody; I didn't poison nobody; I didn't kill nobody. I didn't! Everybody pick on me. Everybody make eyes at me like they going to eat me. Why do they make eyes at me? I tell the truth. Anything I did I did to myself. Nobody else.
But there was the arsenic and the exhumations and the poisoned candy. Nobody believed Tillie, even for a second. The irate Joseph continued to rage at her from his hospital bed, and the prosecutor—a man named William McLaughlin, Assistant State's Attorney—was out for Tillie's blood. McLaughlin had a knack for hyperbole and seemed determined to secure his own immortalization through this case. He fed journalists the melodramatic quotes they wanted to hear, calling it "the most astounding wholesale poisoning plot ever uncovered" and "the most amazing death plot in recent criminal history." He was convinced that Little Poland was haunted with an entire network of female Bluebeards. And he wouldn't be satisfied with a life sentence for Tillie, either: he wanted the death penalty.
Outside of the courtroom, several of Chicago's feisty "girl reporters" were hot on the case, including the amazing Genevieve Forbes, who worked the crime beat in an era when women simply were not on the crime beat. Genevieve talked to Joseph Klimek in the hospital; she tracked down Tillie's distraught parents; she interviewed Tillie herself. Her analyses were harsh but fair. She recognized that Nellie wasn't much of a threat, but she saw Tillie for what she was: a dangerous, vengeful woman holding her secrets close to her chest. Try as she might, Genevieve couldn't get Tillie to crack. Genevieve was merciless when describing Tillie's looks—"a fat, squat, Polish peasant woman, 45 years old but looking 55, with a lumpy figure, capacious hands and feet, and dull brown hair skinned back into a knot at the back of her head"—but grudgingly acknowledged her secretive intelligence. "Tillie Klimek is a spectator at her own drama," she wrote.
The court never gave Tillie that sort of credit. In fact, the trial took a distasteful turn when the judge asked for a "psychopathic lab report" on the two accused women. Tillie and Nellie were formally accused of murder on November 20, and the results of the lab report went public. According to the examining doctor, both women were "sub-normal mentally and sufferers from dementia praecox," with intellects no higher than those of an "11-year-old child." The judge took the whole thing a step further by bringing up one of the era's favorite subject: eugenics. He was irritated because one of Nellie's sons had already been declared "of feeble mind" years before, and he was convinced that criminality ran in this family's DNA. "If we had a fieldworker, a eugenics expert, to check up on the history of this whole family at the time one moron was discovered," he wrote, "then the police might have been warned to watch this woman… when we find one case we can seek out and locate the nest."
Remember that neither of these women spoke perfect English. If their "examination" was given in English, it's quite possible that they would have simply been unable to complete it. From other reports, it does seem like Nellie was significantly more naïve than her cousin. But Tillie was no fool; the lab report completely underestimated her. "She has brains," wrote Genevieve, "and they are the yardsticks for her emotions." But she wasn't beautiful, and she wasn't flawlessly American, so the courts insisted that her crime was the work of a childlike intellect—or the work of a peasant.
Since Chicago was so thoroughly out of control in the '20s, it's not surprising that Tillie's trial turned into something of a circus. On numerous occasions, the judge was forced to yell, "This is not a theater!" But the audience would have disagreed with him. Gossipy neighbors, three gravediggers, and a "lady undertaker" testified against Tillie, and just like Hamlet's gravediggers, they were hilarious. One gravedigger kept the audience in stitches by telling a scandalous story about Tillie's lover John, the one who would come over after Frank left for work. "Once I seen him kiss her," said the gravedigger, and when McLaughlin asked what happened next, the gravedigger replied, "Why then, Tillie put up some newspapers in front of the window, so I couldn't see in." Everybody cracked up at this part—even Tillie.
But by the end of the trial, nobody was laughing, and even Tillie's icy demeanor was starting to splinter. When the coroner's chemist swore he'd found arsenic in the bodies of all three of her husbands, she finally began to exhibit signs of nervousness. Still, she gave her own solid defense, wearing the fateful black hat that she'd sewn next to Frank's deathbed. She insisted that Frank died of alcohol poisoning and denied culpability in each one of her husbands' deaths. "I loved them; they loved me. They just died same as other people," she said. "I not responsible for that. I could no [sic] help if they wanted to die."
McLaughlin was practically begging the jury for the death penalty. He was sick and tired of women getting away with murder. "Gentlemen, the death penalty has never been inflicted upon a woman in this state," he cried. "This defendant is like a good many other women in this town. She thinks she can get away with it. There are a lot of women, gentlemen, who are awaiting your verdict in this case. I feel that the death penalty should be inflicted, and I mean it."
He was right: Tillie was exactly like "a good many other women in this town," in that she was a husband-killer. Four-hundred percent, remember? But unlike many of the other women, who wept and flirted from the witness stand, Tillie did not, in fact, "get away with it." She received a guilty verdict for the murder of Frank Kupezyk and was sentenced to life in prison—the harshest sentence ever given to a woman in Cook County at the time.
Nellie's trial was something of a mess. Maybe the court never took her as seriously as Tillie, the ice queen, because despite the fact that her own kids testified against her, Nellie walked free. Once she was acquitted of the charge of giving Tillie poison, McLaughlin wearily dropped the other charge against her. Her first husband's body was undeniably full of arsenic, but nobody felt like delving into this supposed "Bluebeard clique" any further now that its high priestess was in jail. Other murderesses were filing into the courthouse, and they were much easier on the eyes. In two short years, "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan would be preening behind the bars of the same jail, posing for reporters in their slips and using every feminine wile in the book (including, but not limited to, tears, fashionable hats, and great tailoring) to get a "not-guilty" from the jury.
This was the ugly truth behind the verdict: Tillie would never have been locked up for life if she were attractive. Sure, she was clearly guilty, but Chicago had dealt with husband-killers before, and the pretty ones consistently walked free. Twenty-eight women had been acquitted of murder in Cook County alone in recent years, and all 28 were attractive. Only four had been found guilty before Tillie: Hilda Axlund ("not a beauty"), Vera Trepannier ("more than middle aged"), Emma Simpson ("judged insane"), and Dora Waterman ("no beauty"). In contrast, the latest woman to walk free was Cora Orthwein, a "dashing, well dressed north side beauty." It was a harsh, nasty truth that everyone recognized, but no one tried to remedy. After one particularly ridiculous trial, where two gorgeous blond sisters were acquitted of murder, the irritated prosecutor said, "Blonde curls seem to have a faculty of making juries forget the most clinching evidence." Genevieve Forbes put it the most bluntly in a retrospective piece about the Klimek case: "Tillie Klimek went to the penitentiary because she had never gone to a beauty parlor."
When the blonde sisters walked free amid a crowd of cheering spectators, someone yelled, "Remember Tillie Klimek!" The crowd paused for a moment—and then began to laugh.
In short, the courts and the press were both well aware of this jury bias, but they also seemed to revel in it. There was something so sexy about a bad woman going free. Society's truly moral outrage was reserved for women like Tillie, who didn't look good doing bad things. A Tribune column called "A Line O' Type or Two" published a vicious telegram mocking Chicago for the ugliness of its latest murderess. "Chicago's bid for fame in boosting Tillie Klimek will fall flat," ran the telegram. "Suggest you have eligibility classes as to beauty, social standing, and so forth before allowing any more murders."
One point that apparently never came up at Tillie's trial was the question of abuse. Most of the evidence pointed to insurance-money-as-motivation, so perhaps the court didn't feel the need to delve further. But concurrent juries were extraordinarily sympathetic to any whiff of spousal abuse (see: Cora Orthwein's trial), so one wonders why it wasn't ever mentioned in Tillie's case. After all, both Tillie and her parents insisted that Joseph Klimek and Frank were alcoholics, and then there was that whole business of Tillie yelling in Frank's dead ear, "You devil, you won't get up anymore." Was she just eager to move on to her next lover, or had her husbands mistreated her? Was there some darker force at work in Tillie's psyche? She wasn't just a killer for profit—there were the cousins, the dogs. Why did she hold such overblown grudges, poisoning anyone who irritated her? Everyone focused on her looks and her cold demeanor, but no one was terribly concerned with her demons. So they labeled her "squat" and "ugly" and locked her up for life.
Tillie led a peaceful life in prison; she told Genevieve a few years later that she was all caught up on her "spring sewing" and that she enjoyed the prison food. She spent 13 years in jail while the public went on to bigger, sexier murder cases. Tillie died in prison on November 20, 1936, and the newspapers listed her age as four years older than she actually was. In death, as in life, nobody cared much about making Tillie look good.
Despite whatever mild domesticity Tillie displayed in jail, she still harbored a secret or two. After all, her alleged lover "Meyers" was never found. And a few years after the trial, when her last husband finally passed away, the doctors reported that he had died of tonsillitis. But when they cut him open and examined his insides, they found that Joseph Klimek's weakened body was absolutely full of arsenic.
Note: all quotes taken from Chicago Tribune coverage of the Tillie Klimek trial, November 4, 1922 to November 21, 1936, except the Ione Quimby quote, from The Milwaukee Journal, Oct 16, 1940 and William McLaughlin's quote about the "death plot," from The Victoria Advocate, November 12, 1922.
Tori Telfer is a writer from Chicago prone to nightmares, writing about creepers, and snatching ideas for stories from happier dreams. Read more of her work here. Read the first two chapters of Lady Killers here.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photos from the Chicago Tribune.