Chicago, October 1922.
Joseph Klimek’s guardian angels were working overtime on his behalf. They may have dropped the ball when he married his wife Tillie, but they used his brother to assist. Suspicions and a visit to the doctor proved what he feared, his brother was being poisoned.
The police initially arrested Tillie and her son, and the investigation of Mrs. Klimek’s background painted a very disturbing picture. It seemed everyone around her died, including her prior spouses.
Within two weeks an order was issued to exhume her second husband, Frank Kupsczyk, even though his death certificate stated he died from pneumonia. Enough arsenic was found in his system to kill four persons. Exhumation order for her other husbands were quick to follow.
Joseph Mitkrewicz, Tillie’s first husband, and Wojcik Sterner (aka Sturmer) husband to Nellie Sterner Koulik, Tillie’s cousin who had provided her with the rat poison were examined for poisoning by the coroner. Nellie Koulik was arrested as well. The police had received an anonymous letter asking them to look into her husband’s death which it alleged was a result of poisoning.
Tillie confessed to the police within hours of her arrest, stating she was tired of her husband fooling around, but it didn’t explain that multiple life insurance policies she had procured in the event of his death, and the fact she was a widow many times over.
Another common-law marriage with John Ruszkakski was discovered. He died in 1914 only five months after living with Tillie.
Harry Suida, Tillie’s cousin contacted the state attorney’s office and called their attention to the mysterious death of his sister Rose after eating dinner at the Klimek household.
Eating with Tillie could very well be your last meal. When Harry came forward, Elizabeth Wyieckowski another cousin told of the mysterious death of two sisters and a brother after they broke bread with the Klimeks.
The police then followed the trail to the graves of three infants. Two were the children of Nellie Koulik, and the third was her grandchild.
It was around this time that the press started to compare Tillie Klimek with that of Belle Gunness and her “murder farm” in Indiana from ten years before.
Lieutenant Malone of the West Chicago Avenue police station found that Tillie had given birth to 15 children, six which had died.
In 1917 Nellie Koulik had given birth to a set of twins, Benjamin and Sophia. Her husband Wojcik Stermer, refused to recognize the children as his, claiming she had been unfaithful. One child died when it was 8 months old, and the second one died a month later. By the time she was arrested she was mother to 13 children.
The couple frequently argued over Mr. Koulik, Nellie’s present husband. Mr. Stermer’s body was disinterred and found to have enough arsenic to kill several persons.
One of the infants was Dorothy Spera. She was Nellie Koulik’s granddaughter. It seemed that Mrs. Koulik and her daughter frequently argued over her mother's manner of living. After the child was left in her care she died of mysterious causes.
February 27, 1923 Tillie Klimek was slated to stand trial, the star witness would be her last husband, Joseph Klimek who was still recovering in the hospital. Along with her cousin Nellie they were accused of poisoning 20 persons. The crimes were heinous enough that the prosecution was seeking the death penalty, and if granted they would be the first women executed in Illinois.
Neighbors whispered about dogs dying after eating scraps from the dinner table, and insurance payoffs against dead spouses.
The more the police dug, the more they found.
Tillie was born Ottilie Gburek in Poland on October 22, 1877. She was the eldest of 7 children born to Michalina and Michal Gburek and she immigrated as a 4-year-old with her family. They settled in Chicago's "Little Poland" Near North Side. This area had the second largest Polish population next to Warsaw.
In 1895, when she was 18 years old when she married 22-year-old Joe Mitkiewicz. He worked as an inspector for the I.C. Railroad. Their first child Joseph was born July 1896. They rented a house on Sloan Street. During her 29 years of marriage she earned a good reputation as a cook, and strangely enough as a seer. It seemed she could predict impending deaths. The dreams usually involved argumentative neighbors and stray dogs.
Divorce was out of the question, so at the beginning of January 1914, Tillie started telling neighbors that she dreamt her husband Joe was ill and would soon die. On cue, he passed away on January 13 and the cause of death was listed as "heart trouble". Tillie's payoff was freedom and a $1000 check from the life insurance company. He was buried in All Saints' Polish National Catholic Cemetery.
Not one to be sentimental, she married Joseph Ruszkakski (Rushowski) on February 27, 1914. Thirty days later poor Joe #2 was the subject of another of Tillie's premonition, and on May 20, 1914 he went to join Joe #1, leaving Tillie with $1200 in cash and $722 in life insurance.
Josef Guszkowski (Joe #3) thought that by not marrying Tillie would save him. Wrong. He shared candy Tillie had made with his sister Stella, both of them became violently ill. He mysteriously died some time after that in 1914.
March 1919, Tillie tied the knot with Frank Joseph Kupczyk. They lived at 924 N. Winchester Avenue in Chicago. Tillie had once lived there with a man by the name of "Meyers" who had strangely gone missing. It didn't take long for Tillie to start fortelling his demise. He died April 20, 1921. Neighbors later described that she played festive mustic on her Victrola.
Coroner's report listed his cause of death as bronchial pneumonia, and Tillie collected $675 from his life insuranc policy.
One has to wonder if there was a dearth of women in Little Poland in those years because on July 30, 1921 Tillie married a wealthy man named Joseph Klimek (Joe #4). In a well-rehearsed pattern she had her husband take out a life insurance policy. Then he started feeling sick.
Examination by a doctor confirmed he had been poisoned. Gulp, he also remembered when their dog keeled over after eating scraps from the table, and Tillie's soup had a queer taste to it.
Once she ended up going to prison, instead of the gallows there were those that claimed that she ended up there because she had never gone to the beauty parlor.
And because lots of her neighbors swore that she sprinkled "white powder" on cuts of cold meat and fed them to four of her husbands, each of which had a hefty life insurance payoff. The only one that escaped was number 4, who was discovered to be suffering from arsenic poisoning.
Exhumations were made, and arsenic was found in many of the party.
But was Tillie's sentence due to the lack of powder on her nose? Was the fact that she was the first woman in Cook County to get a life sentence without a chance of parole, due to the fact that she was a fat, squat peasant-looking woman, who looked 55 instead of her 45 years of age?
With her dull brown hair, there was no dashing smile that would get her out of her sentence. Even the defense attorneys who understood too well the power of charming women whispered, "She hasn't a chance to beat it."
Tillie ended up in Joliet for the murder of her third husband and possibly her disregard for beauty and guile.
Or perhaps instead it was the perfect disguise for cold-blooded, serial killer who appeared to be a dumpy housewife but in reality did away with husbands and family alike.
Nellie spent a year behind bars with her cousin, who relentlessly tormented her. “Oh, they’re going to hang you today, Nellie!” Tillie whispered in Polish as guards removed her from the cell, causing poor Nellie to scream in terror. In actuality, Nellie’s trial ended in a hung jury followed by an acquittal.
Tillie died in prison on November 20, 1936. She is buried in Bohemian National Cemetery.
In recent years, the prosecution brought out, there have been 28 women acquitted of murder in Cook County.
Source - Chicago Tribune c.1922-1923
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer