Chicago’s ‘Poison Widow’ killed men like they were vermin in 1919

Tillie Klimek was poor, uneducated, and homely, but she had one talent that her neighbors admired.

Tillie could predict when people were going to die. In the Chicago neighborhood known as Little Poland, her psychic powers were legendary.

It took a long time for anyone to realize these powers sprang from a household product known as Rough on Rats.

Introduced in the 1870s, the product was touted as a way to rid homes of “rats, mice, roaches, flies, beetles, ants, mosquitoes, bedbugs, insects, skunk, weasel, gophers, chipmunks, moles, muskrats, etc.”

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The manufacturer probably did not intend for the “etc.” to include husbands. But it did.

By the end of the 19th century, Rough on Rats, a powder composed of arsenic and soot, had been used as the murder weapon in some high-profile cases, including those of spouses and children.

For some reason, though, no one suspected the vermin killer when, starting in 1919, Tillie’s first three husbands went from hale and hearty to dead in a matter of weeks.

Born in Poland in 1876, Otillie Gburek was an infant when her family moved to America. At 14, she married John Mitkiewicz.

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After nearly 30 years of marriage, Tillie started to tell neighbors of weird dreams in which she saw her husband’s lifeless body.

It wasn’t long before the prophecy became reality. The coroner said Mitkiewicz died of a bad heart and Tillie quickly collected on his insurance policy, no questions asked.

Well into middle age and not a beauty, Tillie nevertheless had no trouble luring a new beau, Joe Ruskowski, who marched her down the aisle two months after her first husband died.

Ruskowski went from groom to grave in record time and on the date, Tillie said, that came to her in one of her dreams.

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Her next husband, Frank Kupczyk, didn’t last six months. As in other cases, Tillie said she had dreams about his death and gave a date for his departure. She even needled him about his failing health, telling him, “It’s not long now.”

In preparation, she asked the landlady if she could store a cheap coffin in the basement. The landlady said no.

She collected large insurance checks soon after the funeral of each husband.

Three dead spouses were somehow not enough to attract the attention of police. Nor was her record with doomed husbands enough to deter another suitor.

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Joseph Klimek became smitten in 1921, ignoring her reputation and the pleas of his family to find a more suitable girl.

Klimek insisted he was a strong, healthy man and that the fate of Tillie’s other husbands would not befall him.

The honeymoon ended quickly. Tillie started having dreams and Klimek was soon on his deathbed. But this time, his family whisked him to a hospital. There, the doctor noticed stiffness in his movements and “garlic breath,” telltale signs of arsenic poisoning.

“The next one I want to cook dinner for is you,” Tillie quipped to the officer who arrested her.

Investigators exhumed the bodies of her former husbands and found arsenic in all of them.

At the same time, police uncovered a string of sudden, mysterious deaths and illnesses – as many as 20 – among Tillie’s neighbors and relatives. Many fell ill after having dinner at Tillie’s home or taking candy from her. One was a man with whom she had been romantically involved, but died suddenly after refusing her proposals of marriage.

Several of the victims were close kin of Nellie (Ma) Sturmer Koulik, Tillie’s cousin. Among Koulik’s dead relatives were a husband, infant twins and a granddaughter. Police exhumed Koulik’s first husband, Wojcik Sturmer. His body contained enough arsenic to kill a dozen men.

The Lady Bluebeards were each charged with the slaying of a husband. Tillie said Koulik supplied the Rough on Rats for the killing spree.

At her trial in March 1923, Tillie snickered when a nurse told of the night Klimek entered the hospital. The nurse said Tillie shouted, “If he makes any trouble for you take a 2-by-4 board and hit him over the head with it.”

Witnesses told of her nonchalant attitude while Kupczyk lay dying, including reports that she blared jazz music on the Victrola.

When Tillie took the stand in her defense, she admitted that she prepared all the meals for her family, but she insisted that it was not her cooking that did her husband in. Kupczyk “died by moonshine,” she declared.

The jury found her guilty in one hour and 20 minutes and recommended she be locked up for life.

The “Poison Widow” died in jail in November 1936.

Reporters at the time of her trial described her as a “squat little Polish storekeeper” and pointed out how plain and dowdy she was. Her lack of feminine charms, some speculated, may have influenced the jury.

In the era of Jazz Age crimes of passion, beautiful women seemed always to get a pass, no matter how strong the evidence against them. A year after her trial, two other Chicago killers – Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, the inspirations for the musical Chicago – would walk even though there was little doubt they snuffed out their lovers.

Still, the unfair beauty advantage did not handicap Tillie’s alleged partner in crime. Ma Koulik, described as the “unbeautiful mother of 12 children” and a “lump” and a “plain drudge,” was found not guilty of her husband’s murder and released from jail in 1923.

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