The Strange Murders of Tillie Klimek
Ottilie “Tillie” Klimek was born Teofila Gburek on October 22, 1877, in Poland. Her parents were Michalina and Michal Gburek. The Gburek family had seven children, and Tillie was the first-born. When Tillie was four years old, the family immigrated to the United States. They settled in the “Little Poland” section of Chicago, Illinois.
Love and Marriage
Not a lot is known about Tillie’s childhood. By 1895, she married Joe Mitkiewicz. The marriage appeared to be a happy one. The couple was well-liked in their community. Tillie earned a reputation as a good cook, who had the uncanny ability to predict impending deaths.
These predictions came to her in dreams, she claimed, and Tillie had many of them. Usually, the dreams were of stray dogs that annoyed her or an argumentative neighbor. However, the world would come to know Tillie wasn’t really having premonitions. She was merely stating times of deaths and penciling a murder into her schedule.
At the beginning of 1914, Tillie began telling friends and neighbors about a new vision. She dreamed her husband, Joe, was sick. And that he would die within weeks. It was no surprise when that dream came true on January 13, 1914. The coroner listed the cause of death as “heart trouble.” Tillie collected around $1000 in life insurance.
Tillie wouldn’t remain a weeping widow for long. Tillie married Joseph Ruskowski on February 27, 1914, After a month of grieving. She once again began to tell people that her husband would die. Joseph, who was the picture of health, started to get sick by May. Just as Tillie predicted, Joseph passed on May 20. He left Tillie $1200 in cash and $722 in insurance.
Shortly after Joseph’s death, Tillie sought comfort in the arms of another man, Josef Guszkowski. His sister, Stella, enjoyed candy with her brother and his new sweetheart. Both of them became violently ill, and Tillie’s latest beau died.
Tillie married yet again in March of 1919. This time to Frank Joseph Kupczyk. The couple lived at 924 N. Winchester Avenue in Chicago. Tillie lived here before, with a man named “Meyers” who happened to go missing. When Frank moved in, Tillie assured neighbors that he wouldn’t live long.
She taunted Frank with this prediction. “It’ll be any day now!” she boasted as the man started to feel sick. “He has two inches to live,” Tillie told her neighbors as if she knew it for a fact.
Frank grew weaker with each passing day. Tillie asked him to take out a life insurance policy, and he complied. Tillie took the opportunity to purchase a $30 coffin she saw in an advertisement. Tillie asked the landlady, Martha Wesolek, to store the casket in the basement. Martha thought the idea of purchasing a coffin for a living man was morbid and told Tillie she would chase her and the coffin out.
As Frank slipped in and out of miserable consciousness, Tillie sat by his side, knitting. She was making a hat with a black lace trim. During her husband’s lucid moments, Tillie told Frank it was the hat she intended to wear to his funeral.
Frank died April 20, 1921, and when he did, Tillie played festive music on her victrola. “You devil!” she said to the dead man, as she grabbed him by the ears, “You won’t get up again!”
Tillie buried Frank in the coffin she bought, and she wore the hat she made. The coroner listed Bronchial Pneumonia as Frank’s cause of death, and once again, Tillie collected on his life insurance. This time, for $675.
It seemed Tillie had lousy luck with men. Or rather, men had terrible luck with her. She was a sort of a legend of her time in Little Poland. Known equally for her cooking, premonitions, and subsequent widowhood. So it was a surprise when she found a fourth man willing to avow himself to her. This marriage, though, would be where Tillie met her Waterloo.
Tillie celebrated her fourth wedding on July 30, 1921, to a wealthy man named Joseph Klimek. Although he was a man of means, Tillie claimed he enjoyed moonshine too much and too often for her tastes. More than that, he had a roving eye, and Tillie could not tolerate competition. She complained about this to her cousin, Nellie Koulic, who suggested Tillie get a divorce. “I will get rid of him some other way…” Tillie replied.
So, Tillie had her new husband take out a life insurance policy. Weeks passed, and Joseph realized he was getting sick. He experienced shooting pains in his arms, which he dismissed quickly enough. But, his arms began to go numb, and after six weeks, his legs were paralyzed. Joseph called his doctor.
Dr. Peter Burns examined Joseph at home and realized the man was gravely ill. He called for an ambulance to bring Joseph to Cook County Hospital. The doctors saw that his symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning. Tests confirmed the man was suffering the effects of long-term arsenic toxicity.
Joseph recalled that their dog keeled over dead after eating a scrap of food from Tillie. Also, the soup she gave him tasted strange.
On October 27, 1922, Hospital officials called the police, who promptly arrested Tillie. She quipped at officer Lieutenant Willard Malone as he placed her under arrest, “The next one I want to cook dinner for is you! You made all of my troubles!” After 18 hours of interrogation, she confessed.
Investigation and Trial
When they asked her where she got the poison, Tillie admitted got it from her cousin, Nellie Koulik. It was a compound of soot and arsenic called “Rough on Rats,” and it was useful for getting rid of all manner of vermin — as well as cumbersome husbands.
Investigators obtained permission to exhume the corpses of Tillie’s dead husbands, as well as Nellie’s first husband. All of them had lethal quantities of arsenic in their bodies. Investigators learned that Nellie’s twin children, Sophie and Ben Sturmer, as well as her granddaughter, Dorothy, all died of poisoning in 1917. Nellie’s son John and daughter Lillian recovered from arsenic poisoning the same year.
Tillie and Nellie stood trial before Judge Marcus Kavanagh, who was a great fan of the death penalty. If Tillie was afraid, she didn’t show it. Throughout the trial, Tillie wore the same black hat she knitted as her husband Frank died and wore to his funeral. Prosecutors read a list twenty names long, pausing after each name to ask, “Did you kill this person?” Tillie shrugged and answered, “Yeah.”
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 received no acquittal. Although evidence existed to convict her of 20 murders by arsenic, only one charge resulted in a conviction. In March of 1923, Tillie was found guilty in the first-degree murder of Frank Kupczyk.
Tillie appeared underwhelmed as the verdict was read. She only remarked, “It was hot in there,” as guards led her back to prison. Judge Kavanagh sentenced Tillie to life without the possibility of parole — the harshest sentence ever dealt to a woman in Chicago.
Tillie lived out her years in Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet, where she died on November 3, 1936. She was 60 years old.