Maybe we should not be surprised that poisoner Louise Vermilya of Chicago had a fascination with death that transcends understanding. After all, she probably did kill at least 8 people.
But Louise’s all-consuming death worship went beyond just enjoying the sufferings of people dying from arsenic poisoning: her favorite place to hang out was the local funeral parlor.
After Louise was arrested in Chicago in November 1911 for the poisoning death of Chicago patrolmen Arthur Bissonette, an undertaker came forward and revealed that Louise enjoyed bathing and preparing corpses and was particularly fond of watching the embalming process.
“She appeared to revel in death,” said Barrington, Ill., undertaker E.M. Blocks. “I never knew so strange a woman. For years before the death of her husband it was notorious in Barrington that Louise…seemed to delight in being in the presence of death.”
Blocks said that after her first husband died, Louise began to show up regularly at his establishment and performed volunteer work. Her fascination with the business of death bordered on monomania.
“Displaying a morbid desire to be near and to handle dead bodies, she would wash and dress the bodies, dress the hair and she even watched the process of embalming with the keenest interest and without a tremor.”
According to Blocks, Louise would visit families in mourning even when she did not know the deceased.
“She would go to the home and almost force herself upon them,” Blocks said. “She would help to dress and prepare the body for burial and appeared to delight in it.”
Bissonette, a boarder in Louise’s home, died in agony a week after ingesting arsenic-laced food. The autopsy revealed a more than sufficient quantity of the heavy metal poison to cause death and prompted an investigation into the cop’s and several other deaths.
Since Louise reveled and delighted in death, she must have been a very happy woman:
- Fred Brinkamp was Louise’s first husband. A wealthy farmer from Barrington, Ill., he died several years before Bissonette was murdered and left her an estate of $5,000 (equal to the buying power of about $120,000 today).
- Cory Brinkamp, Louise’s daughter, died in Barrington when she was 8 years old.
- Florence Brinkamp, 4, also died while the family lived in Barrington. The deaths of Florence and Cory occurred in the same year as their father’s.
- Lillian Brinkamp, a step-granddaughter through her marriage with Fred, died in 1906 while under the care of Louise.
- Charles Vermilya, her second husband, preceded Bissonette in death by two years and left his not-so-grief-stricken widow $2,000.
- Frank Brinkamp, Louise’s son and her only surviving link to Fred, died in 1910, leaving his mother $1,200.
- Harry J. Vermilya, a step-son, also died in 1910 after a quarrel with Louise over the disposition of his father’s house.
- Richard Smith, another boarder in her home died in 1910. His landlady was named his insurance beneficiary, receiving a death benefit of $2,000. Some believe that Smith, a conductor on the Illinois Central Railroad, was actually Louise’s third husband.
Richard Smith’s estranged wife recalled that when she came to Chicago to claim her husband’s body, Louise was acting strangely.
“Mrs. Vermilya insisted on remaining in the room with the body of Smith,” said Detective Roy Hessler. “Mrs. Smith also said her husband’s death appeared very suspicious to her.”
Louise claimed that Bissonette was her fiance, despite the fact that the cop left his entire $1,500 estate to another woman who was his actual betrothed.
Detectives and reporters looking into the mysterious deaths briefly pursued a red herring when another undertaker, C.C. Boyson, was discovered to be the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on Louise herself. Why this raised eyebrows is not clear, and police quickly announced that Boyson’s only connection to the case was that he was a one-time beau who managed to escape from her web. Not surprisingly, Louise often assisted her intended victim with his funeral work.
“Our suspicions of Mr. Boysen were apparently unfounded,” said Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman. “He has explained to us in detail his entire connection to Mrs. Vermilya. At one time he throught that he himself was about to become one of her victims.”
Boysen added through his lawyer that while he was not making a direct accusation, he was convinced the woman he had once planned to marry was a poisoner.
Most of the deaths occurred in Barrington with just Smith and Bissonette killed in Chicago where Louise, using the money from Fred Brinkamp’s estate, purchased a boarding house.
When Louise was arrested for the murders of Bissonette and Smith, witnesses came out of the woodwork to assist police in their investigation. Elizabeth Nolan, fiancee of Frank Brinkamp, told police that Frank made statements inculpating his mother in his death.
Merely eating at her home was dangerous, others reported. Arthur F. Bissonette, father of Arthur, testified that he had been poisoned by Louise, but there are indications that he was just collateral damage in her plan to kill the patrolman.
“I went to visit my son the day before he was taken to the hospital,” he said. “I had two meals at the Vermilya home. After eating ham and eggs…I had severe pains in my stomach. I got an emetic at a drug store and was relieved for a while, but the pains are still with me.”
Louise herself led police to the actual instrument of murder when she tried to kill herself after her arrest.The weapon was revealed shortly after Louise was confronted with the results of Bissonette’s autopsy.
“A small, innocent looking pepper shaker is alleged to be the death weapon,” wrote an anonymous wire service reporter. “Instead of pepper it has been discovered that this shaker contained powdered arsenic.”
As she was being interviewed by police, Louise took out a couple of hard-boiled eggs for lunch and directed one of her servants to bring her a box of pepper from the pantry. The pepper’s quality, she said, was of the highest order.
“Taking this box in her hand, she carefully sprinkled part of the contents on one of the eggs, and when it was liberally coated, ate the egg as calmly as if it were an everyday occurrence,” the article continues.
Almost instantly she was subjected to seizures and frothing at the mouth. Detectives summoned medical help and prevented the suicide. For the next 48 hours, as Louise slowly recovered, she was questioned by authorities about her alleged crimes. She denied everything.
The bodies of Smith, Fred Brinkamp, and Frank Brinkamp were exhumed and examined and all were found with higher-than-normal amounts of arsenic. However, at the time arsenic was a component of embalming fluid, so it was impossible to prove that the poison was given to the men before they died. Not so with Bissonette’s case.
Louise’s trial in 1912 was a perfunctory affair and she was quickly convicted of the police officer’s murder. She received 25 years in prison and from there her fate is unknown.