Tag Archive for Illinois

Cold Feet

Porter and Giancola

If the groom is going to be murdered on his wedding day, we expect the killer to be a jilted lover driven to madness by a broken heart or a rival suitor of the bride who cannot stand to let another take his place. In these cases their crime is motivated by jealousy inflamed by passion. We do not expect that the woman who arranged the murder to be the groom’s sister who wanted him killed for the insurance money.
For doing exactly that Marie Porter holds the dubious place in history of being the first woman to die in Illinois’s electric chair. It is an honor she well deserves.
For acting as the actual triggerman in the 1937 murder, Angelo Ralph Giancola, 21, preceded Porter to the chair. His story is not new: A weak young man duped into committing murder by a stronger-willed older woman. He is unique in the annals of crime as the only killer whose case of poison ivy proved to be fatal.
For his lesser role in the plot, John, Anthony’s younger brother, received a sentence of 99 years.
The crime committed by the 38-year-old, 250-pound widow and her young lover was so heinous that even the state’s governor, staunchly anti-death penalty, refused to commute her sentence as he had done for every other woman condemned to be executed.
At their sentencing, the judge said the crime shocked the conscience.
“If there ever was a more deliberate, premeditated, cold-blooded and atrocious murder. I’ve never heard of it.” Judge Dick A. Mudge said in passing sentence. “I have earnestly, but in vain, examined the record to find some mitigating circumstance in connection with this crime.”
The seeds of Porter’s plan to kill her younger brother, William Kappen, were planted back in 1935 when Porter’s husband was gunned down by her father during an argument. The old man was judged insane and taken to an asylum. Porter collected a decent insurance settlement on her husband’s death, but with four children to feed and clothe, she was soon facing the threat of poverty. For reasons known only to herself she chose murder as the answer to her problems.
Her criminally insane elderly father was not much help — as a potential victim — so she began looking at other relatives. After careful consideration she settled on William. Her brother had never married and named his poverty-stricken sister as the beneficiary of a $3,000 life insurance policy (A bit more than 50K today).
In the early days of 1937 Marie became involved with the bricklayer Giancola, taking the young man as her lover. Almost immediately, she told police, she began planting the idea that Kappen needed to be “put away” (the term is hers).
Her main argument, to which Giancola testified at their trial, was not that they would live like royalty on a one-time 3-grand payout, nor was it that she would use the money to support her four daughters, the eldest of whom was 15. Instead, in between lovemaking sessions Porter said Kappen had been relying on her support for years and now it was time to pay back.
“I carried my brother through the Depression,” she later told police. “And when he told me he was going to get married, I didn’t want him to, because he still owed me a good sum of money.”
Once Giancola surrendered to her coaxing, the pair started researching various ways to kill Kappen. After her arrest for her brother’s murder, Porter discussed the mechanics of the crime with cold dispatch.
“We discussed drowning him but this didn’t seem advisable, for Bill was a good swimmer,” she said. “We also thought about pushing him off a bluff at Riverview Park. That was several months ago.”
On July 4 police in Belleville, Illinois, on east side of the Mississippi about 15 miles from St. Louis were alerted to the body of a man on a deserted stretch of road. Clues at the scene made it obvious that the man had been kidnapped.
“The man had dressed hastily, for he wore no underclothing,” a reporter in the American Weekly wrote. “Two blood-soaked handkerchiefs were found in a poison ivy weed. The gun was not found.”
St. Louis had a very active underworld at the time and the crime had all of the earmarks of a gang rubout. Thus the case was treated for about 24 hours by investigators, until a jilted bride came forward with a mysterious tale.
Irene Traub was the wife-to-be of Bill Kappen who, the day before, was left at the altar of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in St. Louis. She said she had not spoken to Bill since July 2, the day before the intended wedding. There was nothing in his demeanor that indicated he was getting cold feet.
Irene told police that after the initial tears had passed, her sadness turned into anger and she was determined to find Bill and hold him to account. At least that was her plan until she read in the paper that Illinois police had the body of an unidentified man whose description matched Bill’s.
Before taking her fears to the police Irene went to Bill’s apartment to see if it held any clues to Bill’s actions. The scene in the flat fit the clues at the crime scene the way a key fits its lock.
“Neatly pressed, the bridegroom’s wedding suit was laid out on the bed which had either been freshly made or not slept in the night before,” reported American Weekly.
Bill was interrupted in the process of getting ready for a bath. The tub was half-filled with water, but the washcloth and soap looked undisturbed.
One clue was difficult to explain, however. Bill was not a smoker, but several cigarette butts were crushed into the carpet in his bedroom. This indicates someone else was in the apartment, of course, but were they lying in wait or did they arrive after Bill?
If the killers were waiting to kidnap Bill, why was he allowed to start a bath? If he had been in a long conversation with someone he knew, why had he dressed so quickly? Why would he allow someone to grind out their cigarettes on his rug?
Irene was taken to the morgue where she identified Bill’s body.
Police quickly established that Kappen was in no way connected with St. Louis organized crime and had no known enemies. There was only one person who would benefit from his death and that was his sister, Marie Porter.
She was brought into the station for an interview that quickly turned into an interrogation. The cops had done their homework in a very short time and confronted Porter with their knowledge of her young lover, and said he was being interviewed in a nearby room. If they had hoped this would loosen her tongue they were sadly mistaken.
Down the hall Giancola was quite uncomfortable, and not just because of the bad case of poison ivy that was driving him crazy. It was his scratching that really broke the case wide open because it unquestionably put him at the scene of the crime and was something he could not explain away. One does not simply walk around urban St. Louis and catch a case of poison ivy.
Confronted with this, Giancola gave his first confession which was mostly bogus.


I met Mrs. Porter on the night of the murder and she gave me $10 to hire an automobile. She told me to drive to Kappen’s home. I waited outside and half an hour later she and Bill came out together.
She got in the back seat and Bill got in front with me. We stopped at a roadside tavern for some drinks. Bill was getting worried, for he was going to be married the next morning. We told him we would get him back in time.
As we drove out toward Belleville, Mrs. Porter called to Bill. As he turned around I heard a shot and he slumped over toward me…

Parts of the confession are truthful: he explained that he caught the poison ivy after using the handkerchiefs to wipe blood off his hands and clothes, and the murder occurred where he said it did — at least in the geographic sense.
The immediate destruction of the relationship between the widow and the bricklayer, forged with such fragile bonds, probably happened like Giancola said.
“She told me if I said anything it would be too bad for me,” he confessed.
There was no blood in the car and the amount at the scene indicated Bill was standing beside the car when he was shot point-blank. No witnesses could be found who could place Porter with either Bill or Giancola.
This looked as if it was going to be one of those cases where guilt could be established everywhere except in a court of law.
Murderers must lack two emotional traits to be successful. They must not possess any moral compunction against killing and they must not fear being caught and punished. Those who kill know this by consciousness — without thinking about it at all — while the rest of us shake our heads in bafflement. But one thing that people who play close attention to crime instinctively know, but which killers do not count on, is that murder brings on feelings of guilt and a never-ending feeling of impending doom.
In this case, those unexpected emotions proved too much for one young man to bear, and in an attempt to ease his conscience, Giancola’s brother, John, whom police had not even considered as a suspect, appeared at the detective bureau and promptly confessed everything.
John not only implicated himself in the crime, he said his brother pulled the trigger while he stood by as a willing participant. The motive was $800 promised by Porter. The timing was the forthcoming nuptials.
“Last Friday night she said she couldn’t wait another day because Bill was going to get married,” he confessed. “He would probably sign over his insurance to his wife. Mrs. Porter said she would bury her brother and give us $800 out of the insurance money.”
Giancola and Porter quickly folded and confessed.
At trial the goal of the Giancola brothers was to make sure Porter shared whatever fate was in store. Both men took the stand, confessed their guilt, pointed a finger at Porter as the ringleader and threw themselves on the mercy of the court.
Porter’s “They Acted Alone” defense was a miserable failure and three guilty verdicts were returned.
Appeals were quickly dismissed and the punishments were allowed to stand.
The executions were placed on hold after the mother of Giancola, desperate to save her son’s life, convinced the lieutenant governor who was acting as temporary governor in the absence of his boss that she had new evidence that would save her child.
The new evidence — Porter gave Giancola a sexually transmitted disease — was not enough to tilt the scales of justice in the young man’s favor.
On January 27, 1938, the governor of Illinois said he could not find any justification for granting clemency to “stolid Mrs. Marie Porter or to Angelo Ralph Giancola, the handsome youth she hired to kill her brother,” the Associated Press reported.
The next day, shortly after midnight, Giancola and Porter died, one after the other, in the electric chair. From start to finish the executions took under an hour. The two condemned prisoners, who had not seen each other since the trial, made similar statements expressing remorse for their crime and praying for God’s mercy.

“She Reveled in Death…”

Louise Vermilya, poisoner

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.