Tag Archive for poison

Always Read the Fine Print

Louis Gosden, murderer

WALTER NEFF
Not if there’s an insurance company in the picture, baby. So long as you’re honest they’ll pay you with a smile, but you just try to pull something like that and you’ll find out.
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there’s a death mixed up in it, you haven’t got a prayer. They’ll hang you as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar, baby.
~”Double Indemnity,” Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

When Louis Gosden was on trial for the strychnine poisoning of his third wife for the insurance money, he probably realized his days were numbered when his only supporters turned their backs on him.
 
During his 1935 trial in Oakland, Gosden was warmly greeted by his elderly parents every time he appeared in court until the last day of testimony. It was then that they learned that Louis probably had them on the short list for murder until a better target came along.
 
One of the key prosecution arguments at the trial was that Gosden forged his late wife’s signature on an accidental death insurance policy. Gosden denied this assertion, so Deputy District Attorney Warren Olney sought to hammer home the point by proving Gosden previously forged his parents’ signatures on similar policies.
 
Courtroom observers could clearly see a change come over the older Gosdens when Olney showed them each insurance policies on their lives and asked if the signatures were valid. Both answered that the signatures were forgeries.
 
“Gosden has been accustomed to greet his parents at the end of day’s court session, but last night the greeting was refused by his parents, Mrs. Lucy Gosden and Nick Gosden, who had also testified on behalf of his son,” the Oakland Tribune reported. “Both parents brushed by their son without sign of recognition, even when he raised his manacled hands in his customary salute.”
 
An unemployed plumber, Gosden killed his wife of five years, Laura, on November 20, 1934 at their home in Oakland, California. As one might expect, the motive was money, but there was a sideshow featuring a pregnant “girl-bride” and a “criminal operation” (i.e., an abortion).
 
There was also a great irony: Gosden killed two women for the insurance payout and never received a nickel, even though the deaths were not ruled suspicious at the time. It turned out that Gosden did not read the fine print and confused accidental death policies with ordinary life insurance.
 
This was not the first time Gosden, 31, lost a wife due to sudden illness. In 1928, his second wife, Vivian, died under mysterious circumstances in Sunnyvale six months after their marriage. Gosden’s first marriage was annulled in 1925 after four years.
 
Details of how Vivian, who was 17 when she married Gosden (His first wife was also 17 at the time of their marriage), died are vague, but the similarities between her death and that of Laura are remarkable. By all accounts both women were healthy up to the time they were stricken, which indicates Gosden had not been giving them poison over a long time period. Both were dead within hours of being poisoned. No medical aid was called until 20 minutes before each died and both times Gosden told the first responders that he did not call earlier because his wife did not want him to leave her side. Gosden also told doctors that both wives had gone into convulsions after eating.
 
Gosden ParentsVivian’s death certificate issued by her attending physician listed double pneumonia as the cause of death. This same physician testified at Gosden’s trial and after learning more of the facts and circumstances surrounding her death, admitted he was in error in issuing the certificate, and that he was of the opinion that Vivian Gosden’s death was caused by strychnine poisoning. It is not fair to be too critical of the attending doctor for assuming Vivian died of pneumonia. The poison prevents the proper operation of the chemical that controls nerve signals to the muscles. When this signal does not get through, muscles throughout the body have severe, painful spasms.
 
Strychnine poisoning’s effects also include nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing in common with pneumonia. Considering that people who are exposed to large amounts of strychnine have trouble breathing within 15 to 30 minutes of ingestion of the poison as their muscles weaken and combined with the other symptoms, a physician who is not expecting foul play could easily call it pneumonia. Vivian’s doctor said he had not been told of her muscle spasms, which would have caused him to investigate further.
 
Approximately a week before Vivian died, Gosden took out accidental death policies on himself and his wife. It is clear that Vivian knew of the policies because her signature was on the various forms and the insurance agent testified that Vivian did not want to take the physical exam because she was pregnant. That decision came back to haunt Gosden; when he went to collect on her life insurance Gosden learned that the policy had never been in force because there was no medical examination.
 
Having wasted money on an invalid insurance policy and now without a potential victim, Gosden began looking at his parents as potential targets and forged their signatures on accidental death policies. It was probably simplicity, rather than familial love, that prompted Gosden to find a more suitable victim in the form of a new wife.
 
Things were going well for the family until Gosden lost his job as a plumber in August 1934. When he lost his position, his bank account had been reduced to slightly over $50. However, Gosden took out two policies of insurance on September 5, and one on September 8, 1934, paying premiums of $19.75. These policies were all on Laura’s life with Gosden as the beneficiary. Two of these policies were payable in case of accidental death, and the other was payable in the event of death due to natural causes.
 
There is some uncertainty as to whether Laura knew, or at least realized, about any of these policies, or that she signed all three, or any, of the applications.
 
“This question is not of any material importance, as we view this case,” wrote the California Supreme Court in upholding the conviction and sentence. “The fact remains that Gosden either with or without the knowledge of his wife procured policies of insurance upon her life payable to himself as beneficiary, and these were secured only a short time before the death of his wife.”
 
Three weeks later, Gosden purchased strychnine from a local drug store under the assumed name of L. N. Larsen and listed a fake address. The druggist’s register showed that the purpose of his purchase of the poison was to “kill a kitty”.
 
At the time of his arrest Gosden first denied the purchase of the strychnine, but later admitted that he bought some to kill rats at his father’s home in Sunnyvale. He testified at the trial that he used the strychnine to exterminate the rats, but that he did not tell either his father or mother what he was doing.
 
“I did not tell my father because I thought he might object to having poison put out,” Gosden testified at his trial. “I told my wife what I was going to do and she told me not to give my right name when I bought the poison. I asked her why I should not and she said ‘it’s better not to.'”
 
He told his defense attorney, a very young Melvin Belli, that he did not tell the police he bought the poison because, “I figured if I did they might try to frame me.”
 
A short time after his arrest a small bottle, corresponding in size and shape with the bottle in which the druggist sold the strychnine to Gosden, and in which there had been strychnine, was found under Gosden’s house. Gosden testified that his wife knew of his purchase of the poison and had access to it.
 
According to his testimony, on the day of Laura’s death she was in usual health but became ill about 7 p.m. At about 10:30 p.m. she said she was getting worse. Gosden said he suggested that he get a doctor but she would not let him. A little later in the evening Gosden went for a doctor but returned without one, stating that the stores were all closed at that hour of the night. The Gosdens had no telephone in their home and evidently Gosden wished to have it appear that he endeavored to find a telephone at some of the near-by stores to be used in telephoning for a doctor.
 
A witness who lived next door to the Gosdens, testified that she went into her bathroom at about about 11 p.m. From her window she saw Gosden and his wife in the kitchen. She could hear indistinctly their conversation.
 
“After Gosden returned from his unsuccessful search for a doctor, which was about 11 o’clock, Mrs. Gonsalves heard Mrs. Gosden tell her husband to go across the street to the Cereghinos and phone for a doctor,” the appellate decision reads. “Again she told him to hurry and get a doctor. Gosden left the house, but instead of going for a doctor stood outside under the kitchen window listening to the groans and cries of his wife. He walked back and forth in the shadow of the house, but in plain view of Mrs. Gonsalves, for about an hour.”
 
About two hours later, Laura herself called her neighbor, who rushed to the Gosden home.
 
Immediately on hearing this Gosden went into his house and said to his wife: “What did you want to bother that woman for?” Laura replied that she had to have somebody. The doctor arrived at the Gosdens’ house in about ten minutes. He remained with her until the time of her death, which occurred about one-half hour after his arrival.
 
On the day of his wife’s death Gosden called an undertaker and ordered a $500 funeral, offering as evidence of his ability to pay the cost of the funeral first one and then the other of the two accident policies.
 
Lydia SanbornOne can imagine Gosden’s shock when the undertaker rejected the policies because they were payable only in case of accidental death, while Laura’s death certificate listed pneumonia. However, a helpful employee of the funeral parlor “helpfully” suggested that they could say she died after eating tainted tuna fish. Unfortunately, that meant an autopsy, so Gosden had now killed two women for the insurance money, gotten away with the murders, and still not collected a dime.
 
It was the last of Gosden’s teenage lovers who brought about his downfall.
 
Lydia Sanborn, a 17-year-old bride of just two months, had come back to Oakland from Calaveras County to get her marriage annulled, when she met Gosden. Again, details are lacking about how the two connected.
 
When I met Mr. Gosden, I was working in the neighborhood where he lived with his wife,” Lydia told The Oakland Tribune. “When his wife died, I went over to see if there wasn’t something I could do. Later he offered me the job as his housekeeper and I accepted. Before long we were living together as man and wife.”
 
At some point in the relationship, Lydia became pregnant and Gosden helped her procure an abortion. When the operation required medical attention, Lydia was arrested for delinquency and spilled the beans telling everything she knew, which was not very much except that Laura had died a painful death.
 
Gosden was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. It was while he was in jail that authorities exhumed the body of Laura Gosden and discovered the unmistakeable signs of strychnine poisoning.
 
From there it was basic gumshoe detective work. Once Vivian’s body was exhumed and strychnine found, it was pretty much over for Gosden.
 
His feeble attempt to blame Laura’s death on her suicidal tendencies was easily shot down and the jury quickly convicted him.
 
He died on the gallows in San Quentin on June 19, 1936.

“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.