Frank Kupczyk lay in bed, semi-conscious and in obvious misery. Beside him sat his wife, Tillie, a stout Polish immigrant who was watching her husband die. She was trimming a black hat with lace, pointing out to Frank that this was what she would wear at his funeral. She had already shown him the advertisement for the $30 coffin she wanted to buy for him. Because Frank was not yet dead, Tillie’s landlady, Martha Wesolek, refused to allow her buy the casket and store it in the communal basement until needed.
“I remember,” she said later in the broken English of an immigrant, “Mrs. Kupczyk came out in the yard with a piece of newspaper all about a fine coffin for $30 that she was going to get for Frank. I told her ‘I chase you and the coffin out.’”
Frank died on April 20, 1921 on the west side of Chicago and was buried in the $30 coffin. Tillie wore the black hat with lace, witnesses recalled. His death certificate stated that Frank Kupczyk died of bronchial pneumonia.
After he was dead Martha recalled Tillie played “oh, so jolly music” on the Victrola.
Another woman who worked with Tillie at a tailor’s shop recalled that as Frank lay dead in his bed, Tillie grabbed the corpse by the ears and shouted “You devil! Now you won’t get up again!”
Frank was Tillie’s third husband and she had buried all who had preceded him. Joseph Mitkiewicz died on January 13, 1914; he was Tillie’s first spouse. John, the man she turned to in her grief and who was shortly after her second husband, died just five months later on May 20, 1914.
Fortunately for Tillie she had taken out decent insurance policies on all of them, despite her complaints about paying the high premiums. For Frank’s death she received $675.
It was not until Tillie’s fourth husband, Joseph Klimek, became ill in September 1922 that anyone important started to pay attention to Tillie and the strange coincidences that marked her life.
In his typical “semi-drunken” state Joseph had eaten some meat baked and seasoned with poison by Tillie and quickly became seriously ill. He was suffering agonizing stomach pains and had lost the ability to move his legs. His doctor, Peter Burns, ordered that he be taken to the Cook County Hospital. It did not take long for the doctors to discover that Joseph had been poisoned with arsenic.
When questioned, Tillie admitted giving Joseph the poison and said she received it from her cousin Nellie Koulik.
In a straightforward manner as if she was discussing the weather, Nellie confirmed that she had given Tillie some “Rough on Rats” brand pesticide after Tillie discussed her latest marital problems.
“I talked to Tillie about the trouble she was having with her husband and told her to get a divorce,” Nellie told Assistant State’s Attorney Edward J. Lyons. “‘No,’ she said. ‘I will get rid of him some other way.’”
Tillie confirmed Nellie’s story in the same matter-of-fact way.
Joseph Klimek’s illness prompted the authorities to look deeper at Tillie’s unfortunate luck with husbands. After all, once is chance, twice is coincidence, but a third odd death shows a pattern.
Authorities exhumed Tillie’s late husbands and found that Mitkiewicz had 11.2 mg of arsenic in his corpse, Ruszaksi had 13.8 mg, and Kupzyk’s corpse contained 8 mg, deputy coroner William McNally reported.
When the paddy wagon came for Tillie, she vented her anger at Lt. Willard L. Malone, who led the investigation.
“The next one I want to cook a dinner for is you,” she said, shaking a finger at the cop. “You made all of my trouble.”
Tillie’s trial was a surprisingly long one for its time. The five-day drama in the courtroom of Judge Marcus Kavanagh attracted a little publicity, but perhaps only because she was the latest in a string of unattractive women to spend time in the dock for murder:
In recent years, the prosecution brought out, there have been 28 women acquitted of murder in Cook County.
In most cases they have murdered their husbands. The only four women who have been convicted were:
Mrs. Hilda Axlund, sentenced to 14 years for the murder of her husband. Mrs. Axlund was not a beauty.
Mrs. Vera Trepannier, found guilty of manslaughter for shooting P.F. Volland, Chicago book publisher. Mrs. Trepannier was more than middle aged.
Mrs. Emma Simpson, found guilty of shooting her husband in a courtroom during a divorce trial. Mrs. Simpson was judged insane.
Mrs. Dora Waterman, convicted of murdering her husband, was sentenced to 17 years in the penitentiary. Mrs. Waterman was no beauty.
Mrs. Cora Isabell Orthwein, dashing well-dressed northside beauty, is the latest woman to have been acquitted of murder.
–Genevieve Forbes, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 1, 1923.
After a procession of Polish neighbors, gravediggers, and officials from the Chicago police department testified in Kavanagh’s courtoom, Tillie was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Nellie was acquitted of the murder of her second husband a few weeks later.
Tillie died in the Women’s Penitentiary in Dwight, Ill. on Nov. 20, 1936.