Tillie Klimek: The Psychic Poisoner
Hello and welcome to A Murderess Affair, my name is Gabrielle and this is the podcast where we talk about women in history known for mayhem and murder. This week, our woman is one who was considered to be a “psychic”, predicting the deaths of the people around her with astounding accuracy. Almost a little too accurate, as it turned out.
Otillie “Tillie” Klimek was born on October 22nd 1877 in Poland. She was originally born Teofila Gburek, and her parents were Michalina and Michal Gburek. She was the oldest of 7, and when she was 4 years old her family emigrated to the United States. It was then that her name seemed to change from Teofila to Otillie. Once in the US, she and her family settled in what was known as the “Little Poland” section of Chicago.
We don’t know a ton about Tillie’s childhood. We do know that she was, seemingly happily married to Joe Mitkiewicz sometime around 1895. They settled down not too far from where she grew up in “Little Poland”, and were described as well liked and generous by their neighbors. Tillie ended up being known for her great cooking skills, and also for her apparently psychic abilities.
Apparently she was seeing these visions in her dreams. In them, she’d be shown the image of people or animals nearby who would die. And what a coincidence that those who showed up as doomed to die in her so called visions were the neighbors she argued with and stray dogs that annoyed her.
In 1914, Tillie told neighbors and friends that she’d had a new and horrible vision. This time, her husband Joe would get sick and die within a few weeks. On January 13, 1914, Joe died of heart trouble, as diagnosed by the coroner. Tillie collected $1000 in life insurance.
In February of 1914, Tillie was married again to a man named Joseph Ruskowski. It wasn’t too long after their marriage that Joseph, who’d been extremely healthy and hadn’t had any history of severe illness, started to get sick. In May, she started telling the same story, that she’d begun having dreams featuring Joseph’s death. Sure enough, he died on May 20th. He left Tillie $1200 in cash and $722 in life insurance.
But, once again, Tillie didn’t mourn for long. Soon, she took refuge with a new man, Josef Guszkowski. He had a sweet tooth, along with his sister, and they would oftentimes share candy that Tillie had brought for them. But, this didn’t last long, because soon Josef died, suddenly, and his sister Stella became extremely, extremely sick as well.
After Josef’s death, Tillie married another man named Frank Kupczyk in March 1919. They moved into a house on Winchester Avenue in Chicago, and funnily enough Tilly had actually lived there before with another man, known as “Meyers”. What happened to Meyers, you may be asking? Well, he just disappeared. Yup, out of the blue, disappeared. Which is weird, right? Well, neighbors thought so too, because they asked how long Tillie and her new husband were planning on staying, only to have Tillie assure them that this man “wouldn’t live long.”
“It’ll be any day now”, she would taunt Frank as his health started to decline. When neighbors asked how he was doing, she told them., “he has 2 inches to live.”
As he got sicker and sicker, Tillie asked him to take out a life insurance policy, which he did. At this point, Tillie saw that there was an advertisement for a $30 coffin, and she bought it. She asked the landlady to store the casket in the basement which is possibly the most morbid thing you could do. Apparently the landlady thought so too, and told Tillie that she would chase her and that coffin out if she showed up with one.
Frank was starting to slip in and out of consciousness at this point. Tillie sat by his side, knitting a black hat with black lace around the trim. When her husband was awake, she told him that that was the hat that she would wear to his funeral.
Sometime during 1920, while she was busy helping her sick husband, three neighbor children who’d reportedly annoyed her came down with that same illness. They ended up passing from
Frank died on April 20 1921, and Tillie was reportedly ecstatic. The coroner said bronchial pneumonia was Frank’s cause of death, and Tillie collected a life insurance policy of $675.
So, it seems weird right? Men kept marrying her, they all died when she said they would, and yet somehow she still found men who were willing to marry her? It wasn’t like she wasn’t well known at this point. I mean, she was kind of an urban legend, both for her passion for cooking and for the fact that she had this uncanny ability to predict the deaths of those around her.
Her last husband, who’s name she’d end up keeping, was Joseph Klimek. They got married on July 30th 1921, and Joseph was extremely wealthy. Although he was able to provide a life that Tillie enjoyed, Tillie still found that he had problems that she didn’t think she could live with. He enjoyed moonshine too much for her taste, and he also had an appetite for other women. Tillie complained about this to her cousin, who suggested that they divorce. According to her, Tillie said that instead, she would “find another way to get rid of him.”
Joseph ended up taking out a life insurance policy at Tillie’s insistence. And, funnily enough, soon after he did, Joseph started to get sick. At first, Joseph wrote it off but after six weeks of getting worse and worse, he went to see his doctor. At that point, his legs were paralysed.
His doctor saw that his symptoms were the same as those who’d suffered from poisoning, and had him tested. The tests came back positive for arsenic, and Joseph was told he’d been suffering from long term arsenic toxicity. When asked, Joseph remembered that there had been a stray dog who’d showed up dead not long after Tillie fed it, and how she’d given him soup that tasted strange.
At this point, hospital officials called the police and the police arrested Tillie. The arresting officer, a Lieutenant Willard Malone, remembers that as he took her in, she told him “the next one I want to cook dinner for is you! You made all of my troubles!”
She was interrogated for 18 hours before confessing, giving details such as where she got the poison and a longer list of her victims. She ended up getting the poison from her cousin Nellie Koulik, and it was a mix of soot and an arsenic called “Rough on Rats.”
The bodies of Tillie’s dead husbands were exhumed and found to have lethal amounts of arsenic. It was also found that Tillie’d had twin children, Sophie and Ben, who’d died along with her granddaughter Dorothy. They all died in 1917 of the same mysterious illness, and her son John and daughter Lillian had recovered from that illness. Turns out it wasn’t an illness after all, but instead was poison from their mother.
Both Tillie and Nellie were put on trial with Judge Marcus Kavanagh, who was a big fan of the death penalty. At the trial, Tillie wore the same black hat that she had knit by her dying husband’s bedside. The prosecutors would go through and list the names of those they were accusing her of killing and would pause after each name to ask “Did you kill this person?”. Tillie’s response was to shrug and say “Yeah.” The list ended up being close to 20 names long.
1. Jospeh Mitkiewicz, first husband (arsenic found in body, had $1000 insurance policy, died 1914). Lived on Lubeck St (now Dickens Ave).
2. Joseph Ruskowski, second husband. (arsenic found; left about 2k in cash/insurance, died 1914).
3. Frank Kupszyk, third husband (arsenic found - this is the murder for which she was convicted). Died 1921, had 1k in insurance.
4. Joseph Grantkowski, ex boyfriend, died in 1914 after "jilting" her.
5. Mrs. Rose Chudzinski, cousin. Died 1919 after attedning Tillie and Frank's wedding party.
6. Helen Zakrzewski, cousin. Died 1915, age 15.
7. Stanley Zakzewski, cousin. Died 1912, age 16.
8. Stelle Zakrzewski, cousin, died 1913 at 23.
(Tillie tended to the above three when they were ill)
9. "Meyers," a husband or sweetheart (missing as of March, 1923)
10. Wojek Strummer, first husband of Nellie Koulik, died 1918, arsenic found (Nellie was a cousin of Tillie who was tried along with her).
11. Dorothy Spera, granddaughter of Mrs. Koulik. Died age 2.
12. Sophie Sturmer - daughter of Mrs. Koulik, died 1917.
13. Ben Sturmer - twin brother of Sophie, died a month after his sister.
14. Joseph Klimek - husband of Tillie, poisoned but recovered.
15. John Sturmer - son of Mrs. Koulic. Recovered when sick after father died in 1918, thought his mother poisoned him.
16. Mrs. Rose Splitt - says Tillie gave her poison candy after Joseph Klimek talked to her.
17. Miss Stelle Grantowski, sister of former boyfriend of Tillie. Got sick after eating candy given to her by Tillie after a fight.
18. Nick Micko, cousin, got sick of arsenic but recovered.
19. Mrs. Bessie Kupcyzk, sister in law of Frank K. Ill after eating at Tillie's; recovered.
20. Miss Lillian Sturmer, 15, daughter of Mrs. Koulik. Lived at Mrs. Klimek's home for a year at age 13; deathly sick from the food and still suffered heart trouble.
(source: Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1923)
The trial took about a year, and Tillie and her cousin shared a cell. Every time Nellie would be taken from the cell, Tillie would taunt her by saying “they’re going to hang you today!”. Nellie’s trial actually ended in a hung jury, and she was acquitted.
After being put on trial and connected to 20 different murders by poisoning, she was only charged officially for one. March 1923, Tillie was found guilty for the murder of Frank Kupczyk.
At the trial, her only response to the verdict was to say that the courtroom felt warm as the guards led her out to prison. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole, which was the harshest sentence to ever be dealt with to a woman in Chicago.
She was 60 years old when she died in prison at Illinois State Penitentiary on November 3rd, 1936.