One of America’s best historical true-crime writers recalls women who made a fatal mistake by the lake
Women Behaving Badly: True Tales of Cleveland’s Most Ferocious Female Killers: An Anthology. By John Stark Bellamy II. Gray & Co., 255 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
What a pity that the FBI didn’t launch its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list until 1950. An earlier start might have allowed the spy agency to tap a few of the female killers in this sparkling collection of true-crime tales, most of which deal with murders committed in the Cleveland area in the late 19th or early 20th century.
It may or may not be true, as John Stark Bellamy asserts in the preface to Women Behaving Badly, that “there is simply no comparison in cunning, quality, and sheer entertainment value between the shallow, predictable murders of men and the complex, richly nuanced slayings by women.” But this book makes clear that Hollywood does an injustice to female killers when it stereotypes them as gun molls, action heroines or sex-obsessed stalkers.
The 16 tales in the collection deal chiefly with Bonnies without Clydes, women who took the initiative in crime instead of serving as men’s foils, and some testify to a different form of female solidarity than has inspired anthologies like Sisterhood is Powerful. One of the most chilling accounts recalls the fatal 1919 stabbing of Lakewood printer Dan Kaber by assassins his wife had hired, a crime that remains “the only homicide in the history of the world in which a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter were indicted for the same first-degree murder.” Another tale focuses on Velma West, who along with three other inmates escaped in 1939 from a women’s prison, where she was serving time for smashing her husband’s skull with a clawhammer. (Captured in Dallas, West went back to the Marysville Reformatory and implied that her murdered spouse had been too weak to live with her: “He couldn’t take it. I hit him playfully on the head with a hammer one night and that was that.”) A third tale reconsiders the case of the sadistic 1950s housewife Mary Barger, who had help from a 16-year-old niece when she tortured her brother-in-law’s two daughters, who were living with with her while their father served in the Air Force.
Bellamy tells his stories with an infectious zeal for his subjects’ audacity and an admiration for the prosecutors who matched wits with them, traits that in this and earlier books have established him as one of America’s best writers of historical true crime. He avoids the clichés and portentous tones of television shows like 48 Hours — which regularly describe victims “beautiful” people who “always had a smile” — and leaves the impression that he would shudder at the word “closure.” Just when you’re convinced that only the dimmest shield-wearer would have seen the 1905 death of Minnie Peters as a “suicide,” he writes: “But before you dismiss Cleveland police chief Fred Kohler as an utter moron, consider this: He may have been right about Minnie killing herself.” Without special pleading, Bellamy also shows a keen sympathy for the horrific circumstances that could drive women to crime. He notes rightly that some of his subjects might have had “a happier fate if they had lived in a more enlightened age.” Although he doesn’t doesn’t say so directly, at least a few of the women in his book might have avoided tragedy had they lived in times of safety nets like unemployment insurance, rape-crisis hotlines and shelters for abused women.
Perhaps the most poignant story in Women Behaving Badly involves Anna Kempf, a Hungarian immigrant who faced eviction from her home after being abandoned in 1928 by a husband who left her with three young daughters to support. Kempf had spent months visiting private and public welfare organizations, pleading vainly for financial help, and had tried unsuccessfully to place her children in an orphanage to keep them off the streets. The news that she was about to lose her job seems to have been the last straw: Kempf tried to kill herself and her children by dishing up bowls of chocolate ice cream laced with rat poison. Her youngest daughter died, and Kempf was indicted for first-degree murder. But her heartbreaking plight so struck the public that one prospective juror, upon receiving his jury-duty fee from the court clerk, said loudly: “Have this cashed for me and give the money to Mrs. Kempf to buy Christmas presents for the other two girls.” A judged sentenced her to probation and “took the opportunity to criticize the social service organizations that had so signally failed to help Anna Kempf in her hour of desperate need.” Stories like Kempf’s may have a Cleveland setting but speak to universal themes that give this book relevance beyond the Midwest.
Among the women in the book who became fugitives, only Mabel Champion had the last laugh on the law. Champion kept a four-inch stiletto in her purse and was wearing eight large diamond rings when, at a crowded restaurant in Cleveland’s theater district on a summer night in 1922, she pulled out a .38-caliber Colt revolver and shot a carnival promoter who had questioned her virtue. (“I did what any woman would do,” she explained to reporters. “I shot Edward O’Connell because he insulted me.”) She received a 20-year sentence, but after serving less than two years, she tucked a crude dummy into her prison bed and walked out of the Marysville Reformatory forever. A nationwide dragnet failed to find her. And although it’s unlikely, given her age — which would today be more than 100 – Bellamy “likes to think she’s still out there, laughing her low Texas belly laugh at the baffled lawmen who couldn’t keep this sensational Jazz-Age baby tied down.” Perhaps she even felt insulted that — when the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list has included only eight women — the FBI never chose, however belatedly, include her.
Best line: Why do women use poison as a murder weapon? “Poisoning is generally furtive, an ideal quality for someone confronting an adversary of superior muscular strength of social power,” Bellamy writes. “No messy hand-to-hand combat, knowledge of firearms, or knife-fighting technique is required. Poison is easily acquired, hidden, and disguised: many lethal poisons have nonhomicidal uses and are part of the fabric of everyday life, as any amateur gardener or pest control professional can attest. It can be stealthily administered and is difficult to detect — as many a delayed exhumation has shown.”
Worst line: Fred Gienke suffered “days of excruciating agony” after his niece, Martha Wise, put arsenic in his water. When is agony not “excruciating”?
Published: 2005. All but two of the true-crime stories in Women Behaving Badly first appeared in one of Bellamy’s earlier collections, which include the delightful They Died Crawling and The Maniac in the Bushes. The book has 32 black-and-white photographs.
Conflict alert: Bellamy wrote so many excellent reviews for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor that I have a permanent bias in favor of his writing.
Jan is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Her novels include The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s). She tweets at @janiceharayda.
© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.