Tillie Gburek was born in Poland on October 22nd, 1877. She was the oldest of seven children, and at the age of four, her family moved to the United States. The family settled in the “Little Poland” district of Chicago.
Marriages and Murders
Not much is known about Tillie’s childhood, but her first marriage was recorded in 1895 to a man named Joe Mitkiewicz. The couple were well liked in their community, and their marriage was described as being a happy one.
Tillie developed a reputation as someone who could “predict” deaths from her dreams. She claimed her dreams were usually about stray dogs or an annoying neighbor.
In the beginning of 1914, Tillie told friends and neighbors that she dreamed her husband Joe was sick and she believed he was going to die soon. That “dream” came to fruition when her husband died on January 13th, 1914. His death was listed as a heart attack by the coroner, and Tillie collected a $1000 insurance.
She married for a second time on February 27th, 1914, to a man named Joseph Ruskowski. This was only a month after her first husband passed. Tillie soon began to tell friends that she dreamed Joseph would die. As “predicted”, Joseph started to get sick in May and succumbed to this illness on May 20th. Tillie collected on his $722 life insurance and the $1200 he left for her.
Soon after Joseph’s death, Tillie began dating a man named Josef Guszkowski. Josef and his sister enjoyed the candy that Tillie made, but eventually they both got ill, and Josef died. In March 1919, Tillie married her third husband, Frank Joseph Kupczyk. The two were living at 924 N. Winchester Avenue, where ironically, Tillie used to live with a man named Meyers who had disappeared. After Frank moved in, Tillie told neighbors that he would not live for long.
She constantly taunted Frank as he grew weaker everyday. “It’ll be any day now!” she kept telling him. Tillie asked Frank to take out an insurance policy on himself and he did. She even purchased a coffin for her husband to be ready for his impending death.
Frank died on April 20th, 1921. Tillie played festive music after Frank died, grabbed his ears and shouted at his body, “You won’t get up again!”. Frank was buried in the coffin his wife bought him, and his cause of death was thought to be bronchial pneumonia. Tillie collected his $675 life insurance.
Tillie’s fourth marriage was her downfall. She married a wealthy man named Joseph Klimek on July 30th, 1921. According to Tillie, he drank too much for her tastes and he had a roving eye. She had complained about these faults to her cousin Nellie, who suggested that she divorce Klimek. Tillie told her cousin, “I will get rid of him some other way.”
She soon had her husband take out a life insurance policy, and within weeks, he was ill. His arms began to go numb, and his legs were paralyzed after six weeks. It was at this point he contacted his doctor, Peter Burns.
Dr. Burns examined Klimek and after noting he was gravely ill, he called for an ambulance to transport Klimek to the Cook County Hospital. Doctors examined him and determined that he was suffering from long term arsenic poisoning. Klimek recalled that their dog died after eating pieces of food prepared by Tillie. He also said that some soup she had given him tasted strange.
Hospital officials contacted the police and Tillie was arrested on October 27th, 1922. After 18 hours of investigation, Tillie confessed to her crimes.
The bodies of Tillie’s previous husbands were exhumed, and each one contained lethal doses of arsenic. When asked where she got the poison from, Tillie pointed the finger at her cousin Nellie and claimed Nellie supplied her with rat poison to kill her husband Frank. This claim led to Nellie’s arrest.
After Tillie’s arrest, it was revealed to investigators that several of her relatives and neighbors were dead. A neighborhood dog that annoyed Tillie died from arsenic poisoning. Two neighbors she had arguments with became deathly sick after eating candy from her. Several of Tillie’s cousins became ill after eating at her home. It was also revealed that Nellie’s twin children, Sophie and Ben, as well as her grandmother Dorothy, died from arsenic poisoning in 1917.
In total, the list included twenty suspected victims, with fourteen of them deceased. The newspapers began calling Tillie the “high priestess” of a “Bluebeard clique” in the Little Poland neighborhood, meaning she was the head women who killed their husbands. Other wives were subsequently arrested and released.
Joseph Klimek survived, even though he spent an additional three months in the hospital. The life insurance policies that she had collected on her husbands were also revealed to police.
Although Tillie confessed to twenty murders, she was only convicted of the death of Frank Kupczyk in March 1923. She received life in prison which, at that time, was the harshest sentence a woman could receive. She was, however, unmoved as her sentence was handed down. Nellie was eventually acquitted after spending a year in jail.
Tillie died while still incarcerated at the Illinois State Penitentiary in November 1936. She was 60 years old.