Bertha Gifford was a farmwife in rural Catawissa, Missouri during the early 1900s who was accused of murdering 17 members of the local community. While some consider her to be America's first female serial killer, that dubious honor was earned 100 years previously by Lavinia Fisher near Charleston, South Carolina.
Bertha Alice Williams Graham Gifford was born about 1872 in Morse Mill, Missouri, the daughter of William Poindexter Williams and his wife Matilda, née Lee. She was one of 10 children. She was married to Henry Graham and this union produced one daughter, Lila. Following the death of Henry Graham, she married Eugene Gifford and they had one child, a son, James Gifford.
In 1928, Gifford — known in her community for her cooking skills and caring for sick neighbors and relatives — was arrested at Eureka, Missouri and charged with the murders of three people. Following the exhumation and post mortem exams of Edward Brinley and Elmer and Lloyd Schamel whose bodies were found to contain large amounts of arsenic, Gifford was put on trial in Union, Missouri. Following the three-day trial, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Missouri State Hospital #4 (a mental institution) where she remained until her death in 1951.
Although counts vary, most historians and family members agree that Gifford actually killed at least 17 people over a period of 21 years. Statistically, she ranks as one of the world's first and most prolific of the known female serial killers. All of her victims were friends, neighbors or relatives of her husband.