This fifth segment in a ten part series featuring American serial killers profiles the crimes of multiple murderers from the states of Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Missouri.
MASSACHUSETTS: Jane Toppan
When Jane Toppan confessed to killing eleven people in 1901, she proclaimed her goal in life was “to have killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived…”
Jane was born in 1857 as Honora Kelley. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Honora was a very young girl and she was left to be cared for by her insane alcoholic father, Peter Kelley. Just a few years later, however, Peter decided he could no longer care for his daughters and left them at the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage for indigent girls.
In November 1864, Honora was placed as an indentured servant in the home of Mrs. Ann C. Toppan in Lowell, Massachusetts. Although she was never formally adopted by Mrs. Toppan, Honora took her benefactor’s surname and became known as Jane Toppan.
After she had finished her time with Mrs. Toppan and her sister Delia had died a as an alcoholic prostitute in New York, Jane began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. During her residency, Jane began experimenting on her patients who had been prescribed morphine and atropine by altering their doses to study the effects. It’s unknown whether Jane had sex with any of her patients during their altered states, but she later told police she experienced a sexual thrill during her “experiments.” Many times, Jane claimed, she gave her patients a lethal dose and climbed into bed with them, holding their heads to her chest as they died.
With her training complete in 1889, Jane was recommended for a nursing position at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital. She would claim several more victims before her termination the following year.
Jobless, Jane tucked tail and briefly returned to Cambridge but was fired within a short time for recklessly prescribing opiates. Jane then took to private nursing and, despite several complaints of petty theft from her patients, her business flourished. With little to no supervision as a private nurse, Jane was free to begin killing in earnest.
In 1899, Jane poisoned her foster sister Elizabeth. And then for a short while, things were quiet with Jane – at least, nothing that has ever been reported.
Jane moved in with an widower named Alden Davis in Cataumet, Massachusetts, to provide housekeeping and nanny services for him and his children. Unbeknownst to Mr. Davis, Jane had been responsible for his wife’s death. Within weeks, Alden and two of his daughters were dead.
Following the Davis’ deaths, Jane moved back to Boston and began dating her late foster sister’s husband. She poisoned his sister, who died as a result, and then began poisoning her boyfriend so she could prove her love by nursing him back to health. When this wasn’t having the desired effect, Jane poisoned herself to gain his sympathy. This did not work either and the boyfriend cast Jane from his house with a warning to never return.
During this dramatic relationship, the surviving members of the Davis family demanded autopsies be performed on their deceased loved ones, as they suspected foul play. When the coroner revealed the youngest Davis daughter had died of poisoning, their suspicious were confirmed. Jane was arrested on October 26, 1901.
By the time her trial began in June 1902, Jane had confessed to eleven murders. On June 23, 1902, she was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to life in Taunton Insane Hospital.
After her commitment, the New York Journal published another of Jane’s confessions which was provided to them by her attorney. This confession declared the number of victims to be more than 31. Some people suspected this confession was exaggerated and an attempt by Jane to find a legal loophole which would allow her an eventual release. However, it had no such result and Jane died at the asylum on August 17, 1938, at the age of 81.
MICHIGAN: Coral Eugene Watts
Michigan serial killer Coral Eugene Watts is proof that sometimes Karma takes justice into her own hands when the state is moving too slow.
Watts was described by several who knew him, including family, as having been a very strange child. As early as the age of twelve, Watts fantasized about torturing and killing young women and by the age of 15, he’d began stalking his first victim.
After being arrested and charged with rape in June 1969, Watts was sentenced to a psychiatric hospital and there it was discovered Watts suffered mild mental retardation and delusional thoughts. Following treatment which included counseling and prescription drugs, Watts was released in November 1969.
Despite his poor grades and learning disabilities, Watts graduated high school in 1973 and attended Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, on a full football scholarship. However, Watts was expelled only three months into his college career after being accused of stalking and assaulting women on campus and being implicated in the murder of a female student. Watts was never charged with the homicide because police did not have enough evidence to do so.
Kicked out of school and unemployed, Coral Watts headed for Texas.
Watts’ official serial killing career began in October 1974 with the kidnapping and murder of 19 year-old Gloria Steele.
For the next eight years, Watts would murder at least twelve more women, although some law enforcement officials believe he could be responsible for as many as 100.
Watts was a difficult killer to catch because he committed his crimes in multiple jurisdictions and rarely sexually assaulted his victims which eliminated detection through bodily fluids.
On May 23, 1982, Watts was arrested in Houston when he broke into the home of two young women and tried to kill them. It was then that Texas authorities began to link Watts to previous murders and soon enough Watts was connected to at least ten homicides in Michigan.
Texas believed they didn’t have enough evidence to convict Watts, so they made a plea deal with Watts and his attorney: if he confessed to his crimes, he would receive immunity for the murder charges and would be sentenced to only sixty years in prison. Watts readily agreed and began serving his time behind bars. Michigan, however, refused to take part in the Texas plea agreement.
Shortly into his sixty year sentence, the Texas Court of Appeals ruled that Watts had not been informed the bath water in which Watts had attempted to drown one of his victims was considered a weapon. The public was outraged when they learned Watts, as a result of the ruling, would be eligible for release in May 2006.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox took to the airwaves in 2004 asking anyone with information about the unsolved Michigan murders to please come forward. He was hoping to gain the evidence needed to keep Watts in prison even after his release from Texas. The plea was successful when a young man came forward and claimed he had witnessed the murder of 36 year-old Helen Dutcher in 1979. The witness identified Watts by his eyes which he described as “evil” and “devoid of emotion.”
Watts was promptly charged with Helen’s murder and on November 17, 2004, a Michigan jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. Later he was also charged with Gloria’s murder and received an additional life sentence.
As I mentioned earlier, Karma has a funny way of setting things right. On September 21, 2007, Coral Eugene Watts died in a Jackson, Michigan, hospital after battling prostate cancer for several months. The disposition of his remains is unknown.
MINNESOTA: Paul Michael Stephani
To be a successful serial killer, one must be sociopath. Paul Michael Stephani apparently enjoyed killing, but later his conscience would get the best of him and he would call police and in a whimpering, barely audible voice apologize for his transgressions. Hence, Stephani became to be known as the “Weepy Voice Killer” and his serial killing reign was very short lived.
New Year’s 1980 had just been ushered in when a young Minnesota woman began walking home. Before she could reach her destination, however, she was brutally attacked with a tire iron and left for dead. Fortunately, she survived thanks to a call to police by her attacker and his pleas to send help. Unfortunately, she was the first in series of victims who would not be so lucky.
It was another year and a half before a second assault took place. This time, the victim, 18 year-old Kimberly Comptom, was stabbed to death in an area just outside of Saint Paul, Minnesota, on June 3, 1981. A few hours later, her attacker phoned police and told them, “Will you find me? I just stabbed somebody with an ice pick. I can’t stop myself. I keep killing somebody.” The same man called again two days later to say newspaper accounts of the murder were inaccurate. On June 11, the killer called officers one more time to say, “I’m sorry for what I did to Compton.”
After the third call, the killer ceased all communication with police.
A little more than a year would pass before the murderer resurfaced. This time the victim was Kathleen Diane Greening, 33, who was drowned in her own bathtub on July 21, 1982. Her death, however, was not connected to the prior cases and wouldn’t be until a surprise twist.
Later that same year, 40 year-old Barbara Simons was stabbed more than 100 times.
But it was the August 21, 1982, attack on 21 year-old hitchhiker Denise Williams that an identity was given to a killer. Denise fought viciously with her attacker, hitting him in the head with a glass bottle, before making an escape.
A couple of hours later, Paul Stephani walked into an emergency room seeking medical attention for his head which was bleeding profusely. It would prove to be his undoing as police, notified by hospital personnel, connected him to the attack on Williams and the murder of Barbara Simons.
In 1983, Stephani as convicted of the assault on Denise and the murder of Barbara, receiving a total sentence of 40 years behind bars.
Diagnosed with melanoma cancer in 1997 and told he only had a few months to live, Stephani confessed to murdering Kimberly and Kathleen as well as the New Year’s attack, proving the claims his ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, and sister made during his trial that he was the Weepy Voice Killer.
Stephani died on June 12, 1998, at the Oak Park Heights prison in Stillwater, Minnesota. The location of his final resting place is unknown.
Amazingly, I could not find a single photo of Paul Stephani anywhere online. I was also surprised the Weepy Voice Killer has been profiled in only one book: Murders In The United States: Crimes, Killers And Victims Of The Twentieth Century by R. Barri Flowers.
MISSISSIPPI: Donald Leroy Evans
There’s not a lot of information available about an ex-Marine who began a killing spree after his discharge in 1970. Much of the reason for this lack of information is because Donald Leroy Evans was notorious for telling tall-tales, so a lot of he said was simply brushed off as fiction.
What is known about Evans is that he is a serial killer. But whether he is a murderer of hundreds or just the three for which he was convicted is a matter of debate.
This tall-telling serial killer first came to the authorities attention after ten year-old Beatrice Louise Routh was abducted from a Gulfport, Mississippi, playground on August 1, 1991. Her abduction was reported by a homeless relative who told police she had allowed Beatrice to go to the grocery store with a man they had met earlier at the beach. Two hours had since passed and Beatrice nor the man had returned.
With information provided by Beatrice’s relatives, police identified the man who had taken her as a recent Texas parolee Donald Evans who had served time for rape. When officers caught up with Evans in Louisiana, he denied ever having met Beatrice but forensic evidence proved she had been in the stolen Suzuki he was driving. Evans was arrested while family, friends, and law enforcement continued to search for the missing girl.
On August 10, 1991, Evans called federal investigators to his cell and said if they could guarantee he would receive the death penalty, he would tell them where to find Beatrice’s body. Officials told Evans they could not make such a guarantee as death sentences had to be determined by a jury in Mississippi, so Evans asked to see his girlfriend instead. Once she had been flown in from Texas and Evans had visited with her, he provided a complete confession and detailed directions to where Beatrice’s body was hidden.
Evans wasn’t done, however. After confessing to the murder of Beatrice Routh, he began declaring responsibility for more murders; including Ira Jean Smith and Janet Movich of Florida in 1985.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Evans claimed he killed over 70 people across twenty states; however, law enforcement officials could only credit him with the three murders noted here.
In 1993, Evans was convicted for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Beatrice Routh and sentenced to death – just as he had hoped for. In 1995, Evans pled guilty in Florida to the murder of Ira Smith and received a life sentence.
Despite his wishes to be sentenced to death, Evans spent the next several years making a mockery of the judicial system with his outlandish appeals and special requests in an effort to avoid be executed. While justice seemed to be indefinitely delayed, a fellow inmate hastened the process when, in January 1999, he shanked Evans as he was be returned to his cell after showering.
Competing with Jeffrey Dahmer for headlines and his constant telling of lies kept Evans from being deemed worthy for a solo book, but he did receive a few mentions in the book such as Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, The Encyclopedia of Crime, and Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K. Ressler and Thomas Schachtman.
MISSOURI: Bertha Gifford
The stories passed down through the generations say Bertha Gifford was a beautiful woman in her youthful years. Unfortunately, the grainy photos of yesteryear make such difficult to see and her deadly trail leaves me struggling to imagine it.
Bertha’s story begins with the affair of Eugene B. “Gene” Gifford during her first marriage. It was 1907 and her husband, a man by the name of Henry Graham, became violently ill. When he died soon thereafter, the coroner declared his death to be from pneumonia. Graham was 34 years old.
Bertha collected the life insurance on Graham and loaded up with Gene, moving to Catawissa, Missouri to begin again. There the couple took up farming and Bertha earned a honorable reputation as a fantastic cook. The new Mrs. Gifford was also known to be a fine country nurse, helping the infirm during their bleakest moments while asking for nothing in return. Bertha was even blessed with a talent of mixing her own healing potions.
In 1912, Gene’s mother passed away while staying with the Giffords; her death was said to be from “aortic regurgitation.” Only sixteen months later, Gene’s brother, James Arthur “Jimmy” Gifford, fell dead from a sudden case of whooping cough.
Death seemed to surround Bertha, but that wasn’t so unusual for a “nurse” and no one gave it much thought; not even when 15 month old Bernard Stuhlfelder contracted bronchial pneumonia in 1915 and died after four days of being tended to by Bertha, who had supplied the toddler with potions that induced screaming and vomiting.
When Gene’s maternal uncle, 53 year-old widower Sherman Pounds, suddenly fell ill with violent stomach cramps and nausea, it was no surprise. The man was known to be a heavy drinker – especially on weekends, even though he was the sole caregiver for five children. Sherman’s death was declared to be the result of acute alcoholism.
The year 1925 would prove a horrible year for George Schamel’s family. In June of that year, Ethel Schamel passed away from a case of gastritis. Two months later, widower George would lose his nine-year-old son, Lloyd Schamel, to another case of gastritis. And, if those two deaths weren’t bad enough, a month later in September 1925, seven-year-old Elmer Schamel, died from gastritis as well. Almost as if one last twist of the grim reaper’s knife, George’s sister-in-law Leona died in October 1925 from gastritis.
All had been nursed and medicated with special “potions” by Bertha. Now the rumor mill was finally beginning to buzz with suspicion. But it couldn’t buzz too loudly, otherwise Franklin County, Missouri, would be without a nurse.
Then on May 15, 1927, a man named Edward Brinley, once a butcher who had lost his shop due to his love affair with spirits, stumbled to the Griffords front door during one of his drunken episodes. The Giffords let Brinley sleep off his inebriation and the next morning Bertha gave him some of her special lemonade. After suffering stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting all day, Brinley died that afternoon.
The rumor mill sprung to life again and this time the buzzing rang in the ears of the county coroner. He was unsure about Brinley’s death and he consulted another doctor, but after they couldn’t reach an agreement on the cause of death, a certificate was issued reading, “acute unknown disease and acute gastritis, cause unknown.”
Gene and Bertha were livid at the gossip surrounding the deaths. Gene took to raging at anyone who spoke ill of his wife. Feeling unappreciated and the target of scandal, the pair pulled up stakes and moved to Eureka, Missouri.
And that’s where they were in August 1928 when Bertha was arrested for the murders of Lloyd and Elmer Schamel and Edward Brinley after the exhumation of their bodies uncovered large amounts of arsenic.
Bertha Gifford’s 1928 trial was quite a spectacle. School children were given a day off, a band played on the Court square, and people arrived early just to get a seat inside. The ordeal was more like a county fair than the trial of a multiple murderer – as Bertha would have been called in the many years before the term “serial killer” was coined.
Following the three day trial, Bertha was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Missouri State Hospital, where she remained until her death in August 1951.
Although only tried for the murders of three victims, most experts agree Bertha is responsible for at least 17 deaths (some believe more) over a 21 year span. In spirit of short stories, I have not covered even a small amount of her suspected murders here, so I recommend reading Bertha’s great-granddaughters book Tainted Legacy published in 2008. Those interested should also visit www.berthagifford.com for more detailed information, as well.