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THE BRINLEY MURDERS

 

Introduction

 

Adam House (- 1800) Father of Mary House married to John Brinley

Jacob Brinley, grandson of John

Edward Philip Brinley (1878  1927) Great grandson of John and Mary

Caswell Brinley (1889-1927) Great grandson of John and Mary

Mary Brinley (1918-1925) daughter of Caswell

John Brinley and Mary House had son Philip who had a son Jacob

 

When we started working on the Brinley family tree in the 1960s little did we know we would be writing a story of Brinleys that were murdered, all in Missouri.

 

From the old records we know the settlers life was full of many hardships, including having to travel by foot, horseback, oxen or wagons.  The area was a dangerous place to be.  Not only from the natural enemies of the weather but also from the possibility of the Indians and their habit of beheading white folks.

 

In the late 1790s a settler, named Adam House settled on large spring in what is now Jefferson County, Missouri, South West of St. Louis.  There are many different stories about Adam, when and where he moved from to come to Missouri and especially how he died and many do not reflect the official report as you will see below.

 

We will not dwell on where he lived before he came to Missouri as we do not know but many think from Virginia.  From the various records it appears many have Adam mixed up with another Adam but that is another story.

 

Based on news articles, which was written 200 years after Adam died makes good reading but does lack the test of proof.  Some examples of news paper articles is a story about Adam however these were written many years before we ever considered Adam and his relationship to the Brinleys.

 

About the time Adam House was settling on the land in Jefferson County, the land became under the control of the Spanish.  Under Spanish authority the settlers obtained permission to settle on 126 tracts of land, within the present limits of Jefferson County, Missouri. Among these settlers was Adam House, Mathias Brinley and the Hildebrands. The titles to which were afterward confirmed by the United States.  These grants comprise about 85,000 acres of the best land in the county.  Up to 1800 buffalo and elk were plentiful but with the advance of civilization these animals disappeared or kept a safe distance from the approaching settlements.  The Indians were numerous. The Delaware's and Shawnees lived south of this area in Ste. Genevieve, Perry and Cape Girardeau counties while the Osages lived near Union, in Franklin County, and the Cherokees lived on White River.  For the most part, the Delaware's and Shawnees and Cherokees were peaceable and friendly but not the Osages.

 

In the 1940s Chester Brinley rented a farm, just down the Big River, (about 3 miles) from the area where Adam House settled.  There was a big rock in the middle of the field.  Chester just kept plowing around it with his team of horses.  One day he decided to try and move the rock out of the field.  When he did, he discovered an Indian burial site, with pieces of clay dishes and arrowheads.
 

In 1957 the Jefferson County Press-Times
 printed an article about the fate of Adam House with lots of fiction included.

 

Sunday afternoon we walked over ground on which county history was made at the cost of the heads of the pioneers who made it.  Few people probably know that House Springs has a lurid origin as bloody as Custer's Last Stand.

 

In the year 1801 or 1802 a family named House migrated here from the east and pitched a tent on a site near where the present town of House Springs is now located, determined to eke out a living in the wilds of what was at that time upper Louisiana.  They had found a spring bubbling out of the side of a hill, a grove of sugar maples and here they chose to cut timbers for a house and till the land.  However their plans for the future came to an abrupt end before they had been there any length of time.

 

One day two Indians happened by their cabin on their way to St. Louis, which was the nearest trading post.  They saw that the House family had horses, and asked to borrow two of them to shorten their trek to the post.  Adam House, unfamiliar with the code of the Indian, refused somewhat rudely.  It has been said that the Indians hid in the woods, waited their chance, and took the horses anyway.  To the Indians, it seems this was an act of no particular meanness.  They no doubt meant to return the horses after borrowing them. However, House felt differently about it.  He trailed the Indians to St. Louis and had them arrested and jailed.

 

When the Indians were released they plotted revenge.  Gathering together a band of their own people, they hid in the woods around the House home and opened fire.  The House family remained indoors for days fighting off the attackers and keeping them at bay.  However, their ammunition ran out and they had only one hope - to summon help.  They chose their eldest boy and girl and sent them on their way to the two nearest towns for aid.

 

At that time, the two nearest towns were Fenton and Kimswick, both twelve miles distant.  Anyone with a little imagination can easily picture the terrors, which these two youngsters may have encountered along the way. Well, both the boy and the girl reached their destination and summoned help.  But when the rescue crew arrived it was too late.  The scalped heads of all the House family except Adam, were placed in gory array on the kitchen table, each with a limp of maple sugar in the mouth, for the House family had been making maple sugar at the time of the attack.  The head of Adam House, however, was in the top of a forty foot elm tree located about fifty feet from the spring.  This was a final gesture of sarcasm by the Indians, who considered the refusal of the loan of horses a mortal offense.

End of article

 

Another author gets carried away some more, describing the house as one Adam House built however the house was built over 100 years after Adam was beheaded.  When Martha and I got married we purchased land for our real estate office, which was located on the same property, directly across Highway 30 from the Big Spring.  We had no idea we were building on land that had a history of murder, Indians and mystery directly across the highway from the Springs on property once walked upon by Adam House.

 

Written in News Democrat some years ago

 

.....The dwelling in which the House family lived still stands, in good condition, about half a mile west of House Springs.  Both the House residence, a two-story, eight-room structure, with a basement, and a building in the town now housing Gus Hoefert's tavern, were built of bricks molded and baked on the old House farm, years and years ago.  And the bricks must have been well made for they are in remarkable state of preservation.  Having the appearance of modern vitrified bricks, they remain smooth and intact.

(end of news paper article)

 

Actually the house they were describing was built over a hundred years after Adam died and none of the above story has any truth behind it at all but does illustrate the problem of learning the truth when working on Genealogy.

 

What the Official Records Really Say
 

Dated 19 March, 1800

 

"I, Pierre Treget, commandant at Carondelet, pursuant to orders from Don Carlos Dehault Delassus, commandant at St. Louis, repaired to the Renault Forks, with the few militiamen I could assemble, in pursuit of the Indians.

 

On reaching the place, I found an old man dead, head cut off and laid at his side, scalp taken and body full of wounds from musket shots; and a few paces off, a boy eight or nine years old, head cut off and lying near him, face smeared with blood, with a small piece of maple sugar in his mouth, no wound on his body from either musket or knife; a dead cow, one horn carried off, dead calf, head cut off, beds in the house cut to pieces, utensils broken and strewed about the house.

 

Ascertained that the murders had been committed by the Osages; buried the bodies, not known at this time.  Source:  Historical Library, St. Louis, Missouri

 

Almost a week later, on March 25, 1800 Pascal Leon Cerre, Ensign of the militia, visited the scene of the tragedy and learned that the victims were Adam House and his son, Jacob.  It is believe by many people that the entire House family was wiped out.  But the same entry goes on to state that another son, John, managed to escape, and that the Ensign appointed Robert Owen of Maria des Liards to be the guardian for the boy and his two sisters, Betsey and Peggy.

 

Source:  Historical Library, St. Louis, Missouri

 

In 2004 a company was excavating the land just below the Old Spring when they found an Indian Burial Ground.  The excavating was immediately stopped until construction could be approved by the Jefferson County authorities

 

How does the murder of Adam have anything to do with the Brinleys you may ask.  One of the children of Adam was Mary House, born about 1786.  From estate papers we know she married John Brinley which appears to be the father of the Missouri Brinleys. 

 

In papers of the settlement of the affairs of Adam House we find a Adam had a daughter, Mary.  In 1811, John Brinley, signed papers on behalf of his wife, Mary, daughter of Adam.

 

Two years after Adam was scalped, Mathias Brinley settled in Missouri.  Mathias married Barbara Brinley, daughter of Jacob Brinley and Eve Hoke of Pennsylvania, thus a Brinley married a Brinley.  One of their children was John Brinley.  We have many stories and old letters of John and his wife Mary and have resisted saying this is the same John and Mary but all the available documentation causes us to think this is correct.  It should be noted there are a group of papers which show John was married to Mary Sweeney, not Mary House.  This was first written by Pauline Massey who helped us get started working on the Brinley family.  Pauline was confined to bed with cancer in 1981. We went to visit her and showed her the records we found and told her it didnt appear John was ever married to a Mary Sweeney.  She said Clyde, straighten out the Record.  Thus we are trying.

 

John and Mary had son Philip (son of John Brinley and Mary House) who had a son Jacob, which the following article is about.
 

The community was shocked and saddened by his being shot and killed as he was returning home with his wagon and team from delivering his load of ties to Glen Allen.  As I recall it was never known who had fired the shot and whether or not it was an accident.

 

Jacob was in his wagon and was just entering his yard when one single shot rang out and Jacob fell over dead.  They never found who shot his or why.  25 December 1902, Marble Hill, Bollinger County, Missouri

 

John and Mary had son Alexander, who had a daughter, Mary Catherine Brinley who was the mother of Edward Philip Brinley (1878-1927)

 

John and Mary parents of John M. Brinley (1823- ) and Mary H. Williams parents of Charles A. Brinley (1852-1932) and Josephine Swaney parents of Caswell Brinley (1889-1927)

 

 

 

 

 

The story of the murder of Edward was published in papers all over the United States, was featured in a 9 page story in True Magazine, in 1981.

 

UNION, Mo., Aug. 25, 1928 - Mrs. Eugene Gifford, 50 years old, wife of a farmer, living near Eureka, St. Louis County, was arrested at her home at noon today on two indictments charging her with the murder of a man and a boy.

 

This afternoon, Mrs. Gifford made a statement to Chief Andrew McDonnell of Webster Groves in which she admitted putting arsenic in medicine prescribed by a physician for both Lloyd and Elmer Schamel, and putting arsenic in medicine also prescribed by a physician, for Edward Brinley. She said she placed the poison in the medicine because she wanted to ease their pains.

 

Frank Withington said he used to visit the white house when he was just a boy. He is 81 now and lives with his wife just off old Route 66 in Pacific. But in the '20s, back before the Schamel boys died, before they buried Edward Brinley, long before they arrested Bertha Gifford, Withington would come here after school with young Jim Gifford and have supper with the family at the kitchen table. And then, many times, he'd spend the night - upstairs in Jim Gifford's bedroom - while she slept downstairs.

 

"Well, Leo, she could have poisoned me, 'cause I went down there and stayed all night, and so did my brothers and so did Pete Lynch," Withington said. "They didn't catch on for a long time," said Leo McKeever, 89, who has lived near the Bend all of his life.

 

There aren't many who remember what happened. Not first-hand anyway.

Oh, they may know the story. Or they may know a part of the story. They may have heard about it from their mothers, or their grandmothers. Or from those little "remember when" articles that run once in a while in the local papers.

 

But it was 65 years ago, and not much is left.

 

There is the house on the Bend, and the old Nicholson place where Bertha and Gene Gifford lived before that, and, down along the old St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad tracks, there is the old "tin house" where the Giffords stayed when they first came here from Jefferson County.

 

There are the granite headstones in the little country cemeteries, a handful of photographs. And the old newspaper clippings so brittle now that they break into pieces when they are unfolded, break like the wings of long-dead butterflies.

 

Catawissa, Missouri, August 28, 1928: Mrs. Bertha Gifford, who has admitted administering poison which caused the deaths of three persons and is being questioned in several other deaths here, was a tireless attender of funerals, a visitor of sick persons and a connoisseur of stories dealing with violence, illness or blood.

 

ONCE THEY SAID, she was a great beauty who ran a hotel near Hillsboro with her first husband, a man named Graham, until he died under mysterious circumstances.  After she married Gene Gifford, the two moved to Catawissa.  He farmed, and she went about the work of being a farmer's wife.

 

Her cooking was legendary.  People here still say she made some of the best biscuits in the county, and strangers often stopped by the Gifford home at meal time in hopes of being invited to their table.  Often they were.

 

But Bertha Gifford's real passion was not the kitchen.

 

Women who visited her said she had a peculiar relish for stories of "illness, operations or deeds of violence," according to one newspaper account. Once, she regaled her kitchen audience with comment on a then-famous murder case "as she puttered about the stove, salting the potatoes or turning the pork."

 

But Frank Withington said he didn't know all of that about the woman who lived in the white house on the Bend.  All he knew, he said, was that she was pretty and pleasant and never turned him away from the table.

 

"Now about that poison," Withington said.  "She bought that from old Doc Powers. "Arsenic to kill rates in her chicken house.  But that old Doc shouldn't have sold all that arsenic to her.  She didn't have that many rats.  Well, I think old Doc Powers had a suspicion.  A lot of people had a suspicion but it was like that story about the mice who wanted to bell the cat so they would know when the cat was coming.  Who was going to bell that cat? Nobody wanted to be the first one."

 

Union, Mo., August 29, 1928 - Bertha Gifford, 56 year old farm wife who is under indictment for poisoning three of nine person who died in her home - a bleak house where illness always was fatal - has become hysterical in her top-tier cell in the Franklin County Jail.

 

The unperturbed calm with which she at first faced charges of administering arsenic trioxide, the deadly derivative of arsenic, to three person who were only slightly ill beneath her roof, has been shattered by a three day jail confinement.  Today, she wept almost continuously.

 

AT FIRST, there were only three - Brinley, a known drinker, who fell outside the white house on the Bend and was taken in by Gene and Bertha Gifford and fed hot lemonade and stewed tomatoes until he died; little Lloyd Schamel, 9, whose mother had died two months earlier; and then Lloyd's brother, Elmer, 7, who died less than six weeks after his brother.

 

But there were others who died under mysterious circumstances while they were in Bertha Gifford's care:

 

James Gifford, her 13 year old brother in law;  Bernard Stuhlfelder, 15 months old; Sherman Pounds, the 53 year old uncle of her husband; James Ogle, the Giffords 53 year old hired hand; Beulah Pounds, Sherman Pounds 3 year old granddaughter; Margaret Stuhifelder, 2; Irene Stuhlfelder, 7; Mary Brinley, 7; "Grandma" Birdie Unnerstall, 72...

 

Eighteen by some counts, 19 by others.

 

Officials exhumed Brinley's body and the bodies of the Schamel boys and found large quantities of arsenic in the organs of all of them.

 

She had given it to them, Bertha Gifford said, because she wanted to help them, not kill them.

 

Bertha Gifford was arrested in Eureka, where she and her husband had moved shortly after the death of Ed Brinley, about the time the people in the Bend finally began to bell the cat.

 

"Oh, you can imagine it shook some people up," said Emily Geatley, now 94, who was born in the Bend, "Because they always seemed like such nice people. Everybody liked them."

 

Union, Mo August 30, 1928

Mrs. Bertha Gifford of Eureka, a 50 year old father's wife was a penchant for visiting sick rooms and funerals was involved here today in a total of 11 deaths in the last 15 years.

 

Mrs. Gifford is held in jail on indictments charging her with two murders and on her confession to administering arsenic to these two persons and to a third before they died.

 

The number of fatalities for which Mrs. Gifford is being questioned roost to eleven today with receipt by Franklin County authorities of a letter from Mrs. Harry Ramsey of East St. Louis, Illinois.

 

Mrs. Ramsey said her daughter, Mary, 7, died three years ago, and her first husband, Caswell Brinley, several months later, both after treatment by Mrs. Gifford.

 

Union, Mo. Sept 1, 1928

The number of person at whose death bed Mrs. Bertha Gifford 56 year old confessed prisoner was present reach seventeen today, when it became know she had attended Mrs. Birdie Unnerstall, 72, who died Feb 9, 1926 and Mrs. Leona Slocum, 37, who died Oct 12, 1925.

 

Mrs. Gifford is in the Franklin county jail here, awaiting a grand jury hearing on indictments charging her with the poisoning of Ed Brinley and Elmer Schamel.  The women said she gave poison to her two patients to "quiet stomach pains" (14)

 

UNION, Mo. Nov 19, 1928

Her dark locks freshly bobbed and with two bright spots of rough on her lined cheeks, Mrs. Bertha Gifford of Catawissa, Mo. who like to wait on the sick, came into court here today to stand trail for her life.

 

Laura McKeever was not even born when Bertha Gifford lived in the Bend, or when she went to trial.  But her grandmother tells the story of the day Bertha came to visit.

 

"My mother was about 16 or 17 years old and she was real bad sick and grandma said Bertha Gifford came over to the house with her starched white dress and her starched white apron." Laura McKeever said, "She said she was carrying a satchel.

 

Grandma said she turned her away.

 

On the opening day of the trial, more than 1,000 people crowded into the courtroom and into the hallway outside.

 

She sits slumped in her chair, but there is no despondency in her attitude. Her hair is black and bobbed with a trace of permanent waving.  She is neat in her black coat, not a dowdy farmer wife...Heavily lidded eyes watch the witnesses as they testify against her, persons she has known for years," a newspaper account reported.

 

"If my mom and dad were here today and she admitted it to them, I think they still would have said, "Oh, no, she couldn't have done that.  That woman wouldn't kill nobody," Withington said.

 

She did it though, Leo McKeever said.

 

You know they put her in the insane asylum down in Farmington.  And the joke was they made her a cook, Withington said. (8)

 

UNION, MO, 21 November, 1928

Mrs. Bertha Gifford, poison murderess, was found insane by a jury here to-night after three hours of deliberation.  The verdict was that she was not guilty because she was of unsound mind when she administered poison to Ed Brinley, a neighbor, in May, 1927, and still is insane.  She will be remanded to a state asylum.

 

UNION, MO., Dec. 18, 1928 - Mrs. Bertha Gifford confessed prisoner of Ed Brinley and of two young boys, will be taken tomorrow to the State Insane Hospital at Farmington by an order issued today by Circuit Judge Brueur.

 

The element of financial profit, or any other apparent benefit, to Mrs. Gifford from the deaths, was absent in most cases, but in a few cases family difficulties have appeared as a possible motive.

 

"I wanted to help them.  I wanted to do good," was her declaration when she finally admitted some of the poison murders.  These expressions convinced the prosecutor, as well as the physicians, that the woman was insane.

 

Bertha Gifford, never left the hospital in Farmington. She died in 1951. Her husband, Gene, died a few years later.  The Missouri Department of Mental Health has permanently sealed her record, barring a court order or a request to open them from a close family member.  It is doubtful that will ever happen.

 

It was a neighborhood back then, Withington said, and the people of the Bend were like one big family.

 

"She just likes to take care of the sick," Emily Geatley said.  "That's the truth. Nobody had any idea, whatsoever, that she wasn't sincere about it.  I

guess she was just a little screwy.

 

You know, that's been so long ago.  We don't even talk about it anymore. You just kind of forget about it.

 

End of News paper article

 

The Mary Brinley mentioned in the above, was daughter of Caswell Brinley. Caswell and Edward Brinley were 2nd cousins.

 

Caswell's son Charles still lives in Illinois, near St. Louis.  (1994) About 1980 Charles said he was at the Giffords home and wasn't feeling very good.

 

Mrs. Gifford brought him some peaches and he took one bite and noticed that no one else had any except him so he high tailed it to home.  He said his dad always told him, he just didn't get enough of those peaches to make him die.

 

Edward P. Brinley born 1878 died 1927

 

Article Text:

There is little today suggesting that Morse Mill, a decaying burg in the rural expanse of western Jefferson County, was a thriving resort that was home to a notorious murderer and a very swingin' casino.

 

Roaring Twenties-era postcards depict hordes of rich urbanites taking summer shelter along the banks of the Big River here. John H. Morse's majestic grist mill, for which the town was named, always looms in the background.
 

Charles Lindbergh once signed the guest register at the old Morse Motel. So did Hollywood's "It" girl, Clara Bow. During prohibition, the rich and famous came here to swim and booze and gamble, local historians say. At the center of it was the three-story motel, the original home of Morse, an industrialist who settled here on the Big River in 1847 but died before his town really started jumping and jiving.

 

"It was quite the famous little place," said local historian Della Lang of Fenton. "In those days, with prohibition, they managed to get hold of liquor. It was a speakeasy, and a lot of money was to be made in those days. And if Morse was still alive, I'm sure he would have been right in the middle of it."

 

In his own era, Morse was a pioneer and developer who built Gravois Road and the Sandy Creek Bridge, which still carries traffic north of Hillsboro. Morse, who had strong conservative views, fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and later was a state senator representing parts of Jefferson and Washington counties.

 

Keeping the name alive today, aside from a handful of old cottages, the town has nearly completely vanished. The mill closed in the Great Depression and was torn down in the 1940s. The motel is now someone's home but has fallen into disrepair. Where old photos show the motel once had a New Orleans-style balcony on the second story, a door now leads to nothing.

 

And while the iron frame of the Morse Mill bridge - built by Morse himself - still stands, county officials are planning to tear it down, to the dismay of local preservationists. The few cottages remaining are peopled by working-class families who enjoy the river and the county park on its southern banks.

 

It could be that Postmaster Alice I. Lee, 61, single handedly keeps the name alive every time she postmarks a letter with Morse Mill 63066. But her tiny post office on Highway EE does not handle any delivery routes. It's only for 184 post-office box holders. Morse Mill residents who get mail at home have Hillsboro or Dittmer addresses, she says. "I'm trying to keep Morse Mill on the map," she said. Other Jefferson County settlements have long since lost their identity when their post offices closed, she says.

 

She remembers when it took longer to drive across Morse Mill with all its activity than it took to drive the 16 miles to Morse Mill from her childhood home in Festus.

 

Morse Mill's resort-glitz faded when people started heading to the Lake of the Ozarks earlier this century, she says. Its vitality as a place to live and work declined when state transportation crews built Highways B and C, bypassing Morse Mill in the 1960s.

 

What was left of Morse Mill by 1993 was washed away in the flood.

"You can't imagine how the flood hurt this town," she said.

 

The arsenic solution:

Lee is rehabilitating two old Morse Mill houses, including one on Highway EE that was once the home of the town's most infamous resident, Bertha Gifford.

 

After Gifford was married around 1900, she moved to Catawissa, just over the Franklin County line. In the 1920s, she often volunteered to care for sick neighbors, and her friends came to trust her homemade remedies.

They called her the Good Samaritan.

 

When the 15-month-old child of Bernard Stuhlfelder, Lloyd Schamel, 9, and the young girl, Beulah Pounds, died in her care, few were suspicious. Children often died before the age of antibiotics.

 

But then Elmer Schamel, 7, and his Aunt Leona died in her care, and the townsfolk began to catch on. In each case, Gifford allegedly predicted their deaths, and each suffered extreme stomach pain before death. When the Giffords' hired man, Edward P. Brinley, died in her care, Gifford was arrested.

 

Autopsies revealed Brinley died from ingesting arsenic trioxide, a derivative of arsenic.

 

Gifford wept for three straight days in the Franklin County Jail. "But I wanted to do them good," she was quoted as saying in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in August 1928.

 

Gifford was convinced that arsenic was a panacea. She claimed she had taken small doses to appear younger and cure heart palpitations.

 

"Mrs. Gifford has black bobbed hair, streaked with gray, and a ruddy complexion," the Globe-Democrat wrote. "She is the typical Midwestern farm wife, tanned by the sun and accustomed to hard labor. During those years of hard labor, her principal diversion has been attending funerals, neighbors in the Catawissa area said."

 

As the investigation expanded, Gifford blamed her "downfall" on the newspapers, "declaring if they had made no mention of the deaths, she would not now be held in jail on . . . charges of murder," the Globe-Democrat wrote.

 

A grand jury in Franklin County found that Gifford had poisoned 17 people, according to Post-Dispatch articles covering her trial. It was proven that nine of the murders happened in her home, which the Globe-Democrat called "a bleak place where illness always becomes fatal."

 

Gifford was found permanently insane by a jury that year and spent the rest of her life at a state mental hospital in Farmington.

 

"The irony is they made her the cook," Lee said. Lee has a special connection to Gifford. Beulah Pounds, one of Gifford's child victims, was the aunt of Lee's late husband and the daughter of Gifford's cousin, Marguerite.

 

While Lee is fixing up the old house, she says she still plans to continue living in the doublewide trailer in the back yard. It's big enough for her, even bigger than the old house.

 

She says that she hopes Morse Mill remains a place where good families who don't have much money can live comfortably. Most of the new houses in Jefferson County are expensive, she says.

 

"I want to build homes for people who are financially hurting, but responsible," she said. Morse Mill "is distressed now, but I hope it's not beyond hope," she said. (13)