Tillie Kilmek was an epic poisoner who knocked off any man, relative, dog or neighbor that dared to irritate her. Some say she purported to be a psychic who would first inform her victims of their impending doom, then carry it out.
Tillie’s parents brought her to the U.S. as a baby from Poland in the late 1800s. Tillie grew up and got married in 1895 to a man named John Mitkiewicz, who died in 1914 of an illness the corner defined as heart trouble. Tillie then married a neighbor, John Ruskowski, who soon died. She took another lover, Joseph Guskowski, and he died, too. Her third husband was a man named Frank Kupczyk, who similarly fell ill. By this time around, it was just another day for Tillie. She pre-brought her husband a coffin and asked her landlady if she might store it in the basement. She freely talked to her neighbors about his impending death and because she was the cause of it, she ended up being pretty accurate about when it would happen. This is, perhaps, how the rumor started that she pretended to be psychic. After Frank died, she married her fourth husband, Joseph Klimek, in 1921. Guess what? He, too, became seriously ill.
This time, it wasn’t seen as a mere tragic occurrence. Klimek’s brother suspected something weird was happening, considering that shortly before his brother’s illness, two of the his brother’s pet dogs up and died. The brother called a doctor who suspected Klimek had been poisoned, and who took him to a hospital. There, Tillie was unable to keep feeding him arsenic and so Klimek survived, though he remained hospitalized for quite some time.
Tillie’s days a black widow ended thusly. She was arrested for attempted murder, and her ex-husbands were exhumed and tested for poison. Soon after, Tillie’s cousin Nellie was arrested for supplying her with some of the poison used.
It would seem that Tillie’s poisoning routine did not stop with her lovers. A total of 20 neighbors and relatives of Tillie’s had also become ill after dining with her, and 14 of them died.
An interesting facet of Tillie’s legacy can be seen when you step back from Tillie’s own case and examine the cases that surrounded hers. As reported in Jezebel, Chicago saw a string of women killing their husbands. That particular crime was apparently up 400 percent that year. A fair amount of those women got away with it. (Perhaps you’ve seen the musical Chicago?) The thing about those women, the women the juries found innocent, was that they were good-looking. They were penitent on the stand, flirting and weeping and accusing their late lovers of abuse. Tillie was none of those things. She was cold and unattractive and didn’t speak English particularly well. While Nellie was ultimately acquitted, Tillie was found guilty and died in jail. That fate seemed to be just fine with Tillie, as she later told a reporter she enjoyed the food and spent her time sewing.