Bernice Martikonis was young when she first came to America, but old enough to remember at least most of it. The only child of Ignatz and Stella Martikonis, they, along with several thousand others, had decided to immigrate from their native Lithuania to the United States.
Lithuania had long been subject to the political and military machinations of much larger countries around them, namely Poland, Russia, and Germany. In some ways, they were like a buoy on the open ocean, tossed about by forces outside of their control. And, quite frankly, many of them were just plain tired of it.
America offered them a needed respite from it all. The Lithuanian immigrants had already known several hardships in their lives, and they weren’t afraid to work hard to get what they wanted. And what they wanted was an opportunity, an opportunity to live freely without having to worry about losing what they had earned to war or open prejudice.
In 1908, the Martikonises left the lives that they had known, travelling first to Liverpool, England, then across the ocean to Portland, Maine. From there, they began to make their way to Chicago, Illinois. Lithuanians had begun to immigrate to Chicago in the late 19th century. According to some estimates, over 47,000 Lithuanian immigrants had settled in Chicago by 1914, with even more to follow over the following years.
When they arrived, they were new to the country and needed jobs to support themselves and their families. Many of them found work performing several different blue-collar jobs, such as the steel mills, railroads, and especially the thriving Chicago meatpacking industry.
Like so many other immigrant groups, the Lithuanians tended to settle in neighborhoods with other Lithuanians. In a strange place with new customs where they didn’t speak the language, these neighborhoods became a place where they didn’t have to struggle to be understood. Everyone spoke your language and had grown up with the same beliefs and customs as you had.
It was into this world that the Martikonises settled into about 1910.
Ignatz found work as a carpenter, while Stella was a homemaker, and young Bernice was sent to school. As she grew up, Bernice discovered that she had an affinity for languages. Her first was Lithuanian, which she had grown up with. In school, she studied how to speak English. Along the way, she also learned Russian, Polish, and Czech.
Bernice dropped out of school in the 8th grade, a practice that was far from uncommon in the early 20th century. Many people did it so that they could either help their families out in their own businesses or go to work elsewhere. In Bernice’s case, she began working in the soap factory of Swift and Company.
At that time, Chicago was the meatpacking capitol of the world, with tens of thousands of hogs and cattle being brought into the stockyards and processed through meatpacking plants. From there, the meat was sent all over the country by railroad.
By far the largest of these companies was Swift and Company, which was at one time Chicago’s number one employer. Being the largest company also meant that it had the biggest impact, in both positive and negative ways.
One of the consequences of the slaughtering process was that all of the parts of the animal that wasn’t used for food needed to go somewhere. This included organs, bodily fluids, etc. For several years, this material was washed away from the processing plants using natural water ways, particularly the Chicago River.
Over time, however, people began to get concerned about the amount of waste material that was being allowed to slough off into the city. One of their chief concerns was that the waste runoff would get into the city’s drinking water supply, which also came from the Chicago River.
Swift and Company decided to address the issue as best as they could on their end. To minimize their waste, they began to explore ways in which they could utilize as much of the animals as they could. Not only did it make the citizens happy, but it also opened up additional ways they could make money.
Some parts were rendered down into glue and fertilizer. On a more unsavory note, some of it was canned as a low-quality meat product. If I were you, I probably wouldn’t think too hard on that.
And of course, there was soap.
Soap was an obvious choice. Made from animal fat that had been chemically rendered with lye, the soap made from tallow (beef fat) and lard (pork fat) was a very useful way to get rid of some of their slaughter by-product.
For five long years, Bernice worked in the soap factory. She was a good worker, and eventually became an assistant foreman. While she could have done well there, Bernice had other aspirations.
The years had been kind to her. She had grown into a very attractive young woman, with beautiful blonde hair and a curvaceous figure. Bernice wanted something more out of her life than to render soap.
Eventually, she quit the factory and got a job working as a saleswoman at a women’s clothing store. She liked the work and saved back enough money to buy a few nice dresses and even some silk stockings. Bernice knew that the clothing was on the cheap side, but she didn’t care. She was young and beautiful and wanted to dress and feel that way.
Back in the neighborhood, Bernice felt that the other women were jealous of her new clothes and good looks. As a result, she mostly kept to herself and avoided their company. Still, she was far from completely isolated in her community.
When she was in her early twenties, Bernice began seeing a local man named Dominick Zalimas.
Zalimas was also a Lithuanian immigrant. Nearly twelve years Bernice’s senior, he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad Company as a carpenter installing trim in passenger cars. The work didn’t pay incredibly well, but it paid the rent.
But like Bernice, Dominick wasn’t satisfied. He had his own ambitions and didn’t intend to work for the railroad for the rest of his life. Three nights a week, Dominick went to night school, where he studied a system of natural healing called naprapathy.
A kind of cousin to chiropractic, practitioners of naprapathy believed in treating tight muscles and other connective tissues with deep manipulations that help return them to a relaxed, natural state of being. They believed that by doing this, it allowed the body to function better. Practitioners also utilized dietary suggestions towards this end, as well.
Bernice and Dominick were young and ambitious. They had plans for their lives, and they both seemed determined to rise above their circumstances. Perhaps this drive is eventually what drew them together as a couple.
On July 3, 1924, the two were married. The wedding and celebrations lasted for four days. It seemed like a happy occasion for everyone. When everything was concluded, Dominick and Bernice moved into Bernice’s father’s apartment. Ignatz’s wife, Stella, had died in 1921, leaving plenty of space in the six-room flat. The couple planned on saying there until they could afford a house of their own.
That November, Dominick fell ill.
He had been at work one day when he started to not feel well. Dominick felt like he had no energy or appetite. He kept having pains in his back and shoulders, and on the way home he started having chills.
When he got home, Dominick told Bernice that he felt achy and dizzy. Taking some herbs, he ground them up into a tea for himself and began to drink it. A short time later he vomited.
Thinking that he needed rest, Dominick went to bed so that he could sleep and shake off whatever he had. But sleep alluded him.
He woke Bernice in the middle of the night, saying that he was experiencing pain in his side and chest. Quietly, Dominick asked her to get up and make him some mustard plasters to ease his symptoms.
Mustard plasters were a traditional form of medicine commonly used to treat cold and flu symptoms, as well as arthritis and other types of lung conditions. After combining mustard powder, flour, and water in a bowl, the resulting paste was then smeared onto some fabric, then applied to the affected area.
It’s effectiveness on Dominick’s symptoms caused him only temporary relief, if any at all.
The next morning, he had developed a cough that caused pain in his chest, and he would hold his side at the same time.
Bernice told him to send for a doctor, but Dominick refused. He just told her that he preferred to look after his own illness and that he would be healthy again soon enough. Despite his assurances, his condition only worsened.
By that night, Dominick was running a high fever. He had a pounding headache and got so dizzy that he couldn’t hardly stand. The next day, he had grown even worse. Finally, Dominick consented to Bernice’s pleas and had her send for a doctor. At around noon on the afternoon of November 17, 1924, Dr. Michael Strikol arrived at the Zalimas home.
Dominick explained his symptoms to Strikol, including having pains in his chest and stomach. The doctor examined him, noting that although he didn’t seem to have anything wrong with his chest, Dominick did have tenderness in his stomach. Everything else seemed normal.
Strikol told Bernice that, despite seeming so ill, Dominick’s overall condition was good. He diagnosed Dominick with a bad case of the flu. He prescribed Dominick a sedative to help him sleep, as well as a substance called calomel.
One medicinal theory at the time held that anything bad within the body needed to be expelled. Calomel was classified as a purgative, which basically meant that it caused both explosive vomiting and diarrhea in the person who ingested it.
Dr. Strikol had every confidence that, between the extreme purging and getting plenty of good sleep, Dominick would make a full recovery. Giving his assurances to Bernice, the doctor left and went to his next patient.
Bernice left and filled the prescription for calomel, then returned home. She gave Dominick two doses of it, but he refused any more. When Bernice asked him why, he said that the medicine Strikol had given him was “rotten.” Dominick preferred to trust to his own knowledge and make his own medicine.
For the rest of the night, Dominick kept coughing. It got bad enough that he started to wheeze as he would breathe.
One of Bernice’s uncles, Stanley Martikonis, came over and checked in on Dominick. He asked the younger man if he had seen a doctor yet, to which Dominick replied that he hadn’t. Dominick then asked Stanley if he would go and get him a bottle of magnesia. Stanley agreed, then left again.
When he returned, Stanley gave the medicine to Dominick, who promptly drank it. Shortly afterward, he vomited again. Whatever result Dominick had hoped to get hadn’t worked, and his condition continued to worsen.
The next morning, Bernice decided to call for the doctor again. Dominick had told her once that a few years prior, a doctor named Mirowslay Zeman had treated him for pneumonia. Perhaps he would listen to the same man again.
Bernice called his office, but Zeman was out at the time. They transferred the phone call to another doctor, H.L. Wilson, who came to see Dominick later that evening. After examining him, Wilson said that Dominick had pneumonia. By that time, Dominick was almost delirious, so Wilson gave him an injection of morphine to calm him down.
About two hours later, Dominick Zalimas died. Wilson examined him and determined that he had died from pneumonia.
Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate in the neighborhood that something wasn’t right. People speculated that Dominick had died far too fast, and that it couldn’t have been natural. Like small towns, word travelled fast around the neighborhood, and it didn’t take long for Bernice herself to hear the rumors.
It was bad enough that her husband had died only a few short months after they had been married. Now she was being accused of murdering him? Poison, they said. Whatever had killed him couldn’t have been natural, so it only made sense that Bernice had poisoned him.
The rumors made her angry. Bernice Zalimas was determined to dispel the rumors and clear her good name. There was no way that she was going to allow this to stand. Still, Bernice wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. At wit’s end, she called Dr. Wilson to ask his opinion.
After listening to her problem with all the neighborhood gossip, Wilson told her that the best thing to do was for him to make an official statement about Dominick’s death. That should put the rumors to rest.
On November 19, 1924, the day after Dominick had died, Dr. Wilson and Bernice met with a notary public. In a signed statement, Wilson stated his official ruling that, after examining Dominick Zalimas after he had passed away, Wilson had determined that the man had died from a combination of pneumonia and endocarditis. The statement was then notarized, officially bearing witness that Wilson had signed it voluntarily.
But the rumor mill would not be silenced.
Bernice had had enough. To clear her name once and for all, Bernice requested than an autopsy be performed on her husband to prove that Dr. Wilson’s diagnosis was correct, and Dominick had died of natural causes.
The request was granted, and the autopsy was performed by Dr. Irving Porges, a coroner. During the post-mortem, Porges removed some of the internal organs, including the stomach and a portion of the upper intestine. He sent these for further examination to Dr. William McNally, a toxicologist. What he found was startling – traces of acute arsenic.
After the autopsy, the cause of death was redacted, and the official cause of death became arsenic poisoning. Upon being notified of the results, police started an investigation. Immediately they were inundated with rumors about the Zalimas’ marriage, and how all might not have been as it appeared.
One of the main stories was that Bernice had been seeing other men outside of her marriage. While more conservative estimates said that she was seeing between one and three men, more outlandish claims stated that she had upwards of eight different lovers besides her husband.
Because of this, Bernice had been eager to get rid of Dominick. She had decided that she was far too young to be tethered down and sought to free herself. So, she decided to poison her husband. The most prevalent rumor had it that she had been poisoning his soup.
Police discovered that Dominick had taken a life insurance policy out for his own life for $5000. He also allegedly had around $3000 in savings.
Anna Skverecki, an eleven-year-old girl who had been a flower girl at the Zalimas wedding, told police that she had lived with Bernice for at least two weeks before the wedding, and then for another few weeks after.
Anna and Bernice slept in the same bedroom during that time, with Dominick sleeping in another room. According to her, after Dominick left for work in the early hours of the morning, Bernice would eagerly await the arrival of Leo Kalinowski, the bread delivery man.
Bernice ordered Anna to keep a watch for him by the window, and to tell her when Leo pulled up outside. When he came to the apartment, Bernice would send Anna out on an errand, leaving Leo and Bernice the only two in the residence. On one occasion at a beauty shop, Anna claimed to have seen Bernice and Leo kissing.
Stella Stanczk, a resident of the building who lived on the first floor, said that while she was in the attic one day, she had found a box containing two bottles and some kind of powder. The box had been covered by old papers and some rags, almost as if someone had been trying to hide it.
Stella would sometimes send her children to the attic and didn’t want them coming into contact with the box, presuming that it contained some kind of poison. Carefully, she took the bottles and the box, hiding them separately again so that they didn’t accidentally find it.
A few days later, Stella was in the attic again. This time, Bernice was also there doing something with some items that Dominick had stored there. They talked, and Stella was reminded about the poison box she had found.
She told Bernice about it, then got it from where she had hidden it. After Bernice had looked at the powder, Stella asked her if she knew what kind of poison was inside. Bernice said that she didn’t know.
Sometime later, Stella decided to look at the box again while she was in the attic. Something about the whole thing didn’t seem right. While the bottles were missing, Stella located the box and took it to the police.
Chemical analysis clearly showed that the box contained arsenic. Now police knew that while Stella had access to arsenic, it was also a fairly common substance to get a hold of. In the 1920’s, it was regularly used as a way to kill rodents. However, a much more direct connection was made between Bernice and the poison when police interviewed a local drug store clerk named Charles Ruben.
Ruben told them he remembered selling arsenic to a woman, although he couldn’t really remember anything about her. However, he was required by law to write down the substance sold, the person’s name and address, and their purpose for needing the poison. The memorandum clearly stated the woman’s name: Bernice Zalimas.
Investigators now knew that Bernice had not only had access to arsenic, but she had apparently bought some herself shortly before her husband became sick. They had eyewitness testimony romantically linking Bernice to a man outside of her marriage. She also had a monetary motive in Dominick’s $5000 insurance policy. Perhaps the rumors had been true after all.
Bernice Zalimas was arrested for murdering her husband and was officially indicted by a grand jury shortly thereafter.
Shortly after her arrest, Dominick Zalimas’ brother, Alfons, came forward with his own damning testimony.
He said that one night, Dominick had called a meeting at his house with Ignatz Martikonis, his two brothers, Pete and Stanley, and Dominick’s own brothers, Alfons and Bernard. When asked, he informed them that he wanted to divorce Bernice, and needed their help to find a kind way of doing it.
Dominick explained that Bernice would frequently leave the house and not come home until very late. Several times she had returned heavily intoxicated. When she was home, he felt that she didn’t take care of him the way that a wife should. She didn’t clean his clothes or cook for him. He had to do all of that himself.
Dominick claimed that he had once given her about $274. Three weeks later, Dominick received notice that their wedding pictures needed to be picked up. When he told Bernice, she asked him for more money. He responded by asking what she had done with the money that he had already given her, to which he allegedly received no reply.
To make matters worse, Dominick told the assembled men that he had found what looked like ground glass in his food.
By October 8, 1924, Dominick had enough. Packing his belongings into a trunk, he left Bernice and began staying at his brother Alfons’ house. Bernice came home to an empty house. Distraught, she decided to leave her unhappy home and stay with her uncle Pete Martikonis.
A week later, Dominick called Pete and asked him if Bernice was staying there. Pete answered that she was, and that Dominick should come and talk to her. He did, and the couple talked about their situation. They were able to work things out and decided to move back in together.
Dominick went back out and told everyone that he and Bernice had reconciled, and that there would be no divorce. A few weeks later, he was dead.
While the jury was being assembled, Bernice Zalimas proved to be a friendly and cordial prisoner. Under police questioning, she emphatically stated that she hadn’t poisoned her husband. That was all rumor. She told them that if he had taken arsenic, then he must have taken it himself in one of his medicines.
The trial began in May 1925.
Anna Skverecki, Stella Stanczk, Alfons Zalimas, and Charles Rubin all gave their testimony in support of the prosecution.
Stanley Martikonis was called as a defensive witness. He testified that the meeting that Alfons Zalimas had described to police had never happened. The only meeting that ever took place, according to Stanley, was at his brother Pete’s house when the couple reconciled.
Stanley stated that he was over at the Zalimas house usually about once or twice a week. On no occasion had Dominick ever told him about ground glass being in his food, or about Bernice going out with other men.
Stanley went on to say that he had seen Dominick the day before he died. He said that he had kept trying to get Dominick to see a doctor, but the dying man had always refused. He said that he was treating himself with his own kind of medicine.
Bernice Zalimas was also called to give testimony in her own defense, which she did in dramatic fashion. In between bouts of crying and outbursts of uncontrollable emotion, Bernice denied all of the accusations that had been brought against her.
She denied ever having bought arsenic and said that while she had talked with Stella Stanczk in the attic, she hadn’t known what the powder was. Bernice said it was Stanczk who explained that it was poison.
Bernice said that she saw Leo Kalinowski every day because he was the bread delivery man and made deliveries to her home. The only time she had ever kissed Kalinowski was at her wedding to Dominick. She explained that all of the men there kissed the bride, and that nothing is meant by it. Bernice also said that, while she had seen Kalinowski at the beauty parlor when she was with Anna, they had never kissed.
As for Anna, Bernice explained that she had never stayed in the Zalimas home before the wedding. She had wanted to have a young girl to be a flower girl in the wedding, and Anna had been recommended to her by one of the girl’s relatives. She had only stayed with Bernice through the four days of the wedding, and then had left directly after.
When asked about the argument that had caused their separation, Bernice explained that Dominick had wanted to loan $5000 to his brother Bernard. He wanted to start his own bakery and needed some cash to help get him started.
Bernice had objected because her and Dominick had been saving up their money to buy a house of their own. She was afraid that if they gave Bernard the loan, then they might never be repaid. Dominick had disagreed and told her to mind her own business. Bernice had left to do some shopping, and when she got back, Dominick had packed his things and left.
She also testified about Dominick’s last days, and how he didn’t want to listen to the doctor, preferring to use his own medicines and methods of treatment.
At one point, Bernice’s breakdowns into uncontrollable sobbing and crying got so bad they thought she was going to faint on the witness stand. Another time they were bad enough that the judge actually dismissed the jury because he was afraid that the emotional display would unduly influence their judgement in the trial.
If Bernice Zalimas was trying to sway the jury that way, it did her no good. On May 10, 1925, she was found guilty of murder.
Bernice continued to declare her innocence. She stuck to her story, saying that she and Dominick had been happy and that he must have accidentally poisoned himself. She argued that if she had been guilty, then why hadn’t she just run away from everything so that she would never have gotten caught? And more importantly, why had she ordered the postmortem to be conducted when the doctor had already declared Dominick had died from natural causes?
Immediately after the trial, she began to make demands for a new trial. Bernice was intent on clearing her good name.
The judge, however, saw no need for a new trial. On June 12, 1925, he sentenced Bernice Zalilmas to serve fourteen years in prison for the murder of her husband. When she heard the news, the young woman fainted. Her lawyer, Eugene McGarry, said that he was going to make an appeal, and Zalimas’ sentence was suspended for ninety days to allow him to prepare.
In the meantime, Bernice was sent to the Cook County Jail to await her fate.
In December, Bernice finally received the word that she was waiting for. The Illinois Supreme Court had granted her a new trial. She would have a second chance after all.
On January 20, 1926, freedom came a little closer for Bernice. She was granted bail, which was paid, and she was released from jail. She checked herself into a hospital to rest and recover in anticipation of her upcoming trial.
The second trial started that April. While Bernice had come to the first trial in tears, this time she was like a new person. No longer in black mourning clothes, this time she wore brighter colors. Instead of crying, she showcased her friendly, outgoing nature, smiling at the people at the trial.
But no matter how she presented herself, the evidence against her was still the same. Many of the same witnesses came forward, and their same testimony given. Strangely, Anna Skverecki, the young girl whose testimony had been so key in Bernice’s arrest and subsequent conviction, couldn’t remember what she had seen in 1924. As a result, the witness that had given such damning testimony in the first trial was excused from testifying in the second.
When it became her turn to testify on her own behalf, Bernice was calm and composed. At least she was until Eugene McGarry, her attorney, asked her, “Did you ever administer poison to your husband, Mrs. Zalimas?”
Bernice stood up quickly, shaking. She screamed at him, yelling that she hadn’t done it. Her energy spent, Bernice collapsed in a heap, crying uncontrollably. While she regained her composure, the judge dismissed everyone in the courtroom.
No matter how dramatic Bernice Zalimas’ behavior was, she was very soon upstaged by the antics of her own lawyer.
Part of the defense’s strategy was to show that the small amounts of arsenic found in Dominick’s body wouldn’t have been enough to kill him.
McGarry contended that William McNally, the coroner’s toxicologist who had measured the amounts of arsenic found in Dominick Zalima’s internal organs, had gotten his numbers wrong. He stated that McNally had put the decimal point in the wrong place. McGarry further contended that Dr. Irving Porges, the coroner who had performed the autopsy, was going to declare that Dominick had died from pneumonia until he had heard that McNally had already reported his findings.
In the ultimate attempt to make his case, McGarry, in front of the assembled court, reached his hand into an exhibited item that had already been identified as a box containing arsenic powder. Pinching some of the powder between his fingers, he brought it to his mouth, and swallowed.
The courtroom was shocked. McGarry, breaking out into a sweat, apologized to the court, but insisted that he had to prove his point. After a stunned moment, the prosecution told the judge that what McGarry had done was out of line, but the judge disagreed and allowed the proceedings to continue.
While making his closing arguments, McGarry’s legs buckled. Losing his balance, he grabbed the railing around the jury’s box to steady himself. One of the jurors screamed, “He’s going to die!”
Doctors in the courtroom rushed forward to aid him, making their own case that the trial should be stopped until they took care of McGarry. The lawyer refused treatment, telling everyone that he was alright and demanding that the trial continue. He said that it must have been a combination of being exhausted and nervous that had made him fall, not the effects of the poison.
The jury deliberated for two and a half hours, then came back into the courtroom. A hushed silence fell as the head juror related their verdict: not guilty.
Bernice Zalimas was overjoyed. She kissed McGarry’s hand and thanked him profusely. Then she went to the men of the jury, hugging, kissing, and thanking them each in turn. The last five decided to avoid her and quickly left the courtroom.
McGarry had already left, escorted by two doctors straight out of the courthouse.
After all she had endured, Bernice Zalimas was now a free woman. She had been proven innocent and her good name, something that was so important to her, was now clear once again.
Although she had stated that she was going to leave Chicago, she never made it that far. Instead, she met another man from Chicago, Joseph Patunis, and re-married in a courthouse ceremony in 1926. Once again, she settled down and quickly disappeared from the public eye.
We can only hope that she lived the rest of her life in relative peace and quiet, far away from the gossip that had almost taken her freedom away.
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Widow Questioned. Photo, Bernice Zalimas. Chicago Tribune, 12/03/1924
Zalimas’ Widow Held to Grand Jury as Slayer. Chicago Tribune, 12/10/1924
Swears Widow in Murder Trial Bought Arsenic. Chicago Tribune, 05/07/1925
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Fate of Zalimas Widow in Hands of Jury Tonight. Chicago Tribune, 05/09/1925
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