“Suite Polonaise,” a generational serial killer enquiry by Carrie Laben

 

Part 1: Cecelia

As a child I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t love my grandmother. Everyone else loved their grandparents. But Cecelia Laben (or Labenski) (nee Trybusckewicz) confused me. She alarmed me. At least once, she kind of technically kidnapped me.

And then there was the fact that she lied. She would tell the same stories over and over, and they would shift, become disjointed. She would say things that were logically impossible. Her version of events would contradict the memories of others and her own earlier versions. I was a literal-minded child with an excellent memory and being confused, let alone lied to, made me angry.

Decades later I realized that the stories we told about her were almost as important as the stories she told. A boyfriend would visit my home for the first time, and to prepare him I’d tell him about the time she bought ten-year-old me panties with an “adorable bunny” print that turned out be Playboy logos. The story about how she’d been so horrified by the “ski” tacked onto her son’s Americanized name at the hospital that she’d reduced it back to Laben with a pencil-eraser and torn a hole in the official document in the process, invalidating it. Or the story about how she told lies all the time.

When I asked my mother why grandma told such tall tales, so constantly, I got a stock motive from the closet of cardboard characters: “She’s looking for attention.” It seems plausible. She would have gotten very little attention as one child out of thirteen in a blended immigrant family, and then very little again as the aging, plumping wife of a taciturn and not-very-successful dairy farmer. It would be a familiar story.

But Cecelia was a beauty in her youth, a fact that she didn’t bring up as much as you might expect. We have a photograph of her of her taken shortly after her marriage in what must have been a risque bathing suit for the time, with a va-va-voom figure and dark hair in loose curls. She looks away from the lens and smiles only slightly, her lips clamped closed, concealing the partial plate she wore because two of her front teeth had gotten knocked out in her childhood. If attention was something she’d gotten a taste for, the taste must have been fed and developed then. And we have stories about sexy girls who like attention, too, about what they do and what happens to them.

But I’d already learned to pick apart stories and tell them in different ways, maybe in part because I’d heard so many false ones from her. I insisted on thinking them over from other points of view. I often rooted for bad guys, and I had a taste for true crime, fictional crime, all the crime. When a high school English teacher explained the concept of an unreliable narrator, I wondered who could ever have been naive enough to think any narrator was reliable. When I thought of Cecilia as a character in a story, I was able to love her a little better.

 

Part 2: Cora

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged, but he came out of it with a surprisingly good reputation.

The Crippen case had sexy girls to spare, with Crippen’s bold, brash wife Cora (or Kunigunde Mackamotski, or Belle Elmore, her stage name) as the victim and delicate, pretty Ethel Le Neve, the doctor’s secretary and mistress, as the motive. It had a tattered fame attached—Cora traveled in the same circles as well-known music hall stars and Hawley, though a homeopathic quack, presented a respectable facade. And it had an exciting chase scene: Ethel and Hawley fleeing, with Ethel scandalously disguised in boy’s clothes, just before Scotland Yard searched the Crippen home and found human remains in the basement.

Faced with this ripping yarn, writers from Emlyn Williams to Erik Larson have felt the temptation to see Hawley as a bit of a protagonist. What he did was wrong, of course, they seem to say, but surely it was … understandable? A little sympathetic? Didn’t he do everything he could to shield Ethel from scandal and responsibility? Wasn’t he, in the end, a gentleman?

To make the villain a little bit of a victim, storytellers found it necessary to make the victim a little bit of a villain.

Born Kunigunde Mackamotski to a German mother and a Polish-Russian father, Cora entered the world in either Brooklyn or Queens, neither fashionable addresses in those days. We know that she was part of a large family, with numerous step- and half-siblings on both sides, and that by the time she met Crippen at age nineteen she had already used other names, perhaps been married and divorced, and lived as a businessman’s mistress.

Worse yet, Cora was ambitious despite all this. She set her sights on opera at first, and Hawley paid for singing lessons, but by the time they moved to London she’d adjusted her expectations to the music hall, performing under the stage name Belle Elmore and volunteering for the Music Hall Ladies Guild. (She was popular with her guild-mates; Vulcana the Strongwoman and Lil Hawthorne were the ones who, faced with police disinterest, demanded attention for their friend’s disappearance.) She wanted to be looked at, wanted attention.

Worst of all, Cora was a tall, zaftig woman with a forward personality. After her deprived early years, she delighted in jewels and furs and ostrich-plumed hats. She decorated ostentatiously, she dressed in pinks and frills. She dyed her hair blonde. Somehow this made it all the more unseemly that she should be wearing the pants. Henpecked and browbeaten are the kindest words biographers use to describe Hawley’s relationship with his wife. Read cuckolded and humiliated. Certainly his choice of paramours in Ethel, mousy and able to effectively pass as a teenage boy, suggests that he was looking for a change of pace.

The meek husband who snaps back is popular enough in fiction that it we know all about it before any facts come in. The prominent barrister Edward Marshall Hall wanted to lead the defense, but only if he could propound his personal theory of the murder: that Hawley had been secretly dosing his wife with scopolamine to temper her sex drive, only to accidentally poison her. This didn’t mesh with the testimony of neighbors who claimed to have heard a loud argument the night of Cora’s disappearance, and was rejected by Hawley himself in favor of his own story: Cora had run off to Chicago with a novelty-act performer. Nevertheless, scopolamine was the theory adopted by Emlyn Williams in his account of the case as the most sympathetic reading of the facts. This was the story I read in my teens, turned around, and asked why of all murderers Crippen was being treated this way. Was it okay to kill loud, sexy Polish girls?

Had Williams lived to 2007, he would have seen a new route opened to Hawley’s defenders. A Michigan State University forensic scientist extracted DNA from a sample of tissue from the Crippen basement and compared it to living members of Cora’s family. Conclusion: it wasn’t her.

“US scientists: Dr. Crippen was innocent,” ran the headline in the Telegraph. The article conceded that there was still the small matter of a dismembered corpse in the basement. There were also the facts that Cora was never heard from again, and that if she’d run off that night she’d done so without most of her beloved furs and jewels.

Skeptics pointed out that the tissue sample had not been handled with perfect forensic forbearance over the near-century between death and DNA testing, and that the living relatives, thanks to Cora’s tangled family of origin, might not actually be her blood kin. Still, the flutter in the news cycle was enough to get Hawley his own episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead. The title: Executed in Error.

I wanted Cora to have lived, but a lot of people just wanted Dr. Hawley Crippen not to have needed hanging.

 

#

 

Kunigunde is dead. Kunigunde died the day she met him. If she’d known then everything that was coming, she could have tried something else. But there weren’t a lot of things to try when you were in the family way by a man who already had a family. Anyway, when she went in for the operation she gave a fake name because that’s what you did, not realizing it would stick and Cora, not Kunigunde, would come out.

He didn’t do the operation himself, not him. He never liked to get his hands dirty. He liked knowing other people’s’ secrets, and the thing was, he kept them. No blackmail or gossip for him, he just liked to look at you with his pop-eyes and know, that got him hot. As hot as an amphibian like him could get, anyway.

Now Cora is dead too, she thinks. No one can see her anymore, and they dug a body out of the cellar. It must have been someone’s body. And sometimes the operation killed you and left you with a new life, because no one wanted the old you any more, and you have to give the public what they want. And sometimes it just killed you all the way.

Is this a new life? Not much of one, if no one can see her, and no one can hear her. Not as good as her life as Cora had been, even if she never would sing an aria and receive an ovation, and nowhere near as good as her life as Belle Elmore. Should she choose a new name now? What’s the use if no one can see her or hear her?

 

Part 3: Tillie

At the age of one Ottilie Gburek, called Tillie, moved from Poland with her family to Chicago’s Near Northwest, the cultural heart of the Polish diaspora in the United States. Until she—by then on her fourth marriage and with the surname Klimek—was arrested for putting arsenic in her latest husband’s dinner, her life was invisible. The city was filled with women just like Tillie. Except that most of them, as far as we know, were not serial poisoners.

Black widows don’t get star serial-killer billing compared to sex maniacs and mass shooters—quick, name one domestic poisoner with the pop-cultural heft of Jeff Dahmer or Ed Gein? So, though Tillie was no slouch—beyond her husbands, she was suspected in nearly twenty other deaths—she never became famous. Even when I finally learned of her, years into my adulthood, I found the information on her slender and riddled with inaccuracies.

Most modern accounts are short Internet bites that focus heavily on Tillie’s one little twist, the quirk that made her humdrum M.O. of marrying and murdering and cashing life-insurance checks a bit more memorable: her turn as a self-made prophetess, recounting dreams that predicted the deaths of her victims. These predictions are among the few traces of her voice to survive.

It’s a neat twist, high-concept with a dash of black humor. The problem is, it’s probably not true. She told one husband he’d be dead soon, sure. No dream involved, more of a threat.

The contemporary accounts of Tillie Klimek concentrate on a completely different twist: Tillie’s supposed status as ringleader of an entire circle of female friends and relatives who poisoned unwanted husbands, in-laws, children, friends, even annoying neighborhood dogs. In the end the authorities arrested only one other woman—Tillie’s cousin Nellie Koulik, whose conviction was overturned—and pinned just three husband murders on Tillie. Tillie Klimek was sentenced to life in prison and died in state custody a decade later.

Perhaps it was this deflation of the case that changed the story. Maybe public tastes ran more to a single woman killer than to a whole parish ganging up on their men. Maybe if female killers can’t be sexy—Tillie had large eyes and high cheekbones, but was also past fifty at the time of her trial, big-nosed and heavy-browed—then they must be occult.

A Sandusky Register article published shortly after Tillie’s conviction editorialized on the role of feminine glamor in the Chicago criminal justice system under the blunt title “Ugly Women Convicted While Beauties Escape.” But when the theme rolled down to 2002 and the film Chicago, even the hapless Hunyak, hanged for the crimes of being ethnic and poor, was played by a ballerina.

 

#

 

Tillie Guszkowski turned up the collar of her coat and hunched into it, but evading the wind from the lake was impossible. The only way to deal with it was to push through.

She knew she should stop doing the little things that drew attention. She was no longer a schoolgirl with a reputation to be ruined by the wrong skirt or the wrong giggle, but there was still such a thing as being looked at too closely.

She would be good, this time. Careful. Keep quiet.

She entered the fabric store with relief, the pressure of the wind cut off knife-quick as she pulled the door shut behind her. She spotted what she wanted at once.

But the shop girl wouldn’t look up to serve her. Instead of doing her job, she was chatting with two girls her own age, just factory girls no better than Tillie herself, probably worse, probably with no money to buy, but fashionable in a cheap way and lively and without the thickness of waist or sullenness of face that time dolloped onto Polish women. Tillie waited as long as was decent. Maybe a little longer, until it started to burn, caught like a lump of potato at the bottom of her throat.

Then she hunched herself a little again and bulled between the two chatting girls.  “I need a bolt of the black bombazine,” she said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the clerk said almost sincerely. “Who have you lost?”

“My husband.” Later she would tell herself she hadn’t meant to, that it just slipped out, but it was hard not to smile when the factory girls looked ashamed and the pretty clerk focused her real full attention on Tillie.

“How terrible! When?”

Her resolution had already failed. She might as well get the full effect.

“Ten days from now.”

 

Part 4: Cecelia Circles Around Again

“And we all help each other. That’s what makes it fun.” She giggles reflexively, the way she does after almost every sentence she speaks. And there are so many sentences, to fill up all the silence.

Her granddaughter stares up at her. The child is often silent, takes after her father and grandfather that way. Looks more like the mother’s side, Irish, with the green eyes and the light hair. But she’s a Laben all the same.

Cecelia doesn’t pause, doesn’t stop filling the silence. It’s my job to tell her, to teach her. Her son can’t, he’s a man, and the mother won’t.

She touches her granddaughter’s shoulder, again, to make sure she’s listening. When they’re silent Cecilia is never sure if they’re listening or if they understand or if they’re ignoring her, if they are angry, if they are going to hit her or throw rocks.

“My mother used to throw rocks at us girls, to keep us out of the house so we wouldn’t steal food.”

She giggles. Her granddaughter is distracted, looking at some awful bug in the grass. The teachers at school say she’s bright. “You must be proud.” Secretly they’re condescending because she’s Polish and because she’s only a secretary and not even a real secretary who took a typing course but only a old woman who needs some extra money, but they say the girl’s smart but sometimes Cecelia wonders if her granddaughter really understands all that much.

“When Grandpa and I got married, we couldn’t go away on our honeymoon because he had to be back in the morning to milk the cows.” She never understood why Glenn’s parents hated her so much, but they hated him too, cut him out of the will. He didn’t deserve that. He’s not so bad. He’s a man, and he’s silent, but it could be worse. Like her sister’s husband, the one that came home drunk and passed out in the garage with the car running and she didn’t bother to go get him out. Because he beat her up, a lot of them do that, at least Glenn doesn’t.

Her granddaughter is further away again, poking around in the tall grass where there could be snakes. Cecelia hauls her back to safety by the arm.

A car pulls into the driveway. The mother is done with her shopping. She only has a few more minutes to tell her granddaughter what she needs to know.

“Once some bigger boys tried to get me to ride on a bicycle with them, down behind the barn.” She looks across the fields in the direction where her father’s buildings stood, before the Depression, before the fires. “My brothers chased them. That’s how I lost my teeth.”

Giggle. Fill the silence. Cecilia can tell that I don’t understand.

 

 

Carrie Laben is the author of A Hawk in the Woods, coming from Word Horde in March 2019. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for the essay “The Wrong Place.” She has been a  MacDowell Fellow and a resident at the Anne LaBastille Memorial Residency. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and now resides in Queens.

Image: Tillie Klimek, Hawley and Cora Crippen

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