“Happy families are all alike,” runs Tolstoy’s best one-liner. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own peculiar way.” And if you don’t believe it, consider the Kaber family.
The time was July 15, 1919. The place was the Dan Kaber house, a posh, neo-Colonial showplace on fashionable Lake Avenue, several blocks west of the city of Cleveland. And the persons were the sharply disparate members of the Dan Kaber family—each desperately and uniquely unhappy.
Dan Kaber, certainly, had the most objective reasons for being unhappy. Forty-six years old and formerly a healthy, active, well-to-do printer, Dan had within the past six months become a helpless, bedridden, pain-wracked invalid. Confined most of the time to his second-floor bedroom, Dan had lost the use of all his limbs, with the pitiful exception of the index and middle finger of his left hand. His decline had begun with an apparent influenza attack during the previous November, but despite lengthy hospital stays and futile surgery for suspected cancer of the stomach and appendicitis, Dan had steadily deteriorated. His doctors muttered vaguely about “rheumatism,” then “cancer” and “neuritis,” but it was plain they did not have a clue as to Dan Kaber’s malady. Dan Kaber was increasingly feeble, querulous, and seemingly fearful; he was apparently most fearful of his wife, Eva Kaber. Ever attentive, she insisted on personally feeding him—and quite often the soups, strawberries, and chocolates she proffered made him violently sick. Dan tried to complain to anyone who would listen that there seemed to be an awful lot of paprika in his food of late . . . but whenever he tried to tell his brother or father about his suspicions Eva would appear in the room.
Eva Kaber wasn’t very happy in July 1919. Thirty-nine years old, she had struggled and schemed her way up from nothing to status as a respected Lakewood matron and the spouse of a wealthy printer’s son. Born mere Catherine Brickel to parents of modest origin, she was a trial and trouble to everyone in her life from an early age. Indeed, at the age of seven “Kitty” Brickel already had a reputation as a demonic child, subject to apparently unprovoked rages in which she would assault her playmates, kicking, screaming, and sometimes even tearing both their hair and her own. A chronic juvenile runaway and thief, frequently expelled from school, she spent part of her adolescence at the Home of the Good Shepherd, her sole alternative at age 16 to a prison term for stealing $85 from an acquaintance. After working as a chambermaid at a posh East Side mansion—where she acquired a taste for expensive things—Eva was married at 17 to a barkeep, Thomas McArdle. The marriage lasted two months, and Eva subsequently disappeared—after dumping the fruit of her brief nuptials, her daughter Marion, on her long-suffering parents.
Before Dan, Eva was married again, briefly, to a barber named David Frinkle—but it is probable that Dan Kaber knew little about his wife’s previous marriages. What Dan Kaber did know was that Eva was quarrelsome, spiteful, financially demanding, and increasingly impatient with his physical deterioration. Eva was particularly upset that July because Dan was reluctant to finance another year at Smith College for her daughter, Marion McCardle. And Eva was beginning to suspect that Dan was thinking about changing his will.
Also at the Kaber home that July was Eva’s mother, Mary Brickel. Sixty-seven years old, she had had a hard life; four of her eight children were already dead, and her favorite child, Charles, had frequent trouble with the law, including a short prison term for theft. Mrs. Brickel had decidedly mixed feelings toward Eva—whom she always referred to as “Mrs. Kaber”—but she nevertheless deferred to her daughter in all things. Surely not the ideal mother-in-law for poor, sick Dan Kaber.
Also there that summer of 1919 was Marion McCardle, Eva’s daughter by her first marriage. Nineteen years old, Marion was mainly interested in good times, popular music, and her dream of a career as a chorus girl. And like her mother and grandmother, Marion made no secret of her hatred for her stepfather, once screaming at him during a formal dinner party: “What do you mean? I don’t have to take any orders from you!” Clearly, the House of Kaber was beginning to resemble the House of Atreus more than it did your average happy family.
The Kaber case remains the greatest murder story in the history of Cleveland. Its contrivance was worthy of the Borgias, and its telling deserves the style of Edgar Allan Poe and the macabre humor of William Roughead, the greatest true-crime writer of all time. It remains the only homicide in the history of the world in which a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter were indicted for the same first-degree murder.
Sometime in mid-July 1919, Eva Kaber told her family that she was going away to visit her sister, Mrs. H. J. McGinnis, at Cedar Point. On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 16, she drove away, accompanied by her four-year-old adopted daughter, Patricia. Forty-eight hours went by.
On the evening of Friday, July 18, the residents of the Kaber house at 12537 Lake Avenue retired fairly early. Dan Kaber dozed fitfully in his spacious northeast bedroom on the second floor. Next to his room, separated by a locked door, were the sleeping quarters of stepdaughter Marion McArdle, on this night shared by Miss Anna Baehr, Marion’s neighborhood school chum, who had just returned from a picture-show with Marion. Up on the third floor slept F. W. Utterback, Kaber’s sixtyish male nurse. There is no reason to doubt that everyone retired to their rooms at about 10 or 10:15 p.m., with the exception of grandmother Mary Brickel, who later testified at the inquest that she carefully locked the first-floor doors and windows before retiring.
Sometime about 10:30 p.m. all hell broke loose in the Kaber household. Although Marion McArdle and Anna Baehr initially claimed that they heard nothing unusual, they eventually allowed that, well, yes, they had heard some screaming. Well, yes, actually, a lot of screaming. In fact, Marion finally said, “There was not one call for help but many screams. It will be a long time before we forget those screams!”
The screams that Marion and Anna heard were probably exactly what Kaber’s male nurse heard as he was abruptly aroused from a sound sleep: “Utterback! Utterback! Murder! Come quick!”
Come quick Utterback did. Running down the stairs in his bare feet and union suit to Kaber’s second-floor bedroom, he burst through the open door to discover a ghastly scene. There was a bloody knife on the floor and Dan Kaber was lying there in a pool of his own blood. Kaber was conscious, and when Utterback asked him what had happened, he replied, “A man with a cap. Look for a man with a finger almost bitten off; I bit his finger. I think there were two of them. My wife had this done!”
Pandemonium ensued. Marion, Miss Baehr, and grandmother Brickel appeared soon in the second-floor hallway and contributed loud hysterics. Doctors were summoned, the police arrived, and Dan Kaber was rushed to Lakewood Hospital, where doctors labored to save his life. It could not have been an easy task. He had been stabbed 24 times: five abdominal wounds on the left side of the navel, three wounds on the left buttock, three wounds on the right buttock, and—the unkindest cuts of all—11 stab wounds to the scrotum. Not to mention numerous scratches on the face and throat, clearly indicating that someone had held the invalid down while another wielded a very cruel knife.
Dan Kaber died hard, shortly after 1 p.m. the following day. To his last breath he repeated only that his slayer had been “a man with a cap” and that his “wife had this done.”
Meanwhile, where was the dead man’s wife? Well, Eva returned to her home at 5:30 p.m. the following day. She expressed appropriate surprise, especially when she found silverware strewn on her dining room floor, the apparent residue of an interrupted burglary. “Robbers have taken my silver!” is probably the most accurate estimate of what she said on this occasion. She quickly posted a reward for her husband’s killers, arranged for Dan’s funeral, and filed his will for probate.
Eva Kaber was always good at short-term goals, and, in the short term, all she had to do was get through the inquest, which was opened by Cuyahoga County Coroner P. J. Byrne on July 23 at 10 a.m. Which she did, in stubborn, crude, typically brazen form. Repeatedly accused of lying by County Prosecutor Samuel Doerfler, Eva responded with a combination of calm denial and strategic outbursts of feminine tears. Suggestions that her relations with Dan had been less than amicable were stoutly denied, and, after all, no one could prove that Eva had been anywhere near the murder scene on the fatal night. So Eva simply “wavered and wept” until the prosecutor gave up, and it was clear even before the end of the inquest that the verdict was going to be “willful murder by unknown.” That verdict was duly delivered, despite the fact that a second autopsy disclosed up to 40 grains of arsenic in Dan’s emaciated and perforated corpse. Despite heroic efforts, the source of the arsenic could not be traced, nor could it be proven just how or by whom it had been administered to Dan Kaber. And it could have been worse: one of the initial theories given attention by the police was that Dan Kaber had committed suicide.
And that, seemingly, was the end of it, despite the suspicions of the police. Eva Kaber cashed in her husband’s insurance policies, sold the big Lake Avenue residence, and left town. It appeared at the time that she would have the last word on the subject, which was: “I can’t imagine who could be guilty of such a deed. I never heard that my husband had enemies.”
No one except Eva was completely satisfied with the inquest verdict, but the police and other interested parties now dropped the case for lack of evidence. Well, almost all the interested parties. One who didn’t was Moses Kaber, Dan’s 71-year-old father. He swore a mighty oath in July 1919 that he would spend the rest of his life and all of his considerable fortune to bring his son’s murderers to justice.
There had been bad blood between the Kaber family and Eva ever since her abrupt marriage to Dan in September 1907. The Kabers were Jewish, and they apparently took a dim view of the worldly, temperamental gentile who had captivated their Dan. Nothing since the marriage had changed their stance; they knew that Eva had led Dan a dog’s life, and they never doubted from the beginning that it was she who had arranged his death. So while Eva left Cleveland to enjoy her newfound widow’s wealth, Moses Kaber went to talk to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Moses had little choice in the matter. The police had dropped the case, and the Pinkertons were the best-known private investigative agency in the world. And there is no question that they gave Moses Kaber his money’s worth during the two years that followed. Within weeks, an as-yet-unsuspicious Eva Kaber was eating, sleeping, and breathing undercover Pinkerton detectives wherever she went. She hired a milliner shortly after leaving Cleveland—the milliner was a Pinkerton. She hired a maid, too—also a Pinkerton. When she dined in restaurants, she unknowingly dined with Pinkertons. And when she went to the movies, Pinkertons sat right behind her.
The most important break for Moses Kaber and the Pinkertons was the recruitment of Mrs. Ethel Berman as an operative. Eva’s former Lakewood friend had originally met Eva during her honeymoon with Dan in 1908, and Ethel had maintained her ties to Eva after the murder for old times’ sake, although Ethel disapproved of much in Eva’s character. Ethel had been particularly shocked to find Eva laughing on the day after Dan’s funeral, when she dropped in to comfort the grieving widow. “To think that I laid him out in a dirty shirt,” Eva cackled uproariously. “Dan wasn’t worth a clean shirt!” Given her suspicions, it didn’t take long for the Pinkertons to convince Mrs. Berman that she, and only she, could help them get the evidence to convict her friend of first-degree murder.
Next to Eva Kaber, Ethel Berman, unquestionably, is the most fascinating character in the whole Kaber story. A perfectly pleasant, respectable, handsome Lakewood matron, happily married wife and mother of an eight-year-old son, Ethel willingly left her conventional life for some months to pose as an unhappy, restless goodtime party girl to her confidante, Eva Kaber. After the Pinkertons picked up Eva’s trail in New York City, Ethel got in touch with her, painting herself as an aggrieved, bitter spouse of the Eva Kaber type. This was music to Eva’s ears, and she blandly promised to help Ethel get rid of her husband when called upon. Before long, the two were traveling around the country, sharing hotel rooms and going to movies and restaurants together. Mrs. Berman would later claim that she did the whole thing merely for the sake of justice, but there is little doubt that it must have been a great adventure for the otherwise staid Lakewood housewife. As to the morality of betraying her former friend, Ethel characterized it this way: “It was not a pleasant thing to have to betray the confidences of one who had been my friend. But if I have helped to serve the ends of justice, I am glad.”
It was soon apparent to Mrs. Berman that Eva Kaber was a very troubled individual. A woman of violent temper and increasingly paranoid—or maybe not so paranoid—that she was being tailed by detectives, she would often ask Ethel if she thought someone nearby was a “D.T.S.,” Eva’s term for a Pinkerton. Paradoxically, however, she could not stop talking obsessively about her late husband’s death. Eventually, she became suspicious of Ethel, particularly after Ethel questioned Eva about some words Eva had cried out in her sleep one night: “I did it! I did it! I did it!” At that time Eva confronted Mrs. Berman and demanded to know if she, too, were a “D.T.S.,” but Ethel convincingly swore this mighty oath at Eva’s behest: “I swear to God that I hope to go home and see my son blind before I am in with the Pinkerton people.”
Shortly after this, Eva dropped Mrs. Berman as a traveling companion, but Ethel’s work was not yet done. She returned to Cleveland, where she immediately ingratiated herself in similar fashion with Mary Brickel, Eva’s mother. Mrs. Berman had always felt sorry for the weak-willed Mary; she had been aware for years that Eva bullied her mother to do the Kaber laundry for free—while Eva regularly took four dollars per week from her husband to pay the “laundress.” Their budding friendship soon yielded the following confidence from Mrs. Brickel, conveniently uttered to Mrs. Berman at the B. F. Keith Theatre in the presence of two movie patrons behind them—who just happened to be Pinkerton detectives. “She did it and she did it for money,” said Mrs. Brickel, going on to say, “If they try to put it on Charlie [Eva’s brother], I’ll tell all I know!”
It was now the spring of 1921. Eva had by now largely exhausted her inheritance and was running a failing millinery shop in New York City. Her daughter Marion was traveling around the United States as a member of the chorus line in Pretty Baby. And the Pinkertons knew, from information provided by Mrs. Berman and others, that Eva Kaber spent much of her money and a lot of her time with very strange people: fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, spirit-mediums, and petty criminals. They began to shadow these persons, too, sensing that they might have some connection to the two-year-old murder. Finally, Moses Kaber met with County Prosector Edward Stanton and Lakewood Police, and they set a trap for the end of May 1921.
It sprang perfectly on Eva’s mother, Mary Brickel. Called without warning on Sunday afternoon, May 31, to the Lakewood Police Station with her son Charles, Mary was sent to sit in a room with an open door. Minutes later, she heard Prosecutor Stanton shout at Charles, “Lock this man up and charge him with the murder of Dan Kaber! He’s the one who did it!” A split-second later, she heard the clang of a jail cell door.
The trick worked like magic on the 69-year-old grandmother. Within minutes Mary was singing like a canary, just as she had threatened she would “if they try to put it on Charlie.” On June 1, 1919, Assistant County Prosecutor John T. Cassidy announced first-degree-murder indictments against Eva Kaber, Mary Brickel, and Marion McArdle.
Eva tried to flee prosecution but was eventually arrested at the apartment of a New York City friend on the night of Saturday, June 4. Two days later, Marion was picked up, and both were arraigned. Both stayed in character; while being led off to the Tombs, Marion whimpered to detectives: “For God’s sake, don’t make me testify against my mother!” Eva, never at a loss for insouciant denial, said: “Really, if the situation were not so serious it would be laughable! I have nothing to fear.” Her bravado was followed within hours by two suicide attempts in her cell.
Waiving extradition, Eva and Marion were brought back to Cleveland in mid-June. William J. Corrigan, a brilliant young defense attorney, was appointed by the court to assist Francis Poulson in Eva’s defense, and her trial date was set for June 28.
From beginning to end, the arrest, arraignment, and trial of Eva Kaber provided the greatest carnival of publicity and sensationalism Cleveland had ever endured or enjoyed. The Kaber case was front-page news in all three Cleveland daily newspapers from June 1 until late July, and no fact, rumor, or speculation was left unpublished. One of the magistrates even allowed a female Press reporter, Lewette B. Pollock, to spend a night in jail as a feigned prisoner with Mrs. Kaber and Marion. Hardly a day went by without damning headlines about Mrs. Kaber, and the flavor of unequivocal editorial condemnation was perfectly epitomized by a small headline from the News-Leader during the last week of the trial: Laughing Time Is Over, Paying Time Comes Now!
Meanwhile, the police were busy hauling in suspects from the vast subculture of mediums, fortune tellers, and outright criminals Eva Kaber had cultivated in her salad days. Within days, Cleveland police arrested several women suspects, most significantly a Mrs. Erminia Colavito, a midwife, fortune teller, and potion vendor, who was apprehended by a flying squad of police sent to Sandusky, Ohio. In mid-June Salvatore Cala, one of the alleged Kaber killers, was picked up by Cleveland detectives at his uncle’s farm in New York state. By the beginning of the trial on June 28, the county prosecutor had all the threads of the story in his hands—and what a story it was.
It went something like this, allowing for all the numberless and conflicting lies that the participants in the crime told and retold: Eva Kaber had always been a superstitious soul and from a tender age had consulted fortune-tellers, mediums, and the like. When she was 17, one medium told her something she never forgot through all her years of scheming, mayhem, and treachery: You’ll always get what you want! (Eva apparently was unaware of the medium’s handwritten notes, which included these added insights: Bold and confident, but not very smart.) During the decade of her marriage to Dan Kaber, Eva continued to frequent practitioners of the black arts, often spending large sums of money on fortune-telling and lucky charms.
Sometime in the spring of 1918 Eva went to a Mrs. Mary Wade, a medium living on East 82nd Street. Eva painted herself as an unhappy wife and asked Mrs. Wade’s spiritual intercession to persuade her first ex-husband, Thomas McArdle, to pay for daughter Marion’s tuition at Smith College. Mrs. Wade agreed to do this but astutely suggested that Mrs. Kaber also make the request directly to McArdle in a letter. One can imagine Eva’s jubilation when a handsome check from McArdle forthwith arrived, due no doubt to Mrs. Wade’s supernatural intervention. But Eva had a bigger challenge for Mrs. Wade. She now asked the medium to use her powers to kill her husband.
Mrs. Wade, or so she later testified, immediately and piously refused her client’s request, righteously telling Eva that her powers could not be used for evil purposes. But Eva Kaber was not one to give up easily. She soon got in touch with a rather hard fellow from Little Italy, Urbano Di Corpo. Like most of her acquaintances, Eva met him through a medium, a certain Mrs. Sauers who lived on East 89th Street. Sometime in late 1918, just before Dan took sick, Eva saw Di Corpo while waiting in line for tickets at the Stillman Theater on Euclid Avenue. Drawing him aside, she pointed out her husband and offered Di Corpo $5,000 to run Dan over with an automobile. Why this plot wasn’t pursued is unknown, but around that same time Eva deliberately set the Kaber home on fire with gasoline, although she would later attempt to blame the arson on her pliable mother. Eva also began supplementing Dan’s food with match heads and other unwholesome substances.
It was Di Corpo who introduced Eva to Erminia Colavito, mother of five, midwife, neighborhood abortionist, and general all-around hand at the black arts. In good time, Eva journeyed to Mrs. C.’s Mayfield Road home, spoke feelingly to the spiritual practitioner of Dan’s supposed “objectionable practices,” and begged for a “potion” to set him straight. Potions were soon forthcoming, and Dan Kaber began to suffer the mysterious decline that would climax with his violent death in July 1919. Mrs. Colavito would later claim that her potion was composed only of olive oil and ginger ale. It is worth noting that another of her potions—composed mainly of chloral hydrate—sold about the same time to a man named Pasquale Julian to cure his brother John, put the latter in the State Hospital for the Insane in Newburg.
Sometime in late June or early July 1919, Eva became impatient with the progress of Mrs. C’s fluids. So Eva decided to have Dan murdered more quickly and went to the accommodating Mrs. Colavito with her problem: “Oh that devil. I could kill him! I am looking for someone to kill him! I would pay anything to have him killed!” Mrs. Colativo liked this kind of talk and soon recruited Salvatore Cala and Vittorio Pisselli, young toughs from Little Italy who could neither read nor write English. Mrs. Kaber got right to the point with them: “I want my husband killed. I have tried but not succeeded.” By mid-July Eva had struck a bargain with them, an arrangement, Cala later recalled, that made Eva just “tickled pink.” While she was safely away at Cedar Point, they would enter the house at night—admitted by Mrs. Brickel—and stab Dan Kaber in his bed. Cala was given a penciled map of the house, and he and Pisselli were promised that the house would be prepared so that the caper would look like a burglary gone awry. Cala and Pisselli were also promised somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 for their night’s work. And on about July 10 Eva took her mother Mary aside and said, “I want you to do some dirty work for me . . . I’m going to have Dan killed.”
On July 16 Eva drove away to Cedar Point to establish her alibi. The night before, while Marion generously played the piano on the first floor to mask any noise (her performance included “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “Dardanella,” and “Hindustan”), Eva brought the two hired killers into the house for a dry run. Marion had already jimmied the dining room bureau at Eva’s command, and Eva had shrewdly taken the “stolen” silver to the house of one of her many medium friends. All was in readiness for the murder on Thursday night.
Thursday night came and went. Mary Brickel, who was supposed to be on the porch in her rocking chair after dark to let the killers in, got cold feet and kept to her room. The next morning the killers contacted Marion and told her that if Mary didn’t cooperate, they would kill her, too. Or as Cala poetically put it: “Tell the old lady we’ll blow her brains out!”
The actual killing went off quite smoothly. Marion reportedly gave the signal to the murderers, either by emptying a pitcher of water out the window or flushing the toilet adjacent to her bedroom. Entering through a door left conveniently unlocked by Mary Brickel, the killers stealthily made their way up the stairs and into Dan Kaber’s bedroom. There, in the dark, Cala held down the paralyzed invalid while Pisselli, wearing heavy canvas gloves, stabbed him 24 times. Cala later testified that the helpless cripple cried out, “Mercy! Mercy! What have I done to you?!” Cala, for his pains, got badly bitten on the thumb by the gutsy invalid, and Pisselli apparently dropped both his gloves and an unused razor on the way out. Minutes later they boarded an eastbound streetcar and took it to safety and the East Side.
Even before they were caught, the aftermath of the killing was not a happy time for any of the plotters involved. Eva was haunted by the murder and rightly fearful that her accomplices would either implicate or blackmail her. The only payment anyone ever received for the murder was a $500 bill, some of the “stolen silver,” and Dan’s Masonic ring, taken from his finger by Eva in the days before his death. The $500 bill and the ring were forwarded to Mrs. Colavito through yet another medium friend of Eva’s, Maria Matthews, who insisted on keeping the silver as her own commission in the affair. The rest of the promised $3,000 or $5,000 was never forthcoming, despite threats by Cala and Pisselli to murder everyone connected with the plot if they were not paid.
Eva’s trial, a carnival of sensationalism, opened on June 28. The proceedings, held in the old county courthouse, were packed to suffocation, with rubberneckers fighting for spaces at office windows in adjacent buildings. Most of the spectators in and out of the courthouse, it is recorded, were female. By this time, both Cala and Colavito had turned state’s evidence, and both Marion and Mrs. Brickel had signed confessions implicating Eva for the murder. It was going to be almost impossible to get her off—and yet the actual trial proved to be both a well-matched legal competition and an exciting juridical struggle that made legal history.
Much of the excitement was due to the forensic talents of William J. Corrigan, Eva’s court-appointed lawyer. Then a young man, Corrigan was at the beginning of a career that would make him Cleveland’s premier defense attorney. (His best-known case would come near the end of his long career, when he acted as the defense attorney at Sam Sheppard’s infamous first trial.)
Corrigan knew that Eva was guilty and, worse than that, that she had already confessed to most of the facts of the conspiracy murder plot against her husband. Corrigan therefore concentrated on two procedural aspects of the case in a desperate effort to save his client from the electric chair. His first concern was to keep women off the jury. Sexist or not, he—and virtually everyone involved in the trial—believed that women were inclined to be more merciless in judging a member of their own sex and less inclined to sentimentality than men when sending females to the hot seat. Although his legal arguments in this regard were overruled, Corrigan managed to keep women off the jury with peremptory challenges.
Corrigan’s other, more important, and ultimately successful fight was to persuade the jury that Eva Kaber was insane. The state was demanding that she die in the electric chair, but Corrigan hoped to get her off with either a plea of temporary insanity or simply insanity from birth.
Ultimately, he chose the total insanity plea, and his witnesses provided much support. The state paraded a succession of “alienists” (as psychiatrists were then termed) who solemnly testified that Eva Kaber was sane. The defense responded with several alienists who said that she wasn’t. But far more convincing, doubtless, was the testimony of Eva’s brother, father, and sister, who re counted many family anecdotes illustrating Eva’s crazed behavior from an early age.
Eva herself eventually give dramatic support to the insanity argument. Although she managed to remain hidden behind a handkerchief, mute and pale during the early part of the trial, she became progressively and visibly upset as her father, brother, and sister appeared as witnesses to testify to her lifelong dementia. The climax came on Wednesday, July 13, the day her brother Charlie angrily denied Eva’s assertion that Mrs. Brickel had been the one who had set the Kaber house on fire in October 1918. Charlie got to his feet, shouting, “That’s a lie! I can prove it! She was sick at the time!” Eva went into a fit, screaming, flailing, foaming, and finally collapsing into a moaning heap. She was removed from the court and did not return until the next day. Prosecutor Stanton argued in his summation that her behavior then and afterward was feigned to support her insanity defense, but one suspects the jury believed otherwise. The best comment made about Mrs. Kaber’s breakdown was to Marjorie Wilson, a News feature writer who covered the trial and later married William J. Corrigan, whom she met for the first time there. A fellow spectator remarked to Wilson as she walked from the courtroom that day, “If that is acting, what an Ophelia she would make!”
Hard-core sensation-mongers may have been disappointed by the Kaber trial. Some expectations raised by pretrial revelations and hints were not fulfilled. Despite a frisson of curiosity about what “objectionable practices” Dan Kaber had allegedly practiced to drive his wife to murder, the defense never produced any evidence that he mistreated her; no one seems to have believed—or perhaps cared—about Marion McArdle’s assertion that Dan Kaber had once hit her mother. To the great disappointment of press and public, Eva herself never took the stand.
On July 15, 1921, the prosecution rested, and the jury went into seclusion in the early evening. Early the next morning they returned a verdict of “Guilty of Murder in the First Degree—With a Recommendation of Mercy.” Their verdict made Eva the second woman in Cuyahoga County ever convicted of first degree murder, but the “mercy” part meant that she would be facing life in prison rather than death in the electric chair. The reading of the verdict was delayed for two hours, as Eva had suffered yet another fit on being told by her attorneys that the jury had reached a verdict. When she was carried limp into the courtroom by two deputies, the grinding of her teeth was distinctly audible, and there was blood on her lips. There, at two minutes past 11 a.m., Eva Kaber was sentenced to the Marysville Reformatory for life, and the jury was dismissed. The verdict came just two days shy of the second anniversary of Dan Kaber’s murder.
Eva’s remaining years were not happy ones. “I’ll be out in a year. I’ll be free. Eighteen months at the least!” she bragged to reporters as she departed for Marysville Reformatory. Once incarcerated there, she was shocked to discover that she would have to give up her silk stockings and tailored suits for the regular drab prison garb. She eventually settled down to prison routine, working quietly in the prison sewing room. Alas, this proved to be yet another stratagem, and her job was replaced with solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water when prison officials intercepted a letter from Eva to her daughter Marion. It seems Eva had been offered $50,000 for the film rights to her life story, and she schemed to use the money to engineer an escape. Some of the money was to be used to bribe the prison authorities, but Eva was willing to have head matron Louise Mittendorf and her husband murdered if they proved resistant to bribery.
Eva’s health began to fail in the late 1920s. A long-needed goiter operation helped some, but Eva refused treatment for a subsequent gastric tumor diagnosed in 1927, telling the doctors, “You want to kill me!” This may have been part of a deliberate strategy to win a parole for medical reasons, but it spelled slow, sure doom for Eva. After 1929 her health declined alarmingly, and she was bedridden for the last few months of her life. The end came on April 12, 1931, just as the governor of Ohio was about to act on her latest parole request. Causes of death listed included lung complications, heart disease, and the stomach tumor, which was reported to weigh a whopping 150 pounds. She was 50 years old.
And what of the others involved in Eva Kaber’s satanic plot? Well, Marion McArdle was found innocent in a subsequent trial, a verdict seemingly incomprehensible to anyone having knowledge of her complicity in her stepfather’s murder before, during, and after the fact. Marion’s immediate response to the verdict was to go clothes shopping. She was married a year later from her aunt’s home in Lakewood, and it would be churlish to pursue her personal history further, except to note that she was with her mother when she died and arranged for Eva’s cremation in Portsmouth, Ohio. Grandmother Mary Brickel’s indictment was quashed because of her age and her cooperation with the prosecution. Salvatore Cala received a life term, as did Vittorio Pisselli in Italy, where he was pursued and brought to justice by yet more detectives hired with Moses Kaber’s money. Mrs. Colavito, improbably, was acquitted at her own trial, despite evidence introduced that her “potions” had been effective in ridding a number of woman clients of their husbands. In 1924 she was finally convicted and sentenced to prison for her part in a 1920 poisoning of an unwanted husband named Marino Costanzo. She died in Marysville 46 years later in 1972 at the age of 86. Ethel Berman was last heard of in September 1921, when she went into hiding because of death threats stemming from her Kaber testimony.
Why did Eva Kaber murder her husband? We may never really know. Whether she was a Lady Macbeth from the Cleveland slums from the start or an American Madame Bovary with a glandular disorder remains an intriguing, unanswerable question. In the end, however, you can at least say this, recalling the fate of Cala and Pisselli: Eva Kaber got her money’s worth.^ top
Excerpted from the book Women Behaving Badly, copyright © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by John Stark Bellamy II
Women who murder . . . why are they so much more fascinating than their male counterparts? For evidence, dip into any of the sixteen strange-but-true tales collected in this anthology by Cleveland’s leading historical crime writer. You’ll meet:
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John Stark Bellamy II is the author of six books and two anthologies about Cleveland crime and disaster. The former history specialist for the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he comes by his taste for . . . [ Read More ]YouTube Channel