Friday, November 20, 2009

Helen the Serial Killer

Helen Auguste Geisen-Volk was a baby farmer. She was also a serial killer of children. By the time she was arrested in 1925 at the age of 41 for the kidnapping and murder of children in , her victims numbered 53 according to the New York District Attorney's "confirmed" count.

The term “baby farming” is obsolete, so most people don’t have any idea what you’re talking about when you mention it. But it’s a word that needs to be brought back again, now that the notion of a nanny state that is to oversee all aspects of childrearing from birth (or before) onwards is all the rage with totalitarian social engineering class again. Don’t worry that “baby farming” with its quaint old-fashioned sound might fail to get you listened to when you speak the word in conversation. For there are other words that will appear in the sentences you speak that include “baby farming” that are the sort of words that will no doubt cause the most sleepy-headed of listeners to sit up and take notice. These helpful added-value words that are going to perform such a valuable service are these: “infanticide,” “child torture,” “kidnapping,” “serial murder,” “mass murder.”

“The term “baby farming” … referred to placing-out infants for money as well as to their sale for profit. Many clients were unwed mothers, prostitutes, and destitute or deserted wives who needed help with their children while they worked for wages. Although most baby farming amounted to what we now call family day care, it developed a terrible reputation when exposes uncovered horrific abuses and horrible death traps.” [Ellen Herman, The Adoption History Project]

It is presently not very easy to locate information on the history of baby farming in America. Wikipedia misleadingly implies the practice was uncommon in the United States and that it was solely a 19th century phenomenon. Both are untrue. Baby Farming was widespread in the U. S. and Canada by the mid-19th century (such news reports as “The Baby Business – Baby-Farming in New York City – Where When And How to Get a Baby – Christian Families Supplied with Blue-Eyed Babies on Demand,” Philadelphia Telegraph, Sep. 5, 1869, attest to this) and lasted at least as late as 1950.

The most well-known baby farming cases in the English-speaking world are ones that occurred in England, Australia and New Zealand. The reason for this is simple: several baby farmers were executed for their crimes. Death penalty cases have a way of going unforgotten in popular -- and academic -- memory.

This illustration shows the first of several executions of baby farmers in England:

Helen Geisen-Volk, born circa 1883, was the most notorious of American baby farmers not because she murdered more children than any other day care operator – Georgia Tann (1891-1950) slaughtered and tortured an exponentially larger number of children – but simply because she was successfully prosecuted.

She had been a nurse in the German Red Cross during World War I yet somehow found her way to United States well before the November 11, 1918 armistice. She is reported to have begun her New York City baby farming establishment, called an “infantarium,” in January of that year at 1966 Park Avenue. It was not long before she was in hot water with the law. On May 23, 1919, along with abortionist Dr. Arthur Camnitzer, Helen was indicted for the death of Ann Seeburg, victim of a botched termination procedure. (Many, if not most, baby farmers were involved with abortion rings). The D. A. had to drop charges in December due to insufficient evidence. In 1920 the city issued her a permit for the infantarium, but revoked soon after in October “because a child had not received proper care.” The following year a mother whose name remains unknown instituted kidnapping proceedings against Helen after her child “went missing.” The charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.

What happened next would lift the veil on Giesen-Volk’s murderous racket once and for all.

“The city’s florists were already raising the price of white carnations for the coming weekend as William Angerer's nervously afflicted wife readied to come home from the state hospital and hold again the tiny son the couple had reluctantly boarded a few months earlier at a city-licensed infantarium for $10 a week. Now steamfitter Angerer went to Helen Geisen-Volk's brownstone at 235 E. 86th St. to collect his boy for the joyful Mother's Day homecoming, and he stared at the bundle Volk thrust into his arms.

"This is not my son," he said.

"You are mistaken," said Volk.

"My son had two teeth," Angerer protested. "Where are his teeth? "

"This is your son," shouted the mistress of the house. "Get out. Take him and go."

He went - first to his family physician, who agreed that the mewling, toothless babe was a stranger. Then he went to the police.

By Friday morning the 8th of May 1925, the 86th St. house of horrors was on every newspaper's front page. Investigators tramped, dumbstruck, through Helen Geisen-Volk's squalid baby nest, taking into custody 16 filthy, starving, cruelly neglected tykes. Six-month-old Stephen Angerer was not among them.” [From: Jay Maeder, “Baby Nest, May 1925 Chapter 34,” New York Daily News, Mar. 15, 2000]
Stephen Angerer was never located. It was presumed he had been murdered, along with 52 other children during Helen Geisen Volk’s six-year long sadistic spree. The boy who had been falsely represented by the baby farmer as Stephen, and known temporarily as “baby Raymond,” was eventually identified as Francis Shimkus, son of single mother Mary Shimkus.

Within a day of the May 8 police raid, one of the 16 abused infants rescued from the baby farmer died in Bellevue hospital. It was the 23rd death in the Giesen-Volk baby farm within a period of only fifteen months. A hearing held in May 12 it was learned from the testimony of a nurse who had worked for Helen that she had witnessed the child’s murder when Geisen-Volk dashed little eighteen-month-old Agnes Toohey’s head against a wall.

Another witness, Miss Rose Donnelly, social worker reported that she had in Dec. 1923 seen baby Mary Dobbins with “welts and discolorations over her entire body, indicating she had been severely dealt with. In this case the child did not die. Other witnesses who had worked for Helen in the past told of scaldings, beatings, and of secret burials of babies in satchels and fake documents and identity scams used to cover up the deaths.

That day the court ordered the exhumation of Agnes Toohey and another dead child, Agnes Toohey and William Winters, aged six months. It was the autopsy of William Winters showing that he died of a skull fracture which was the basis for a Grand Jury indictment for first degree manslaughter on the 21st.

At the trial Helen’s insouciance was almost as shocking as her sadistic crimes, when the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Pecora confronted the defendant with the number of deaths of abused children totaling 53, asking her answer whether that number was accurate she calmly replied “No. There were only twelve or fourteen deaths.” She had character witnesses trotted out – taken from a pool of no less than twenty women who had come to court to testify on her behalf -- who attested to her kindliness, gentles and respectability, and offered the theory that she had suffered from shell shock during the war, but these witnesses were no match for the former employees and the mothers such as Mrs. Irene Meroff who testified her baby nearly died from treatment received at the baby farm.

On Jul. 23, 1925, Helen Giesen-Volk, who was convicted for killing the six-month old William Winters. Judge McIntyre, referring to Cooley’s report, said “The report of Mr. Cooley indicates that she is a fiend incarnate. I see no extenuating circumstances in this case. Yet the law of New York permitted a mere 3 ½ - 7 years of prison time.

It is not presently known what became of Helen the serial killer, following her conviction. Scholars interested in studying female serial killers are even more rare than female serial killers are purported to be.

-- Other North American Baby Farmers Accused of Being Serial Killers --
(An Incomplete Checkist)

Ashmead – 1904-1911 – Elizabeth Ashmead – (3 prosecutions 1904, 1909, 1911); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; Millville, New Jersey; “Given Five Years – Baby Farmer Was Sent to Federal Prison,” The Lowell Sun (Ma.), Jul. 1, 1911, p. 7

Brooks – 1935 – Dr. Edward L. Brooks, Beulah, Michigan; prosecution failed; clergyman, abortionist; “Rev. Edward L. Brooks, Brooks Farm and Beulah,” Time Magazine, Feb. 4, 1935

Campbell – 1902 – Mrs. Neill Campbell, Chicago, Illinois; “Baby Farm Mystery – Why Did the Babies Die That Were Adopted by a Chicago Woman? - She Did Not Adopt For Profit But to Keep Her Husband at Home and Nine Die of Starvation, So the Charge Runs,” Waterloo Daily Courier (Io.), Dec. 12, 1902, p. 2

Connelly – 1912 – Matilda Connelly, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; buried bodies; arrested; “Woman Admits She Is In Baby Business,” New Castle News (Pa.), Oct. 31, 1912, p. 8

Cramer – 1926 – Mrs. Marie, (Alice M.) Cramer; Chicago, East Peoria, Ill.; 5 others charged; “Baby Farm Found – Three Nabbed in Peoria; Two Dead Infants Found,” AP, The Burlington Hawk-Eye (Io.), May 14, 1926, p. 1

Foss-Hines – 1927 – Mrs. Minnie Foss-Hines (AKA Mrs. Millie Williams, Minnie Williams-Foss-Hines) , Los Angeles, California; Mar. 31, charges dismissed; pleaded guilty to lesser charges; 40 infants had been under her care; April 1, 1927 sentenced to 1-14 years for embezzlement plus 14 years probation for forgery; “14 Missing Babies Laid to Baby Farm – L. A. Burglar Suspect’s Accusation that Ex-Wife Conducted Barter and Sale of Infants Stirs Police Probe – State-Wide Hunt For Woman Leads to Sacramento While Officials Hunt Child in Trunk in San Bernardino,” Oakland Tribune (Ca.), Mar. 13, 1927, p. 1

Gobay – 1905 – Mrs. Annie Gobay and Mrs. Emma Kitchen, “Home For the Friendless” Atlanta, Georgia; “Little Tots Die At Baby Farm – Three Deaths in Last Few Days at 17 Carley St. – Farm is Run on Strict Business Basis – Mrs. Gobay States That May Is a Bad Months for Babies – Doctors Approve It,” Atlanta Constitution (Ga.), May 28, 1905, p. 1

Grey Nun Hospital – 1876 – Grey Nun Hospital, Montreal, Canada; “Deadly Effects of Baby Farming in Montreal,” Logansport Daily Journal (In.), Apr. 14, 1876, p. 1

Gunness – 1908 – Belle Gunness, Victoria, Texas; “Death Farm Now Revealed As Ghastly Home of Slayings Unique in Drab Fiendishness,” Syracuse Herald (N.Y.), Mar. 15, 1925, sec. 3, p. 3

Hanson – 1892 – Mrs. Annie Hanson, Chicago, Illinois;“Bad Annie Hanson – She Is Under Arrest for Baby Farming,” St. Paul Daily Courier (Mn.), Jan. 4, 1892, p. 5

Lacroix – 1927 – Mrs. Diana Lacroix, Hull, Quebec, Canada; 7 deaths; Charged in Hull with murder, Mar. 3, 1927, for death of Baby Villaneuve on or about Feb. 10, 1927; two similar charges are being prepared for “Baby Rindeau” and “Baby Lalonde”; Jun. 8, acquitted of first charge, still facing 2 others; “Death of 7 Babies Charged to Head of Quebec Baby Farm,” The Bee (Danville, Va.), Mar. 21, 1927, p. 4

Lowry – 1904 – Mrs. Mary Lowry, Omaha, Nebraska; 3 almost dead, two died previous week; “Baby Farm in Iowa – Pitiable Situation is Unearthed by the Police,” Ireton Weekly Ledger (Io.), Jul. 29, 1904, p. 2

Reignolds – 1875 – Mr. Nelson & Mrs. Mary Reignolds, Holliston, Ma.; “five have been disposed of with laudanum”; Mary Colby, resided with the Reignolds’; made complaint; coroner’s jury; last child to die was Fredelina Pierce who arrived from Boston in Jan; children poisoned with laudanum; Miss Eliza Sheenan, corroborating witness; Deaths: 1st death: Tommy (1), died Nov 1874; 2nd death, James (5 mo), was whipped daily by Mrs. R; 3rd death: Maud (12 wks),arrived in Dec., lived 4 weeks; 4th death, Agnes Forbes (3 wks), arrived in Dec.; 5th death: Fredelina Pierre; “Wholesale Slaughter of Infants,” Atlanta Constitution (Ga.), Jan. 28, 1975, p. 1

Suffert – 1889 – Rachel Suffert, St. Louis, Missouri ; 2 deaths ; arrested ; bodies emaciated ; “Baby Farm in St. Louis,” The Burlington Hawk-Eye (Io.), Jan. 15, 1889, p. 1

Tann – 1920s-1950 – Georgia Tann, Memphis, Tennessee; the most prolific of all American serial killers; hundreds of murders of children; sadistic sexual abuse; kidnapping; extortion; baby selling; bribery; Barbara Bisantz Raymond, The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, 2007, (Carroll & Graf, N. Y.)

Topper – 1930 – Pearl Topper, Hackensack, N. J.; “Get Woman in Poisoning of Children – New Jersey Court Charges She Attempted Deaths of Eighteen, AP, The Galveston Daily News (Tx.), Jan. 15, 1930, p. 1

West – 1907 – Mrs. Fred West, Des Moines, Wisconsin; “Shocking Depravity – Mrs. Fred West of Des Moines Arrested – Charged With Burning Infants. – The Iowa Legislature Has Ordered a Thorough Investigation, The Eau Claire Leader (Io.), Feb. 5, 1907, p. 2

Worchester – 1877 – Rozilla Worchester, New York, NY; “Case of Alleged Baby Farming – Six Children Said to Have Died in a House in Charles Street Within Four Weeks – The Authorities Investigating the Matter,” New York Times, Feb. 7, 1877, p. 8

Young – 1936 – William and Lila Young, Canada; Ideal Maternity Home; at least 100, probably several hundred murders; Books: Robert Hartlen, Butterbox Survivors: Life After the Ideal Maternity Home, 1999, Nimbus; Bette L. Cahill, Butterbox Babies, the Ideal Maternity Home in Chester, Nova Scotia, 1991, Seal Books; Bette L. Cahill, Butterbox Babies: Baby Sales, Baby Deaths: New Revelations 15 Years Later, Fernwood Publishing, 2007.

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