A non-fiction Short Story by Nathan Olli
The following is a non-fiction short story that I’ve pieced together through countless newspaper articles, ancestry.com, interviews, and police documentation. The names, places, and facts are all true. Some liberties were taken when it came down to exact conversations and thoughts from the people involved but anything in quotes were transcribed just as it was recorded.
You can listen to Episode 52 – The Witch is Dead below.
Images from the case
True Detective Mysteries – April 1930 Edition
The Story – Written by Nathan Olli
He watched the elderly woman from the kitchen doorway. She sat with a stiff, practiced, ladylike posture that he knew put a strain on her old bones and deteriorating muscle. From where he stood, he couldn’t see her face, but he’d seen it so many times in his nightmares that he could close his eyes and picture it perfectly. Her pursed lips, thin eyebrows, pointed nose and dark, soulless eyes.
She’d been attractive once, but as Eugene Burgess knew all too well, time was not always friendly to beauty. Age brought spots and scars along with wrinkles and skin that falls away from bone. Time had also made her smaller in stature and deaf in one ear.
There was a period in Eugene’s life when the woman sitting before him, Mrs. Etta Fairchild, was considered a family friend. That was long before she killed his mother. In fact, she’d killed at least 100 people. She’d admitted to as much on more than one occasion.
He and his wife, Pearl, with no proof other than their made-up minds, knew that Etta Fairchild was a witch. But in today’s day and age, as the calendar neared 1930, not many people believed in witches anymore.
Eugene and Pearl Burgess were married on November 14th of 1900. After the wedding they moved into the family home at 1102 Sherwood Avenue in Kalamazoo, Michigan with Eugene’s mother Helen and her second husband, William. At that time, Etta Fairchild lived with her husband, Madison French Fairchild, at 1041 Sherwood Avenue, a stone’s throw away from the Burgesses.
By 1902, The Burgess household was close-knit with the older Fairchild couple. Etta was there during the birth of Eugene and Pearl’s first child, a boy they named Burnett. Fairchild soon convinced the Burgesses to join her religion of Christian Scientists, a denomination that believes in the authority of the Bible, Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ but teaches healing through prayer, rather than traditional medicine.
Etta Fairchild loved to tell stories of witches and things that go unseen by the average person. She was incredibly smart and a fantastic storyteller. As was the case with many friends and neighbors, Eugene and Pearl enjoyed sitting and listening to the woman as she told her tales. She was always surrounded by her pet cats that she kept, nearly a dozen, which only served to enhance her stories of witches.
It was in 1904 that the Burgesses began to look at all of this through a different lens. Fairchild’s fairytales and eccentric religion took a less fictional turn in their minds.
From the Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph – August 16, 1904
“Madison F. Fairchild Died at Early Hour This Morning. Heart trouble caused the sudden death this morning at 6 o’clock of Madison F. Fairchild, an old and well-known second hand man of this city at his home, 1041 Sherwood avenue.
Mr. Fairchild got up this morning before the rest of the family and walked around feeling as well as usual. About 6 o’clock he went into the bathroom and fell dead. Mrs. Fairchild had not risen at that time but a few minutes later went into the bathroom and found her husband lying across the floor. Mr. Fairchild had been ailing for some time but his death was not expected at this time.”
Eugene thought back to the day of the funeral as he continued to watch Etta Fairchild seated at his dinner table. It was a peculiar death and Etta received a modest inheritance. Pearl, who was facing her husband at the other end of the table, made eye contact with Eugene. She flashed him a look of encouragement as Etta inquired as to whether Jean would be joining them.
Eugenie “Jean” Burgess was the Burgesses’ second child. Born on May 5th, 1912, Jean had just recently turned 17. She was intelligent, hard working, and the apple of her father’s eye. Etta Fairchild had, throughout the years, taken a strong, almost unhealthy interest in the young woman.
In 1915, a fire of unknown origin broke out in the Burgesses kitchen. Their home on Sherwood Avenue was burned down to the foundation. A total loss. Even after the fire, Etta Fairchild continued to make almost weekly visits to their new home on West Ransom Street. Her focus was always on young Jean. It made Pearl and Eugene uncomfortable, but they never had the nerve to ask her to stay away. They were beginning to fear the woman and whatever power she held.
Over a decade later, the fear had grown into full-fledged terror. Eugene and Pearl were unswayable in their belief that Etta Fairchild possessed the ability to kill people with her mind. They had successfully instilled that fear into their children, Burnett and Jean, as well as anyone else who would listen. They were certain that Fairchild had placed a hex on young Jean and was slowly working on killing Eugene.
In the past she had caused him to go blind for various lengths of time. Sometimes he found himself unable to walk. He was always feeling odd aches and pains. Lately his heart had been beating faster and his hair was beginning to fall out. Hexes, no doubt, carried out by Etta Fairchild’s evil eye.
His heart was beating exceptionally fast now as he stood in the doorway. From the kitchen counter top he retrieved a lead pipe with his left hand and a hammer with his right.
Two years before, in 1927, as her money began to dwindle, Etta was able to secure a spot at the highly respected Merrill Home for Aged Women. There was always a waiting list full of Kalamazoo widows who were hoping to live out their remaining years in a comfortable, cozy, home-like environment.
The home was only capable of housing 15 widows at a time. Unless someone died, which only seemed to occur once a year on average, or became too sick to stay, the waiting list would continue to grow. Somehow, Etta Fairchild had lucked into a vacancy.
They couldn’t prove it of course but the Burgesses believed that she’d used her powers to acquire the spot. She’d removed some of the Merrill Home residents in nefarious ways. They also believed that shortly after moving into the Merrill Home for Aged Women, Etta Fairchild killed again. This time the victim was Eugene’s mother, Helen Frazier.
Either Etta’s powers had grown or the curse was slow moving, because Helen Frazier had moved with her second husband to Hollywood, California some ten years before. The body of the 72-year-old woman was brought back to Kalamazoo for burial. Etta Fairchild was not invited to the service.
A few months later the old witch claimed another victim. Irene Loveland was a fellow Christian Science practitioner and a very dear friend to Etta Fairchild. On November 1st, 1928, after one of her hands became infected, 51-year-old Irene Loveland succumbed to the infection and died. It was all very sudden and shocked the woman’s friends and family.
Eugene Burgess couldn’t let Etta Fairchild continue to hurt his family with hexes or heaven forbid, murder them one by one. She needed to be stopped and It was up to him to stop her.
Eugene worked in a factory making taxi cabs. He enjoyed fishing and was considered by most that knew him to be a good friend and neighbor. He wasn’t a murderer. Not until now anyway.
He took a breath and strode into the dining room. Without hesitation he struck Etta Fairchild behind her left ear with the lead pipe. Then swung three more times before she fell to the floor.
The witch was dead… but he needed to be sure. Eugene lifted her body enough to drag her into the sitting room where he continued his frenzy of blows with both the pipe and the hammer. The walls in two rooms of the Burgess home were now covered in a crimson spray.
From there he hauled the woman’s body into a nearby bedroom, out of the way. Eugene and Pearl quickly began ripping the blood stained wallpaper off of the walls, tossing it into the lit fireplace.
Eugene had been thinking for days about what he might do with Etta Fairchild’s body once he’d carried out the murder. The idea that made the most sense to him involved his son, Burnett who lived across the street with his wife, Ellen.
Burnett opened his front door to see his father standing before him looking unsettled and covered in blood. Eugene wasted no time in telling him what he’d done and asked the 27-year-old if he could help. The plan entailed loading Etta Fairchild’s body into the back of Burnett’s truck and dumping it somewhere a few miles away. If positioned correctly it might look like a passing motorist had struck the old woman and left her for dead.
Burnett, despite never being a fan of Etta Fairchild, wanted absolutely no part in covering up a murder. Not even for his parents. A part of Burnett thought about contacting the authorities but for now he needed to process what had happened. Eugene returned to his home, frustrated and thinking about plan b.
After Pearl cleaned up the mess the best she could she informed her husband that she was going to stop by her friend, Marian Ring’s home. She felt she could trust Miss Ring, a fellow Christian Science practitioner, and hoped that she may be able to offer some advice. Afterwards, she intended on picking up their daughter, Jean.
Pearl Burgess arrived at her friend’s home, requested that she join her outside to talk and then waited for Miss Ring by the garden house. Marian could tell that something was very wrong.
Pearl asked her friend if she knew of Etta Fairchild’s powers. She asked if she was aware that Etta Fairchild had killed no less than 100 people in her lifetime or if she knew that Etta Fairchild planned to kill again. Before Marian could answer any of those questions, Pearl informed her that Fairchild would no longer be able to carry out those plans.
“What does that mean?” Marian asked.
“She’s dead. Murdered. I killed her.” Pearl replied coldly.
“Did you do it alone?”
“No, Eugene did most of the work.” Pearl went on to ask Marian’s opinion on the disposal of the body.
“Wouldn’t it be possible to place the body by the side of some road, in a way that would make it appear that a car had struck her?”
Marian Ring tried to remain calm, unsure of what to believe. She told Pearl that it was not right to take the law into her own hands and that she would surely be prosecuted for the crime if she was indeed telling the truth.
“It’s the truth,” Pearl responded. “I’ve killed her. I’ve got to get rid of the corpse. You must help me.”
After some convincing, Marian Ring was able to send Pearl on her way. She locked herself in her home and tried to figure out what she should do next. She didn’t have the family bond that Burnett had, it was possible, probable even, that she would call the police. Christian Science Practitioners had a code that they lived by, they are “required to maintain the confidentiality of their patients’ private communications.” Pearl wasn’t one of her patients.
Back at the Burgess home, Eugene got to work on hiding the body. He removed the curtains from the sitting room window and grabbed various blankets, bringing everything into the bedroom
After wrapping Etta Fairchild’s body inside the various linens he secured them with rope and wire. He took the hammer to her a few more times for good measure. He wanted to make sure that all of the life was out of her. He struggled to pull the corpse through the home and out the back door, laying it down by the cistern. Many homes at that time had a nearby underground reservoir for rainwater which could be collected and used within the home. The cistern had a hatch door at the surface which allowed access to the water. The opening was just large enough to fit a body through.
After using rope to attach a cement block to her body, he opened the hatch and dropped her in. It was the best he could do for now. His daughter would be home any minute.
Once he was back inside, he placed down sheets of newspaper over the massive pool of blood that had collected on the bedroom floor.
Meanwhile, Marian Ring, after some consideration, decided to place a phone call to the Merrill Home for Aged Women. Before she could plan her next course of action she would call and see if Etta Fairchild was where she should have been.
“Merrill Home, how may I help you?” A friendly voice answered the phone.
“I was hoping to speak with Miss Etta Fairchild.” Marian was nervous to hear the response.
“Please hold.” After a moment, the woman came back to the phone. “It would seem that Miss Fairchild has not returned from her planned visit today.”
It was past nine in the evening, she should have been back home by now.
“Do you happen to know with whom she was visiting today?” Marian already knew the answer.
“It says here that she was visiting with the Burgesses for dinner.”
Marian Ring knew at that moment that Pearl Burgess had been telling her the truth. She and her husband, Eugene, had murdered the elderly woman in cold blood. Instead of feeling remorse, they were just looking for a way to get away with it. Marian couldn’t let that happen. She picked up the phone again, this time placing a call to the authorities.
Marian was eventually transferred to the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s desk. Sheriff James Borden picked up the phone, listened to the women’s story and immediately made a few phone calls of his own. The first was to Prosecuting Attorney, Paul Tedrow. Tedrow informed him that he’d be right over. Next, Sheriff Borden contacted police headquarters where he spoke with Commissioner Rock Fleming and Chief of Police Roy Carney. The two men asked that he wait for them as well, they could all drive together.
Shortly after 10:00 PM they arrived at the Burgess home. They exited the vehicle and split up into two groups. Fleming and Carney approached the front door while Sheriff Borden and Paul Tedrow quickly and quietly went around back.
Borden worked his way up the makeshift back porch and pressed his ear to the kitchen door. The silence was unsettling. He returned to Tedrow at the edge of the porch and asked him to go and check the garage to see if the family’s vehicle was inside. He did and it was.
The sheriff went back to the kitchen door and knocked loudly while announcing his presence and demanding that the door be opened. While he waited, he flicked on his flashlight and ran it across the open window. He saw a narrow partition and then a couch. Sweeping his flashlight back he noticed a wide skirt between the two. He guessed it to be Pearl Burgess.
After another round of knocks, he could hear footsteps approaching the door. A moment later, the door was thrown open by Eugene Burgess. The man staring back at Sheriff Borden looked unwell. His eyes were dilated to the size of fifty cent pieces and bulging from their sockets. Borden could see various muscles in his face twitching and he was as white as a ghost.
The sheriff couldn’t look away from him, captivated by the vivid insanity of his appearance. If ever someone was a poster child for the criminally insane it was Eugene Burgess. He looked like a madman or worse yet, a monster.
Borden finally broke his gaze and looked over his shoulder, calling for Paul Tedrow to join him. Tedrow opened the front door for Chief Carney and Commissioner Fleming and together they began a search of the house for Etta Fairchild.
Sheriff Borden never bothered asking Eugene Burgess if there’d been a murder in his home. The whole house smelled, felt and looked like murder. It was palpable in the air.
The four men noticed blood everywhere. In the sitting room they found a large chair saturated with it. There were blood splotches on the staircase and Borden noticed that the wallpaper looked as if it had been hastily removed.
He entered a small bedroom and saw an old hat on the bed. He wondered if it had been on top of Etta Fairchild’s head just hours before. As he rounded the bed, his feet slipped and became tangled in sheets of newspaper. He kicked a few pieces aside and saw a thick crimson pool of blood beneath them. It was all over the floor running in little streams away from the main puddle.
Borden left the room quickly and made his way back to the kitchen where Chief Carney was standing watch over Eugene, Pearl and their daughter, Jean.
“Where’s the body, Burgess? I know it’s here.” The sheriff barked.
Eugene Burgess didn’t hesitate. “In the cistern. We threw it in the cistern.”
Hearing him use the word “it” to describe Etta Fairchild disturbed Borden. She wasn’t a human being to Eugene Burgess, she was week-old bread or at best an animal that needed to be put down. Borden asked where the phone was and went to make a call to the jail.
He instructed the jailer to send over a rope and drag hook as soon as possible. A short while later Deputy Albert Billig and officer John Smith arrived with the supplies.
Smith stayed inside with the Burgess family as the rest of the men went out into the backyard. After removing the heavy cistern lid they secured the drag hook to the rope and began lowering it down the shaft. On the very first cast the hook latched on to something heavy.
Borden pulled with all his might and felt whatever was at the other end move a foot or two before becoming stuck. Commissioner Rock Fleming came over to lend a hand and soon their catch was making its way to the surface.
The men were horrified by what they saw. It was the dead body of Etta Fairchild. Her white hair reflected off of the flashlight beam and Borden could see that one side of her head was almost completely caved in. Tied to her right leg was a wire cable that wrapped numerous times around her waist. On the other end of the wire was a cement block that was used to weigh her down in the water.
Borden lowered the hook again which quickly caught on something else. It was heavier than the body they’d just retrieved.
“We got another body, Tedrow!” The sheriff shouted.
After pulling the unknown object up onto the lawn, they were relieved to see that it was only a collection of blood soaked rugs and curtains which Burgess had originally used to wrap the woman’s body.
They took photos of the house, inside and out, while also snapping pictures of the cistern, body and rugs for use at the trial. As midnight neared, Borden placed the couple under arrest and ordered that Jean be detained with them for the night.
Once at the jail, Borden entered the interrogation room. He was joined by a number of officers, his secretary and Kalamazoo State Hospital for the Insane Superintendent, Dr. Roy Morter. Pearl was the first to be questioned.
“So tell us what happened,” Sheriff Borden began.
“Mrs. Fairchild was killed. She came to our home about two-thirty in the afternoon. She had been married, but she killed her husband who was a minister, fifteen years ago. At the time of his death we lived near one another on Sherwood Avenue.”
“She was a hypnotist. She had developed her mental power and was able to govern people by mental power… made them do just exactly as she wanted them to do. If she wanted anyone to exhibit any bad disease it would show upon their bodies. She has killed over a hundred people here in Kalamazoo in the last twenty-five years.
She could make people have any kind of disease she chose. She always kept a list of the people she intended to kill. I had the list today, but I burned it. I wish now I hadn’t”
“Who has she killed?” Borden asked.
“She killed Mrs. Loveland. Mrs. Loveland wasn’t sick. Mrs. Fairchild killed her mentally. I cannot explain just how she did it.
Mrs. Fairchild came to visit with me quite often. When I knew she was coming I always sent my daughter away from home. I was afraid of Mrs. Fairchild. I was afraid she’d kill my daughter. I felt she was coming today. The last time she came here she was getting ready to kill us. She had already killed Mrs. Loveland.”
The individuals inside the interrogation sat in awe as they listened to Pearl Burgess speak. She spoke with passion and a certainty that everything she was saying was the absolute truth.
Borden and the others tried asking questions about the actual crime. When they pressed her on the issue she either ignored the question or changed the subject back to the actions of Etta Fairchild.
“Is there going to be a trial?” She asked matter-of-factly.
“Depends on how you answer these questions, ma’am.”
“Mrs. Fairchild sometimes commanded me to go see her. I always went. She said if we would be friends and I would not tell anyone she would not kill me.”
“How did you kill her, Mrs. Burgess?” Borden questioned, growing impatient.
“What difference does it make as long as she was killed?”
Hours passed and it was the middle of the night before they led Pearl Burgess to her cell and brought her husband, Eugene into the room. He put the blame on himself, stating that he’d acted alone. He repeated Pearl’s stories of the one hundred victims, of the threats to their family, and the powers that Etta Fairchild supposedly possessed.
“If you had been through what I have for the last fifteen years you would do what I did. Mrs. Fairchild had mental telepathy. Mrs. Loveland said she had mental telepathy.”
Eugene continued. Like Pearl, everything that he said was spoken with a seriousness and belief in what he knew to be true. He feared for his life because of the woman and her ‘evil eye’. He feared for the safety of his family. In his mind he’d done the only thing that could be done. It was self defense.
“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Asked Doctor Morter.
“I do.” Burgess replied. “All I was doing was protecting my home.”
On July 22nd, four days later, as Etta Fairchild was being laid to rest at a nearby cemetery, the Burgesses were arraigned in court. They pleaded ‘not guilty’. Eugene and Pearl wanted a jury trial. Pearl was even quoted as saying, “A jury would understand why it was right for us to kill such a dangerous woman.”
At this point, Jean was cleared of any wrongdoing and released to family. Eugene had implicated his son Burnett during his original statement but the police found that to be untrue. Burnett Burgess was released on bail.
Back at the empty Burgess home, crowds came in waves to see the crime scene. After the ghost of Etta Fairchild was spotted hovering over the house, police needed to be called in to control the masses of curious onlookers. The sensational story had spread across the country.
The Burgesses began to receive fan mail from people that believed their story. The Burgesses were not alone in their beliefs or fear of witches. There were people that were thankful to have one less witch around.
The trial was set to begin on September 30th, 1929. It would have to be moved back after what took place in the early morning hours of September 24th.
At the jail house, each ‘cage’ as they called it, held four inmates. A small-time thief named Wiesty Niedzwiecki was one of the inmates who shared a cage with Eugene Burgess. Around 4:00 AM, Wiesty awoke and needed to use the attached bathroom. He pushed open the door and bumped hard into something hanging from the ceiling.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness and what he saw before him was the body of Eugene Burgess hanging from a pipe above one of the toilets. He’d used his pajamas as a noose and taken his own life.
Some saw it as a noble gesture, done in hopes of securing sympathy for his now widowed wife, Pearl. Others saw it as a last act of cowardice after beating a defenseless woman who’d been lured to the Burgess home under the guise of a quiet dinner party.
Pearl Burgess’ trial began on October 14th, 1929. The woman, now dressed in all black, stood firm on her beliefs that Etta Fairchild was a witch and that what they’d done to her was only self defense. She watched the trial play out from behind a heavy black veil.
As the trial neared its end, Pearl’s attorney, Stephen H. Wattles leaned hard on the insanity plea. He was going to lose, of that he was sure. Wattles entered into private practice after three terms as Kalamazoo’s prosecuting attorney, a position now held by Paul Tedrow. He’d been on the other side of these cases and there was just too much evidence to fight. Guilt by reason of insanity would provide an easier life for his client.
Doctor Morter testified that he believed Pearl Burgess suffered from something he called “delusion of persecution.” It was his opinion that Pearl was not of sound mind and that she wouldn’t have known right from wrong.
At 10:00 AM on the morning of October 17th, the defense and prosecution rested and the judge handed the case over to the eleven men and one woman that made up the jury. By 1:27 AM on October 18th, despite some of the jurors being on the fence as to her sanity, Pearl Burgess was found guilty of murder in the first degree. The verdict carried a mandatory life sentence.
Over the next few months Prosecuting Attorney Paul Tedrow had a change of heart. On January 1st of 1930 he proposed that the court appoint an examining board of physicians to hold an inquiry into the sanity of Pearl Burgess. After extensive interviews and examinations held in the middle of February, two members of the medical staff of the Kalamazoo State Hospital found her to be suffering from various mental diseases.
On April Fools Day of 1930, it was decided that Pearl was not of sound mind at the time of the murder. The same judge who oversaw her trial ordered her to be committed to the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. She remained a resident there until her death in 1970 at the age of 93.
As for the Burgess children, Burnett continued to run a small trucking business and passed away in 1984 at the age of 82. He’d been married to his wife Ellen for nearly 60 years. The pair never had any children.
Eugenie, better known as Jean, married Carl VanLuke in 1931. The pair had two children, David and Judy. Carl passed away in 1949 and three years later she married Edward Sovey. After his death in 1972, Jean moved to New Jersey where she resided until her death in 1996 at the age of 83.
Both, hopefully, lived long and happy lives.
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