Resident of Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Cause of Death: Morphine and Alcohol
Motive: Becoming Free of Spouse
Murder Scene and Date
Caroline Overacker Rooming House
May 24, 1888
By Nancy Bowers
Written July 2014
In 1888, George Diggle’s wife was living two existences.
In one life, she was Bertha “Bert” Diggle, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, homemaker — wife of a barber and mother to two children, one still an infant.
In the other life, she was “Jessie Leland,” the handsome leading lady of traveling theatrical companies — first touring with Andrews’ Opera Company and then joining Ford’s Metropolitan Dramatic Company. The latter troupe, managed by actor and director Clint G. Ford out of Baraboo, Wisconsin, performed for audiences in upper-Midwestern cities.
By the spring of 1888, George Diggle wanted Bertha to abandon acting and come home to her family. The two exchanged numerous letters; according to the Waterloo Courier, Diggle accused her of being “stage-struck” and Bertha countered that George didn’t “support her properly.” In the end, she stayed with the traveling troupe.
☛ Confrontation ☚
On Wednesday, May 23, George Diggle arrived by train at Clarion, Iowa, where the Ford Company was engaged for a week’s run at the Opera House.
That night, Diggle appeared at the Opera House. At 11:15 p.m., just before Bertha was to perform in the last act of “The Count of Monte Christo,” she encountered him in front of the men’s dressing room. He handed her a letter and said he didn’t want to talk until she read it. She slipped the envelope into her dress and went on stage. Bertha later told authorities she placed the letter in a satchel and never read it.
Diggle was waiting outside the Opera House when Bertha emerged after the play, and they went to her room at the Caroline Overacker boarding house. As the couple talked through the night, Bertha refused all of George’s pleas to return to Sioux Falls.
On Thursday, May 24, the discussion continued. About 3:00 p.m., the Diggles took a walk and then returned to the rooming house. Bertha later said of George’s mood, “His actions were at times cheerful and at other times the reverse.”
Just after 5:00 p.m., Bertha walked alone to Hamilton’s Drugstore, where she bought 50 cents’ worth of morphine, which at that time could legally be purchased over the counter.
Although she took the drug each night to calm the stimulation from performing, she told the druggist she needed it for headaches.
Bertha asked if the amount — a single dose of 25 grains in an envelope marked “poison” — was enough to kill a person; the druggist said it would depend on whether that person was accustomed to taking it.
Bertha returned to the rooming house with the envelope of morphine in her shawl, which she hung on a nail in her room.
☛ Fatal Glass of Beer ☚
Then others in the rooming house saw Bertha emerge from her room and pick up two glasses of beer from the sideboard; not long afterwards, she brought the glasses out to the kitchen pump, rinsed them thoroughly, and put them back.
When supper was served, Bertha and George came from her room to sit at the table. His drooping eyes were bloodshot and he complained of lightheadedness and sleepiness. When Bertha asked him what was wrong he said, “I believe the beer has gone to my head.” She helped him back to the room, where he lay down and seemed to worsen.
Bertha asked Caroline Overacker to call for a physician. When Dr. George A. Marietta arrived, Diggle rallied briefly but then without having said anything lapsed into unconsciousness and was dead by 9:00 p.m.
Dr. Marietta immediately suspected Diggle was poisoned. According to the History of Wright County, however:
“[Bertha Diggle] at once stated that it was a case of suicide and ‘took on’ at a fearful rate.”
An autopsy found morphine in Diggle’s stomach in quantities enough to cause death. The coroner’s jury of Hiram Simons, J.R. Lockwood, and W.W. Gates ruled the victim died from morphine “administered by some person unknown.” No mention was made of Bertha.
Diggle’s body was sent by train back to Sioux Falls for burial; Bertha continued on the theatrical company’s tour, traveling to Iowa Falls rather than accompanying her husband’s casket.
☛ Suicide or Murder? ☚
Clarion residents held strong opinions about whether George Diggle killed himself or was murdered. The editors of the two area newspapers were divided; their opinion pieces and editorials fanned the flames of local discussions.
Wright County Attorney W.T.R. Humphrey was one of those who believed Bertha murdered her husband. Even though the coroner’s jury had not named Bertha as a suspect, Humphrey empaneled a grand jury to hear evidence against her. The proceedings were perfunctory, many in the group thinking there was not enough proof to warrant the expense of a trial.
Humphrey, however, was relentless in his search for evidence. After he found a witness who saw Bertha enter the Overacker outhouse after George Diggle’s death, a search of the structure yielded the labeled morphine package — torn into four pieces.
On June 9, 1888, Bertha was detained and arrested at Tama — where the touring company was appearing — taken to Webster City, and then brought back to Clarion.
Following a preliminary hearing, she was held on a $1,000 bond.
In late October, County Attorney Humphrey convened a second grand jury which indicted Bertha Diggle for murdering her husband.
☛ The Trial ☚
The trial of Bertha Diggle, which garnered nationwide attention, began in Clarion on December 17, 1888 with District Court Judge D.H. Hindman presiding.
County Attorney W.T.R. Humphrey, assisted by A.R. Ladd and former judge and U.S. Congressman John Calhoun Cook, presented the case against Bertha Diggle.
She was defended by C.M. Nagle, B.P. Birdsall, former judge and State Senator Daniel Darrow Chase, and Sioux Falls attorney U.S.G. Cherry.
The jury consisted of A.M. Plumley, D.L. Miller, Frank Knuths, R.C. Morse, Fred Boisner, N.W. Owens, Theodore Weigand, Lewis Nelson, J. Lieuwen, C.W. Hill, James Williams, and August Brandis.
Both sides agreed that the combination of drugs and alcohol was fatal. The prosecution maintained Bertha slipped the morphine into the beer her husband drank. The defense hoped to show that George Diggle washed down the drug with the beer he himself suggested drinking.
According to the History of Wright County, Iowa:
“In preparing for the trial . . . the attorneys for the defense made a test case of the effects to be produced from mixing morphine with beer and drinking. In so doing, it was related that ex-Judge D.D. Chase, of Webster City, drank of beer so mixed and the result was that it produced a stupor which caused much alarm, and came near costing him his life.”
Reviewing her life from childhood, the defense presented Bertha as a person of spotless character, a woman incapable of killing her husband.
When she testified on her own behalf, Bertha seemed to have answers for all the prosecution’s questions.
She claimed she possessed such a large amount of morphine in one piece because the druggist didn’t want to be troubled to cut it into the smaller doses she requested. That accounted for why George was able to take a dose sizeable enough to kill him.
Bertha also maintained that drinking beer that evening was George’s idea. She told the court what happened after she returned from the drugstore:
“George followed me into the bedroom and we came out on the porch together. About five minutes later he asked me if I wanted a glass of beer. I said it was too near supper time. He replied: ‘Come, Bert, have a glass.’ I went in [to the room] and found a glass of beer on a stand. He poured out another glass and handed it to me and then drank the other himself. He then told me to rinse the glasses and put them on the table. I went to the pump and did so. We then went out on the porch, and about half an hour later sat down to supper.”
Most significantly, the defense wanted to establish that there was no reason for Bertha to murder George because, they maintained, she had agreed the afternoon of the death to go back to Sioux Falls if George provided a proper home for her and if Clint Ford gave her permission to depart the touring company. She said they sought out Ford, who agreed to her leaving.
The defense called Clarion drayman Albert Stone who testified that as he stood in the skating rink door, Albert Diggle — whom he recognized from the Opera House the night before — walked past. According to the Waterloo Courier, Stone heard Diggle say:
“Now, if can get her morphine I will go out of this world and out of trouble and I don’t care what becomes of her.”
A Dr. McDonald was called to the stand and told the court he traveled on the train into Clarion with George Diggle. The two men conversed and Diggle stated that if he could not get his wife to return to Sioux Falls he would kill both himself and her. When Diggle inquired what drug was most effective, Dr. McDonald told him “sulphate of morphia” was very potent.
☛ Verdict ☚At 8:00 a.m., Sunday, December 23, the jury filed in to announce their verdict.
The Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Free Press Weekly described the scene:
“Mrs. Diggle, who was entirely prostrated at night, sat with her head in her hands, and when the jury returned their verdict she uttered an exclamation and fell back in her brother’s arms. Her nerves were entirely unstrung, causing her muscles to jerk and shaking her entire body violently. A physician was called, and in a few moments she was sufficiently recovered to be assisted to her hotel.”
It was later revealed that three jurors voted to convict on the first ballot.
Prominent Clarion citizens called on Bertha afterwards to commend her, and telegrams of congratulations poured in from family and friends. Clint G. Ford, who provided emotional and financial support during the legal proceedings, invited her to tour once again with the theatrical company.
☛ Continued Suspicion ☚
Despite the verdict, many in the community continued to suspect Bertha and harbored ill will towards her, which was reflected in a rumor that circulated over a year later.
The Webster City Tribune wrote in October of 1890:
“It is reported through the press that Mrs. Diggle, who was tried about a year ago on the charge of murdering her husband by poisoning, and who starred it here just after being acquitted, with the Clint G. Ford dramatic company, killed Ford week before last by stabbing him.”
The story was unfounded; Clint G. Ford lived well into the 20th century as a New York City-based theatrical entrepreneur. Information about the life of Bertha Diggle after her acquittal could not be located.
The debate continued in Clarion for years. Some believed that George Diggle killed himself in despair because his wife chose the theater over family life.
Others maintained that Bertha killed him with morphine mixed in beer in order to stay on the stage and in the spotlight, rather than return to a mundane life in Sioux Falls.
Those who believed the latter account of events thought Bertha’s acting skills helped her present a false story, emote hysterically at the death of her husband, and create a spectacle in court as the verdict was announced.
Whatever the truth, it is impossible to know what truly happened and, as the History of Wright County concluded:
“Probably nothing this side of eternity will solve the question as to who killed George Diggle.”
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Acquitted Mrs. Diggle,” Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Free Press Weekly, December 27, 1888.
- ☛ “Current Topics,” Owensville (Indiana) Gleaner, November 3, 1888, p. 1.
- ☛ “Goings-On In Iowa,” Waterloo Courier, May 30, 1888, p. 4.
- ☛ “Held to Answer,” Sioux County Herald, July 5, 1888, p. 2:
- ☛ Henry C. Miner’s American Dramatic Directory for the Season of 1887-’88. Henry C. Miner. People’s Theatre, 1887, p. 290.
- ☛ “Indicted for Murder,” Monticello Express, November 1, 1888, p. 2.
- ☛ “An Interesting Case,” History of Wright County, Iowa. B.P. Birdsall, Editor. Indianapolis, Indiana: B.F. Bowen & Company, pp. 158-160.
- ☛ “Iowa News Items,” Oelwein Register, November 9, 1888, p. 2.
- ☛ “Iowa News Items,” Perry Chief, December 28, 1888, p. 6.
- ☛ Le Mars Sentinel, October 10, 1890.
- ☛ “Local News,” Ackley Enterprise, October 12, 1888, p. 5.
- ☛ Manitowoc (Wisconsin) Lake Shore Times, November 13, 1888, p. 2.
- ☛ “Mrs. Diggle Acquitted,” Chariton Herald, December 27, 1888, p. 5.
- ☛ “Mrs. Diggle Acquitted,” Reno (Nevada) Weekly Gazette And Stockman, December 27, 1888, p. 6.
- ☛ “The News In Brief,” Jackson Sentinel, January 10, 1889, p. 6.
- ☛ “Notes and News,” Spirit Lake Beacon, December 28, 1888, p.4.
- ☛ “Poisoned Mr. Diggle,” Lawrence (Kansas) Evening Tribune, October 22, 1888, p. 1.
- ☛ “This Side The Sea,” Hamilton (Ohio) Daily Democrat, October 22, 1888, p. 1.
- ☛ “Stage Life vs. Husband,” San Antonio (Texas) Daily Light, October 20, 1888, p. 1.
- ☛ Waterloo Courier, June 13, 1888, p. 1.
- ☛ “West and South,” Morning Sun Herald, October 25, 1888, p. 6.