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What would eventually become one of the most bizarre murder cases in Chicago's history began when 22-year-old Mary Vrzal first visited "The Great Billick, Card-Reader and Seer" in 1904. Within a matter of months, most of her family would be dead and he would eventually be standing trial for their murder.
There is little known about the early history of the man who called himself Herman Billick. He was born in what was then called Bohemia (later the Czech and Slovak republics) and his original name was Vajicek but he later changed it to Billick on emigrating to the United States (he wanted something easier for Americans to pronounce). An all-around confidence artist, fortune-teller, and "mystic", Billick developed a reputation by dispensing fortunes, "messages" from the Great Beyond, and assorted quack nostrums, including love potions. According to one account, Mary Vrzal visited Billick for a love potion that would rekindle a local butcher's affection for her sister, Emma.
Whatever the original reason for his coming into contact with the Vrzal family, he quickly discovered that the family had money and that was enough for "the Great Billick". While not as well-educated as Billick, the family patriarch, Martin Vrzal, had built up a prosperous milk business, a comfortable nest egg, and a nice home on West 19th Street in Chicago that he shared with his wife and seven children. It didn't take long for Herman Billick to ingratiate himself with Martin, his wife, Rosa, and the rest of their children.
He began by visiting Martin at his milk business one day and suddenly speaking in tongues. The sight of this well-spoken fellow-Czech proclaiming, "“You have an enemy. He is trying to destroy you” was enough to sway Martin to bringing "the Great Billick" home to meet the rest of his family. Since Martin was already engaged in a fierce business battle with a rival milk producer, having Herman cast a spell to help his business seemed to make good business sense. Though Mary Vrzal was already one of Billick's customers, it was Martin's wife, Rosa, who appeared to be his prime target. Despite being married himself, Herman Billick apparently had no problem seducing Rosa and making her part of his bizarre murder scheme.
Based on what would come out afterward during Billick's trial, he had reportedly convinced Rosa Vrzal to help him poison his own wife and mother, as well as most of her own family to collect on their insurance policies. After Billick's wife was dead, he would then be free to marry Rosa. Exactly how Herman Billick was able to gain such complete control over Rosa Vrzal is still a mystery but members of Rosa's family began dropping like flies shortly afterward. Martin Vrzal was the first to die on March 27, 1905. The money Martin's insurance policy and the proceeds from selling their house yielded a tidy $2000 but that was obviously not enough for Herman and Rosa. Just a few months later, Mary Vrzal died as well while a second daughter, Tilly, would die in December of that same year. The insurance payout for both daughters was only $1400. Two more daughters would die in the following year though their insurance payments would only pay out several hundred dollars apiece.
But things were definitely going wrong for Rosa Vrzal. Not only were the police beginning to close in on her over the suspicious deaths, but Herman Billick had pocketed all of the insurance money. To add insult to injury, Billick's wife and mother were still alive since he refused to poison them as he had originally promised Rosa. That meant that she was left destitute and without the marriage Billick had promised her.
By December, 1906 police issued warrants for the arrest of Herman Billick and Rosa Vrzal. All six bodies were exhumed and autopsies determined that they had all died of arsenic poisoning. Though they were able to arrest Billick, Rosa managed to escape them by committing suicide with arsenic before she could the police could catch up with her.
The trial of Herman Billick proved to be as bizarre as anyone could imagine. The oldest Vrzal daughter, Mrs. Emma Nieman, testified that Billick had a "baneful influence" over her and her mother. She told police that Billick had "drawn" the two of them to meet him in Cleveland, Ohio on one occasion. He had also cabled the Vrzal family requesting money numerous times. Demands for money often ran into hundreds of dollars at times and the Vrzal family were forced to borrow from their neighbours to raise the sum needed. Emma also reported that Billick had personally dosed her father and sister with what he described as medication. Since Emma's husband had been one of the victims, she came under suspicion as well though police later cleared her of all guilt.
Martin and Rosa's son, Jerry, would testify that he had heard both Billick and Rosa scheming to murder his father in the days before his death. He said that Billick seemed quite open about his murder scheme. He also added that Billick said to him that, "...in a few days my father would be dead, and others also. If I was all right, they would take me with them, he said. Otherwise he would kill me." As for Rosa's suicide, Jerry claimed that Billick had "hypnotized" her to kill herself as a way of protecting him from prosecution.
Not that it actually worked, mind you. With Jerry Vrzal's testimony. Herman Billick had no choice but to admit swindling the Vrzal family out of their savings but flatly denied having anything to do with the deaths. Despite there being no evidence that he had ever purchased arsenic, Billick was sentenced to death for the murder of Mary Vrzal (the other charges were set aside). While his lawyer managed to win a stay of execution by appealing the sentence, he knew far more than that would be needed to save Herman's life.
With the stay of execution in place, Billick's lawyer then went to work to change public opinion on Billick's guilt. Along with orchestrating news stories suggesting that Billick should be retried, Jerry Vrzal suddenly repudiated his own testimony. As the star witness against Herman Billick, this damaged the case severely. Adding to that, Billick not only denied any part in the poisonings but also to having any "sinful relationships" with Rosa Vrzal.
There was also Chicago's large immigrant community to deal with. A priest, Father P.J. O'Callaghan, and a nun, Sister Rose of the Order of the Sacred Heart, started a petition on Billick's behalf and gathered more than twenty-thousand signatures pleading for clemency in the case. Even Billick's fellow prisoners got involved with over four hundred convicts in the Cork County Jailfalling to their knees to "beg God to spare their popular fellow prisoner." They then presented floral bouquets to the warden, Father O'Callaghan, and Sister Rose.
On June 12, 1908, the day of Billick's scheduled execution date, the campaign that had been organized on Billick's behalf by Father O'Callaghan and Sister Rose had caused thousands of people to gather outside the jail where Billick was being held. Twenty minutes before the execution, presiding judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis announced that he had found a flaw in the prosecutor's case. While he was convinced Billick was guilty, he argued that there was ample grounds for an appeal. "If I had the power to deny the appeal, I would deny it," he stated. "However, it is not a question of merit, it is a question of right - wether I have the right to stand between this man an a reconsideration of his plea. I cannot find that I have any authority to do that."
Hearing of Judge Landis' decision, the crowd outside the jail went hysterical. Prisoners inside the jail staged their own demonstration and guards needed a half-hour to quiet them down. Though Billick was spared the gallows, he was hardly a free man. In January 1909, the Governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. After serving as a model inmate, Herman Billick was formally pardoned in January, 1917 and his story appears to end there. I was unable to find any records relating to his death date or place of burial.
Martin and Rosa Vrzal are both along with their children in Chicago's Bohemian National Cemetery. Whatever secrets they might have had relating to one of the most bizarre murder-for-insurance schemes in Chicago's history died with them.
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