Steve Shukis is a sixth-generation native of Chicago, Illinois and a lifelong student of Chicago history, politics, and crime. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago and has worked on over a dozen political campaigns— for fifteen years he also worked for the city conducting legal research and training city inspectors. His interest in genealogical research led him to look deeper into Herman Billik’s story after he discovered it by chance. Poisoned is Steve’s first book. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife, Keisha.
Sometimes it’s hard to come up with a really great story. I’m not one of those creative types who can conjure up fantastic characters and nail-biting situations. But sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. I never set out to solve a real life serial killer mystery. I never thought I would dig myself so deep into a hundred-year-old puzzle that I would spend years trying to unravel it. But I did. POISONED is the result of six years of investigation and research.
It was pure chance that lead me to the story of a mysterious Bohemian fortune teller named Herman Billik, and to the grim murders of six members of the Vrzal family, with which Billik was charged. One day at work, while going over some hundred-year-old property records for a vacant lot that sits beneath the elevated train tracks on Chicago’s West Side, I noticed something unusual. A couple named “Vrzal” had owned the property in the early 1900s. Both husband and wife died just a year apart, followed only months later by their son-in-law, who had taken over the property upon their deaths. A lengthy court battle ensued over the property and custody of the children. To this day I’m not sure why I found the whole thing so peculiar, but it was not a routine set of records.
As fate would have it, that evening I decided to do a little research on my family tree, something I had done off and on for many years. While going over an index of records of the Cook County Coroner, I thought about the Vrzal family. It was an unusual name, and had stuck in my head. I scrolled down the list, and, to my surprise, there was the father: “Vrzal, Martin.” But he wasn’t alone. There were five other “Vrzals” listed, all of whom I quickly realized must have been related, as the coroner’s inquests were all filed on the same date: February 21, 1907. It appeared that an entire family had perished at once. Was there some horrific accident? Maybe a fire? My curiosity was piqued.
I read the next column in the records: “Date of Death,” and was truly baffled. Martin Vrzal died in March 1905 … and Mary Vrzal died in July 1905 … Tillie Vrzal in December 1905 … and on it went. Each of them died separately, over the course of almost two years. My mind raced. What could have killed an entire family one by one? Maybe they suffered from some congenital disease, or something contagious passed from one to the other. Or … was there something (or someone) more sinister at work? I simply had to know more.
I found an index of Chicago Police homicide records. If any of the Vrzals were murdered, they would be listed there. After looking it over, my jaw dropped. There they were, all of them: Ella, Martin, Mary, Rosie, Rose, and Tillie Vrzal – victims of homicide. A “Herman Sizek (alias Herman Billik)” was named as a “Person Involved,” presumably their murderer. So how, and why, did this “Herman Billik” murder them all, one by one? Mass murders and serial killing are not unheard of, but I couldn’t recall anyone killing off an entire family over a period of time. A few days later I made a trip downtown to the main branch of the public library and began scrolling through old microfilm reels of the Chicago Daily News. I had no idea what I had just gotten myself into.
Herman Billik was a fortune-teller who befriended the Vrzal family. He performed spells and supplied them with potions and pills, as each of them slowly died agonizing deaths from arsenic poisoning. Billik was charged with the murders and sentenced to die. I was enthralled by the story. But a passing curiosity soon became a very real mystery. The more I learned, the more I wondered whether the wrong man was convicted. An interesting afternoon at the local library gradually grew into years of earnest research, trips to courthouses and archives across the state, and eventually a promise to set the record straight on one of the most fascinating series of murders in American history.
While researching this tale, filled with bizarre incidents, unimaginable twists and turns, and political intrigue, I uncovered several more suspicious deaths (in addition to the six members of the ill-fated Vrzal family), and convincing evidence that the real murderer(s) were never brought to justice. With as many as nine victims, and an equal number of potential suspects and motives, I was able to craft a real life murder mystery.
What should we believe? A family one by one mysteriously falls ill with general symptoms and dies. Later, we learn that it’s been going on a while. “Professor” Herman Billik is a con man, but is he a murderer? Rose Vrzal is married, but loves Herman even though she knows he’s a con man and he has already taken a fortune from her. Jerry Vrzal is a teenager who watched his parents and four sisters die agonizing deaths and narrowly escaped his own demise, but he changes his story again and again. Emma is the eldest of the Vrzal children. She cries in court, but is always fighting with her siblings and has a gangster boyfriend.
We learn of life insurance policies on children which didn’t even pay for the burials. We see a Catholic priest take up the cause of the con man and possible murderer, abandoning Prohibition to champion Billik’s cause. We hear about bottles of medicine, or maybe poison, which everyone talks about but no one can seem to produce. Billik’s mother in Cleveland may have money, or maybe she doesn’t. We hear of a brother-in-law doctor that maybe supplied poison or maybe supplied life-saving medicine. We witness Herman’s little daughter Edna, quite a dramatic actress and barely 10 years old, leading the fight to save her father from the gallows.
The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It helped decide an election, and was resolved only after an eventual showdown in the race for Governor of Illinois between two of the story’s central figures. I could never make up a story like that. Mark Twain said that truth was stranger than fiction because “fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities.” That’s why I love writing non-fiction.