The trouble in the Berrie marriage was compounded by the constant presence of the pastor’s secretary, Ida Bess Bright, an attractive 17-year-old high school student who was a Sunday school teacher when the Berries came to Cumberland Presbyterian.
“Ida Bess started working for me about November, 1930,” Berrie explained. “She was in our home a great deal and Mrs. Berrie was very fond of her. She realized our relationship was that of pastor and secretary and was not critical until my trouble at the church was driving her crazy.
“Then she made two or three remarks to me to the effect that I was going to keep on having Ida Bess working there until somebody would start a scandal, like they did at Searcy, Ark. I replied to Mrs. Berrie that all the other members of the church had the same privilege of coming to the manse as Ida Bess. Then I dismissed the matter from my mind.”
Fannie persisted, but he refused to turn the girl away, telling his wife that if she wanted Ida Bess to stop coming to their house, she would have to tell the girl herself.
So she did. According to her daughter-in-law, Fannie Berrie called Ida Bess down to the manse and told her that she shouldn’t act so friendly with the pastor.
“You know what the neighbors will say,” she told the girl and began to go upstairs, turning her back on the girl and effectively putting an end to the meeting by snapping, “and I am tired of it.”
Just a few days after this incident, on March 20, 1932, while Berrie was under formal charges from his church and under investigation by the Cumberland Presbytery, his wife had a fatal attack.
She had gone to Sunday school that morning, but started suffering a headache. She was due to go to a temperance meeting that afternoon at the First Christian Church with some lady friends, so she took an aspirin capsule from her purse before she left.
Before the lecture was over, she went into convulsions. An ambulance took Mrs. Berrie back to the manse in great pain.
“She turned blue,” said her son, Iliff. “She had a spell before we got her off the ambulance cots. We took the rings from her hands, rubbed her and we thought for a moment she had gone.”
“You could have heard her screaming a block away,” said another witness. “She screamed all night in her agony and all the next forenoon, going into one convulsion after another, and in her lucid moments crying aloud to God to relieve her, crying ‘Have I been poisoned?’”
At times, she seemed to rave. “What on earth is the matter with me? Am I going mad?”
She was treated by three different physicians who gave her various hypodermics and other prescriptions. The first doctor appeared to be drunk, so when she did not get better after his injection, they called for another physician, who recommended that she be sent to the hospital. No one–not even the patient–wanted that, and declined his advice. The doctor excused himself from the case.
Dr. W.S. Osgood, who made the first of five trips to the Berrie home late Sunday evening, gave her two different medicines, including an herbal remedy called passi-cola (primarily an extract of passion flower that contained, among other things, the herb ignatia which has trace amounts of strychnine). Dr. Osgood said she should dose on passi-kola every two hours.
Fannie was apprehensive as she lay in her bed and would be thrown into convulsions by the least noise or least touch, as when they tried to undress her. The creak of a stair, the whistling of a train, the touch of her grandchild also set her off. She was conscious during and between her convulsions, but her pupils were dilated.
Her dear friend Mrs. Hensley, who attended the lecture with Fannie and stayed by her side to the end, said that just before she died, Fannie said to her husband, “Sweetheart, I’m going. Be true to me and keep good care of the children.”
While friends and family flocked to her bedside, the Rev. Berrie’s behavior raised a few eyebrows–especially his familiar rapport with his secretary, who was present throughout the 30-hour vigil. At one point, Berrie gave Ida Bess some forms to fill out regarding his wife’s life insurance policy, an instruction that many of Fannie’s relatives felt was in poor taste.
The following evening, after a great number of serious convulsions, Fannie Berrie, 51, died. Dr. Osgood signed the death certificate, citing the cause as nephritis and endocarditis, failure of the kidneys and heart.
The South siblings, Fannie’s sister and two brothers–all of whom came to Muskogee from various parts of Oklahoma and Arizona during and after her sudden turn for the worse – became suspicious of Rev. Berrie. Berrie didn’t help his case by purchasing a new car with the $1,000 life insurance payout he collected and taking Ida Bess Bright for rides rather than buying a tombstone for his wife.
A month after Fannie’s death, Berrie and the Cumberland Presbyterian parted ways; it’s not clear whether he quit or was fired. When he left the church, half the congregation went with him to form the Bethel Tabernacle. They helped him construct a shoddy frame building, to which he contributed $103 of his own money.
“It is a significant thing,” said one member of the Cumberland church, “that every widow in our church, eight of them, followed Berrie into his new church. The women always did like his preaching and singing. He was a fine looker.”
Did the hymnist poison his wife to win the heart of the lovely secretary? Find out what happened in A Two-Dollar Terror #6, “Hymns of a Raving Heart: The True Crime of S. Althea Berry,” now available at Smashwords.com or your favorite book etailer…