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Herman Zajicek


Sentenced to death in 1907 for the arsenic murder of a young Chicago woman — and suspected of the similar arsenic murders of her father and three of her sisters — Herman Zajicek (also known as Herman Billik) received a pardon based on innocence in 1917 after the primary witness recanted his testimony and new evidence pointed to a different killer.
 
47-year-old Martin Vrzal died on March 26, 1905. His death was soon followed by those of four of his daughters—Mary, age 20, on July 27, 1905; Tillie, age 18, on December 27, 1905; Rosie, age 12, on August 29, 1906; and Ella, age 10, on November 30, 1906. All of the deaths occurred in a flat building at 337 West 19th Street in Chicago, Illinois, where the Vrzals lived and operated a successful milk business. All the deceased had exhibited similar symptoms, including upset stomach, skin discoloration, extreme thirst, paralyzed limbs, and raw tongue and throat, indicating that they had been poisoned.
 
Police paid little, if any, attention to the deaths until December 3, 1906, when the Chicago American published an article suggesting foul play and casting suspicion on Zajicek, a 39-year-old Bohemian fortuneteller. The Vrzals had befriended Zajicek when he moved into their neighborhood in 1904, just as the family’s milk business had begun to lose customers to new competitors. Zajicek persuaded the Vrzals that he possessed magical powers with which—for a fee—he could charm lost customers into returning and lure others away from the competition. Zajicek’s services included ceremoniously dissolving white powder in a watery substance and sprinkling it around the premises.
 
It was rumored that Zajicek also had become “unduly intimate” with Mrs. Rose Vrzal, the family matriarch. She had shown no symptoms of poisoning and was the beneficiary of the victims’ life insurance, totaling nearly $3,000. As a result, she was immediately suspected of conspiring with Zajicek to kill her husband and daughters. There was, however, another immediate suspect—a surviving child, 15-year-old Jersolabot (Jerry) Vrzal. He, like his mother, had shown no symptoms of poisoning. His 5-year-old sister, Bertha, had also been unaffected, as had his married sister, Emma Vrzal Niemann.
 
Shortly after the Chicago American article hit the streets, police picked up the alleged lovers for questioning but had no evidence to present.
 
After questioning Zajicek and Rose, investigators turned to Jerry, telling him—falsely—that Zajicek had accused him of the murders. The youth responded in kind, claiming that he had overheard Zajicek and his mother plotting the murders to collect the victims’ life insurance. Rose was the beneficiary of a $1,100 policy on her husband, and policies totaling $1,675 on her deceased daughters. 
 
On December 4, 1906, police arrested Zajicek and probably would have arrested Rose but she had become violently ill and was taken to a hospital. Her stomach was pumped, but the next day she died. Her death, attributed to arsenic, was ruled a suicide.
 
The coroner exhumed the bodies of Martin, Mary, Rosie, Tillie and Ella to determine their causes of death. The coroner determined that they had died as the result of arsenic poisoning.
 
Although Zajicek was tried only for the murder of Mary Vrzal, he was suspected of having poisoned the other members of the family as well. Taking the stand at his trial, he admitted that he was a fake hypnotist, and that his mystical performances were for the purpose of securing money from the Vrzals. He denied involvement in the murders, pointing the finger at Emma Vrzal Niemann, the married daughter of Martin and Rose, who he believed had killed her family in order to gain control of their milk business. Nonetheless, largely on the basis of Jerry’s testimony, Zajicek was convicted on July 18, 1907 and sentenced to death by hanging.
 
In November of 1907, Emma Vrzal Nieman’s husband, William Niemann, died mysteriously and an inquest was ordered to determine his cause of death. The inquest report stated that he had died of alcohol poisoning.
 
Reverend Father P.J. O’Callaghan became an outspoken supporter of Zajicek, advocating for his release on the basis of innocence. Zajicek received several successive reprieves from execution before Jerry Vrzal admitted, in February 1908, that, under pressure from the authorities, he had given false testimony when he accused Zajicek. In 1908, Jerry Vrzal revealed to Governor Charles S. Deneen and the State Board of Pardons that the police had convinced him to lie about Zajicek’s involvement in the deaths of his father and sisters.
 
On the day of Zajicek’s scheduled execution, June 12, 1908, Judge Kenesaw M. Landis granted him a reprieve just ten minutes before the execution was set to occur. In August 1908, the body of William Niemann’s father, Henry Niemann, who had died three years earlier, was exhumed and examined at the urging of Father O’Callaghan. Emma Vzral Niemann had lived in Henry Niemann’s home at the time of his death. The examiner confirmed the presence of arsenic in Henry Niemann’s body. Notwithstanding this new development, Zajicek’s execution was rescheduled for December 11, 1908, but Lieutenant Governor Sherman granted another reprieve.
 
On January 22, 1909, Governor Deneen commuted Zajicek’s sentence to life in prison based on the significance Jerry Vrzal’s false testimony had played in the conviction and sentencing.
 
On January 4, 1917, Governor Edward F. Dunne granted Zajicek a full pardon, stating that he was convinced of Zajicek’s innocence. Though only 50 years old, Zajicek’s health had deteriorated quickly in prison and he died four months after his release, on May 24, 1917, in Cook County Hospital.
 
– Researched by Sarah Kull and Dolores Kennedy
State:IL
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1905
Convicted:1907
Exonerated:1917
Sentence:Death
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:39
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct