The Crazy Real Story Of Wisconsin's Massage Parlor (And Cyanide) Murders
We have a murder mystery for you today. No, not one of those murders where something completely inexplicable happens, as fun as those are. Instead, it's a classic whodunit, where we have several successive explanations, each more convoluted than the last, and each somehow also more plausible. So fetch your corkboard and several different colored rolls of yarn, because this is going to get complicated and weird.
The Sex Trade Mafia Planted A Corpse In Barbara Hoffman's Bathroom
Madison, Wisconsin, had a fine selection of massage parlors back in the '70s. They had names like "This Is Heaven," "The Geisha House," and "Genie's Magic Touch," hinting strongly that they specialized in two types of massage: dick massages, and massages of the balls. Jan's Health Studio had a more clinical name, and it was part of a shopping mall, but it was the same sort of place as the others. A shipping clerk named Gerald Davies visited Jan's again and again, and he fell in love with one of the masseuses, Barbara Hoffman.
Barbara Hoffman, before learning to work with her hands, had been a student at UW-Madison, the same campus where Davies worked. She'd been a biochemistry major with a 3.9 GPA and earlier a National Honor Society scholar who spoke three languages. She now was hoping to leave the skin trade, which attracted some unsavory characters, like Wisconsin cocaine kingpin Sam Cerro. Now, does some of this sound unlikely, perhaps like a persona a sex worker might invent just for the sake of garnering a client's sympathy? Well, it's good to be skeptical, but the story up to this point, including the details on Hoffman, is totally true.
Hoffman did end up leaving the massage place (an insurance firm hired her), and she and Davies, just like so many johns' dreams, kept a relationship going once she went legit. Then on December 23, 1977, while Davies was staying over, Barbara revealed something. The previous day, she'd come home and found a body in her bathroom. She had no idea who he was. Her best guess was that some of the organized criminals back at Jan's were angry at her for leaving, so they'd planted the corpse to frame her for murder.
Panicking, she'd dragged the nearly nude body outside and hid it in a snowbank, which was hardly a permanent solution. She needed Davies' help. "What you need is to call the police," said Davies, but Hoffman said she couldn't do that—there was no way they'd believe her story. So the pair together retrieved the body from the snow and lugged it into Davies' car. Their ideas on how to dispose of a body didn't progress beyond "stick it in a snow bank," but they did hunt down the absolute biggest snow bank they could think of: the one at the entrance of Blackhawk Ski Club, 20 minutes away. Then they both agreed to keep that night's adventure secret, and they parted, each planning to spend Christmas with their own family.
Wait, No. Actually, She Killed The Guy.
Davies' adherence to their pact of secrecy lasted roughly 30 hours. Then on Christmas Day, he went to the police and told them everything. The story sounded less than credible to them, but they did escort him to Blackhawk to check the supposed burial site, where a dig revealed a dead man dressed in just his underpants and tied up in rope. So, Davies was telling the truth about burying a body. As for the rest, it was entirely possible that he'd killed the man himself then had made up an absurd story about the corpse appearing at a girlfriend's.
The police got a warrant and examined Hoffman's apartment. No evidence of a corpse stinking up the place immediately presented itself. They saw signs of bleach having cleaned the bathroom floor, but homeowners do use bleach on fluids other than blood. Weeks passed before a CSI crew checked out the snow bank behind a dumpster that Davies said had held the body for a while. And yes, blood and hair remained preserved there, so Davies had been telling the truth about that part anyway.
Meanwhile, they looked into just who this dead underpants man was. His name was Harry Berge. He was 52 (Hoffman was 25; Davies 31) and worked at a tire company in Stoughton. Also, he had a $30,000 life insurance policy, with the beneficiary being one Linda Millar. Who Linda Millar was, the police didn't know. Berge appeared to have been single and had lived with his mother till she'd died just a few years earlier. Then they mentioned the name to Davies, who said, "Oh, that's Barbara. Barbara is Linda Millar."
Since quitting the massage parlor, she'd tried cutting ties with her previous life, so when she wasn't calling herself Barbara Hoffman, she used a new name, Linda Millar. As Berge's heir, Hoffman had a motive for killing Berge, and she'd been lying to everyone so far about not knowing who he was. Prosecutors had enough to go forward with a case against her. Their chief witness would be Davies, and since his girlfriend had been lying to him while apparently carrying on seriously with another guy, he had every reason to testify against her. Looked like it would be an easy case to win.
Wait, No. Davies Killed Him.
Then Davies sent police a letter. "Barb is innocent and I wrecked her life," he wrote. "All those stories I told about Barb are false." He sent the same letter to Hoffman's lawyer, Donald Eisenberg, and to the local paper, with handwriting experts later authenticating them all. He didn't mention in the letter exactly what the true story was, if what he'd been saying up to now was false. And before anyone could ask him, the man was dead, his body found in his bathtub a little after Easter. He'd perhaps overdosed and killed himself. The cause of death was as yet unclear.
So, if Barb was innocent like Davies' dying confession stated, only one suspect remained for who killed Berge: Gerald Davies himself, the guy the police originally considered. And when they thought about it, Davies actually made more sense as the killer than she did. Say Hoffman did want to kill Berge for the insurance money. Offing him while he was in his underwear, then hiding the body so no one could find it, would be a very poor way of managing that.
And Berge died from trauma to the head, according to the medical examiner. Though a woman could be responsible for that, it sounded more like a man's handiwork to the cops. What if Davies keyed into her home, caught the secret lovers together, and immediately clubbed Berge to death?
One thing didn't make sense, though. The body had spent time under the snow near Barbara's dumpster—the blood there confirmed this. Supposedly, this was as far as Barbara could drag it before she later turned to Davies for help. But if Davies killed Berge and also took the body to Blackhawk, there was no reason to ever stash his corpse there.
Suddenly, a new possibility appeared. What if Davies keyed into Hoffman's place and found Berge there alone? Davies still killed him, but now he left the body for Barbara to find. That meant Barbara really did end up dragging the body to the dumpster snow, and really did wait a day before confiding in Davies. She lied about not knowing Berge, but she told the truth about suspecting old crime contacts killed the man. Even as Davies helped her move the body to its final spot, she had no idea her boyfriend was the real killer. And though she'd said she feared being framed for murder by the massage criminals, she was actually about to be framed by Davies.
Hoffman's day in court came, with the prosecution now short one witness. The district attorney announced that they were dropping the charges against Hoffman, and defense lawyer Eisenberg triumphantly accepted this move. Then, right as Barbara Hoffman walked out of the courtroom, police approached her and arrested her again. The charge now was double-murder, for killing Berge and Davies.
Wait, No. She Really Killed Them Both.
Not long after they found Davies' body, police realized that he too had taken out a life insurance policy, and the beneficiary here once again was Barbara Hoffman. Only, this policy was for $750,000, not just $30,000. This was a good reason to consider the man's death a possible murder (along with, you know, him being the star witness in an upcoming murder trial). So they ran every test they had on him, far more tests than they usually bothered with, till they eventually discovered he'd died by cyanide poison. With this info in mind, they redid the autopsy on Berge and found that he'd died by cyanide too, not head trauma like they'd thought. In fact, he'd had some 40 times the lethal dosage of cyanide swimming in his system.
Meanwhile, remember those massage parlor criminals, like the cocaine peddler Sam Cerro we mentioned earlier? Police were also looking into them. This meant looking into an associate of Cerro's as well, one William Grover Garrott, manager of Jan's Health Studio. Pressed, Garrott said that back when she'd worked at his rub and tug, Hoffman had mentioned a plan to marry a guy, put her name on a massive $750,000 life insurance policy, then take him on a Mexican honeymoon ... and poison him. "Mexican honeymoon" appears to have been literal rather than some kind of advanced sex move, and her plan next involved cremating the victim so only his ashes got back to America, leaving the police nothing to analyze.
Garrott was willing to testify against Hoffman. Incidentally, Garrott and Cerro had also previously engaged the services of Barbara's lawyer, Donald Eisenberg. Perhaps Eisenberg would have to drop out of this case, else he'd risk being disbarred over the conflict of interest? "Fuck the bar," said Eisenberg, on hearing this request. As it happened, he really would end up being disbarred over sticking by his client. (He was reinstated in 2000.)
Barbara Hoffman's trial was the first one in history to be fully televised. Eisenberg had hoped for two trials, convinced he could defend against both murder accusations separately, but he wasn't able to defend against them both together. Garrott testified, Hoffman's biochemistry professors spoke of her knowledge of cyanide, and police produced proof that she'd bought cyanide, enough to kill both men. The jury ended up acquitting her on the Davies charge but found her guilty of murdering Berge. The sentence: life in prison. Last time the media checked in on her a couple years back, she was still there.
For 40 years, she hasn't given an interview or given any statement other than one: "I did not commit the crime of which I have been accused and for which I have been convicted. And that's all I have to say."
Or Wait. What If This Happened Instead?
So, that was the final verdict. Barbara Hoffman murdered Harry Berge. But even though the detectives marked this one off as solved, their earlier objections remained.
Like we mentioned before, killing Berge and hiding the body wouldn't lead to the easy life insurance payout Hoffman sought. And now that we know she wanted to poison a victim during a honeymoon then cremate him, Berge's death lines up even more poorly with the murder she'd planned. Assuming she did plan a murder, that is. It's also possible Garrott just told police whatever they wanted to hear so he could get Sam Cerro his plea deal. If that's true, then in the end, the sex trade mafia really did frame her, just like she earlier said.
But let's say Garrott told the truth. Davies was the one with the $750,000 policy Hoffman had her eye on. Berge's was less than 5 percent the size of that. If she set out to kill either of them, it should have been Davies. And if she planned to kill Davies, she'd be nuts to kill Berge too, because she'd never bag two insurance payouts without attracting suspicion. Maybe she didn't kill Berge, and Davies killed him in a crime of passion after all? Unlikely—Berge died by cyanide, Barbara's weapon.
Speaking of which, why was there so much cyanide in Berge's system? There was far more than you'd need to kill a man, and more than was eventually administered to Davies. No one who'd studied poisons would use that much. There'd be no reason to, it would raise the chance of a coroner detecting the poison if he got to examine the body, and it would raise the chance of the victim noticing the cyanide's bitter almond smell and rejecting whatever you're feeding him.
Here's a theory of what really happened. Insurance policy in her name, Barbara was ready to kill Davies in December 1977. She bought the cyanide she needed. Maybe she and he would go to Mexico one weekend and she'd slip it to him there. As for Berge, she never wanted to kill him. He had hardly any money—their relationship was genuine, and she'd stick with him after Davies' death netted her almost a million.
But there was to be no happy ending for Harry Berge. On December 22, he attended his office Christmas party at Uniroyal tires, then he came over to Hoffman's. He brewed some instant coffee, as he often did. Then he poured in several spoonfuls of what he assumed was sugar from a tin in the cabinet. It was not sugar. It was the crystalized potassium cyanide Barbara had purchased. After sipping his coffee, Berge made it only a few steps before he collapsed, dead.
Barbara really did panic and really did drag Berge to the dumpster snow bank. The next day, she told Davies about the body, and he agreed to move it, not realizing he was the one she'd wanted to die. Then he betrayed her to the police. Three months later, free on a $15,000 bond her parents paid, Barbara visited Davies, carrying the remaining poison, which investigators searching her apartment had missed. She fed him something while he was in the bath, using the correct cyanide dosage. That giant life insurance policy had lapsed earlier that month, so maybe she hoped detectives wouldn't notice it.
She silenced him, not knowing—or not believing—that Davies, realizing he still loved her, had recanted and no longer planned to testify. She killed him to save herself from getting convicted for Berge's murder. But instead of preventing her conviction, this ensured it. Even though Berge wasn't the man she killed. "I did not commit the crime of which I have been accused and for which I have been convicted," said Barbara Hoffman later, after all.
Top image: John Fornander/Unsplash