Today she sits at Taycheedah Institute of Corrrections for Women in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. In the nearly 29 years she has served of her life sentence, she has not spoken publically of the case. She will not grant interviews or even seek parole, though she has been eligible since 1991. But although I can only speculate, I'll try to speak for her today, and for her two victims. How could three lives be intertwined as they were? Why did they choose the paths they followed?
There will be two posts on this book. Today I'll focus on Barbara Hoffman and the two men she was accused of killing - Harold Berge and Gerald Davies. Next will be on the man who prosecuted the case - Jim Doyle, and one decision he made that culminated in the successful prosecution.
Many adjectives have been used over the years to describe Barbara Hoffman - cool, beautiful, mysterious. In many ways, she is a classic femme fatale. Highly intelligent, she probably would had made a brilliant scientist or doctor had she graduated from the University of Wisconsin. But she dropped out with a semester to go before graduation, choosing instead to use her body instead of her brain. What did she see back then?
She was born and raised in Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb northwest of Chicago. She graduated with honors from Maine South High School, with a full scholarship to Butler University. Though she continued to make the grades and joined a sorority, the school didn't soothe her restless soul. She then transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (now the University of Illinois at Chicago), before finally settling at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There she seemed to find her groove.
She studied biochemistry, earning As in the core subjects. In 1974, she did a summer research project at the University of Utah. At that time the future looked bright - graduate school, medical school, or a research position at a private company. Then in November, she dropped out with a semester to go before graduation. She enrolled again in the spring of 1975, only to drop out again in april with a month to go before graduation. A couple more starts resulted in withdrawal. By 1977, the university would only accept her on a trial basis.
What happened? Probably after her return from Utah, she found work at a massage parlor. She allegedly told her mother later that she signed on for a receptionist job, but found that the masseuses were making more money for seemingly easy work, and so she switched. She was living with a man she had met in Utah at the time, but she was spending more time at the massage parlor and doing a lot of drugs. When the man apparently found out that she was meeting other men for sex, he left. The life she was leading outside school was beginning to consume her, and after many attempts she ultimately abandoned her studies, probably convinced she would never succeed in a science career.
As she excelled in her studies, she excelled in her work as a masseuse. Where other masseuses refused to satisfy some customers' kinky tastes, Barbara was willing to indulge them. In time that made her more requested, and made her more money.
A masseuse who worked with Barbara shed some light into the work and the conditions with which masseuses were faced. Drugs made a shift go quickly or alleviated any sense of humiliation in working with a customer. What had made the masseuse quit was seeing a customer while out grocery shopping, and the customer wouldn't acknowledge her in any way. She quit the parlor and got a regular job, but for many years was haunted by her emotions. She couldn't form lasting relationships with men, always second-guessing their motives. She couldn't form friendships with her women co-workers, knowing they had nothing in common nad what they would think if she told them of her past life. She eventually put her past behind her, earned a college degree, married and became a mother. She didn't testify at Barbara's trial.
In 1975, Barbara met the man who became her link to infamy - Harold Berge. He was born in 1925 on a farm outside of Edgerton, Wisconsin. He lived on the farm with his parents until they were forced to sell the farm in 1966 and moved to Stoughton, where he took a job at UniRoyal to support his retired parents. Both parents died within four years, and he remained in the little house alone. He had few friends and a sister, who lived with her husband in the area and who had Harold over every year for Christmas dinner.
Harold never dated. He was a creature of habit who had simple tastes. He worked the second shift, wore the same gray shirts and matching pants with a cap always on his head. He bowled once a week, took in an occasional movie in Madison, and built model railroad yards in the cellar and porch of his house. His sister would visit once a week to do the housework and ironing, and he grew wax beans and tomatoes in the summer. On Sundays he would drive into the country, cruise by the old farm and visit friends on their farm in Cambridge, east of Madison.
But as he grew older, the loneliness grew. His parents were gone, his sister lived with her family, his friends had their own families. He craved companionship - someone who would fulfill whatever desires he kept from his friends. A trip to Madison probably yielded the secret side of town - the massage parlors, the burlesque joints. And one winter day in 1975, he decided to visit a Jan's Health Spa, located west of the UW campus. He chose a girl and they disappeared into a room...
But he wanted something that wasn't in the girl's repertoire. Frightened, she disappeared and went up front to tell the others what happened. Another girl, reading a book, put it down and went in to help. She found a man, nude and pale in the blue light of the room, eyes pleading for a simple favor. He craved punishment, and threw an electrical cord across the room. The girl regarded him coolly, picked up the cord, slowly walked by him and, without warning, began to whip him. The cord cut across his shoulders, spine, chest. After about a dozen, he begged her to stop. She added two more, and ceased. The man wept, and she dipped a towel in cool water to dab at his wounds. He then dressed and introduced himself to her, asking if he could request her next time. She said he could, he left two twenties on a table, and disappeared.
His acquaintances would later say that he would never visit a place like Jan's. But Harold Berge was a creature of habit. Police would find a shoebox containing 69 credit card receipts from various massage parlors in Madison from 1974 to 1977. He visited on Sundays and holidays. He was indeed a massage parlor connoisseur.
He would return to Jan's and request the girl time and time again. The girl was Barbara Hoffman.
Barbara, by all appearences, was enjoying her work at Jan's, but she wanted more. She was quiet and introverted, but when she was high on her favorite combination of Quaaludes and wine, she became animated. She let slip that she wanted to open a massage parlor of her own, and she got some of her prominent clients to cosign loans for various amounts. Then she would default on the payments and the cosigners would be left holding the bag. Fearing adverse publicity, they quietly repaid the loans. Then a business partner who owned Jan's found out the plan and she was forced to retreat.
But with Harold Berge in the picture, she wanted more. She wanted security.
They began dating outside the parlor. To his friends, Harold seemed a little happier, a little more lighthearted. He told a couple of friends one day that he "may have a girlfriend". The friends didn't pry, and Harold never gave more details. Soon, they became engaged and Harold, despite pleas for caution from his attorney, left the house and an insurance policy to Barbara.
Together, the assets were worth $69,400 (estimate). One night at a party, Barbara let slip another secret - her plans to marry a man and poison him for his money.
A man at the party - the same person who put the kibosh on her plans to open a massage parlor - wanted more details about her plan. She repeated her plan. A fatal mistake, as the man would later testify against her in an agreement with prosecutors.
She quit Jan's, but not before meeting another man and dating him. This man would be Gerald Davies.
Jerry was closer to Barbara in age. He worked at the University of Wisconsin in the audio/visual department and had an apartment in Madison. Already Barbara realized that Harold Berge wouldn't be able to provide the security she wanted - she wanted more.
In life, Jerry was similar to Harold - lonely, with few friends. Jerry grew up in Spring Green, a town about 45 west of Madison. He was the youngest of several siblings. His father deserted the family and his mother raised her children the best she could, but was left broke. All siblings departed the nest as soon as they could and lived far away, except for Jerry, who saw his mother when he could. But his mother was getting older and she expected Jerry to take care of her.
Jerry never had a girlfriend. In time, he too gravitated toward the massage parlors for companionship and met Barbara Hoffman there. He didn't have kinky tastes but Barbara provided him the warmth and validity his mother did not.
They became engaged at the same time she was engaged to Harold Berge. The plan was to marry and enjoy a honeymoon in Mexico. But the wedding, scheduled for the spring of 1977, was put off, probably at the time she revealed her "plan" at the party. She also tried to have Jerry insured for $3 million. But no insurer would go that high, given Jerry's income. They eventually got a policy for $750,000, and even this was under dubious circumstances. The insurance agent who procured the policy fled to his native Mexico to escape investigation.
With the insurance policy in place, Barbara saw less of Harold Berge. Now that she had more coming, Harold was no longer needed.
Then two days before Christmas 1977, Harold Berge left a work party in Stoughton. On Christmas morning, in bitter cold temperatures, Jerry Davies walked into the Madison police station and told the desk sergeant that he helped bury a body. The body was that of Harold Berge.
Then, the following Easter, Jerry Davies was found in a bathtub. Both men had ingested cyanide.
The police theory was that Barbara Hoffman poisoned Jerry by feeding him chili laced with cyanide. It was unclear how Harold Berge got the cyanide, but some people theorize that when he visited Barbara he drank coffee with sugar. Cyanide in crystalline form resembles sugar, and when Harold went to stir sugar into his coffee, he spooned cyanide instead. He may have poisoned himself, but then again, Barbara may have switched the cyanide with the sugar.
The trial and outcome will be discussed in the next post. It's unknown where exactly Harold Berge and Jerry Davies are buried, but we can theorize that they are buried close to their hometowns of Edgerton and Spring Green respectively.
It is sad how all three lives ended. It's ironic that in his autopsy, cancer was discovered in Harold Berge's right kidney. A check into his medical records showed no diagnosis or treatment. If left untreated, he would had died within the year. Barbara Hoffman did not have to kill him - he was a doomed man.
Jerry Davies, either on his own or perhaps prodded by Barbara Hoffman, left a series of notes implicating himself in Harold Berge's death. He died believing he was trying to save Barbara from life in prison.
Both men probably went to their deaths believing Barbara Hoffman would be secure. They were right.
Barbara Hoffman now has the security she wanted - a lifetime as a guest of the state of Wisconsin. She's been in Taycheedah since July of 1980. She hasn't spoken to anyone of her actions. She eventually gave up her appeals. She won't seek parole - probably because she would have to admit killing Harold Berge.
Why won't she speak? Maybe because she learned that talking did get her into trouble. Whether she did kill Harold Berge (of which she was convicted) and Jerry Davies (of which she was acquitted) or not, what did the trick of convicting her was statements made to a man who testified against her, saying she planned to marry a man and kill him for the insurance money. She made a mistake of trusting her enemies.
And if she did get out, where would she go? She'll be 57 this year. Her family and friends long moved on. She wouldn't survive long. That's why the recidivism rate is so high - ex-convicts don't learn survival skills outside while they're in prison, and hardly anyone hires anyone with a prison record, especially these days. Barbara Hoffman is a highly intelligent woman. She knows it may suck being in prison, but it's better than the outside.
Maybe it's because of these lessons learned that she won't seek camaraderie of her fellow inmates. Even before the murders she was introverted. If she didn't commit the crimes and somehow made it outside the massage parlors and into a successful career, she would be a solitary and perhaps lonely woman. Maybe she would had died by her own hand.
Or, had she gotten away with her plans, who knows how many lonely men would have died by her hand? How long would it have been before she was discovered?
Maybe as a girl she dreamed of a lonely and solitary life. Restless, she drifted from university to university before settling in Madison and the life she would had lead. She did crave love, from the man who would ultimately betray her, but it was unrequited.
True, she is intelligent. But intelligence does not insulate a person from making mistakes and destructive choices. It's a lesson we all should learn here, if nothing else.
So Barbara Hoffman is in Taycheedah, and it's Taycheedah where she belongs. I won't pity her because she made the choice to seek security, and it's what she got.
It's hard to seek friends and put our trust in people we don't know very well. But it's a skill we all have to learn if we desire independence. A successful life, as I said at my brother's memorial over two years ago, doesn't depend on longevity or material gain, but by the company we keep.
It's a lesson that is frozen by the legacies of Harold Berge, Jerry Davies and Barbara Hoffman.