Murder and mayhem

The death of Bertha Neason

Bertha with the killer and his accomplices.

Bertha Michelsohn Neason spent the night of her murder in April 1920 at the Aubudon Tea Room in New Orleans. She was drunk and in the company of a college student with a troubled past.

A recent book on New Orleans between 1900 and 1920 speculated on the location of Turtle Back (or Turtleback) Road.

She would meet her death on Turtle Back Road near the Orleans Canal. Dubbed the million dollar queen, she was wearing six rings worth thousands of dollars at the time of her murder. Her love of expensive jewels led to her death – and one has to wonder if the jewels in question were actually real.

Teen-aged friends Felix Birbiglia and Charles Zalenka went to the gallows for shooting Neason to death in a plot to steal her jewels.

But, first, there was a shared pop bottle of whiskey and a drive through the West End and Spanish Fort. As she tried to sneak a kiss from a 17-year-old Felix, Charles slipped him the gun through the front seat of the car. At the wheel was Charles’ cousin Robert Burns.

Felix shot poor Bertha twice and then knocked her in the head.

The 1925 city directory shows the Birbiglia family at this address in New Orleans.

Felix was a business student at Spencer Business College with a fiance, Helen Clements. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gaspar Birbiglia, operated a saloon at First and Rampart streets. They lived nearby.

Although his mother insisted that the family was prosperous and there was no reason for Felix to steal let alone murder, there were earlier indications of problems. While serving in the Navy, Felix forged a pay check and was discharged.

Charles was a boilermaker’s helper. His father worked for the railroad.

Bertha worked for a department store at one time and lived with her parents at 2401 Dryades street. Her husband, Emanuel Neason, was a sailor who was apparently out of town at the time of the shooting. A first husband, Charles Herrick, lived in Chicago, where she divorced him.

The scene of the hangings.

In 1921, the hangings came.

Felix went to the noose first. Unfortunately for him, the noose slipped and he strangled to death. It took him 28 minutes to die. As he strangled, he muttered “Christ have mercy on my soul.”

Before his death, Felix asked to be buried at St. Joseph’s. He then gave a statement on behalf of himself and Charles.

“We go without any malice toward anybody,” he told reporters. “At times, we have had some bitterness. All that is gone now. We do not want to leave any enemies here.”

Charles shook hands with everyone in the death chamber before mounting the platform. He left behind a bride, whom he married in jail.

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