Jury in List family-killing trial told of wife's syphilis


ELIZABETH, N.J. -- Accused family-killer John Emil List, who had always looked to his religious faith for answers, was so overwrought over the discovery that his wife had advanced syphilis that 'like a small rubber band, he snapped,' a psychiatrist said.

Dr. Sheldon Miller, who examined List after his arrest last year, described him Friday as a man who had already been hit by the loss of his job and then learned that his wife had deceived him for years about her medical condition.


'It's as if you're on a race track going around and around with no way out,' Miller told the jury in Union County Superior Court. 'List believed doing what he did do to his family was allowed because he was sending them to join God and saving them from the embarrassment of having to be on the public dole.'


List is accused of killing his wife, his three children and his mother in 1971.

A neurologist, Dr. Henry Liss, testified earlier Friday that Helen List, 45, had tertiary syphilis and had hidden her disease for years from her doctors and her family.

Liss testified after a judgeruled that information on Helen List's medical condition could be given to the jury that must decide whether List is guilty of murder.

Judge William L'E. Wertheimer allowed the jury to hear testimony about Helen List's syphilis after Miller told him, in a brief hearing, that List knew what his wife suffered from before he killed her.

List left the bodies of his wife, his mother, Alma, 84, and his children, Patricia, 16, John, 15, and Frederick, 13, and several confessions and apologies in his Westfield home in November 1971 and disappeared for 17 years.

His lawyer, Elijah Miller Jr., argues that knowing his wife suffered from syphilis helped drive the deeply religious man over the edge. But the jury has also seen evidence that List planned both the killings and his escape so carefully that he had been gone for a month before the crime was discovered.


Dr. Miller said List had learned before the killings that syphilis was the cause of his wife's worsening medical and psychological problems and that knowing she had a sexually transmitted disease would have a 'tremendous impact' on someone of his background. List, who grew up in a strict Lutheran community in Bay City, Mich., was 'immersed in his religion,' he said.

'To find his wife having a veneral disease was morally, ethically and religiously a very hard thing for him to accept,' the psychiatrist said. 'His wife's behavior, coupled with the loss of his job -- he was threatened with the inability to support his family as he had been trained to do from childhood.'

'List was being bombarded by stresses,' the doctor added. 'He faced limited options and like a small rubber band, he snapped. He simply exploded.'

List, 64, faces multiple life sentences if he is convicted. His lawyer hopes to convince the jury that List should not be held legally responsible for the deaths because he thought he was saving his family's souls by killing them.

Liss summarized Helen List's medical reports for the jury. He described a woman whose brain was deteriorating and who was going blind, who was addicted to tranquilizers and drank four or five glasses of Scotch a day, who remained in bed because she was afraid of falls but who retained enough social skill to act normally in casual relationships.


Helen List lied to her doctors during several hospitalizations, Liss said. But after doctors at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York concluded that her symptoms might be caused by syphilis, she admitted that she had suffered from the disease since the 1940s and had been treated for it at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.

Assistant Prosecutor Eleanor Clark strongly protested telling the jury of Helen List's syphilis during bitter legal arguments over several days. The judge finally overruled her but continued to bar testimony that List's daughter, Patricia, 16, was a practicing witch.

Helen List apparently was infected with the disease by her first husband, a soldier who was killed in Korea. Because syphilis is not infectious in its later phases, she did not pass it on to John List or her children, although she suffered several miscarriages during her first marriage.

Elijah Miller has presented testimony from witnesses, including a Lutheran pastor who knew the Lists in the early 1960s in Rochester, N.Y., to describe the troubled family. The Rev. Edward Saresky told the jury Thursday that he heard Helen List taunting her husband by telling him that if he was 'half the man her first husband was the family wouldn't have the troubles they were having.'


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