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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rita vehemently declared her innocence
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 30, 1931
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: March 7, 1901
Victim profile: Elzbieta (Lusia) Zaremba, 17
Method of murder: Hitting in the head by a blunt object, probably an ice pick
Location: Brzuchowice, Poland
Status: Sentenced to death on May 14, 1932. Resentenced to eight years in prison on April 29, 1933. Released on September 3, 1939
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Rita Gorgonowa (real name Emilia Margerita Gorgon, née Ilic) was a governess, and main character of one of the most infamous crime stories of the Second Polish Republic.

Born on March 7, 1901 in Knin, Dalmatia, Austria-Hungary, she was found guilty of murder of Elzbieta Zaremba, daughter of Henryk Zaremba, an architect from Lwow.

The murder, which took place on December 30, 1931, and the subsequent trial, were regarded as the biggest crime story of Poland at that time. Gorgonowa, who had a son and two daughters, died in unknown circumstances: her post-1939 fate has not been established.

Early life

Emilia Margerita Ilic was either of Serbian or Croatian origin. Her father was a physician, who died when she was three. Her mother later remarried.

At the age of 15, Margerita married a Colonel of the Austro-Hungarian Army, Erwin Gorgon. Probably in 1918 she gave birth to a son, and settled in Lwow, with her husband’s family.

In 1921, Erwin Gorgon left Poland and in search of job immigrated to the United States. Soon afterwards, Rita was forced by her in-laws to leave their house, as they had wrongly accused her of immoral behaviour. Gorgonowa, who was regarded as a very attractive woman, left her son with the in-laws, and supported herself by babysitting.

Working with the Zaremba family

In 1924, Rita became a governess at the house of a 41-year-old architect Henryk Zaremba. She lived at his villa, located in Brzuchowice, 7 kilometers from Lwow. Before employing her, Zaremba had separated from his wife, as she suffered from mental problems and had to be locked in a psychiatric ward. Zaremba and his ex-wife had two children: daughter Elzbieta (Lusia), born 1914, and son Stanislaw, born 1917.

Apart from baby sitting, Gorgonowa ran the house. After about a year, Rita and Henryk began an affair, which produced daughter Romana, born in 1928. Rita later claimed that she was hoping to marry the wealthy architect; close relationship between her and Henryk was noticed by teenage Lusia, who often argued about this with her father.


In the night of December 30/31 1931, Elzbieta (Lusia), who was sleeping in her bed, was hit in the head by a blunt object, probably an ice pick, and died on the spot. The murder was discovered by Stanislaw Zareba, who was awakened by a dog, and alarmed residents of the house. Doctor Ludwik Csala was called for, together with a police officer, who scanned the room.

Since circumstantial evidence pointed at Gorgonowa, she was immediately arrested. Also, Henryk Zaremba, suspected of cooperation with murderers, was locked for six weeks. Furthermore, police detectives interviewed a gardener and a teenage boy from Brzuchowice, who was secretly in love with Lusia.

During the interrogation, Gorgonowa maintained her innocence. Police specialists came to the conclusion, that the murder had been carried out by a resident of the house, as there were no footsteps on the windowsill and in the snow around the building. Furthermore, no traces of a break-in were found, and family dog Lux did not bark that night.

According to official police report, Gorgonowa crossed the corridor from her room to Lusia’s room, killing the girl. She then opened the window, and penetrated her victim’s vagina with a finger, trying to make it appear as a rape. Upon leaving Lusia’s room, Gorgonowa noticed Lux the dog, whom she hit in the head. The canine wailed, waking Stas Zaremba, who was sleeping in the dining room. The boy entered the corridor, noticing a person dressed in a sheepskin, standing next to a Christmas tree. Stas later claimed that it was Rita.

Unable to get back to her bedroom, Gorgonowa ran out through front door. While entering her bedroom, she broke a small window, cutting her finger. She then changed her nightdress, and joined other residents of the house, who had been alarmed by Stas.

On December 31, Gorgonowa threw the ice pick into a pool, losing a candle. Later on, a bloodstained handkerchief was found, also traces of blood were found on Rita’s sheepskin. The blood on the handkerchief and the sheepskin was type A, while Gorgonowa’s blood was type 0. Nevertheless, findings of police experts were undermined by famous scientist from Lwow, Ludwik Hirszfeld.


On May 14, 1932, after a short trial, District Court at Lwow sentenced Rita Gorgonowa to death. Due to a number of legal mistakes and appeals of her defence (Mieczyslaw Ettinger of Warszawa, Jozef Wozniakowski of Krakow and Maurycy Axer of Lwow), the verdict was later changed by the Supreme Court.

While in prison, Margerita gave birth to daughter Ewa (September 20, 1932). In the meantime, her case was moved to District Court in Krakow, which on April 29, 1933, sentenced Rita to eight years. Gorgonowa was to be released on May 24, 1940, but due to German Invasion of Poland, she was released on September 3, 1939.

Further fate of Rita Gorgonowa is unknown. Her daughters claim that she survived World War II. According to some sources, she moved to Silesia or ran a newsstand in Opole. Other sources claim that she left Poland and settled in South America.

In 1977, a feature film The Case of Gorgonowa was made by director Janusz Majewski, with Ewa Dalkowska playing the role of Rita. In 2014, Rita’s daughter Ewa and daughter in-law Margarita Ilic-Lisowska declared their intention to re-open the trial and change of the verdict.


Shadows of a Doubt: The Murder of Lusia Zaremba

By Chris Wilkinson -

July 13, 2016

Past all the tombs of those once wealthy and famous, beyond the charismatic suffering sculpted in stone on countless graves, on a plot rarely frequented by passersby, stands a metal cross that looks the same as thousands of others in Lviv’s Lychakiv cemetery.

Mounted on that metal cross is a small white placard. The largest writing on the placard is the name of the teenage girl buried there, Lusia Zaremba. On the next to last line of Polish language text is another name, Henryk Zaremba. Henryk was Lusia’s father.

From time to time flowers are attached to the post, a gift to memory. It is a strange sight to behold, this basic grave, almost anonymous now, but in the early 1930’s the name of Lusia struck mystery and terror in the hearts of Lvivians.

Her father had always been the famous one, a renowned architect known throughout the city, but it was now his daughter who gained a degree of fame and sympathy unprecedented for that time. Lusia had been murdered on a cold winter night, on the cusp of New Year’s Eve in 1930.

This act set off the most famous trial in the Second Republic of Poland, one that captured the public’s imagination. It was fueled by sensational reports from the media of strained family relations. The resulting trial and its aftermath led to mysteries that to this day have never been solved.

Broken Families – United By Heartache

Henryk Zaremba was a highly successful Polish architect in interwar Lviv (at that time the city was known by its Polish name of Lwów). Famous and wealthy he lived with his wife and two children at a villa less than 10 kilometers from the city, in the community of Łączkach.

This life of prosperity and acclaim was not nearly as blissful as it might have looked on the surface. The first inklings of major trouble occurred when Henryk’s first wife lost her mind and had to be placed in a mental asylum. This left Henryk with two young children to rear.

The eldest was Elzbieta (Lusia), born in 1914. There was also a son who had been born three years later, Stanislaw. Not long after his wife was committed, Henryk brought a governess into the home, Rita Gorgonowa, to help raise the children. She was beautiful yet also haunted by a troubled past.

Gorgonowa was actually born on the opposite end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Dalmatia, just after the turn of the 20th century. She was likely an ethnic Croat. Her looks and charm paid off for her at an early age.

When she was just 15 years old, Gorgonowa married a colonel in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. This brought the couple to Lviv. Unfortunately for them, the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be on the losing side of the war and soon dissolve. Gorgonowa’s husband was now unemployed and because of his background, unemployable. He did what hundreds of thousands of others had done before the war and many would also do afterward, immigrate abroad to the United States.

Oddly he did not take Rita with him. She was left with in-laws who proceeded to accuse her of moral turpitude and banished her from their home. From this strange situation Rita, still youthful and good looking at the age of just 23, was employed by Henryk Zaremba, eighteen years her elder.

Live In Lover, Step Mother In Waiting

A common thread between the two most important men in Rita Gorgonowa’s life, her former husband and Henryk Zaremeba, was that they were both much older men. Her physician father had died when she was just a toddler. It seems that she spent much of her life searching for the father figure that fate had denied her during childhood. This was also a search for security. With no immediate family to rely on she had to create her own. Henryk Zaremba, with his two children offered a ready made family.

Gorgonowa started out as the family’s full-time babysitter, but through the force of her personality and good looks ended up in charge of the household. She began a long running affair with Henryk, which resulted in a daughter. There is little doubt that Rita hoped to marry Henryk. This would never happen.

The main reason was friction between Rita and Henryk’s eldest child, Lusia. The daughter despised her father’s live-in lover, a step mother in waiting. Several years of tension weighed on the entire family, to the point that Henryk decided that he and his own children would move to another one of his homes. This was presented to Rita as a break in the relationship, but not quite the end. This respite was more than she could accept. Her ire over the impending separation was directed at Lusia, now seventeen years old.

The End Of One Horror & The Beginning of Another

The period between Christmas and New Year’s in Poland was usually one of relaxation. This is where quality time was spent with family and friends. It was also the dead of winter, when inclement weather and cold kept people indoors for days on end. Snowfall covered the ground outside the Zaremba home during the 1930 holiday season. The family was together for what would turn out to be the last time. This was not because of separation, but murder.

Close to midnight on December 30th, fourteen year old Stanislaw Zaremba was startled from his sleep by a cry from the family dog. Fearing thieves, he slowly made his way down the hall in the direction from which the cry had come. What he saw next was a strange sight. Near the family Christmas tree, stood Rita wearing a fur coat over the top of her nightgown. She stared at him in silence then quickly left the room by ascending a staircase.

Stanislaw then called out for Lusia, but no answer was forthcoming. He went to her room and knocked on the door, still no answer. He took upon it himself to enter the room. In the bed he could see the outline of her motionless body.

Her head was covered with a pillow. When he removed the pillow, his eyes were assaulted by a terrifying scene. Lusia’s skull was covered in blood and her neck was horribly twisted. Her body was still warm, but she was dead. Tragically, the end had come much too soon for the seventeen year old Lusia. Conversely, the horror had just begun for her family.

From that midnight moment when Stanislaw Zaremba first saw Rita Gorgonowa standing next to the family Christmas tree and then a few minutes later discovered the still warm body of his sister Lusia, suspicion fell upon the Zaremba family’s governess and father Henryk’s lover.

Police immediately arrested Rita. They also detained Henryk, his involvement in a long affair with Rita meant he could not escape suspicion. A month and a half he would be released. Rita was not that lucky. She was to be put on trial in Lwów (Polish name for Lviv), a city where public opinion was set against her from the start. The murder of a child, even if that child was seventeen years old, stoked an outpouring of emotion.

The Evidence Mounts – Convicted In The Courts Of Public Opinion & Poland

The fact that Rita was an outsider in the family as well as the region did not help her cause. Adding fuel to the fire was the intensely personalized nature of the violence. The murder weapon was a crude iron implement used to bust up chunks of ice.

Rita vehemently declared her innocence, but there was already a rush to judgment. Much of the circumstantial evidence pointed to her as the murderer. There was her strange behavior that fatal night.

After disappearing via a stairway, Rita had reappeared in another nightgown with traces of blood on her hands and shoes soaked wet. A bloody handkerchief was discovered in the basement. A test showed that it contained a different blood type than Rita’s. The police found no evidence of breaking and entering while snowfall around the house had not been disturbed by any footsteps from a stranger.

Investigators declared that the murderer was someone inside the house that night. Who else, but Rita would have done it? The family gardener was investigated and cleared of suspicion. Another potential suspect was a boy who had professed his love for Lusia. She had shown little interest in him. He was soon cleared as well.

The investigators did find evidence that Lusia’s vagina had been penetrated the night she was murdered. They surmised that Rita had done this with her finger in order to make it look as though sexual assault was a motive.

As for the circumstantial evidence against her, Rita had stories to explain these away. The bloody handkerchief was her menstrual rag. As for the blood on her hands, it was from cutting fish for dinner. What about the wet shoes? Rita said she had to go outside and get water in the middle of the night. The police said it was to toss the murder weapon into the pool, where they had found it. All of this came out at the trial held in Lwów’s District Court. The verdict was swift and sure, guilty sentenced to death.

Femme Fatale Or Loving Mother – Suspending Sentences

Ironically, the intense media interest and the fact that she was condemned pre-trial in the court of public opinion now worked in Rita’s favor. The defense fought the verdict, saying Lwów was too close in proximity both physically and emotionally to the crime. The decision was made to hold a second trial at another district court in Krakow over 300 kilometers to the west.

In the meantime, another sensational aspect to the case cropped up. Rita had been in the earliest stages of pregnancy when the murder occurred. Now in prison, she had a second daughter, Ewa. Was she a femme fatale, child killer or loving mother wrongly imprisoned?

Images of Rita in her jail cell holding her toddler made her look eerily sympathetic. Could this really be the woman who had repeatedly bludgeoned the love of her life’s teenage daughter to death? Little wonder that what became known as the Gorgonowa case was unsurpassed for publicity in interwar Poland.

What was considered to be a fair trial was now given to Rita? Though the location was different the crush of public interest was the same. Rita’s looks and refined dress, the image of a once beautiful lady fighting for her freedom in black furs, made her a media sensation.

The retrial yielded a guilty verdict as well, but with a lighter sentence due to a revision of the Second Republic of Poland’s penal code. Rita was now sentenced to eight years in prison, with credit for time already served. She would get off much sooner though. No one in the courtroom during the second sentencing could have imagined that the darkest of forces would set Rita free before she served out her sentence. The specter of World War II was not yet threatening Poland, but over the next five years the situation would change dramatically.

Missing Persons – The Invisible Woman

Just two days after Germany declared war on Poland in September 1939, an amnesty was declared that released Rita Gorgonowa from prison. There was no emotional public opinion or intense media focus, as Poland was fighting for its existence against German forces. Rita’s fate was of little concern to anyone. Perhaps this provides some explanation for what happened next. She completely disappeared, not just from the public eye, but from everyone.

What happened to her? Was she, like so many Polish civilians unlucky enough to become collateral damaged in a war that killed millions? Or did she lead a quiet life by surviving in the shadows? Rumors abounded then and still do today. One was that she ran a small sales kiosk in the city of Opole in Silesia region, far from the eastern borderlands where she had once been so infamously well known.

Another rumor had her fleeing the continent for South America. Speculation was rife then and now, but like so many things with Rita Gorgonowa’s life there are few clear answers.

Ewa, the daughter born to Rita in prison made efforts in 2014 to have the case reopened, in the hopes that a retrial could change the verdict. It has not happened. Lwów is now Lviv, the Second Republic of Poland is a distant memory shadowed by the war that consumed it. The case seems trivial in light of what was later to transpire in Lwów and Poland. So much has happened since that cold, snowy midnight in the depths of December when someone entered the bedroom of Lusia Zaremba and ended her life. The weight of evidence and the legal verdict at the time convicted Rita Gorgonowa, but like everything else with the life and times of this woman, no one will ever be quite sure.



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