Maid on the Make

Maid on the Make

Lizzie Muehlman, the prettiest, neatest and cleverest thief the Detective Bureau has entertained for a long time, was arrested to-day, but it took quite an aggregation of detectives to nab her. Credited with the job are Lieuts. Howry, a Greek; Unger, a Jew, and Dietsch, a German. They were assisted after the capture by a Swedish patrolman and an Irish sergeant.

The Evening World (New York City), August 9, 1907

That’s a lot of NYPD man-flesh needed to arrest one young girl who weighed in at 113 pounds and stood 5 feet 4 inches tall! Not to mention all the nationalities and religions that were required.

The detectives began searching for her after a woman came to police headquarters complaining about a girl she’d hired as a maid. The girl told her she’d left her references in her trunk at home and would bring them in the next day. Instead she vanished with some of her employer’s jewelry.

“She was so cunning, with her fresh complexion, her trusting eyes, her white snug shirtwaist, her little high-heeled patent leathers, that she always got the job. She never kept one for more than a day. If there was no loose jewelry around the house she would depart unobtrusively and her employer would wonder what happened to her. If there was loose jewelry she would depart just as unobtrusively and so would the jewelry,” noted one newspaper article describing the maid’s adventures.

She was a fast worker. In June Mrs. Elizabeth Sandorf of West Ninety-Third Street hired the “charming little girl” to work as her maid and in less than half an hour she made off with two diamond rings and a pair of diamond earrings worth $600. In late July she stole a $500 diamond brooch from another employer, a Mrs. Irving Van Loan of Seventh Avenue. She completed that job in under an hour. She immediately pawned the brooch in Harlem for $100. That kind of cash would have bought a working-class girl a lot of pretty shirtwaists and patent leather shoes, not to mention that fabulous hat!

Mrs. Van Loan went to the police and lodged a complaint. She gave them a description of the thief and detectives kept an eye out for her.

She was finally arrested after detectives noticed her “tripping in and out of apartment houses in the vicinity of 120th Street and Lenox Avenue.” She looked so innocent that the officers thought they’d made a mistake, especially after she put up a tearful protest. But once they got her to the police station she broke down and confessed to half a dozen robberies. The following day almost fifty women who’d been robbed came around to the station to see if they could identify the maid.

The maid’s name was Lizzie and her crime was listed as being a “dishonest servant.” She was 20 years old and born in New York. Frank Lennon, who was described as a “theatrical man,” was her live-in boyfriend. He was arrested as an accomplice, though the role he played in the crimes was not specified. The police searched the couple’s East Fourteenth Street flat and found twelve pocketbooks and ten pawn tickets. Lizzie had pawned some of the things she’d stolen and then sold some of the pawn tickets to a Third Avenue pawnbroker named Samuel Trigger. Trigger was charged with receiving stolen goods.

Lizzie and Frank were arraigned at the Harlem Police Court and locked up in the courthouse jail. Neither got a prison term, according to the records of New York State’s Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842–1908, but they no doubt cooled their heels in jail for quite awhile.

Lizzie Muehlhauser back_marked

She told police that her last name was Muehlhauser (The Evening World paper got the spelling wrong), but I believe that wasn’t her real name. According to news reports Lizzie said her mother lived in Maspeth, Queens. There was a widowed German immigrant named Elizabeth Muehlhauser who lived in Queens and was the right age to be Lizzie’s mother, but she had no children.

Lizzie might have worked for Elizabeth at some point and didn’t like her, so she used her unusual surname as an alias — knowing it would be reported in the newspapers — to embarrass the older woman.

stjosephsasylumMy best guess for who she really was is a girl named Lizzie Mulgrent, who was born in New York in 1888. By 1900 she was either orphaned or an abandoned child because she lived at the St. Ann’s Home for Destitute Children on 89th Street and Avenue A in New York City (previously named St. Joseph’s Asylum). If I’m right, she was one of about 300 girls living at St. Ann’s. The orphanage was run by Catholic nuns and housed children primarily of Irish descent. Think Jane Eyre but move the setting from England to New York and you get the picture.

What happened to Lizzie after her release from jail is anyone’s guess. She isn’t listed on the 1910 federal census under the names Muehlhauser, Mulgrent or Lennon. But she looks like a girl who could fend for herself, doesn’t she?

Featured photos: Lizzie Muehlhauser, NYPD Bertillon card photos taken August 9, 1907. Collection of the author.

Tube Room Hustler

Tube Room Hustler

Detective Raphael of Police Headquarters late last night arrested Sadie Schoen, 18 years old, a saleswoman, of 728 East Ninth Street. According to Inspector McCafferty, the girl got $60 from a department store by a method that is new, and in this case effective.

The New York Times, June 27, 1908

The morning of April 25, 1908, began like any other day at the large dry goods store on Broadway in New York City. The store had been open for a while and was starting to get busy. Dorothy Fuller, the cashier in the millinery department, was at her register behind the counter when a young woman she didn’t recognize walked up to her and started a conversation.

“Mr. Eck told me to ask you how much cash you have on hand,” said the woman.

“Why there is just $60 here,” Dorothy replied after an inspection of her cash drawer.

“All right. Mr. Eck said you’re to give it to me. I’ll take it to him to check up.”

The store was a large one and Dorothy didn’t know all the employees but she knew Mr. Eck was the supervisor of the tube room. She also knew that sometimes he needed cash moved from one location to another in the store. The woman in front of her was confident and nicely dressed. Because of that, along with the fact that she wasn’t wearing a hat, Dorothy assumed she was a store employee and she handed over the money without question.

The woman thanked Dorothy and left, presumably headed to the tube room. Dorothy had a customer waiting so she got back to work.

Instead of going to the tube room, the woman went back to the saleswomen’s dressing room where she’d left her hat and coat, picked up her belongings and quickly left the store with the cash.

2007_24_82_5

The tube room in a Hartford department store, circa 1920. Connecticut Historical Society museum & library.

The tube room, located in the dark basement of the store, was where communication about customer payment went back and forth via a pneumatic tube system. The customer’s money or a request to pay by credit was sent to the centralized tube room. A tube room employee, usually a poorly paid young woman, checked the credit status of the customer using a card index and approved the purchase or not. The tube room girl also made change, prepared receipts and sent everything back via the tube to the salesperson. However cash registers like Dorothy’s were also used on the sales floor for customers who had cash, were in a hurry and didn’t need a receipt.

It took detectives two months to find the young woman who made off with the $60.

Sadie Schoen laughed when Detective Raphael of the NYPD visited her at home on June 25th and told her she was wanted for swindling. She told him he was mistaken. What she didn’t know was that he’d brought Dorothy Fuller along with him and Dorothy had identified Sadie as the woman who’d tricked her by pretending to be a tube room employee.

bert_18126_b

Born in Austria to Yiddish-speaking parents, Sadie immigrated to the United States when she was two years old. The police photographed her in her beautiful hat and later she was arraigned for swindling at Centre Street Police Court in lower Manhattan.

By 1910, according to the federal census, Sadie boarded with an Austrian family in a lower east side tenement and worked as a feather duster maker. After her 1912 marriage she and her husband raised a family in the Bronx.

policeheadquarterspostcard

The police court where Sadie was criminally charged was in “The Police Building” at 240 Centre Street. Constructed in the Beaux-Arts style between 1905 and 1909, the building also housed NYPD headquarters until 1973. After sitting empty for 15 years it was converted into luxury residences. Now a popular home base for celebrities, an apartment there was recently listed for sale for $15,500,00, with a monthly maintenance fee of $12,533. That’s a whole lot of tube room cash.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Sadie Schoen, June 25, 1908, New York Municipal Archives.

Brooklyn Bad Fortune

Brooklyn Bad Fortune

Bessie Globllo, 28, a gypsy of 361 S. 3rd St., was held without bail for a hearing Thursday in Brooklyn Felony Court on a charge of attempted grand larceny yesterday by Magistrate Cullen.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York), January 20, 1947

Brooklyn resident Rosa Rivera had her fortune told on Thursday, January 16, 1947. During the session Rosa mentioned to the fortune teller that she had $800 socked away in her bank account. The fortune teller told Rosa to go to the bank, remove the cash, bring it home, place salt on it, wrap it in a handkerchief and put the bundle under her pillow. In three days time, the fortune teller claimed, the total amount of cash would be miraculously increased!

The fortune teller stopped by Rosa’s place three days later to check on how the cash expansion was progressing. Rosa, meanwhile, had gotten suspicious about the fortune teller’s financial advice and she’d called the police. Detectives were waiting for the fortune teller when she arrived.

Fortune telling was then and still is illegal in New York if the fortune teller charges a fee (tips are allowed) unless it’s performed as part of an act in a show or exhibition. However police suspected the fortune teller had bigger plans and intended to steal Rosa’s $800. They arrested her for attempted grand larceny.

The “gypsy,” as she was described in the news, was Bessie Globllo or Golobillo and she had a police record dating back to 1929 when she was only seven years old. The magistrate ordered her held without bail.

Globllo or Golobillo aren’t real surnames, so unless the police totally botched the spelling of her last name, Bessie gave them an alias. Who was she?

One useful item from the news reports of the case was that Bessie lived at 361 South 3rd Street in Brooklyn, New York. I searched the 1940 federal census for a woman named “Bessie,” who was born around 1920 and lived in Brooklyn at house number “361.” And, almost like magic, there she was.

Bessie GloblloShe was not, as it turned out, a Romani woman. Her real name was Bessie Topchevsky and she was born in New York in 1922. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland or Russia who arrived in the U.S. in 1917. In 1940 she was a single 18-year-old living with her parents and an older brother and younger sister. She’d completed eighth grade and had a full time job working with “radio parts” (possibly assembly) in the wholesale radio industry.

The NYPD began taking “stand-up” mugshots in 1918. These photos showed the person’s full body, not just the head and shoulders. According to the New York Department of Records, they were used for “recidivist criminals or those accused of a major crime.” Bessie fit both categories.

In her stand-up mug shot, Bessie is well dressed in what looks like a real fur coat and pearls. The fortune telling business must have been booming.

I’d love to know more about Bessie and if the charge against her stuck. Since she didn’t actually steal Rosa’s money it seems likley that the police wanted to scare her away from fortune telling more than put her in prison, but there was no further mention of her or the case in the newspapers.

Featured photo: Bessie Globllo, January 19, 1947, New York Municipal Archives.

Shooting Louis

Shooting Louis

Last night I called on Alice Martin, the girl I am to marry. I stayed at her home, No. 622 East Thirteenth street, until midnight. Then I went to a restaurant at Twelfth street and Third avenue for something to eat. Later I went to Meiser’s saloon, in Thirteenth street, between avenue B and C. Then I started for home.

— Statement of Louis Betsch, The Evening World (New York City), January 18, 1905

NYPD officer Anthony Muldoon was on his beat on the lower east side of Manhattan when he noticed two men loitering suspiciously in front of a house on Sixteenth Street. The time was about 2:45 in the morning. The men noticed Muldoon and ran off. Just moments later he heard the sound of breaking glass coming from the front of a nearby shoe store and a man stepped from the shadows of the doorway of the store.

“I told him to halt,” Muldoon told his captain, “and he ran. I followed, but he was fleeter than I. I drew my pistol and yelled that I would shoot. I fired above his head, but he continued to run. Just at this time I slipped on the ice in the street and fell and my revolver discharged accidently. The man fell in his tracks with a bullet in his back.”

Officers in the NYPD were first issued guns in 1895 by an order from Teddy Roosevelt after he became the New York City Police Commissioner. Prior to that time officers used their personal guns on the job. Standardizing the firearms carried by policemen was part of Roosevelt’s push to clean up the department.

The man Muldoon shot was Louis Betsch, a 23-year-old self-described “boilermaker.” He was taken to nearby Bellevue Hospital. There he made a statement under oath to the New York City Coroner proclaiming his innocence in any wrongdoing. The other men Muldoon saw near the shoe store were never located.

Bellevue_Welcome_1898

Bellevue Hospital circa 1898, collection of the Wellcome Library

Louis lived in a rented room on Ninth Avenue and took his meals with his widowed mother and younger siblings at their apartment on Tenth Avenue. His mother, Lizzie, a German immigrant, told police her son was always “sober and steady.” She admitted that he’d been out of work for some time, but things, she said, were looking up for her oldest child, who told her that he’d recently found a job in an umbrella factory.

Alice Martin, Louis’s fiancé, was a 19-year-old button maker who told police she hadn’t seen Louis that evening. Alice lived with her Austrian immigrant parents and siblings in a tenement on East Thirteenth Street. She told the police that she’d been to a music lesson after dinner and after the lesson ended, around 9 p.m., she’d returned home and gone directly to bed. Her mother backed up her story.

“It’s absolutely untrue that Louis called on me last night,” said Miss Martin. “I have all the confidence in the world in him, but if he tells of having been with me last night he is hiding something.”

One thing Louis was hiding was that he’d been arrested for burglary on July 1, 1902. His arrest card, complete with photos, measurements and his description was in the NYPD’s vast rogues’ gallery collection. (“LB — RB” was tattooed on his left arm. Tattoos were considered to be a sign of inherent criminality, in addition to being a way to identify someone, so the police always took note of them.) Evidently no one figured out that Louis had a criminal record.

Louis Betsch_back_marked

Officer Muldoon was a 35-year-old Irishman who’d been on the force at least eight years. He’d received a medal for bravery the previous year after jumping into the icy East River in January to rescue a man from drowning. With his record it wasn’t a hard call for his boss, Captain Hussey, to declare the shooting accidental on the morning after the event. He told Muldoon to return to his post.

Gunshot wounds were often fatal in the years before reliable anesthesia, universal sterile technique, blood transfusions and antibiotics. Louis died of his injuries at the hospital later that day.

Featured photos: mugshots of Louis Betsch, NYPD Bertillon card, July 1, 1902. Collection of the author.

The Lady Swindles

The Lady Swindles

Mme. La Touche, the female Napoleon of Wall Street, who discovered a new system of finance that was based on the most profound and logical principles, is a martyr to the cause. She still remains in a dungeon cell in the Jefferson Market Police Court building, not one friend having come forward with the required real estate security for $2,500 bail, which is demanded as a condition of her release. And there, it is said, she is likely to remain until her trial in the Court of the General Sessions.

— The Evening World (New York City), December 10, 1887

Madame La Touche was born Marion Gratz in New Brunswick, Canada in 1846. The 19th century was a time when women criminals were rare and crime was primarily the domain of men. In 1886, when NYPD Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes published his book, Professional Criminals of America, only 18 ladies made the cut out of 204 rogues and Madame La Touche was not one of the chosen damsels. However Byrnes included her — she was criminal #345 — in the 1895 edition of his book.

In addition to being a female crook there was another feature that set Marion apart. In her long history as a swindler she never stole from men, at least not directly — instead she preyed solely on her own sex.

By 1873 she’d made her way to America and started her criminal career in Boston. She worked under the name Marion L. Dow, but no Mr. Dow was ever located by authorities. According to Byrnes, Marion enticed wealthy society ladies into her “coils by exciting their speculative proclivities.” She’d paint a “glowing picture of the facility with which the husbands of her intended victims acquired large sums of money through stock speculation.” After persuading the ladies to invest their own money with her, she disappeared with the cash.

Marion L. Dow_our rival the rascal

Marion (possibly a personal photo) from the book Our Rival the Rascal

“Marion L. Dow can probably boast of having assumed more names and characters than any other woman who has not been a professional actress,” wrote Boston police officers Benjamin Eldridge and William Watts in their 1897 book, Our Rival the RascalNo doubt they were relieved when, in 1880, things got too hot for Marion on their turf and she headed to fresher fields in New York City.

By means of fake investment bureaus, Marion swindled wealthy Gotham gals to the tune of $40,000. Moving on to Philadelphia, she took lavish apartments and outfitted herself in expensive clothes and jewelry. As an enticement to invest with her, she guaranteed her clients against loss of their investment in exchange for half of their profits. The money rolled in until the ruse was discovered and she spent four months in Philly’s Moyamensing prison.

After her release from prison she met and married a Pennsylvania-born forger and swindler named Royal La Touche. (The name was not an alias — it really was Royal La Touche). It turned out that Royal was already married to two other women besides Marion! Before the couple had much time to enjoy their wedded bliss he was sent to Sing Sing to serve a three-year term for bigamy.

Marion spent no time crying over Royal’s fate. Using a new alias, “Carrie R. Morse,” she returned to New York City and went right back to her old tricks. She opened a bogus brokerage office at 47 West Thirty-seventh Street and hired a woman who was required to pay $600 for the privilege of having the job. When the company proved to be a scam, “Carrie” was arrested in 1884. One of her victims told of how she sold her shoe store in order to invest and had been forced to put her four children in a poor house after losing her life savings. It took two trials but Marion was convicted of obtaining money through false pretenses and sentenced to four months in prison.

A sensible person wouldn’t risk another arrest in New York City, but Marion wasn’t sensible. In 1887 she took a partner in crime, Sophie Lyons, a notorious pickpocket, shoplifter and bank robber, and embarked on her most audacious scam. She called it the “New York Women’s Banking and Investment Company.” Marion promised clients $50 a month in income if they would invest $300 in her company. This time women from all walks of life were encouraged to participate.

The lease of the building on West Twenty-third Street and refurbishments, including a fake vault, to make it look like a real bank were done on credit. Stock certificates were printed in rainbow colors, because, according to Sophie, ladies appreciated color and preferred to select their stocks based on their favorite hues. Marion set Sophie up in a luxurious apartment and furnished her with expensive jewelry and a lavish wardrobe. Posing as “Celia Rigsby,” a woman made wealthy through her dealings with Madame La Touche, Sophie was the honey that lured the flies in.

When the scam was uncovered, Sophie scarpered back to her home base in Detroit, but Marion was arrested and housed in the “dungeon cell” at Jefferson Market Court in Greenwich Village. Financial crimes, then as now, are laborious and difficult to prove. When only one of the defrauded women was willing to testify against her, the D.A. dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Marion was free again.

After Royal was released from Sing Sing he and Marion reunited and lived together until his death around 1915. Sophie Lyons wrote in her 1913 memoir, Why Crime Does Not Pay, that her old pal “Carrie” had retired from crime and died penniless, but Marion was still very much still alive and swindling when the book came out. She continued her stock swindles, was frequently arrested and served three more terms in prison during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Marion at 85

Her final arrest came in the summer of 1931. Marion, by then an 85-year-old widow, who was, according to one news report, “hard of hearing, but retains that look of guileless sincerity which charmed money of out investors’ pockets almost fifty years ago.” Despite the recent stock market crash, her victim, a Harlem rooming house owner named Edna Mattice, gave Marion $300 to invest because Marion claimed to have confidential information from a high honcho on Wall Street. Mrs. Mattice said Marion was “always reading market reports” and she spoke “with awe-inspiring glibness and authority upon financial matters.”

Marion might have spent the rest of her life in a Harlem prison as a habitual criminal, but authorities hoped to find a way to be lenient due to her age. Help came from unexpected quarters — the Salvation Army! A spokeswoman for the charity said it was “deeply interested in Mrs. La Touche’s case, and if the court would permit, it would undertake to look after her for the rest of her life.” The judge agreed to the plan.

During the 1931 holiday season, people on the streets of Harlem likely had no idea that the hunched old lady ringing the bell by a red kettle and asking for their spare coins was the greatest lady swindler of the 19th century.

Featured image: reproduction of CDV mug shot of Marion L. Dow from “Professional Criminals of America” by Thomas Byrnes, 1895.

Three Little Shells

Three Little Shells

Leon Kentish alias H. Wilson and Harry Montague alias R.F. Johnson were arrested yesterday by Chief of Police Little, Sergeant Kennedy and Officer Neagle. The men were stopping at the Causer House. They are charged with suspicion of larceny, and common gamblers. They are alleged to be shell workers, and travel under the pretense of selling an article for cleaning clothing. The fellows are the same ones who were recently arrested in Binghamton, and taken to Penn Yan, where they were wanted for skipping board bills. The police found the shells upon their persons.

Star-Gazette, Elmira, New York, July 17, 1893

The shell game is a con as old as time. A pea or small ball is placed under one of three shells (walnut shells were popular) that were laid out, usually on the ground. The shell operator shuffles them around and asks the mark to guess which shell the pea is under. It looks like easy money, but unbeknownst to the mark, the operator, using sleight of hand, has removed the pea before the mark makes his — inevitably wrong — choice. Then the operator surreptitiously places the pea under another shell. He reveals the pea and voila, the mark loses the bet!

Often shills or cappers were used to help convince the mark to get involved in the game or to suggest under which shell the pea would be found. Sometimes the mark was allowed to win once or twice, with the stakes being ratcheted up with each play. Then the operator went in for the kill.

Oily-tongued, nimble-fingered shell workers were said to be “in their glory when they find a man who is out for a good time with a good-sized purse.” They were the bane of the nineteenth century cop’s existence.

“Step right up, gentlemen, and be convinced that the hand is quicker than the eye.” This is the way that the shell-worker opened his game while sitting astride one of the long timbers on the pier. One of the cappers came up and called the turn for $120, which was paid to him without a murmur. Then another one of the party won and induced his friend, a young fellow who looked like he might be a divinity student to try his luck. The shells were thrown and the capper whispered: “Bet him $25 and take the shell on this end.”

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, June 12, 1894

Needless to say, the divinity student lost his stake. The shell game workers ran off when they noticed a sketch artist sitting nearby, watching them closely and “copping off their mugs” for the newspaper.

shell game

Harry Montague_back_markedIn addition to working the shell game, Harry Montague was wanted by the Newark Police for highway robbery and burglary. When he went before a New York City judge, in June 1893, he literally talked himself into jail by using language so foul that the judge held him in contempt of court. The police planned to hand him over to the New Jersey authorities once he finished serving 29 days in Brooklyn’s Raymond Street Jail.

Instead Harry managed to elude the New Jersey authorities and make his way upstate. The shells he was carrying tipped off the Elmira police to his real profession and he and his pal, Leon Kentish, were arrested. After that Harry either earned himself a long prison stretch or he changed his alias because his name disappeared completely from police notes in the news.

Featured photo: CDV mugshot of Harry Montague, alias Johnson, July 9, 1893. Collection of the author.

Christmas in the Tombs

Christmas in the Tombs

Mrs. Catherine O. Neill will have to spend her Christmas in the Tombs Prison, much as she desires to be taken to Connecticut to be tried on the charge of murdering her husband, Joseph Neill, on the night of Dec. 14. Sheriff Rich of Greenwich says that this is due to Gov. Higgins being away from his executive office until after Christmas.

The New York Times, December 23, 1906

Despite its creepy name, the Tombs Prison had nothing to do with graves, crypts or burials (though some people, including Catherine Neill, were there thanks to dead bodies). Located in downtown Manhattan, the Tombs was so-named because the design of the original 1838 prison building was said to have been inspired by an Egyptian tomb. In 1902 that building was torn down and a lovely, turreted French castle inspired the building that replaced it. However the name “The Tombs” stuck. “The Turrets” just didn’t have the same ominous ring.

872px-The_Tombs,_New_York,_November_1907

The Tombs Prison, 1907, LOC

No matter what inspired the architects of the New York City Prison, Catherine, also known as “Goldie,” was there because she’d been accused of murdering her husband. The murder was unusually revolting — Joseph Neill’s brain had been pierced with some kind of sharp instrument, causing his death.

Catherine, a petite woman who’d worked as a chorus girl and artist’s model prior to her marriage, became severely depressed in prison, walking up and down her cell at night, crying and moaning that she wanted to die. She fainted when she was finally charged with her husband’s murder. Joseph was a former boxer who’d earned his living as a blacksmith. He was described as a “stalwart blacksmith of fine physique and good appearance.”

The couple met in New York City’s Tenderloin district in September 1906 and Joseph swept her off her feet. Catherine was estranged from her first husband, a policeman named William H. Finley whom she married when she was only 17. Joseph persuaded her to divorce Finley and marry him, however it turned out that when their marriage occurred her divorce was not yet final. When Joseph discovered that his wife was a bigamist he became enraged and threatened to make a new will leaving his money to another woman.

The conflict escalated during a vacation in Connecticut at the Greenwich Hotel in December, when Joseph got drunk and attacked Catherine. She insisted she was only defending herself, and she had the bruises to prove it, including a black eye (visible in her mug shot photo). She said she grabbed her umbrella to ward off the blows and her husband stumbled, falling forward. His face, she said, had been accidentally impaled on the pointy end of her parasol. She fled from the hotel, taking a train home to New York City. She sought refuge at her mother’s home and the police later arrested her there.

Accused of killling

Catherine’s neckline was drawn as more revealing than it actually was in her mugshots. Illustrations published in The Indianapolis Star on May 20, 1907

There was no doubt that the burly Joseph had badly beaten his wife. However an autopsy revealed that he’d been drugged before he died. The prosecution maintained that Catherine did the drugging and, once her husband was unconscious, they claimed she pulled his eyeball aside and inserted a sharp object into his brain through his right eye socket, causing his death. The actual murder weapon, described as a pearl-handled nail file, was found in the folds of Catherine’s parasol.

The newspapers loved the sordid drama of the Neill couple’s story, likening Catherine to Evelyn Nesbit (the original Gibson Girl). Evelyn’s husband, the psychotically jealous Harry Thaw, shot and killed her former lover, architect Stanford White, in front of a large crowd at Madison Square Garden in June 1906. The only similarity between the two cases was that both Catherine and Evelyn were pretty young women from the lower rungs of society who’d worked in New York City as artist’s models and chorus girls. Harry Thaw, the son of a wealthy family, was tried twice for the White murder, with the second trial ending in a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. After a few years at a cushy asylum, from which he escaped, Harry got a third trial where he was found not guilty and set free.

Not having access to expensive defense lawyers like the ones who represented Harry Thaw, Catherine pleaded guilty to manslaughter on May 22, 1907. The judge sentenced her to a minimum of five and a maximum of nine years in the Connecticut State Prison. She applied for a pardon after two and a half years in prison, again using the “oops, he fell on my umbrella” explanation for Joseph’s death.

Keeping a lovely young woman cooped up in prison just didn’t seem right. The court bought Catherine’s account and she was granted a pardon just before Christmas in 1909.

Catherine returned to New York City under an assumed name to avoid publicity. As a free woman, the first thing she said she planned to do was embrace her seven-year-old child from her first marriage. A child who, it was reported, was blind from birth.

Featured photos: Catherine O. Neill Bertillon photos, New York City, 1906. Collection of the Library of Congress.