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.

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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.

Alias Dorsey Doyle

Alias Dorsey Doyle

When a federal census worker counted his family in 1880, George J. Doyle lived with his widowed father, John, and four siblings in the poverty-stricken Five Points section of lower Manhattan. The Doyle family’s tenement, located at 86 Mulberry Street, housed 19 families, 68 souls total, all with Irish roots. The building probably had six or seven apartments, no indoor plumbing and was less than a block from Mulberry Bend — one of the most dangerous areas in the slum-infested Five Points. George, soon to be known by the nickname “Dorsey,” was 14. He and his younger sister, Katie, were still in school while the rest of the family worked at low-paying jobs.

At the age of 14 Dorsey Doyle was likely already sharpening his skills as a pickpocket and readying himself for life as a gang member and career criminal.

Dorsey Doyle prison record

Description of George J. “Dorsey” Doyle, New York Sing Sing Prison Admission Register. New York State Archives; Albany, New York; Box 8; Vol. 23.

In 1887, when he was 21, Dorsey pleaded guilty to robbing a man of his watch and chain on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was sentenced to two years and three months in Sing Sing Prison. The prison entry for him lists six scars — most of them on his face — a testament to a life of violence, despite his youth. Sing Sing was known for whippings, solitary confinement, poor rations and a requirement of total silence from inmates. Rehabilitation for prisoners was decades in the future and many tried to escape, attempted suicide or went insane. Dorsey emerged from Sing Sing a full-blown, hardened criminal.

Dorsey was a member of the Whyos, a gang of Five Points Irish mobsters that hit its peak in the late 1870s and 1880s. While earlier New York criminal gangs spent most of their time fighting each other, the Whyos had the entrepreneurial spirit. Naturally they were involved in general thuggery, but they added extortion, prostitution and murder for hire to their menu of criminal activities. They were rumored to have a price list for the criminal services they supplied, ranging from $1 (punching) to $100 and up (“doing the big job”). By 1888, four of the Whyos members had been convicted of murder and hanged at the Tombs jail in lower Manhattan.

After his release from Sing Sing, Dorsey branched out from New York City and, in 1893, earned a three-year stay for grand larceny at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (Al Capone did a year at “ESP” in 1929.) By 1895 Dorsey’s flourishing career earned him spot #521 in Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes new edition of his book, Professional Criminals of America. Byrnes described him as “well known throughout the eastern country, as he follows the races, fairs, etc.”

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Dorsey Doyle, May 1887; Professional Criminals Of America (1895) by Thomas Byrnes.

After an unsuccessful attempt, in 1898, at robbing a passenger of a gold watch and chain on a Broadway cable car in New York City (Dorsey shot at the policeman who eventually caught him) he received a second sojourn at Sing Sing. Shortly after his second release from Sing Sing, he and three other men were observed trying to pick pockets on an electric car in Manhattan. A mad chase by police ensued during which he jumped off the moving car and was the only man captured. He was convicted of attempted grand larceny and sentenced to Sing Sing for the third time!

At the turn of the twentieth century, with his Whyos pals dead or in prison and with a face that was well known to the New York police, Dorsey moved west. In 1908 he was arrested with another man for lifting a diamond stud off a man boarding a train in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When he was arrested in Pittsburgh in 1915, the newspaper described him as “John Dempsey, alias Dorsey Doyle, aged 50, of Toledo.” He was one of a “mob” of clever pickpockets, all of them younger than Dorsey.

Fifty is ancient for a pickpocket — a skill necessitating quick reactions, nimble fingers and fast feet. Dorsey was never mentioned in the news after 1915, so he may have retired from crime and led a quiet, law-abiding life in Ohio. The days of the Irish gangs of New York were, after all, long gone, and no one, even a notorious criminal, wanted to risk a fourth stretch in Sing Sing.

Featured photo: Dorsey Doyle, carte de visite mugshot, circa 1892, by John Rosch. Collection of the author.