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.
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.
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.