"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 5, 2014

Justice and Jessie Costello

In that pantheon of Great Female Murder Defendants, an otherwise obscure housewife named Jessie Costello--part Lucretia Borgia, part vaudeville act--manages to stand out. Nowadays, it has become almost the norm for people involved in sensational crimes to try capitalizing on their notoriety. In the 1930s, this was a relative rarity, which makes Mrs. Costello's unrepentant enjoyment of standing trial for poisoning her husband curiously contemporary. Her unique personality single-handedly transformed this otherwise mundane murder into a dazzling slice of The Weird.

She was, you might say, simply a killer ahead of her time.

Jessie was born in Peabody, Massachusetts in 1902. At the age of 21, she married a fireman named William Costello. It was an odd match. Jessie was uninhibited, outgoing, a zestfully pagan flapper eager to use her short skirts, bobbed hair, and utter lack of principles to conquer the world. Bill Costello, on the other hand, was a quiet, serious man: a devout Irish Catholic who spent several hours of the day praying and most of the rest of his free time fretting about his chronic indigestion.

Well, opposites attract, at least for a while. The couple soon had four children, and appeared to have settled down to a long and peaceful, if somewhat drab, life together.

Well, Bill settled down, at any rate. Jessie, on the other hand, became more like a caged tiger each year. By the time she hit thirty, she was desperate for excitement and adventure--any outlet to take her out of what she saw as an insufferably suffocating existence.

Unfortunately, the best outlet available for her in the likes of Peabody proved to be a married policeman named Edward J. McMahon. He was no Clark Gable: McMahon is invariably described as a rather lumpish, none-too-bright sort. But still, he was better than nothing for our restless Massachusetts Madame Bovary. She nicknamed the young cop "Big Boy," and more-or-less dragged him into her bed. Jessie found her adulterous adventure so liberating that--according to later prosecuting attorneys, at least--it may well have inspired her to seek freedom in rather more drastic ways.

One morning in February 1933, a door-to-door fudge saleswoman named Nellie Ayers came to the Costello residence. After a little chat, Jessie agreed to buy a pound of candy. She went upstairs to get the money, only to quickly return with the news that she had discovered the dead body of her husband on the bathroom floor.

"She screamed something terrible," Mrs. Ayers recalled.

Mrs. Costello announced that she could not think of sweets at the moment, and sent Mrs. Ayers on her way. The indignant candy-peddler would eventually make her own small mark on the case by grumbling to the press about this bit of double-dealing.

Despite Jessie's cheerful prediction that "They'll have to go like hell to find any poison in Bill with all that embalming fluid in him," an autopsy revealed that Bill Costello met his end via cyanide of potassium. Investigators also learned that on the day before his death, Mrs. Costello had made a purchase of that very substance. When asked if she had any poison in the house, Jessie issued a scornful denial.

Did she or did she not recently buy cyanide?

"Why, yes, if you call that poison!" she snorted.

The result of all this was that in the summer of 1933, the courthouse in Salem was treated to a show unlike anything American jurisprudence had seen to date. Thanks to movies and radio, the Age of Celebrity had begun, and Jessie Costello was determined to make the most of it. The newly-minted widow saw murder charges as not a threat, but an opportunity!

Mrs. Costello entering the courthouse

Jessie's vivid, if slightly overripe, good looks, brassy personality, and utter unconcern for the fact that she was facing a capital murder charge fascinated the nation. Newspapers chronicled every moment of the trial. People from all over New England sped to Salem in the hopes of catching a glance of this new public idol in person. Jessie had obtained her fondest dream--to become the center of all attention--and she was loving every minute of it.

A characteristic Costello photo-op.

The facts presented at the trial were virtually irrelevant to The Jessie Show, which was just as well for the defendant. There was the pharmacist who sold Mrs. Costello the cyanide, warning her it was a deadly poison. The friends of the victim who all testified that on the day of his death, Bill had been in the best of health and spirits. The fact that Jessie couldn't wait until her husband was even buried before eagerly collaring his life insurance money. There were, of course, her X-rated dealings with Patrolman McMahon (who was, by now, widely reviled as the "Kiss and Tell Cop" for his willingness to reveal under oath every remarkably lurid detail about their affair.) McMahon stated that he once told Jessie that their affair must end, as he was doing "the wrong thing to a good friend like Bill Costello." She replied, "Don't be silly. I've got enough stuff in my bag to end it all for you and for me."

Patrolman Kiss-and-Tell

There was the fact that a gelatin-like substance was found in Bill Costello's stomach, suggesting that he had swallowed the poison as a capsule. Jessie, of course, vehemently denied that she had ever so much as seen a capsule in her life. Unfortunately for her, the prosecution was able to establish that four months before her husband's death, she had purchased a box of empty capsules.

There was the testimony of Jessie's own father, Andrew Fyfe. He said that, shortly before his son-in-law's death, Bill and Jessie had argued violently over her relationship with McMahon--an argument that ended with Bill hitting his wife. Jessie, Fyfe recalled, delivered a profanity-heavy outburst and the declaration that Bill had better watch himself, because "I'll damned well show you that I have brains when I get ready to use them!"

"Bill would never have done that if he knew Jessie as well as he thought he did," commented Fyfe.

Jessie, always smiling, dismissed every bit of evidence against her in a blithe way that had an undeniable charm. The pharmacist? Lies. He never warned her cyanide was dangerous; why, she left his shop under the impression that it was a perfectly harmless substance for cleaning the family boiler. Despite what everyone else who knew her husband might think, Bill was in reality, an ailing, (that indigestion!) pain-wracked soul, so tormented in body and mind that he saw nothing for it but to reach for the boiler polish and end it all. And Mr. McMahon was just the worst sort of lying scoundrel. Why, she barely knew the man, and their relationship was as innocent as a spring morning!

No one believed her, of course, but by this point everyone was too entranced by Jessie and what crime historian Edmund Pearson (who attended some sessions of the trial) described as her "glittering ophidian eyes" to care. The joyful zest she took from the situation seemed contagious. During her trial, everyone involved seems to have gone stark staring mad. The bailiff sent her roses every morning. Cheering crowds surrounded her as she skipped merrily to and from the courthouse. During recesses, the jurors formed an amateur choir that serenaded the crowds with versions of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and other popular tunes. The defendant was getting as many as five hundred love-letters a day. The papers--led on by that king of purple prose, William Randolph Hearst--were full of enticing, if somewhat inaccurate accounts breathlessly describing Jessie's charm, Jessie's beauty, Jessie's general irresistibleness. Dorothy Kilgallen, one of the journalists covering the trial, later wrote, "Jessie was lush and talkative. She beamed at one and all from her seat at the defense table, blushed prettily now and then when witnesses testified against her, and when she herself testified, it was with such rapidity that the court stenographer had to halt her every few minutes to catch up with her patter. She explained things to the jurors with the easy gossipy manner of a woman exchanging the time of day with her neighbor across the fence...before the trial was over, several jurors sent her flowers and all had chipped in to buy her a box of candy." It was very probably the most festive murder trial in American history.

What else could the jury do but return an acquittal?

When contemplating this amazing verdict, Pearson theorized that the all-male panel was led by "the ancient belief that 'a woman couldn't do such a thing,'" but I think it's more likely that the jury simply didn't want to spoil the fun everyone was having.

The trial was over. Jessie was acquitted, if not exactly exonerated, and she was sure her road to stardom was just beginning. Her ex-inamorato McMahon (who had been dismissed from the force due to the trial's juicy revelations) may have been content to accept a job with Lydia Pinkham, that famed peddler of "women's tonics," but Jessie aimed far higher. She was going to milk her notoriety with everything she had. Broadway beckoned!

Impresarios showered Jessie with offers. Hollywood begged her for screen tests. She was given $1100 simply to appear on stage for four days in a New York theater. She bought a lavish wardrobe and began to make the rounds of all the fashionable resorts, where she was feted by the likes of Walter Winchell and "New York Daily News" reporter Ed Sullivan.

Unfortunately, Will Hays, that notable film censor and general guardian of morals, was not among Jessie's admirers. Strange to say, he expressed disapproval of the the idea that this woman should profit from the murder of her husband. He said in no uncertain terms that Mrs. Costello could forget about a career in film, and the studio bosses meekly obeyed.

Jessie, undaunted, continued spending. A lavish country cottage, expensive gifts, fine furniture. She was presented with lucrative contracts to appear in burlesque houses, performing "clean but affectionate" skits dramatizing her relations with Patrolman McMahon, but she indignantly rejected such tawdry offers. After all, what sort of woman did they think she was?

And then, predictably--well, predictably to everyone but Jessie--her brief notoriety faded, and the offers dried up. The end of her fifteen minutes left Mrs. Costello utterly flabbergasted. She had fallen into the trap of believing her own press, and she honestly thought the good times would never end. Desperate to revive her fame, she went to the same burlesque houses she had previously rejected as beneath her, only to be told that they were no longer interested. Worse still, her once-adoring public had finally recovered their senses, and saw her for what, jury be damned, she logically was--a cold-blooded poisoner. Jessie, who had so short a time back, dreamed of Broadway stardom, was reduced to working as a "hostess" in a Boston pub.

It looked like the end of the road. But Jessie Costello, whatever else she may have been, was no quitter. If one road was closed to her, well, she'd take another. In October of 1933, she announced that she had found religion, and would henceforth be joining forces with "the noted Los Angeles Evangelist, Mrs. Aimee Semple MacPherson." One of Mrs. MacPherson's representatives told the press that "We hope Mrs. Jessie will come into the great blessing of God's love. I get down on my knees and pray with her."

Yes, Jessie was ready for the Lord. But was the Lord ready for Jessie?

Mrs. MacPherson decidedly was not. She could not help but notice that the crowds were not cheering the ostensible star of the show, but her vivacious, hymn-belting, hip-shaking sidekick. As had been the case during her trial, being in front of a crowd made Jessie bloom like a greenhouse full of orchids. In short, Aimee was finding herself upstaged.

To be fair, Jessie Costello could probably upstage God himself when she was in fine form.

Despite Mrs. MacPherson's defensive comment that "In the Lord's work, one is not afraid of a pretty face," she unceremoniously ejected Jessie from her entourage.

Jessie, it seems, was just too much for either God or the Devil. The money she earned during her short heyday quickly dried up. She and her children were evicted from the sumptuous home she had so briefly occupied. Her sole source of income came when she applied for the pension she was due as the widow of a war veteran. She received $65 dollars a month. All she had left were remnants of a fancy wardrobe and old press clippings.

Jessie last made the papers when a farmer from New Hampshire turned up on her doorstep and offered marriage. He was a widower with some money tucked away, he explained, and could support her and her children comfortably.

Mrs. Costello scornfully refused the offer. She was still planning a big comeback, which she could hardly do if she was buried on some remote farm. "I shall climb again," she told a reporter.

Jessie never did, but when she died at the age of 68 in March 1971, she at least proved that, although gone, she was not forgotten. Nearly two hundred people attended her funeral, including the mayor and the chief of police.

Perhaps this was their way of saying "Thanks for the memories."


  1. Another sign of the perversity of civilisation. We haven't moved too far from the days of Roman gladiatorial games, or the Dark Ages, when justice was hardly obtainable.

  2. "Nearly two hundred people attended her funeral, including the mayor and the chief of police." Considering the Police Chief was her son, Robert, that is not so unusual.

  3. You specifically mention the attendance of the Chief of Police at Jessie's funeral. Considering the Chief of Police was her son, Robert Costello, it would not be too unusual to have him in attendance, and he mayor showing support for the Police Chief would not be uncommon is a city as small as Peabody Mass.

    1. Was he? I had never seen that mentioned before. Nicely ironic end to the story.


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