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Newspapers love juicy murders. This was especially true during the 1920s and '30s when crime was king.

In 1933 the press had a field day. There were several interesting cases, a few unbelievably bizarre — such as the Chicago murder of Rheta Gardner Wynekoop by her 66-year-old mother-in-law, Dr. Alice Lindsay Wynekoop, whose version of the crime changed daily. In time she would use every excuse except "The devil made me do it!"

There was the case of Akron attorney Mark H. Shank who convinced a client to move his family to Arkansas to avoid questioning in a burglary. Shank followed, took the client and his family on a picnic — and poisoned them.

Widely covered was the beating death of Allene Thorpe Lamson in Palo Alto, California, and the trial of her husband, David. This was a case that dragged on for many, many months.

And then there was "the smiling widow," Jessie Burnett Costello of Peabody, Massachusetts.

IT'S A BIT of a stretch to portray Jessie Costello as a femme fatale, though that's precisely what some reporters did. By today's standards, she was at least 25 pounds too heavy and there was something decidedly masculine about the black eyebrows that arched her expressive eyes. Ah, but that ever-present smile. Few men, it seemed, could resist the woman.

The trial of Jessie Costello was the year's media event, at least in the Northeast. The case remains one of the most baffling in Massachusetts history. Some folks came to believe no crime had been committed; luckily for Jessie Costello, this view was shared by a jury of 12 married men. They were so smitten with the woman usually identified by the press simply as Jessie, that they serenaded her, earning the nickname, "The Singing Jury." Indeed, it was a strange trial. Incredibly, when it began it was considered a slam dunk for the prosecution. But after all the testimony and closing arguments, it took the jury just two hours to declare the defendant was not guilty.

Jessie Costello was born in 1902, daughter of Andrew and Jessie Fyfe of Yonkers, New York. By her teens Jessie's family was living in Massachusetts. She reviewed her life during her testimony:

Troy Times, Wednesday, August 2, 1933
SALEM, Massachusetts (AP) — Mrs. Jessie Costello, on trial for the murder of her husband, William J. Costello, told the story of her life today when she took the stand in her defense.

In a low, steady voice, she answered the questions of her counsel, William G. Clark, as he led her to tell of her marriage to Costello and how she met Edward J. McMahon, Peabody policeman, who testified previously he had engaged in an illicit love affair with her. Mrs. Costello frequently broke into tears as she gave her testimony.

She said she went to grammar school for eight years, but left school before entering high school and went to work in a bakery where she was employed for a year.

After leaving the bakery, Mrs. Costello said she went to work in the office of a leather factory where she ran an adding machine.

In slow and deliberate words the widow told of first meeting Costello while she was selling poppies for World War veterans in 1919. She went to the Peabody fire station, where Costello was assigned, and he purchased a poppy.

As her counsel turned to the married life of the Costellos and the birth of their children, tears came from the widow’s eyes. she said she had been the mother of four children.

“How many are living?” Clark asked.

“Only three now,” Mrs. Costello said.

The witness wept openly as the told of the death of [17-month-old] William Jr., about three years ago.

Mrs. Costello said that after the death of William Jr., her husband spent hours at a time in church, and often knelt to pray before a picture of the dead child or a crucifix that was taken from the boy’s coffin. She said he never had laughed or talked very much, but after the death of the child he became even more quiet.

She said John Costello Jr., her husband’s brother, brought his father to her home and told her to take care of him.

She testified that her mother, Mrs. Andrew Fyfe, and “Bill” were close friends always.

The widow broke into tears again as she said “There wasn’t a day went by after my mother died that Bill didn’t wish he had gone with her.”

She said Costello had been taking medicine for some time before his death.

The widow said her husband usually stayed home and read when he had a day off. She said they had a small automobile they had bought second hand, on notes. She said she always drove him to work while they had a car and that she always brought his dinner to him at the fire station. When they had no car, she said, she put the baby in a carriage and walked to the station.

“Was your life happy?”

“Very.”

She was crying again, mopping her eyes with her handkerchief. She recovered quickly, however, as the questioning continued.

Asked when she became acquainted with McMahon, Mrs. Costello said he came to her home selling butter and eggs about four years ago.

 

WHEN 38-YEAR-OLD William J. Costello Sr. died upstairs at home in February, 1933, it seemed initially that a heart attack was responsible. But an autopsy revealed the cause was cyanide of potassium poisoning. Authorities ruled out suicide or accidental death and decided Jessie Costello had poisoned her husband. (There is an unattributed remark in one news story that there was enough cyanide in Costello's body to kill a dozen men.)

Mrs. Costello's supposed motive was her alleged affair with Edward J. McMahon, a former part-time local policeman. McMahon became known as the "kiss-and-tell cop" because of his testimony during the trial.

At the same time, McMahon's sister, Catherine, agreed to be a defense witness and refute much of her brother's testimony.

Newspapers, despite their frequent sensationalism, were squeamish when it came to frank reporting on sexual matters. Likewise, in court, defendants in criminal and civil cases could have their reputations tarnished by admitting they had merely kissed someone who wasn't their spouse. It wasn't clear in newspaper stories what claims McMahon was making about his relationship with Mrs. Costello.

Logistically it would have been difficult for Jessie Costello and Edward McMahon to have the kind of full-blown, check-into-a-motel kind of affair so common today. Complicating matters, Jessie Costello had three small children and also cared for her father-in-law, John J. Costello, who lived with his son's family.

For a while McMahon, his wife, and their two children also lived in the Costello house, at the invitation of William J. Costello.

THE PROSECUTION'S case was built entirely on circumstantial evidence, which probably is true of most trials and often results in conviction. Had Jessie Costello been less effective with her testimony, she may have been convicted.

The state emphasized two things — that there was a witness who swore he and Mrs. Costello were illicit lovers and that the defendant had purchased cyanide of potassium the night before her husband was poisoned. The poison, the prosecution claimed, was in a capsule Mrs. Costello had prepared for the purpose of killing her husband. She admitted taking a glass of ginger ale upstairs to her husband about two hours before he died.

However, the method seemed less important during this trial than the supposed motive, which was supplied by the "kiss-and-tell cop." This, I believe, is where the prosecution lost the case. Edward McMahon may have been telling the truth, but the jury obviously didn't believe him, not in the face of Mrs. Costello's convincing denials.

Syracuse Journal, August 15, 1933

SALEM, Massachusetts (INS) — “Gentlemen, take the case.”

With these words, at 11:55 a.m., Judge Frederick W. Fosdick placed in the hands of a jury the case of Mrs. Jessie Burnett Costello, accused of the murder of her husband by the administration of cyanide of potassium in capsule.

The jury of 12 married men received the case after a charge of one hour and 24 minutes by Judge Fosdick.

Judge Fosdick told the jurors they were the judges who are to decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

“The defendant is not to be convicted on suspicion. If you have a reasonable doubt that the deceased was murdered, you will find the defendant not guilty," said the judge, who continued:

“The commonwealth relies heavily on the testimony of Edward McMahon. His testimony has been stoutly attacked and defended. It is of great importance and you will submit it to a careful and thorough test. Much of his testimony deals with sex relations. In judging the truth it would be well to remember that sexual influence exerts tremendous power over thoughts and actions.”

Judge Fosdick instructed the jury to probe deeply into McMahon’s testimony. He warned the jurors they must be guided by the truth as found in the testimony, regardless of their opinions of the witness.

 

BUT HERE'S the thing, at least, in my mind, and perhaps jurors wondered the same thing. If the prosecution believed this affair was real, and that it was the motive for murder, wouldn't it be logical to suspect that McMahon had conspired in the crime?

The prosecution probably would have had a stronger case if they had been able to prove there was an affair without testimony from McMahon, who became an object of ridicule because of his performance which aroused sympathy for Mrs. Costello. I think jurors concluded there was no way she would have committed murder for such a cad.

That's not to say she didn't have a reason, but none was ever suggested by the prosecution. There was mention of insurance money, but it also was stated that the widow was well aware she did not stand to benefit from any policy.

REGARDING the cyanide, well, Jessie Costello had a better explanation for it than did the prosecution, though mostly this was another she said/he said issue.

She claimed cyanide of potassium and oxalic acid were mixed — by her husband — for use in cleaning a brass boiler. Her younger brother, Andrew Fyfe Jr., who lived with the Costellos for awhile, testified he had seen William Costello mix the two ingredients several times over the years.

The prosecution claimed there was no record that Mrs. Costello had ever purchased the ingredients until the night before William Costello died. Jessie Costello argued otherwise, but had no proof of an earlier purchase.

The prosecution should have let the matter rest there, but they paraded a few witnesses who claimed cyanide of potassium and oxalic acid weren't used to make an effective cleaning agent. This wasn't true; using them, particularly to clean brass, was quite common. (Oxalic acid is one of the ingredients in Brasso, a product recommended to me years ago to clean the buttons on my Army uniform.)

MOST PHOTOS of Jessie Costello are unflattering, particularly in the black dress she wore throughout the trial. She looks much older than her 31 years. However, some photos, including the one at the top of the page, offer a hint of her appeal.

As mentioned, the press was out in force. During the trial's closing days there were 52 reporters in the courtroom. The Hearst newspapers featured stories by Thomas McMorrow, a lawyer and a writer who specialized in crime fiction. He fell under the spell of Jessie Costello and announced his verdict a few days before the jury made it official.

Among the others who covered the trial were author Katharine Brush and a fledgling, 20-year-old journalist, Dorothy Kilgallen, who later became a TV celebrity on "What's My Line?"

Proclaimed not guilty, Jessie Burnett Costello returned home to her three children.

Syracuse Journal, August 16, 1933
PEABODY, Massachusetts (INS) — Dawn of new and happier hours came today to Mrs. Jessie Burnett Costello, acquitted by a jury in Salem of the charge of giving her husband a capsule containing cyanide of potassium.

Jessie was home with her three children and her father. She was free for the first time since her arrest on March 17.

But she was not free from the public spotlight. Her little bungalow home, where she was trying to step back to everyday life, was besieged by neighbors and friends, by the curious, and by those seeking her name on contracts to appear on the stage and to write.

 

WHILE JESSIE COSTELLO did not benefit from any life insurance policy, her children were provided trusts in the will of her father-in-law, John J. Costello Sr., who died soon after she was acquitted.

Her payoff was expected to come from all those offers that reportedly had been made for stage appearances. And it looked promising. Briefly.

Pittsburgh Press, August 18, 1933
PEABODY, Massachusetts (UP) — Mrs. Jessie Burnett Costello, freed Tuesday after a sensational trial on a charge of murder, has signed a 10-week vaudeville contract, it was reported today.

Samuel Burger, the New York booking agent who exploited the late Mrs. Jack “Legs” Diamond, offered $750 a week. It was said she signed after Burger boosted his offer to $1,000 a week.

 

JESSIE COSTELLO'S entertainment career ended quickly. She was banned in Boston and other New England communities. Movie studios were told she was off limits. The woman was acquitted in court, but judged guilty elsewhere. Offers were quickly withdrawn. (I found articles from the mid-1930s that said Jessie Costello was briefly a sensation on the vaudeville stage, but I think that's a gross exaggeration.)

The only public appearances I could find occurred during a New England revival by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who had also gone through a rough year, thanks to an unhappy husband who filed for divorce.

Syracuse American, October 15, 1933
BOSTON (INS) — The sawdust trail to Aimee Semple McPherson’s “convert corner” has not yet been marked by the print of Jessie Costello’s feet. Yet the woman who scored a victory over the charge of poisoning her fire captain husband has inspired the evangelist to compose a sermon.

“The Broken Leaf” is the subject of the sermon Aimee has written and will preach in the Boston arena Sunday and which she admits was inspired by the smiling Jessie. Ever since Mrs. McPherson opened her campaign to save souls in the Hub, the congregation has been more interested in Jessie than in the preacher.

Jessie, however, while sitting in the choir for a time, has not hit the trail to salvation. She said she had not yet felt the real urge to do so.

 

According to "The Hoopla Murder Trial," by British writer Sydney Horler, Jessie Costello did take center stage during one of McPherson's appearances and was well received; perhaps too well received, because McPherson did not ask Mrs. Costello to join her traveling circus, suggesting she remain in Massachusetts and work behind the scenes. (Unfortunately, Horlet's piece is no longer readily available online.)

Syracuse American, Sunday, October 29, 1933
BOSTON (INS) — Dark-browed Mrs. Jessie Costello, acquitted last August of the cyanide murder of her fire captain husband, today was elected president of the Four Square Gospel Center, Boston headquarters of Aimee Semple McPherson.

Mrs. Costello assisted sister Aimee in her evangelical revival here two weeks ago. Rev. Charles W. Rosendahl, co-organizer of Aimee’s Angelus temple in Los Angeles, was elected vice president and business manager.

 

Jessie Costello's association with Aimee Semple McPherson was short-lived, as you'll notice in the second paragraph of the item below. Also, it's possible the kidnapping threat mentioned in the story was legitimate. It was incredible how many people received such threats in 1933. Fortunately, most of those threats never materialized. Kidnap victims almost always were snatched without prior warning.

Syracuse Journal, December 18. 1933
PEABODY, Massachusetts (INS) — Police today proclaimed themselves “in the dark” concerning a reported threatening letter received by Jessie B. Costello, acquitted on a charge of poisoning her husband, demanding $5,000 on threat her son Bobby would be kidnapped.

Mrs. Costello, reported on the brink of a nervous breakdown following her ouster from the Four Square Gospel Church by Aimee Semple McPherson Hutton, said she received the letter three months ago and that her father, Andrew Fyfe, had turned it over to police.

 

Adding to the weirdness of the Costello case was this item, a year later:

Binghamton Press, August 7, 1934
SALEM, Massachusetts (AP) — The jury that acquitted Jessie B. Costello has planned to sit again, but this time without benefit of judge or even the comely widow.

August 14 will be the first anniversary of the acquittal of Mrs. Costello, who was tried to the slaying of her husband, and the dozen men who set her free have decided to hold a dinner at the hotel where they lived during the five weeks her trial lasted.

The jurors, whose musical propensities earned them the sobriquet of the “singing jury,” have invited many persons connected with the case to sit at their board. But the principal — the smiling, brunette fire captain’s widow — will not be there.

 

THE MOST DETAILED piece I found on Jessie Costello was also the most cynical. It's the previously mentioned "Hoopla Murder Trial," by a British writer, Sydney Horler, who claims the "not guilty" verdict surprised everyone. This wasn't true. Soon after Mrs. Costello took the stand the press noted a change in the way the case was going, and it was obvious she won over the jury long before they were asked to render their verdict. ("Hoopla Murder Trial," unfortunately, is no longer readily available online.)

Details are sketchy, but Jessie Costello seems to have plunged deep into obscurity before 1940. She remained in Peabody and died in 1971 at the age of 68.

 
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