In the summer of 1933, the murder trial of a brassy Peabody, Mass., housewife named Jessie Costello captured the world’s attention.
Festive crowds gathered around the Salem courthouse to see the buxom diva. Costello smiled coquettishly throughout the proceedings, oblivious to the death sentence hanging over her head. She instead basked in her celebrity while insisting she had not poisoned her firefighter husband.
A British crime writer called it ‘the most astonishing crime-farce within living memory.’
Jessie Costello was born Sept. 15, 1902 in Peabody. She grew up into an uninhibited flapper with short skirts, bobbed hair, an outgoing personality and an ample bust.
At 21, she married William Costello, a grim Irish Catholic firefighter. People who knew him said he spent much of his time praying and the rest worrying about his indigestion. They had four children. Soon, Jessie found her marriage too confining.
She started an affair with a stolid, married policeman, Edward McMahon. She called him ‘Big Boy.’ Journalists would call him ‘the kiss-and-tell cop.’
One day in February 1933, a door-to-door fudge saleswoman named Nellie Ayers came to the Costello home. Jessie Costello agreed to buy a pound of fudge and went to get her purse.
She returned screaming that her husband lay dead on the bathroom floor. Then she told Nellie Ayer she couldn’t think of sweets at a time like that and sent the indignant candy peddler away.
An autopsy on Bill Costello, performed after he was embalmed, revealed he died of cyanide poisoning.
On March 17, 1933, Jessie Costello was arrested for the murder of her husband.
Buxom Prima Donna
The trial began without much fanfare, but soon Jessie Costello captured the public’s imagination. Reporters made much of her overripe attractions. One went so far as to write, ‘all the modest sex appeal of Lady Godiva plus clothing but minus horse was hers.’ She was called a ‘buxom prima donna’ and a ‘glamorous siren.’
The 12 male jurors found the fun-loving widow fascinating. One asked if he could send her a box of candy as a token of his esteem. Four of the jurors formed a barbershop quartet and sang Sweet Adelaide and My Wild Irish Rose during breaks.
The bailiff sent her roses every day. Crowds cheered her as she cantered to and from the courtroom into a limousine. Men sent her as many as 500 love letters a day. She even posed for photographers at the cemetery, putting flowers on her husband's grave.
Inside the courtroom, she blithely dismissed the evidence: the pharmacist who sold her the poison, the friends who testified the victim had been in the best of health, the fact that Jessie didn’t wait until he was in the ground before collecting his life insurance.
She denied ever seeing a gelatin capsule like the one found in her husband’s stomach, despite testimony she had purchased a box of capsules four months before his death.
She claimed Bill Costello had been so tormented by indigestion he killed himself, and that her relationship with Ed McMahon was purely spiritual.
Kiss and Tell
Edward McMahon played the villain in the courtroom drama. He revealed on the stand that he had slept with Jessie Costello. He went into such lurid detail the newspapers declined to print his testimony. One enterprising publication, though, printed his words on the stand in a little red booklet that sold like hotcakes.
The jury, according to journalist Edmund Pearson, was ‘as helpless as twelve rabbits under the influence of those glittering ophidian eyes.’
Finally, they acquitted Jessie Costello of murder.
She immediately headed for Broadway, where she received $1,100 just to appear on a New York stage for four days. The exclusive rights to her life story garnered her another $2,400. Jessie was also given a theatrical agent and a maid.
She turned down a $20,000 contract for a 10-week burlesque appearance because -- incredibly -- she thought it unrefined. She bought beautiful new clothes and vacationed with the elite, where she gave interviews to Walter Winchell of the New York Daily Mirror and Ed Sullivan of the New York Daily News
Hollywood studios begged her for screen tests – until the Hollywood censors objected. But Jessie Costello’s 15 minutes of fame soon ended.
It took her a while to realize it, though. She went back to the burlesque houses she had previously shunned and offered her services. They no longer had any interest in her.
The Lord's Service
She went to work as a hostess in a Boston tavern owned by Jack Sharkey. Then in October 1933 she announced she found religion and would appear on stage with 'the noted Los Angeles Evangelist, Mrs. Aimee Semple MacPherson.'
Jessie, however, upstaged Aimee Semple MacPherson with her vivacious hymn-singing, hip-shaking performances. MacPherson released her from the Lord’s service.
Jessie Costello and her children were evicted from their lavish new home and she disappeared from the headlines. Then a New Hampshire farmer came to the door of her apartment, where she and her children lived on welfare. He asked her to marry him, but she said no. “I shall climb again,” she said.
Jessie Costello died at 68 on March 15, 1971 in Peabody. Nearly 200 people came to her funeral, including the mayor and the chief of police.
With thanks to the Strange Company blog, which posted Justice and Jessie Costello. This story was updated in 2019.