“…accused as murderess…”

Weegee, [Anna Sheehan at police headquarters, New York], January, 1937 (14036.1993)

Anna and Joseph Sheehan lived in Hells Kitchen. The Sheehans had been married for nine years. They had three children, all boys, at the dawn of 1937 their ages were seven, three, and nineteen months. They lived with Anna’s sister and mother. Anna’s sister, Alice, said “they were the happiest couple I’ve ever known.”

Anna was 27 years old and had worked as a sales woman. Joseph was 30 and worked as an elevator starter (or operator) in the Astor Building, 330 Fifth Avenue (just south of the Empire State Building), his salary was $30 a week.

To celebrate New Year’s Eve, the end of 1936, they went to a party at a friend’s apartment in Flushing, Queens. (Anna didn’t want to attend, but was persuaded; they took the subway and bus.) Joseph wanted to spend $2 to celebrate and Anna thought that was too much. Money was tight; they had a young family and $300 of debt. During the boozy party, between dancing and drinking, Anna and Joseph had a number of arguments about money. Joseph became violent during some of these arguments. Joseph spent more than the budgeted $2 on booze and Anna was worried that they wouldn’t have enough money to feed their family.

We interrupt this narrative for a brief note about inflation and money:
$1 had the same buying power in 1937 as $18.49 in November, 2019.
The $2 that was budgeted for booze had the same buying power as $36.48 in November, 2019.
The $4 that Anna wanted for food for her family of five (or seven) people is worth about $72.97 today.
Joseph’s $30 weekly income has the same buying power as $547.25 today.
The $300 debt for household items that the Sheehan’s had is about $5,472 now.
We now return to the festivities:

When the party ran out of spirits they all went to a tavern on the ground floor for more drinking. Anna did not want to waste any more money on liquor. Anna and Joseph were arguing too much for the partygoers, so they were asked to leave; they returned to the friend’s apartment. They were in what became a hellish kitchen. Joseph picked up a broken beer glass and threatened cut Anna’s throat. Anna was terrified and picked up a knife that was nearby. She hoped that holding a knife would keep him away. Instead he lunged at her. The knife plunged into his heart. He was dead.

Timely tabloids:

New York Post, January 2, 1937, p. 5

Mrs. Anna Sheehan, widow, left Police Headquarters, her eyes wet from a night of weeping, after being charged with the fatal stabbing of her husband, Joseph, aftermath of a New Year’s Party.


Weeping Woman Tells How
New Year’s Spending
Led to Stabbing

Mrs. Anna Sheehan was in the police lineup at police headquarters today charged with homicide.

Her three children are with relatives. They have been told that their father died in an auto accident. They don’t know that their mother killed him…
New York Post, January 2, 1937, p. 5

Held in New Year Husband-Slaying
The first tragic figure of 1937, Mrs. Anna Sheehan, mother of three children, is charged with stabbing her husband to death…
Daily Mirror, January 2, 1937

Daily Mirror, Mrs. Anna Sheehan… accused as murderess…, January 3, 1937

TRAGIC NEW YEAR party that ended on death for her husband caused the arrest of Mrs. Anna Sheehan. She is shown entering court to be arraigned on charge of stabbing her husband, Joseph, to death.

New York Daily News, January 3, 1937

Faints Facing Court As Husband’s Slayer
Still clad in the red party dress she wore to a fatal New Year’s celebration, Mrs. Anna Sheehan, 26-year-old mother of three sons, fainted yesterday at her arraignment in Ridgewood, Queens, Magistrates’ Court on a charge of murdering her husband.

The youthful-looking self-made widow was wracked with sobs as she was led into the courtroom… Her head was bowed and her knees seemed unable to support her.[…]

“You are charged,” he said, “with the crime of homicide; with the killing of a human being.”

Mrs. Sheehan’s mouth opened but no words came out. Then she collapsed.[…]
New York Daily News, January 3, 1937

New York Daily News, January 3, 1937 (Unidentified photographer)

STABS MATE AT PARTY – New Year’s Eve party in Flushing, Queens, ended in tragedy when Mrs. Anna Sheehan, 27 (above), fatally stabbed her husband.

The aftermath:

Anna was arrested and brought to the Flushing precinct house. She was facing a charge of first degree manslaughter. A hearing was scheduled for January 8th in Queens Felony Court. Anna was held without bail. She was held in jail until her trial.

On March 9th the jury was selected in only 90 minutes.

Mrs. Sheehan, who has been in jail since her arrest, was highly nervous when she came into court.

Tall, pale and wearing no cosmetics, she fumbled with her gloves and cheap glass beads as Assistant District Attorney J. Irwin Shapiro demanded, in the opening statement to prospective jurors, that they try the case on its merits and not be influenced by the fact that a women is the defendant. Long Island Daily Press, March 9, 1937.

The trial was on March 10th. The testimony was completed in about five hours (10:30-3:00 PM), the fastest ever in Queens.

Anna’s own words delivered at the trial:

“I reminded him that we had to have money to eat on until the next pay day and he came toward me to hit me with the glass he had in his hand,” Mrs. Sheehan continued. “He held it over his head. I turned around and saw the knife on the stove. I picked it up with my left hand. I thought it would scare him away, but he kept coming. He ran into the knife.” New York Times, March 11, 1937, p. 3.

Anna’s three children were in the courtroom. During a recess the children saw their mother for the first time since she was arrested.

The next day, at 6:20 PM, Anna’s fate, she was facing a maximum sentence of ten to twenty years in prison, was given to the jury. They recessed immediately for dinner. The jury started deliberation at 7:30 PM. At one point the jury asked the judge to define self defense. The judge read the law: “an act is justifiable when done in self defense, if nothing more is done than is necessary to avoid injury.”

The jury returned its verdict after deliberating for more than five hours – five hours during which in another room she held her youngest child in her arms and with the other two clinging to her gown she prayed that she would not have to serve another day in jail.

Verdict Reached

At 12:20 A.M. the jury announced that it had reached a verdict and the pale, frail figure, supported by a matron entered to face her peers. Her dark hair was disheveled from tiny hands that had clung to her a moment before, her eyes rid-rimmed. Long Island Daily Press, March 11, 1937.

Anna was acquitted by the jury of first degree manslaughter.

The judge “thanked the jurors as Mrs. Sheehan was led out – still to weak too stand – by a matron and bailiff. Fifteen minutes later she was weeping her happiness, as she posed for photographs, then, still to the flashing of photographic bulbs, she was whisked away in an auto to start her life anew…” Long Island Daily Press, March 11, 1937.

Around midnight on Thursday, March 11, 1937, Anna Sheehan, the “self-made widow,” was very grateful as she was preparing “to devote her life to the support of her three children,” because she was free…

Weegee, [Anna Sheehan at police headquarters, New York], January, 1937 (14037.1993)

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