The Gilded Age Plains City

The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of Lincoln, Nebraska


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Spatial Narratives

Interpretation and Narrative

When — Timeline

Timeline of events


John Sheedy, a native of Ireland, arrives in Lincoln, Nebraska from Council Bluffs, Iowa.


Members of a local temperance club begin holding prayer and hymn meetings inside saloons in the entertainment district, inciting anger between anti-alcohol Lincolnites and the supporters of the saloon and drinking culture. Saloon keeper and patrons badger women; salon keeper charged with multiple acounts of harassment.

September 22, 1874

John Sheedy first arrested for gambling. Police judge fines Sheedy twenty dollars plus a five-dollar court cost. His casino continues to operate.

February 19, 1875

John Sheedy charged in the police court with being found in a house of prostitution; the charge, however, is later dropped.

March 1, 1877

Saloon owner Tunis P. Quick charged and convicted in the police court of selling liquor on a Sunday; he is handed a small fine.


Mary Sheedy, known at the time as Mollie Merrill, migrates to Lincoln, Nebraska from Illinois with her second husband, George Merrill. The couple patronizes the various saloons and casinos in Lincoln's demimonde.


Mollie and George Merrill begin fighting. George allegedly locks her out of the house and states that "he refuse[s] to live with such a damned whore."


Projected year in which Mollie Merrill and John Sheedy begin their cohabitation. They live initially at Opelt's Hotel, (or the Arlington Hotel), followed by the floor above Quick's saloon. They then move to 132 North Tenth Street before building a house at 1211 P Streetaround 1883 or 1884.

June 9, 1881

John Sheedy arrested and charged again with keeping a gambling house. He pleads guilty and is fined three dollars plus the cost of lawyer and court fees. Sheedy is committed to the city jail until the fine is paid.

August 24, 1881

Sheedy charged with assault in police court.

September 24, 1881

Sheedy again charged with keeping a gambling house.

September 26, 1881

Sheedy again charged with keeping a gambling house.

January 18, 1882

Mollie Merrill files for a divorce from George Merrill.

March, 1882

Mollie and George Merrill's divorce is finalized.


John Sheedy and Mary Merrill travel to New Orleans. Mary refuses to return with John unless he marries her. The couple marries in New Orleans.

January, 1885

Harrison Littlefield files the first series of complaints of the Law and Order League in the county court, charging John Sheedy and other men with operating a gambling hall. Sheedy evades arrest because he is at his home at 1211 P Street recovering from a stab wound received from a patron of his casino whom he had thrown out for being overly intoxicated.

April 7, 1885

Attorney and real estate developer Carlos C. Burr narrowly defeats capitalist and reformist John Fitzgerald in Lincoln's mayoral election. Just days later Fitzgerald attempts to nullify the vote saying that fraud had been committed.

April 10, 1885

A special session of the city council is called by mayor Robert Moore for the purpose of canvassing voting returns. The council moves to have Fitzgerald and Burr appear at a special meeting of the council the following evening to present their cases.

April 11, 1885

John Fitzgerald appears before a special meeting of the city council with his attorneys Andrew J. Sawyer, Novia Snell, and Charles Whedon, to state his case regarding fraudulent voter returns. The council resolves to authorize Burr to be installed as the next mayor of Lincoln. Although Whedon threatens to apply for a perpetual injunction to prevent Burr from becoming mayor, nothing ever comes of it.

November, 1885

Moral and temperance reformers in Lincoln found a Law and Order League to assist police in prosecuting prostitutes, gambling hall operators, and saloon keepers who illegally sell alcohol. Attorney and future mayor, Andrew J. Sawyer, is elected as League president.

April, 1887

Law and Order League president, Andrew Sawyer, is elected mayor of Lincoln. He vows to eliminate the influences of alcohol dealers and to shut down illegal gambling halls, gambling dens, and brothels.

June 21, 1887

John Sheedy, August Sanders, and three other men are charged with operating an illegal gambling business. They are fined fifty dollars each after pleading not guilty. They appeal the decision and it is taken to the district court.

August 1, 1887

John Sheedy, August Sanders, and A. J. Hyatt appear before the Lincoln city council to file a citizens' petition presented by their lawyer Jesse B. Strode, charging police judge Albert Parsons with blackmail and embezzlement. They claim he collected "fines" from them and kept them for himself.

November 14, 1887

John Sheedy and August Sanders appear in the district court with three others to appeal their conviction in the police court for gambling. While the three other gamblers are fined fifty dollars, the charges against Sheedy and Sanders are dismissed.

November 17, 1887

District Court Judge David J. Brewer declares Mayor Sawyer and the entire city council in contempt of court and levies a fine against them. The mayor and the city council refuse to pay the fine and they are brought to the jail in Omaha where they are incarcerated for ten days.

November, 1889

Monday McFarland arrested and charged with assault and battery with the intent to kill. He is convicted of a lesser charge of assault and fined.

August, 1890

August, 1890

John and Mary Sheedy travel to Buffalo, New York where Mary is treated for a "disease peculiar to women." The two quarrel and John returns to Lincoln without Mary. She meets and befriends Andrew (Harry) Walstrom and though she returns to Lincoln alone, Walstrom later follows her to the city.

December 9, 1890

As John and Mary Sheedy are coming home around ten o'clock P.M. from the Eden Musee with James Hood, a saloon owner, and his wife, an unknown assailant who had been hiding in the Sheedy's yard behind the fence meets them and fires one shot from a revolver. The shot misses Sheedy and the assailant flees before Sheedy catches him. The Lincoln Daily Call describes the incident as "one of the most villainous attempts at murder ever made in Lincoln." Many Lincolnites believe the shooting is the "outcome of a bitterness existing between many of the knights of the green-cloth." In his confession to Sheedy's murder, McFarland claimes it was him who committed the act, however, he, or rather his attorneys, later deny it.

December 19, 1890

According to his own confession, McFarland makes his second attempt to murder John Sheedy by waiting at the Sheedy residence for the couple to return from the musee and then shooting him with a revolver. The Sheedys unexpectedly approach him from the wrong direction and he allegedly shoots the gun and runs off frightened. (Sheedy is hit in the head by the bullet.)

January 9, 1891

McFarland allegedly purchases the leather-covered steel cane at Hyman Goldwater's pawnshop, the item with which Sheedy is later attacked.

January 11, 1891

An unknown assailant attacks John Sheedy around 7:30 P.M. Sheedy fires five shots from his revolver as the man runs away and is then taken into his house where two doctors, Everett and Hart, arrive and dress his wound. No one, including John Sheedy, believes the wound to be life threatening.

January 12, 1891

Around 4:00 A.M. Sheedy falls into an unconscious state. Doctors Hart, Everett, Mitchell, Woodward, and Winnet hold a conference at Sheedy's residence and determine that his condition was brought about by hemorrhaging at the base of the brain caused by the blow to the head. Sheedy dies around 10:00 P.M. the same night.

January 15, 1891

John Sheedy is buried at St. Theresa's cemetery in east Lincoln.

January 17, 1891

Police marshal Samuel Melick sees McFarland outside Thomas Carr's saloon at 924 P Street and stops him for questioning about the cane found at the crime scene. Unsatisfied with McFarland's responses, Melick has James Malone arrest him and take him to the city jail at the corner of Ninth and Q streets.

January 18, 1891

After hours of interrogation, Monday McFarland tells Malone, and later other officers and the mayor, that he was the assailant who struck John Sheedy. He implicates John Sheedy's wife, Mary Sheedy, in the murder as well, saying she put him up to it and that she had finished the job by poisoning him. Police marshal Samuel Melick files a complaint in the police court charging Monday McFarland, Mary Sheedy, and Andrew Walstrom with Sheedy's murder and various related charges.

January 20, 1891

Monday McFarland and Andrew Walstrom appear before police judge W. J. Houston and plead not guilty to the various charges against them. Their case is continued and they are both committed to the city jail without bail.

January 21, 1891

Mary Sheedy brought before judge Houston with her attorney, Jesse Strode. She pleads not guilty and is sent to the city jail to await her trial.

January 26, 1891

The preliminary examination for Mary Sheedy, Monday McFarland, and Andrew Walstrom begins. Police Judge Houston holds the preliminary examination in the equity courtroom on the second floor of the County Court House. Witnesses are examined.

January 31, 1891

Preliminary examination of defendants comes to a close. Police Judge William J. Houston orders Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland to be held without bail. They are taken to the county jail to await the trial. The charges against Andrew Walstrom are dropped for lack of evidence and he is released.

March 12, 1891

County attorney Novia Snell files formal charges in the district court against Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland. They are accused of first degree murder, accessory to murder, and conspiracy amounting to six counts for each. The prosecution also enters charges, before reports of the stomach examination come in from a chemist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, alleging that John Sheedy died of poison administered by his wife.

March 26, 1891

James McHaffie files a suit for over three thousand dollars against John Fitzgerald, the administrator of Sheedy's estate, and a constable, claiming that he was wrongfully and by force of arms removed from the Hotel Mack.

April 1, 1891

A mysterious fire breaks out at the unoccupied Hotel Mack, located in the Sheedy Building. The fire department is called and the blaze is extinguished. Although the watchman living in the building at the time claims the fire started after an oil lamp exploded, no traces of the lamp are found. Meanwhile, district court judge Allen Field sustains the demurrers filed by Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland's attorney, asking that the charges of conspiracy be dropped on the grounds that they were not tried with the charges during their preliminary examination.

April 7, 1891

Austin Weir wins the mayoral election in Lincoln running on the Citizens' Reform Ticket.

April 13, 1891

Mary Sheedy and McFarland arraigned in the district court. Both defendants plead not guilty. The trial is set for May 4.

April 21, 1891

The Omaha Bee reports that the chemist in Ann Arbor, Michigan found no traces of morphine in Sheedy's stomach, thus weakening the case of the prosecution. The stomach and liver are later re-examined.

April 28, 1891

The Omaha Bee runs an article highlighting the belief amongst Nebraskans of the importance for the defense attorneys in securing an acquittal for Mary Sheedy. If she were to be convicted the attorneys would likely get little or no fees because she would have no claim to Sheedy's estate. Many in Lincoln, the articles reported, were beginning to think the defense would make McFarland into a scapegoat while Mary would go free, thereby allowing the defense attorney a stake in the estate. Meanwhile, defense attorneys moved in the district court that the county coroner's papers relating to Sheedy's inquest, which the coroner had failed to supply, be handed in to the court.

Last week of April, 1891

Unable to determine the cause of death, physicians exhume John Sheedy's grave at St. Theresa's cemetery. They remove his head, spinal cord, liver, and bladder. The liver and bladder are sent to Professor Hayes, a toxicologist at the Rush Medical College in Chicago, for a second chemical analysis to look for traces of morphine. Hayes finds no traces of morphine.

May 4, 1891

Trial for Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland opens and jury selection begins. The court room is full of spectators, particularly many women and newspaper reporters. Defense counsel objects to the county commissions' methods used to select the panel of potential jurors. Although Judge Field overrules the objection, the suggestion of corruption contributes to a sense of doubt and conspiracy surrounding the case in the minds of many Lincolnites. Local newspapers begin taking sides in the case. The Lincoln Call prints an interview with the defense counsel in which they respond to a report in the Omaha Bee that claimed of a conspiracy amongst the defense attorneys to make Monday McFarland the scapegoat while working for Mary Sheedy's acquittal. In the interview, the defense claims that the prosecuting attorneys are the conspirators working with Dennis Sheedy to get a share of John Sheedy's estate.

May 5, 1891 to May 11, 1891

Jury selection continues and courtroom less crowded as public interest wanes during the tedious process. Due to the amount of newspaper coverage given the case, attorneys find it difficult to find men who have yet to form an opinion and jury selection takes an unusually long time. After reviewing 216 potential jurors the jury is finally formed on May 11, 1891. The final jury consists of James Van Campin, George Albrecht, J. C. Jensen, Ed Young, Luther Batten, C. S. Cadwallader, John Robertson, James Johnson, Henry L. Willis, Jacob Croy, Albert Ward, and Thomas Riley. During the selection process the state charges one of the potential jurymen, A. B. Norton, with perjury after he was released from the jury because he had let it be known to others in his hometown of Davey that he had formed an opinion about the case. He allegedly went about the town stating that they both were guilty, then later, amending his judgment, telling others that Sheedy would go free "and the nigger would hang." Norton was sent to the county jail to await trial.

May 11, 1891

Following the selection of the jury, attorneys for the prosecution and defense present their opening arguments.

May 12, 1891

Testimony begins at the trial. Courtroom on second floor of County Court House is once again filled over its capacity. At the request of Mary Sheedy's attorney, Royal Stearns, Judge Field orders all witnesses not on stand at the time to leave the courtroom while others testify. The first witness, Doctor C. S. Hart, testifies that John Sheedy's death was caused by compression of the brain, not morphine poisoning.

May 13, 1891

Trial delayed due to the arrival of President Benjamin Harrison in Lincoln to make a public speech at the State Capitol building. When the trial resumes at 10:30 A.M., a number of witnesses dispute the method that James Malone used to extract a confession from McFarland. Former police captain W. W. Carder claims that on the night that McFarland made his confession, he overheard detective James Malone tell the prisoner that they would deliver him to a mob who wanted to kill him unless he confessed to the crime. A member of the coroner's jury, George Walters, testifies that he had a conversation with Malone in which he told Walters that he had scared the confession out of McFarland. B. F. Pinneo, a veteran police officer of thirty years, tells of a similar conversation he had with Malone near Tenth and P streets on March 25 in which Malone explained that "he had asked McFarland whether he desired to be hung by the neck or private parts" and by doing so induced the confession. Argument over the admissibility of McFarland's confession ensues between the attorneys.

May 14, 1891

Monday McFarland's confession is read in court by Myron Wheeler, the stenographer who had hid behind a curtain recording the confession at the city jail when McFarland recited his story before Melick, Malone, Kinney, and Graham. This is the first time the entire confession is made known to the public and the courtroom is filled with Lincolnites eager to hear it. In the afternoon session, Hyman Goldwater takes the stand. He testifies that about a week before the murder, he sold Monday McFarland a leather-covered steel cane, just like the one found at the crime scene.

May 18, 1891

The skull of John Sheedy presented in court.

May 20, 1891

The prosecution in the case presents their final testimony. One of the final witnesses, Mary Sheedy's friend Mrs. P. H. Swift, testifies that Sheedy had told Swift of her marital problems and of the abortion she received because she was upset with her husband.

May 21, 1891

Defense begins presenting their evidence and testimony to the jury. Their first witness is Charles Whedon, a prominent Lincoln attorney and neighbor to the Sheedys. Whedon testifies to the couple's good character and "happy" relationship.

May 23, 1891

Final testimony given in case.

May 25, 1891

Closing arguments begin.

May 27, 1891 and 28

Defense attorney Jesse B. Strode makes his closing arguments. He claims that Dennis Sheedy, the victim's brother, and the prosecution fabricated the case against Mary Sheedy in hopes of controlling John Sheedy's entire estate. Strode added that police officer James Malone was motivated by reward money offered by Dennis Sheedy.

May 28, 1891

District court judge Allen Field provides a list of twenty-seven instructions for the jury. He tells them they are not to consider the first two charges which related to conspiracy because of a sustained objection to them by the defense. Field also instructs them not to consider McFarland's confession as evidence against Mary Sheedy.

May 29, 1891

The jury reaches a verdict and the court convenes around 3:30 P.M. to hear their decision. The county clerk reads the verdict before a courtroom so full that people line up past the doors of the courthouse. Both Monday McFarland and Mary Sheedy are found not guilty on all counts. Although cheers ring out through the courtroom, many hisses are heard as well. Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland are released from custody.

June 1, 1891

Mary Sheedy resigns as the administratrix of John Sheedy's estate and appoints chief of police Samuel Melick to replace her.

June 2, 1891

Former juror Albert B. Norton is found not guilty of perjury.

June 3, 1891

Defense attorneys James Philpott and Lorenzo Billingsley are each given three hundred dollars by the district court for their services in defending McFarland.

Billingsley, Lorenzo W. [Brief Biography]
Brewer, David J. [Brief Biography]
Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Graham, Robert B. [Brief Biography]
Hart, Charles S. [Brief Biography]
Hyatt, Albert J. [Brief Biography]
Malone, James [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Melick, Samuel M. [Brief Biography]
Merrill, George [Brief Biography]
Moore, Robert Emmett [Brief Biography]
Parsons, Albert F. [Brief Biography]
Philpott, James E. [Brief Biography]
Quick, Tunis P. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sanders, August (Gus) [Brief Biography]
Sawyer, Andrew J. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Snell, Novia Z. [Brief Biography]
Stearns, Royal D. [Brief Biography]
Strode, Jesse B. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Weir, Austin H. [Brief Biography]
Whedon, Charles O. [Brief Biography]

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