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

Women's Cultures

The arrest of Mary Sheedy for the murder of her husband compelled Lincolnites to confront growing concerns—more so than they did in day to day life—that the contemporary gender system was under assault. According to the conventional wisdom, men and women were all ascribed social positions—and in terms of gender "separate spheres"—rooted in an ideology founded on biological and racial theory. Mary Sheedy's life story and the support she received from women in Lincoln provided clear evidence that for many women the compliance by women that had sustained the prevailing system in place was eroding.

Gender Ideology

At mid-century, middle-class gender ideology proscribed specific roles and venues for men and women. Middle-class men defined themselves by their work in the public realm while women's opportunities were primarily limited to the private sphere. Women's character, according to the Cult of True Womanhood or Domesticity, was rooted in a belief in their innate sense of morality, benevolence, gentility, and passivity that found its greatest outlet in motherhood and raising children in a moralized and genteel domestic sphere.

Men, on the other hand, gained status as gentlemen by achievements that reflected their character based on individuality, discipline, hard work, as well as possessing the qualities of a gentleman encompassed in the notion of "manliness." At home, a true gentleman showed his manliness by opening himself up to his wife's moral and social influence and thus becoming more civilized and genteel.

For both the middle-class man and woman in the Gilded Age, much of this ideology was expressed through a material and social life that reflected their economic well-being, their refinement, their honesty and probity, and their secure sense of being a member of a social group whose members shared values and attitudes that were different from their social groups.

Women in Education and Work

Of course, the social history of the middle class is the story of how people who aspired to middle-class status according to this gender ideology, actually lived on a day to day basis. Women, for example, may have been acculturated to passionless moralist devotion to motherhood and domestic management, but living according to these limitations and standards was another issue.

Many Victorian women struggled with the limitations and hypocrisies of the narrow choices—in contrast to those available to men—presented to them. By later in the nineteenth century, more and more middle-class women were going not just through an academy or high school—now increasingly the norm—but also going to college.

Given the constricted professional and career choices that lay ahead for most college educated women, they sought to channel their talents and interests into those areas of the public realm that allowed women an entry based on the ideological notions of what contributions women could or should make to society and culture.

Church participation, sanitary commissions and nursing, female moral reform, women's politics in regard to laws, pensions, the vote and civil rights, women's clubs, as well as work in benevolent maternal progressive reform associations that sought to create "redemptive places" in urban America for young, transient, ethnic working women all provided venues for action for engaging middle-class women in the 1870s through 1890s.

So too, the realm of work was opening to many middle-class women. In addition to traditional roles as teachers, nurses, and merchants of women's dry goods and services—milliners, respectable boarding house operators—young women of the middle class increasingly found work in what became traditional women's jobs in the mercantile and service sectors—"typewriters," phone operators, secretaries, clerks, and saleswomen.

Here they encountered more relaxed attitudes about women's roles and behavior held by working and/or immigrant women, many of whom worked in similar jobs, or as factory workers, craftspeople, hotel workers, laundresses, and boarding houses proprietors.

In downtown Lincoln, three or four distinctive districts emerged in which a cluster of women proprietors gathered. Small women's districts clustered on O Street east of Thirteenth, as well as on South Eleventh Street just south of O, North Twelfth Street just north of O Street, and west of Ninth Street toward the tracks. The latter district was a realm of illegitimate business, while in the other districts legitimate businesses prevailed.

The widespread employment of women in hotels also created a small spatial realm marked by women's presence across downtown. Likewise at the university the number of women students was on the rise, many of whom boarded across the street in a number of boarding houses. There women encountered a coeducational environment in which some of the strictures or boundaries that guided personal behavior were, if not broken, then at least bent or played with provocatively.

Women in Public

Women began to extend their forays into a broader space beyond the circumscribed public locales that they had traditionally been limited to—church, social rounds of making "calls," shopping in the "ladies mile" or designated areas deemed respectable, certain restaurants, women's clubs, academies of music, benevolent and reform institutions, and "redemptive places" like women's hotels, homes of refuge, and schools.

Women could also go (if accompanied by a man) into the realm of public events where members of the opposite sexes bumped shoulders and sat or stood together in large "promiscuous" crowds—theater, opera, perhaps a picnic, parade, public event, a sporting event, political rally, or, as in the Sheedy case, a courtroom— but the more traditionally male, and thus involving male behavior or male physicality, the venue became, the more provocative a middle-class woman's presence was at the event.

The experiences of such women made it clear to many that ideology was one thing and personal behavior was another, allowing them leeway in what appears now as a very rigid and tightly controlled behavioral environment.

Just as the number of single men entering towns and cities was increasing during the Gilded Age, so too were the numbers of single women increasing. Many worked in hotels, restaurants, factories, or as clerical workers in businesses or stores, and as servants. Those who did not board with their employers lived in boarding houses or apartment buildings downtown.

As middle-class women who supported organizations like the YWCA were aware, many of these women accompanied men of the male subculture onto the streets after work and into the saloons, taverns, dance halls, hotel parlors, and theaters of the uptown district.

As Kathy Peiss argues, some working women in this period entered into the male subcultural world and, responding perhaps to its gender values, began to act more aggressively and engaged in liaisons with such men, for "treats" as an act of affirmation and self expression. Occasionally they earned the labels of "sporting" or "unruly" women.

For women like Mary Sheedy, such behavior was both pleasurable and ultimately productive as they hoped eventually to meet the right man and settle down and marry, or in Mary's case, remarry.

For women unable or unwilling to sustain themselves in other jobs, "treating" sometimes led them across the line into being sex workers. Some of these women worked without any boss or madam; they simply encountered clients in the male subculture and patronized nearby hotels willing to rent out rooms to them. One such hotel was Sheedy's Mack hotel. As the reform movement strengthened in Lincoln, reformers and police focused on trying to keep such workers out of the uptown hotels—especially the Capital and Savoy hotels on P Street.

Most women in the sex business, however, took up with a madam who ran a bordello. There were as many as twenty houses of prostitution in Lincoln in the 1890s; one of them, in fact, was apparently run by John Sheedy next to the Mack Hotel on P Street. Another, the White House, behind the site of the new Lincoln Hotel, had been notorious for years. Anna Tripp, Lydia Stewart, and Josie Washburne were Lincoln's most notorious madams.

Tripp moved up from being an inmate to a keeper of a house on O Street. Stewart and Washburne ran houses down in the tenderloin at 124 and in the 200 block of South Ninth Street, respectively. Though such women played a key, indeed central, role in the gender and sexual system of the time, and were widely known and recognized, few discussed their interactions with them, either as clients, or adversaries.

In part unruly women were invisible to middle-class women because they were already depraved and beyond help. It was women who struggled or aspired to be respectable, and were, by no fault of their own, or the evil actions of others, drawn into illicit sexual behavior and ultimately into ruin, that they feared and sought to protect, save, and rejuvenate.

Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Tripp, Ann(a) [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Mary Sheedy

The story of Mary Sheedy, her struggles to navigate between good and evil and middle-class propriety and depravity, and the fact that she was always seemingly at the mercy of immoral aggressive men, created alarm and urgency among middle-class women.

Mary Sheedy had patronized the taverns and bars of P Street and was a visitor at Sheedy's casino. Her previous husband was a denizen of this realm and had introduced her to it as a married woman. Later, as a maid in the Arlington Hotel, she interacted with the male residents, one of whom was John Sheedy.

When she was thrown upon her own resources to make a living, she had been rumored to have visited some of the brothels down on Ninth Street ("The Fray to Begin To-Day," The Nebraska State Journal May 11, 1891) —though whether as a visitor trying to meet men or a worker temporarily using the brothel is unknown.

In marrying John Sheedy and setting up a house on P Street, she aspired to a more genteel social position. Thus, many women considered Mary a generally good person who was more a victim of both circumstances and men—each of her husbands had apparently been abusive—than the evil predator that the prosecution made her out to be—an image that, by the way, unnerved many men in Lincoln as well.

Thus, even at the risk of letting a guilty person go free, her acquittal was essential to safeguard female morality and the reform agenda.

Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Women at the Trial

The presence of so many women attending the trial of Mary Sheedy drew considerable attention among the male press in Lincoln; that it did so perhaps indicates that it was an unusual occurrence. Indeed, as the case proceeded, the large courtroom was crowded by women.

At the arraignment in January though "every seat and nook and window being filled and far out into the hallway did the throng congregate," "contrary to expectation but few ladies were present." But soon, women of some reform societies showed up as members of the "sisterhood of women" to express sympathy for Mary who they believed was generally being railroaded to prison by a cabal of men. ("Held Without Bail.," Lincoln Daily Call January 31, 1891)

At the trial in May, the number of women increased daily. By May 14th the "seats allotted to the public were all taken and crowds of men and women stood up around the walls and in the aisles." Other women—many wearing what one reporter called new "spring hats" crowded at the windows overlooking the courtroom from the third floor. The next day a "large proportion" of the public seats were crowded by women. ("Twelve Good Men and True," Semi Weekly State Journal May 15, 1891)

Day after day their numbers increased, at times forming the majority in the room, though on the day the confession was read, many women chose to be absent and many of those present were asked to leave the chamber. Many stayed only to be disappointed when the court reporter whispered the confession to the jury beyond ear shot of most of the people in the room.

As the gendered aspect of the trial deepened, Mary herself was surrounded by an entourage of female friends and relatives. So too, Monday McFarland's sisters and female relatives arrived to take their place behind him in support. By May 29th reporters commented on the surprising entourage of ten black women sitting in the front of the courtroom. On the last day of the trial the crush of people—mostly women—was so great to hear the final arguments that women crowded the side aisles and stood two or three deep along the main aisle in the center, making it hard for Mary to get to her seat.

They also sat on the floor inside the court rail and even sat crowded together on the judge's dais. Any effort by the judge's to clear the crowd was resisted, thus requiring the lawyers to step between crowds of men and women, sitting and standing promiscuously crowded together, to deliver their arguments. The unusual physical contact between spectators and participants only heightened the drama at the end of the trial.

In many ways, the incursion of middle-class women into the very heart of the elaborate courtroom had become a metaphor of the erosion of the spatial ideological lines that had restricted women's opportunities and lives. When Mary was acquitted the afternoon of the 29th, a chorus of loud cheers and applause by women took several minutes to bring under control before the defendants were released with more cheers.

The nature of the audience reflected the fact that gender issues also suffused the entire proceedings of the trial. From the very opening statement the defense played to contemporary ideological convictions among the jurors that genteel women were, by nature, moral, pure, and passive. They cast the accusations against Mary into the realm of incredulity that a cultured, refined, and white "lady" could ever become so depraved as to commit multiple adultery, miscegenation, conspiracy and murder.

To reinforce this impression, the defense presented evidence of her happy marriage, genteel home, and cultured lifestyle and resisted every effort to bring up her complicated past. Throughout the trial Mary dressed in somber but elegant and genteel black outfits and never exchanged eye contact with Monday McFarland, the black men accused of being her lover and co-conspirator in murder.

The defense in the final arguments, dismissed the charges as built on fantasy and discounted any evidence brought to bear against Mary. They knew, of course, that thus far in Nebraska no woman had ever been convicted of murder and sentenced to hang because such murders were almost always considered by the all-male juries as having extending circumstances that drove a women to desperate self defense. Thus when the prosecutors emphasized John's abusive behavior to Mary, they only played to and reinforced this bias.

As the trial makes clear, Mary Sheedy's alleged story struck a chord with Lincoln middle-class women. Discerning why it did provides insight into how women actually lived within the strictures and ideologies that shaped their lives. In terms of class, her story—if one believed it—raised profound worries about the integrity of the class, gender, and racial systems that had sustained Lincoln society for a generation.

Mary patronized genteel stores, established a genteel house, and made a foray or two into Lincoln's middle-class social circles and became a "cultured" lady. The possibility that she also had hidden two previous marriages, allegedly had had an abortion, committed adultery, miscegenation, conspiracy, extortion, and murder was—if one believed the story—a shocking breech of middle-class decorum and raised deep fears that other "poseurs" and "charlatans" might be living among them.

Such corruption undermined the middle-class sense of order, its belief that strong moral character cultivated through self-discipline, hard work, marriage, genteel living, and civic involvement was sufficient to sustain its boundaries, and its confidence that it could police itself and maintain a moral social order. At the same time, however, many women expressed curiosity about Mary's turbulent life. To some it showed a certain gutsy defiant spirit to live her own life.

While many middle-class women sympathized and even envied her rebellion against the strictures of Victorian gender roles, the image of Mary Sheedy as an agent of female empowerment and advocacy might have touched already deep insecurities among Lincoln men and elicited a wave of misogynist anxiety.

Indeed, the aggressiveness of the prosecution in the trial raised concern and generated more sympathy for her. To many women it appeared that she was not only the victim of male predatory sexual behavior, but also of male vengeance, greed, professional ambition, and public corruption.

Those who believed in Mary's innocence were even more convinced that she was the victim of a corrupt conspiracy among greedy police officials, boosters, businessmen, and lawyers who wanted control of John Sheedy's estate whether through loyalty to Sheedy or a desire to settle past scores.

Whichever way one took it, her story—and the murder case itself—undermined the integrity of the booster ethos, shook middle-class confidence, and exposed deep racial, gender, sexual, moral, and psychological tensions that threatened social order.

In Lincoln, Nebraska in the 1880s and 1890s, the stories of Mary Sheedy, Anna Tripp, Mrs. Tunis P. Quick, Mrs. H.W. Hardy, Mrs. Carlos C. Burr, Mrs. William J. Bryan, Mrs. Adolphus Talbot, Mrs. Charles Gere, Louise Pound, Willa Cather, Mrs. Frank Lewis all in one way or another reflect the reality of women's lives in the Gilded Age.

McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Tripp, Ann(a) [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Directed by Timothy R. Mahoney, Plains Humanities Alliance, in collaboration with the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
Funded by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, the Nebraska Humanities Council, and the Plains Humanities Alliance.
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