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

The Spin

From the moment John Sheedy was murdered, through the trial, verdict, and beyond, the story and case was the main topic of conversation in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the surrounding region.

From trial affidavits and newspaper reports, we know that the murder, the arrest of Monday McFarland, and Mary Sheedy, and the trial itself was the "chief topic of conversation and speculation" ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891) "on the streets and in the hotel lobbies," in the saloons, taverns, and bars, and in law offices, and newspaper offices throughout town—just after the murder and arrest of McFarland apparently the "town was wild with rumors and implications" ("Hired to Kill.," Lincoln Daily Call January 19, 1891)

Likewise it was the main topic of discussion on Main Streets in towns across the region. Whether called the "rumor mill" or the "legal mill" ("From the District Court. ," Lincoln Weekly News March 26, 1891) or the "legal grind"—as they described it then—or the "spin" in the media as we tend to call it today—the discourse generated by a series of events often reflects as much about the culture and society of the times, as the events themselves.

Indeed, in the view of some observers, because we can never actually know what really happened or describe the past "as it really was," the critique and discourse that swirled around events is as meaningful to us as the events themselves. In this section, we hope to introduce the visitor to some of the issues raised and interpretations given of the murder, trial, and verdict, in the spin.

Commentary on Legal Ethics and Procedures

Throughout the case, from Sheedy's murder, to the coroner's jury, coroner's inquest, trial preparations, and the trial itself, the public and press kept a constant lookout—and provided regular commentary—on any evidence of poor ethics or corruption.

This commentary reflected the general public concern that the entire political and legal system and everyone in it—not just obviously corrupt boosters like John Sheedy—was corrupted by poor, ad hoc, practices and procedures.

Such behavior became so prevalent at the local, regional, and national levels during the 1870s and 1880s that a reaction set in. Across the country observers decried the corruption of every element of the system and increasingly called for the elevation of ethical standards in public life. Reformers advocated clean and efficient government, a fair and equitable democracy, and fair, impartial, and valid exercise of the due process for every citizen in the legal system.

By the early 1890s, the first signs of the ethical revolution that ushered in the Progressive Era and modern government were apparent. This revolution was reflected by the establishment of numerous professional organizations, the passage of conflict of interest and professional ethics guidelines, the passage of numerous laws that made various standard practices in government illegal, and the clarifications of proper legal procedures in countless legal cases in the 1890s and 1900s.

The commentary swirling around the Great Sheedy Murder Case reflected this rising tide of commentary about public ethics in American life.

Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

The Coroner's jury

After the county coroner Dr. E. L. Holyoke signed the death certificate at John Sheedy's house, he had Sheedy's body transported to the new Lancaster County Courthouse for a coroner's inquest. The following morning, Holyoke empanelled an inquest jury assembled from men already gathering at the courthouse.

At nine o'clock the following morning, January 14, an unprecedented number of reporters, policemen, lawyers, and politicians, including Mayor Robert B. Graham, crowded the jury room as the jury convened for the inquest. Dennis Sheedy was among those present and urged the county coroner to not hold an inquest. Holyoke replied that "the attending circumstances demanded an investigation and as a county official he declared it his duty to hold an inquest." ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891)

A member of the jury, Robert McReynolds, a prominent reform businessman, moved that the inquest be held in secret and asked the press and members of the public to leave. Holyoke and the rest of the jury concurred "unanimously" ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891) and moved the inquest behind "closed doors" ("John Fitzgerald and Mrs. Sheedy have qualified as administrators of the estate of the late John Sheedy.," Lincoln Herald January 24, 1891) to a small, unheated, meeting room on the third floor.

Suspicious and infuriated reporters called the unprecedented closed inquest an illegitimate "Star Chamber," eavesdropped through the transom, and tried to force their way into the locked room. Though Holyoke apparently asked inquest members to keep the proceeding confidential, important elements of the discussion "leaked out" into the press the next day. ("John Fitzgerald and Mrs. Sheedy have qualified as administrators of the estate of the late John Sheedy.," Lincoln Herald January 24, 1891)

The unusual request for the inquest to be closed to the public raised a furor of criticism and suspicion and, from the very start of the search for and prosecution of John Sheedy's murderer, indicated suspicions that something was not right. The Omaha Daily Bee reported ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891) "This morning an inquest was held and for the first time in Lancaster county it was in secret and consequently caused considerable indignation, as it was believed that such a proceeding was without the authority of law."

In the general reform climate of the early 1890s, coroners were among the most scrutinized public officials. Traditionally they had been the most blatant patronage appointees in local government and thus were notoriously corrupt and noted for exhibiting considerable leeway in their carrying out their job.

The criticism against Holyoke directly focused on whether or not a coroner's inquest should be public. It was generally assumed, and had been the practice, that they were, as it was assumed that if the inquest were held in private someone could easily hide information and evidence of criminal wrong doing. Such corruption by means of payoffs, bribes, or rigging the jury was fairly commonplace.

Therefore, coroner's inquests—where they still occur and have not been taken over by the work of a medical examiner—are supposed to be public events. This assumption was supported by the laws regarding the duties of the county coroner in Nebraska State Laws (1879). These laws clarified the general code of 1877 that simply noted the county coroner should carry out duties according to county laws.

"The coroner shall hold an inquest upon the dead bodies of such persons only as are supposed to have died by unlawful means. When the coroner has notice of the presence in the county of the body of a person supposed to have died by unlawful means, the coroner may, at his or her discretion, issue a warrant to a sheriff of the county requiring the sheriff to summon six residents of the county to appear before the coroner at a time and place named in the warrant. Each juror shall receive for each day employed in the discharge of his or her duty the sum of twenty dollars to be paid by certificate drawn by the coroner on the general funds of the county."

Alas, the written laws do not note whether or not the inquest should be held in public or behind closed doors. H. L. Holyoke apparently took advantage of the discretion provided by this omission in the law, and concurred that while the practice of public inquests may have been the tradition, it was not required by law. Therefore, he decided that under his tutelage as county coroner the inquest would be more effective and impartial if it could be conducted away from the buzz of reporters and interested members of the public trying to intervene in and/or influence the process.

In doing so, he raised—perhaps unwittingly—a red flag at the very beginning of the entire Sheedy affair that something was not right and that there was an effort to cover up the true facts of the case. On the other hand, Holyoke's effort to hold the inquest away from public influence could be seen as reflecting a desire to improve legal procedures to assure the fair carrying out of due process.

Throughout the trial there was considerable interest—that many commented on as novel—with proper impartial legal procedure. For the first time in local memory the jury was sequestered and instructed not to read newspapers. They were also instructed not to discuss the case among themselves. So too, a juror—even after being selected—was removed by Judge Field when documents submitted by the defense lawyers indicated that he had indeed formed an opinion about the case beforehand.

During the trial the jury was protected by a guard to assure no one could gain access to them and assert influence or offer bribes. Likewise, at the trial, observers took note when Judge Field ordered that in this case all witnesses not testifying would be held outside the courtroom while other witnesses were testifying. The usual practice apparently had been to allow witnesses to hear each others testimony—a practice that obviously could affect or taint subsequent testimony.

Several times the lawyers pay attention that this rule was enforced. Separating witnesses—now an obvious common practice—allowed testimony that stood on its own. So too, Judge Field sought to maintain an unusual level of decorum in court. He warned the audience in attendance several times against expressing any response to the proceedings. He also chastised the lawyers several times for their antics and bantering—apparently a performance element of most trials.

In each case, Judge Field, and some of the lawyers, sought an impartial jury, impartial presentation of testimony, and a rational and impartial scrutiny of the case based on law.

Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
Graham, Robert B. [Brief Biography]
Holyoke, Edgar L. [Brief Biography]
McReynolds, Robert [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Monday McFarland's Confession

Monday McFarland's "so-called confession" ("Will They Hang?," Vanity Fair May 2, 1891) was, in some ways, the central legal issue of the case and trial. The legal question was whether or not it was valid and thus admissible as evidence against the defendant in court. Because the confession implicated Mary Sheedy, the question of its admissibility extended to whether or not it was admissible as evidence against her as well.

The issue of the validity of the confession concerned the circumstances in which it was made and to whom it was made. By law, which was clarified about a decade after the case, "Confession, voluntarily made, is admissible when not prompted by any inducement."

The implication of "voluntarily made" is that any confession given as a result of threats, excessive treatment, or torture was given "under duress" and thus not admissible. Likewise, inducement occurs if the interrogator promises the suspect that if he confesses he will be charged with a lesser charge, or given a shorter sentence, or exonerated in return for some kind of plea bargain deal.

During the Sheedy case, the circumstances of Monday McFarland's confession, and indirectly the tactics of Marshall Samuel Melick, James Malone, and other parties thus came under intense scrutiny.

Just after the murder and arrest in January it had been reported that James Malone and Marshall Melick had incarcerated Monday McFarland in the "loathsome" city jail at Tenth and Q streets and then put him in a "sweat box," or as the Lincoln Call noted, "put him through a 'sweating process'" ("Hired to Kill.," Lincoln Daily Call January 19, 1891) to coerce him into confession.

"Scared or influenced by whiskey" McFarland said nothing through the evening, but in the middle of the night about 4 a.m., when "some noise was heard in the office" Malone told him that a mob was forming outside with the intent of taking the law into their own hands and lynching him. ("Admitted the Confession," Lincoln Daily Call May 14, 1891)

A local paper highlighted this middle of the night emotional pressure by publishing a demonic racist image of McFarland behind bars. Later, ex-captain, and jailer, Carder would confirm this report by testifying at the trial that "detective Malone went to McFarland's cell the night of the arrest and extorted a confession by making the prisoner believe that there was a mob of fifty after him and that the crowd would be increased to a hundred later."

Others also confirmed that McFarland had been put in a "sweat box" and threatened by Malone that the mob would "get" him tonight if he did not confess. W. W. Carder tried to intervene and advised McFarland to stop talking; Malone then "fired" him, leaving McFarland alone with Malone. Under this pressure McFarland gave in and confessed to Samuel Malone.

The next morning he repeated it in Mayor Graham's office before Mayor Robert Graham, Marshall Melick, Officer Kinney, Dr. Holyoke, the coroner, and a stenographer. ("Hired to Kill.," Lincoln Daily Call January 19, 1891) A day or so later he was brought before Dr. Holyoke's ongoing coroner's jury and repeated it yet again—in much the same format—to the jury. Only in the last instance was a lawyer present who—after allowing McFarland to repeat the confession—told him to refuse to answer any other questions.

On the basis of testimony concerning the circumstances of the confession the defense took the position that "any confession secured when a prisoner was not in a calm and unimpassioned condition was not admissible." ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891) As such a confession given under such "torture" or coercion was given under duress and thus "in the light of the nineteenth century" should not be allowed into testimony ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891) because it was not free and voluntarily given. That it was made without the presence of or consultation with counsel made it even less admissible.

The prosecutors argued that the confession was given freely under no particularly unusual circumstances. Melick argued that all he did was advise McFarland to "come clean" and suggested that if he did "it will go better with you." ("Point for the Prosecution," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 14, 1891) Officer Kinney testified that he also urged McFarland "to make a clean breast of it." ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891)

Dennis Sheedy, who was at the jail with Mayor Graham to have a conference with McFarland, remarked that the Mayor had advised McFarland that he wanted the confession "free and voluntary" and, when completed, asked him again to assure that he had "not been under any undue influence" and had "made the confession voluntarily." ("Point for the Prosecution," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 14, 1891)

The prosecution argued that each confession is different, and thus the circumstances for each are different, and thus no set rule could apply to all confessions. Frank Hall suggested that any one who had just committed murder was, by nature, in a kind of agitated state and thus it would be hard to find a confession made completely in an "unimpassioned" condition.

They also argued that the fact that McFarland gave the confession the next day when he was certain there was no mob, and with counsel present—and that each confession should be handled separately—indicates that even if the issue of threats or inducements and the absence of a lawyer compromises the first confession, the others were freely made and thus admissible.

Nor, argued Frank Hall, was any inducement held out to McFarland, because as legal authorities noted, simply advising a prisoner that the best way was to tell the truth and promising that things would go better if he did—which is what Malone and other others advised him to do—did not constitute an "inducement."

After considering the testimony and arguments Judge Field sided with the prosecution and allowed the confession to be admitted. In doing so, however, he immediately raised another legal issue of importance when he followed up and remarked: "The jury is instructed to consider the testimony as it affects the person making the confession. Other persons are not to be affected by it." ("Point for the Prosecution," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 14, 1891) This issue related directly to one of the most difficult strategic decisions of the pretrial planning—whether to try Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland separately or together.

The confession was still central in the instructions that Judge Field made to jury after both prosecution and defense had closed. He told them that although he allowed the confession to be presented as evidence against McFarland; this did not mean that the jury should accept the validity of the confession. He had simply allowed it to be considered as evidence but it remained entirely up the jury to decide if the confessions had been "obtained by threats or promises and considered or reject them accordingly."

When the jury apparently was "said to have thrown out the so-called confession of the negro for the reason that it was extorted by threats and promises" the lack of evidence other than that which corroborated the confession made acquittal of Monday McFarland, as well as Mary Sheedy—against whom the confession could not be considered evidence—"a forgone conclusion." ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891)

Aside from these issues, the confession itself drew considerable focus from the public. Some newspapers accepted it as truth—especially since McFarland repeated it essentially verbatim three times. Others, from the beginning disparaged it as the fantasy of a suspect under duress. The Lincoln Herald was especially outspoken in discounting much of the confession, "which for picturesque imagery and fertile imagination has not been equaled since Mark Twain narrated the remarkable adventures of Huckleberry Finn." ("John Fitzgerald and Mrs. Sheedy have qualified as administrators of the estate of the late John Sheedy.," Lincoln Herald January 24, 1891)

Later they discounted it as "out of whole cloth" ("The announcement is made that the Ann Arbor chemist who analyzed the stomach of John Sheedy found no poison.," Lincoln Herald April 18, 1891) and "nothing but lies" ("Nothing But Lies.," Lincoln Herald January 31, 1891) and, after the trial, charged that the press in general had been involved in "manifestly unfair" treatment of the defendants since "McFarland was roasted into making his impossible confession." ("The Sheedy Case," Lincoln Herald May 30, 1891)

Indeed, in an after trial comment, the Lincoln Weekly News reported that "the fact that his confession contained assertions almost beyond belief undoubtedly discredited it to the jury who, from all reports, had a rather indefinite idea of the matter from start to finish." ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891)

Graham, Robert B. [Brief Biography]
Hall, Frank M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Holyoke, Edgar L. [Brief Biography]
Malone, James [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Melick, Samuel M. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Forming the Prosecution Legal Team

A day after John Sheedy had been murdered, Dennis Sheedy, his brother, arrived in Lincoln from Denver, Colorado. Dennis Sheedy was a wealthy banker, rancher, and capitalist who was among the elite of Denver's booster ethos. As someone used to leading, Sheedy arrived determined to find his brother's murderer and push the prosecution of the case forward to a successful conviction.

Almost immediately he hired two Pinkerton detectives to investigate the case. He also offered a reward for information that would lead to the arrest of John Sheedy's murderer and said he would "spare no expense in bringing the assassin to justice." ("Hard at Work," Lincoln Weekly News JAnuary 22, 1891) He also went to the courthouse and tried to convince Dr. Holyoke to proceed without a coroner's inquest (though the papers dispute this—one would report he actually wanted to help Holyoke hire a stenographer to get a correct record—and then left). ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891) ("Laid To Rest.," Lincoln Weekly News January 22, 1891)

The next day he also visited John Sheedy's house and offices with family attorney D. G. Courtnay to make a "thorough examination of the effects and papers of the deceased" and was surprised to find no money nor evidence of assets such as mortgages and bank accounts. ("Unwinding the Skein.," Lincoln Weekly News January 22, 1891) He also attended his brother's funeral and the interment of his body in St. Teresa's cemetery out at Thirty-third and O streets.

The arrest of Monday McFarland and then his sister-in-law Mary Sheedy shifted Sheedy's efforts to prosecuting the case successfully. For the next few days Dennis Sheedy attempted to intervene directly in the progress of the case. He went to the city jail to visit Monday McFarland and consult with Marshall Melick and Mayor Graham. He testified at the corner's jury—which occurred after the inquest—but provided no important "material information."

He used his own funds, without the state's request or support, and acted "in a private undertaking" to have John Sheedy's stomach chemically analyzed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Chicago. Apparently he hired or "engaged" Dr. Holyoke the coroner to deliver it to Ann Arbor in person. ("Will They Hang?," Vanity Fair May 2, 1891)

While apparently staying at the new Lincoln Hotel, he also contacted his long time associate in business and legal maters John Fitzgerald—who worked just down the street from the hotel. Though initially, the Lincoln Call ("Awaiting Developments.," Lincoln Daily Call January 20, 1891) reported that Dennis Sheedy apparently did "not believe that she is guilty of all that is claimed," when he saw the defense team forming, he was a bit taken aback by the prominence of the lawyers who had joined it—some of the most prominent and skilled members of the Lincoln Bar and a Judge from Idaho Territory—and decided to focus his efforts on strengthening the prosecution team.

A conversation between Novia Snell and Genio Lambertson in Lambertson's office in the Burr Block around January 20, led to further discussions that resulted in Lambertson and Frank M. Hall being hired by Sheedy to join the state's prosecution team. ("All Rests With the Jury," Semi Weekly State Journal June 5, 1891) Lambertson would later claim at the trial that it was Novia Snell who came to his office and asked for help from Dennis Sheedy when it was apparent that some of the ablest lawyers in Lincoln were involved in the defense. ("All Rests With the Jury," Semi Weekly State Journal June 5, 1891)

Though this was still a fairly routine practice, the effort to strengthen a public prosecution team with privately hired support drew considerable comment because of who they were and who had helped bring them on the prosecution's team.

Frank Hall was a partner of John Fitzgerald's lawyer, Turner Marquett, and a prominent attorney for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. He also had some experience as a criminal lawyer. Hall had also been asked by John Fitzgerald to serve as counsel in administrating John Sheedy's estate.

Lambertson was city attorney and an associate of McFarland's attorney, L. W. Billingsley. As counsel for the city and formerly federal district attorney, he defended the City Council and Mayor of Lincoln in the 1887 cause celebre initiated by a complaint of John Sheedy. Both Hall and Lambertson were generally viewed, therefore, as sympathetic with those who considered themselves adversaries to John Sheedy.

Ironically, in the 1887 case, Lambertson had defended the interests of his former partner L.W. Billingsly, who served as Monday McFarland's defense. While many saw this is simply a strategy to build a team as prominent as the defense team, others—including the defense lawyers—inferred some deeper purpose in their actions. They expressed concerns that an interested party—Dennis Sheedy—was exerting undue influence and engaging in some conspiracy to acquire the funds of the estate. The business connections between them, and the fact that both Fitzgerald and Hall were also involved in administrating Sheedy's estate, seemed ominous.

Nor was there any apparent special knowledge or skill being added to the case by the new lawyers on the team. Even today the state will sometimes bring in a specialist on a certain type of law when prosecuting complicated cases. There seemed, to many, no real reason for Lambertson and Hall to be there, except for money and, since they had been involved on the other side cases involving Sheedy in the past, some sort of retribution.

Accusations and "rumors and implications" of undue outside influence, deeper motives, and dark political conspiracies made the rounds through the local public discourse of the booster ethos and the male subculture.

At the trial in May, and particularly in his opening and closing arguments, Jesse Strode would express these concerns and try to tap the prejudice against such actions, by casting Hall and Lambertson's involvement as tantamount to serving for "blood money" to gain a conviction at any cost.

Indeed, this would be the first instance of many in which the public and press expressed concerns about the procedures and operation of the trial. A series of conspiracy or plot theories emerged that persisted to the very end of the trial and after the verdict.

All the conspiracy theories—no matter which they implicated—shared the common general suspicion that the legal process itself had become compromised and corrupted by greed, self interest, and power. Many people assumed that the lawyers and judges were less interested in a true and valid verdict than they were in acquiring fees, settling scores, and gaining retribution for past wrongs against them. In general four separate but interrelated theories emerged in the course of trial:

Billingsley, Lorenzo W. [Brief Biography]
Courtnay, Dominick G. [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Graham, Robert B. [Brief Biography]
Hall, Frank M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Holyoke, Edgar L. [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Marquett, Turner M. [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Melick, Samuel M. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Snell, Novia Z. [Brief Biography]

Legal Tactics and Strategy

The Press also provided general commentary on the strategies being planned and implemented by the two legal teams during the course of the trial. Within these strategic commentaries, they also commented on specific tactics employed. Such commentary focused on three elements:

The Prosecution

One of the central pre-trial issues facing the prosecution was whether or not to try Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland together or in entirely separate trials.

When they were charged with conspiracy, it was evident that they should be tried together. But when the judge quashed that charge in April, the issue simply became a tactical one. Today prosecutors would probably "bifurcate" the two defendants' cases and conduct completely separate trials against each.

The problem for the prosecution, however, was that their theory of Mary's involvement, and the basis of their investigation and the case of circumstantial evidence they would present, was predicated on the story told my Monday McFarland in his confession. Put another way, without McFarland's confession, it is unclear what—if any—evidence they could present to corroborate what—if any—theory they could present to make a charge of murder in the first degree against Mary Sheedy stick.

They also knew that if they established as a motive an unhappy—even abusive—marriage, and presented evidence to support that theory, the jury—if it believed their evidence–would tend to be unwilling to convict even if the defense portrayed the marriage as happy because most juries felt that for a woman to be driven to murder her husband there must have been some element of desperation and self defense involved.

The prosecution knew that the judge would instruct the jury as he did after he ruled in favor of the admissibility of McFarland's confession: "The jury is instructed to consider the testimony as it affects the person making the confession. Other persons are not to be affected by it." ("Point for the Prosecution," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 14, 1891)

Even if they were so instructed, it was hoped that the fact that they had heard the confession against Monday McFarland, would predispose them to attach greater weight to the circumstantial evidence presented against Mary. After all, as criminal lawyers sometimes remark today in regard to this strategy—once it has been heard "you can't unring the bell."

In addition, if they made a strong case in corroborating the confession with a chain of circumstantial evidence against McFarland, it would also bolster their weaker case against Mary.

Hence, as the defense attorney Jess Strode accused, the prosecution tried in some way to use the confession against Mary as best they could. They did this because, as one commentator noted, "the evidence presented by the prosecution has been almost entirely corroborative of the three confessions of Monday McFarland." ("Ready for the Arguments.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 24, 1891) Jess Strode emphasized the same point in his closing argument: "the only evidence against Mary Sheedy was McFarland's confession, and this,…could not go in as evidence." ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891)

Once the confession was accepted, the prosecution felt they had a strong case against Monday McFarland. This lead to some speculation as to how the prosecution would pursue a stronger case against Mary Sheedy. One way was to have McFarland take the stand and testify against Mary Sheedy. Indeed, the pubic following the case generally felt this would be the only way to convict Mary as the case being presented against her seemed to most observers rather weak.

As someone giving testimony, his testimony could be entered against Mary Sheedy and thus strengthen their case against her. But of course, why would McFarland take the stand—once his confession was already entered as evidence—as his testimony would, under oath, only strengthen the case against him?

Aware of this, Novia Snell, early in the case, approached Col. Philpott, McFarland's attorney, and asked him if—if the circumstances warranted it—his client would testify against Mary Sheedy in exchange for immunity of prosecution or a plea bargain to much lesser charge. All Philpott reportedly said was, "I will consider it." ("Will the Negro Testify?," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 16, 1891)

These discussions about ways to strengthen the prosecution's case were based, of course, on the general observation that the prosecution, without McFarland's confession, had little or no case against Mary Sheedy. As Vanity Fair noted "there is very little positive evidence except McFarland's story."

The Defense

In contrast to commentary on the prosecution, there was limited comment on the defense. The prevalence of Monday McFarland's confession as the foundation of the prosecution's case against both Monday and Mary Sheedy made it the obvious focus of a defense strategy.

In criminal cases the burden of proof is always on the prosecution. Defense lawyer Woodward made this point by noting that "the burden of proof lay on the prosecution. Even in a case of murder…the defense "has only to say that my client is insane, and the prosecution has then to prove that he is not." First they tried to block admission of the confession on the grounds that it was made under duress or in response of inducement.

When Judge Field ruled that the confession was, in fact, admissible—but only against Monday McFarland—, the general feeling was that the confession "in connection with the chain of circumstantial evidence to back it up" was enough to seal McFarland's fate.

At this juncture, some thought the only way to save McFarland was to have him take the stand against Mary in return for immunity. This was discussed with the prosecutors earlier in the case, but Col. Philpott said only, "I will consider it." Rather they decided against this strategy and never again raised it. ("M'Farland's Mouth Sealed.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 23, 1891) Indeed, as one attorney said after the trial, their toughest work was to "hold McFarland down and keep his mouth shut" as many advised he take immunity in return for taking the stand.

Though many thought this was a sign of some conspiracy to "sacrifice the negro," to protect Mary from having the confession presented as evidence against her—which Monday McFarland 's taking the stand would do—the defense lawyers took the calculated risk that the confession would be thrown out.

They also hoped to reap the benefit they saw in defending Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland together by hoping that the jury, recognizing the weak case against Mary, would acquit McFarland as well. They continued to bring in witnesses to discuss how it was gained to show that it had been made under duress and again emphasized this point in their closing statements. They also disparaged the entire story as a fantasy by describing the details as ludicrous and imaginable.

The other general strategy of the defense was to try to "break the chain of evidence" established by the prosecution in regard to both defendants. They tried to impeach the incriminating evidence against Monday McFarland—such as the murder weapon which was traced back to McFarland—by presenting evidence that Hyman Goldwater, the pawn broker, had been promised a fee or "reward" to testify that McFarland had purchased it from him. ("M'Farland's Mouth Sealed.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 23, 1891)

They also presented evidence that Mary and John Sheedy were happily married, which would undermine the primary motive of the plot.

To distract the jurors from the strong evidence against McFarland, they also presented some evidence that other men were seen running from the murder scene. One witness testified that the assailant was white, not black. ("In Defense of Mrs. Sheedy," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 22, 1891) The defense attempted to identify these men as Sheedy's long-time adversaries Frank Williams and Frank Gleason. Much of this focused on a threatening letter Sheedy received a day or two before his murder. ("Ready for the Arguments.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 24, 1891) But they did not aggressively pursue this line of testimony.

In general, the public and most observers right to the end of the trial believed McFarland would be convicted. ("Ready for the Arguments.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 24, 1891) ("M'Farland's Mouth Sealed.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 23, 1891) But when Judge Field, in his instructions, reminded the jurors that although he had allowed the confession in as evidence, they still could rule that it was inadmissible and if they did, an acquittal would be a forgone conclusion because no evidence independent of the confession was presented against Monday McFarland.

That the jury apparently did rule it was inadmissible and acquitted McFarland indicates the degree to which the case against him—and thus his defense—was based entirely on the confession.

The defense for Mary Sheedy was viewed as generally very straightforward. By allowing the two to be tried together, they implicitly risked that the confession would be entered into evidence against McFarland. The risk to Mary's defense is that even though the judge would instruct the jury to disregard the confession in regard to Mary, it had been heard by the jury and thus—in spite of the instruction—would provide a framework that made the circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution more plausible.

Its admission thus implicitly strengthened the case against Mary. In general, however, the defense focused on impeaching the evidence that Mary had poisoned John Sheedy. It was hoped that the contradictory evidence presented by various doctors would create "reasonable doubt" in the juror's minds.

At the same time, the defense worked on undermining the primary emotional motives that drove Mary's action to concoct the plot—the volatile combination of desperation, despair, desire, and greed—i.e. Mary's unhappy marriage was made more desperate by her affair with Harry Walstrom.

If, they argued, Mary was, in fact, happily married and Harry Walstrom—who's presence no one denied—was just a "family friend," then there really was no motive aside from the money from John Sheedy's estate. And, as John Sheedy's wife, Mary already had access to that.

Without a motive, and no clear evidence of Mary poisoning her husband, the plot theory collapses. Damning evidence such as the lock of Mary's hair allegedly found in Monday McFarland's effects were disparaged as fabrications. That one witness suggested that it was hair "from her body"—which can be assumed to be a euphemism for pubic hair—was not mentioned directly but added to its ludicrous and "disgusting "nature.

One juror later remarked that he just did not believe "that the hair taken from her body is that kind of hair" and this lead him to think there might actually be plot against Mary. Mary's restrained behavior in court, and her fine attire, helped the defense make the case that she was a refined cultured woman and to argue that such a woman could behave as argued was absurd.

Almost all observers felt that the case against Mary was weak and that she would be acquitted. In the end, no one, aside from the prosecution and Dennis Sheedy and others, apparently felt that the case against her had been made. This was a dramatic shift in public opinion since the inquest in the days after the murder.

In general, the defense also played upon a different tone and style of trying the case. They thought that the prosecution relied too much on presenting much of the evidence "with a brass band and through the newspapers." This reinforced the impression of a conspiracy or plot. They also presented this case in a very flamboyant and formal style that was "polished and poetic" "but far above the heads of the jury and beyond their grasp."

As a general strategy, the defense advised their clients to remain silent, to appear in court well dressed, and to maintain a dignified composure. They also asked them to invite as many family members as possible to come and sit near them. At one point Monday held his baby daughter and was surrounded by his wife and several sisters and relatives. They also proceeded in a low-key, folksy style and spoke "plain" to the jury which was more at their level.

Circumstantial Evidence

One of the legal issues that drew considerable interest in the case was the value and validity of circumstantial evidence. This was a critical point because the defense argued that all the prosecution had was such evidence against Monday McFarland's Mary and Monday. And furthermore, all of this was based upon the confession of Monday McFarland. Hence they argued there was no direct evidence or independent evidence that could be presented to convict Mary.

As Jesse Strode remarked, in regard to her affair with Walstrom, or the conspiracy with McFarland, "the curtain signal has not been proven." ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891) Genio Lambertson, aware of the importance of the argument against such evidence, addressed the legal issues of circumstantial evidence at length in his closing. He declared circumstantial evidence admissible "because unbiased and silently unprejudiced."

He likened it to waking in the morning and seeing the street wet, thus you know it rained; or if a pond is frozen, one can infer that it was cold enough to freeze the pond, or if a pile of building materials is lying in the street beside a partially built building, one can infer that materials like that were used in the construction of the building, and "if you see a man cautiously stealing from a woman's room under suspicious conditions, you do not absolutely know that anything criminal has transpired, but the very natural inference is that a criminal intimacy has existed." ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891)

Judge Allen Field would also include considerable comment on circumstantial evidence in his instructions to the jury.

Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Philpott, James E. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Snell, Novia Z. [Brief Biography]
Strode, Jesse B. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Admissibility of Other Evidence

Mary Sheedy's History

One of the main strategies of the defense, as they noted in their opening and closing statements, was to portray Mary Sheedy as a genteel middle-class woman of virtue who was being smeared by the absurd confession of Monday McFarland. In doing so, they could argue that the alleged confession was simply impossible to believe as it was impossible to believe that a genteel cultured and refined woman, by nature, could commit that acts she is accused of having committed.

When Gus Sanders, John Sheedy's business partner, was brought to the stand for the prosecution and began to tell some of the details of Mary Sheedy's past relationship with John Sheedy, including the period when they were not married and living together, and their trip to New Orleans to get married, the defense rose in a fury of objections.

Jesse Strode charged that Genio Lambertson was trying to blacken Mary Sheedy's character which "should not be permitted." ("The Sheedy Case.," Lincoln Weekly News May 21, 1891) Judge Field agreed and ruled the evidence out. From that point, no information about Mary's past life—though widely known by the audience and public—was permitted to be entered into evidence.

John Sheedy's Skull

Late on May 18, the prosecution asked Dr. Gannett to the stand to testify about the wounds to John Sheedy. At around 5:00 p.m., Gannett produced a skull to demonstrate what he meant about the fractures to John Sheedy's head, and then, in response to the prosecution question, said that the skull he was holding was, in fact, the skull of John Sheedy.

Rather than being ruled out of order and taken away as "enflaming" the jury—such physical evidence is usually presented today by photographs and only if they are deemed necessary and would not enflame the jury—, the judge and everyone in the room were taken aback, even stunned.

Though it was public knowledge that, as a result of the corner's inquest, John Sheedy's body had been exhumed only a few days after his funeral and doctors removed his head, heart, and stomach for further analysis, none expected that that such evidence would be brought into the courtroom.

As the Omaha Bee reported: For a few moments, the judge, jury, spectators, but above all the lawyers for the defense were paralyzed. Even Mrs. Sheedy dropped her eyes for a moment.…the attorneys for Mrs. Sheedy did not recover from the surprise for some time, [asking only that] the court adjourn as soon as possible." ("Sheedy's Skull in Court.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 19, 1891) The defense made no objection and the judge made no comment on the prosecution bringing John Sheedy's skull into the courtroom.

Once presented into evidence it would remain in the court. At his closing argument, when Jesse Strode wanted to make some points out of the pieces of evidence submitted, the skull was in the box with a ring and a locket allegedly of Mary's hair that was brought back into court. He did not refer to it or show it again.

Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sanders, August (Gus) [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Strode, Jesse B. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

The Judge's Instructions to Jury

It was generally commented in the press that Judge Field's instruction to the jury, which took him an hour to make, on May 28, so restricted the jury in its deliberation that acquittal was the only possible verdict for both defendants. He remarked that even though he had allowed the confession into evidence, it was entirely up the jury to decide if they had been "obtained by threats or promises and considered or reject them accordingly." (State vs Monday McFarland and Mary Sheedy) (State vs Monday McFarland and Mary Sheedy) (State vs Monday McFarland and Mary Sheedy)

In giving the jury this leeway, he made the confession their main decision. If they chose to disregard it, then there was no case against either and acquittal as the only conclusion to draw. As it turned out the jury rejected the confession and acquitted both. Later it would be reported that even after the trial was over, several members of the jury were inclined to think both Mrs. Sheedy and Monday McFarland guilty, but in considering both cases, "were afterwards induced by the reading of the instructions and examination of the confession to change their minds." ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891)

Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Conspiracies Theories/The Real Story Behind Events?

Conspiracies of Power:

On the most general level, the influence of Dennis Sheedy and John Fitzgerald was objected to because it constituted "undue" influence by private parties on public prosecution. It seemed to many yet another example of how wealth and power could unfairly assert its influence to corrupt government and the legal system.

When Jesse Strode charged that Genio Lambertson and especially Frank Hall were "railroad" lawyers who joined the case for "blood money," he made a not very veiled referenced to the current "populist" political disgust with the corrupting influence the railroads on Nebraska state government, local affairs, and democracy in general. Therefore, just the presence of these two lawyers, who seemed to represent wealthy boosters with a personal interest in the outcome, seemed to confirm the corrupted ethos of the public life at the time.

Jess Strode would make much of this during his closing statement. Genio Lambertson replied that there was nothing wrong for a private lawyer to "look after the interests" of the people; indeed, it was his "public duty" and that given the array of legal talent brought against the public prosecutor, it was in Novia Snell's interest to draw in some help. ("The Judges Verdict," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891) He therefore thought it was honorable for any lawyer to stand with the prosecution in the case.

This general concern about private citizens interfering in public business tended to surface whenever court procedures seemed unusual. When Sheedy's coroner inquest on January 14 was closed to the public, for example, reporters were furious at what they called an illegal "Star Chamber"—the first in Lincoln's legal history.

Thus one juror's efforts to control the proceeding opened up a variety of concerns ranging from the belief that the legal process had become corrupted by bad procedures that eroded due process and a fair trial in search of the truth, to concerns that behind the scenes of the public story there was an elaborate power struggle in which the murdered man, John Sheedy, Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland, and even the lawyers were mere pawns.

A darker and grander conspiracy theory concerning the corrupt use of power focused on the very fact of John Sheedy's murder. To some observers the murder of a prominent, yet notorious man who had many enemies and adversaries in Lincoln seemed more than just happenstance or coincidence.

John Sheedy had battled against certain elements of the booster ethos in Lincoln since his arrival in 1869. Over the years, a certain contingent of the town elite, boosters, and bench and bar came to view themselves as "reform boosters" who were opposed to that status quo booster ethos of "business as usual."

The anguish and bother of John Sheedy's insincere complaint against a corrupt police judge, who Sheedy exposed only because he refused to play along with the corrupt bargain between Sheedy and the police, gained Sheedy many enemies in town. Such suspicions convinced many—or at least allowed them to imagine—that there were a group of men in town—aside from his gambling competitors—who wanted to "get" John Sheedy.

Those most desirous of his removal were competitors in the gambling business and, more importantly, the coterie of reform boosters whom he had thwarted again and again over the years. The defense would gain significant points in the trial by pointing to his many enemies among the gamblers and "sporting men" in Lincoln as among possible suspects the police chose not to investigate.

The involvement of John Fitzgerald—a prominent Sheedy adversary and reform oriented booster—in the case, as well as in the administration of Sheedy's estate, politicized the event by suggesting—without even the slightest bit of evidence—that it was part of the long-standing political struggle in town between reform boosters, in particular the Law and Order League, and status quo boosters.

Though no contemporary was bold enough to suggest it in public, there is indirect evidence that some felt that Fitzgerald, and other powerful men in town, had conspired somehow to encourage those with animus against Sheedy to act against him.

Perhaps they intervened and exacerbated the friction between Sheedy and his gambler adversaries, in hopes of pushing one of them to violence against Sheedy. Or perhaps they were aware of Sheedy's marital problems—Mary had apparently confided in a Catholic priest and a few intimate friends—and encouraged the relationship between McFarland and Mrs. Sheedy, with hopes that it might take the course it did.

Even more imaginative conspiracy theorists implied that perhaps Mary Sheedy herself was involved in some kind of a corrupt bargain. Perhaps some reform booster let her know that if she pursued a plan to try to murder her husband, they would assure her—knowing full well how difficult it was to convict a woman of murder in the 1890s—that through their influence on the legal process, she would be acquitted.

The fact that those involved in such an alleged conspiracy concluded that the acquittal of Monday McFarland, who the public had all along felt was guilty, would serve their purpose by making the conspiracy to protect a white woman less obvious added a racial element to the post trial concerns.

Such anger about an elaborate scheme that led to the acquittal of a black man most thought was guilty was only hinted at a few days after the trial when the Daily Nebraskan State Journal published a short terse somewhat ominous notice with no further comment:

"If the general public could know the facts about the Sheedy trial that are within knowledge of the reporters who worked on the case there would be an indignation meeting on O Street within twenty-four hours that would recall the last New Orleans riot." ("[Untitled] If the general public. . . ," The Nebraska State Journal June 2, 1891)

The reference here is to the so-called Chief Hennessy riot in March 1891 in which a mob stormed the jail and lynched an Italian American who was accused and other Italian Americans held as participants in the October 1890 murder.

The use of the expression "indignation meeting"—a general term for a meeting of angry citizens which increasingly seemed associated with vigilante activity—gives the comment a more ominous implication of threatened violence against Lincoln's small black community.

Though, of course, historians will never know whether or not there is any truth behind any of these suspicions—the truth being inaccessible behind a fog of conflicting evidence, speculation, gossip, and hearsay and based on countless discussions and talks never recorded—the prevalence of conspiracy theories and the fact that many tended to believe them is significant.

It reflects the growing contemporary concern that the rich and powerful had conspired to subvert the truth, thwart the legal process, and undermine democracy. It reflects, in short, the broadening concern among members of the public that corruption had deeply penetrated all aspects of government, the bench and bar, the booster ethos, and business—and American life in general.

Conspiracy Among Lawyers

Such general concerns about proper procedure and rigged legal process emerged again during the selection of the jury. A number of observers noted that the lawyers defending Monday McFarland seemed indifferent to jury selection. Nor did they press for an African American to serve on the jury, even though they complained about it in public.

Indeed, a dispute concerning an African American named Joe Carter, who was interviewed as a possible juror, resulted in his dismissal and reinforced the impression that McFarland's defense lawyers were not pressing very hard on his behalf and thus somehow involved in a corrupt bargain.

That Mary was first to object to the potential juror and her lawyer then consulted with McFarland's who then passed on the juror, only added fuel to the rumor mill. ("Getting Ready for Trial.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 11, 1891) Even Judge Field noted that "the way things were shaping themselves, there might not be a proper and fair verdict." ("Getting Ready for Trial.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 11, 1891)

The alleged bargain was that the lawyers defending Monday agreed to let the lawyers defending Mary Sheedy assert their influence to get a jury as much as possible in her favor without concern as to how the jury might affect the verdict against Monday McFarland's interests.

As several newspapers reported, the general "impression" was that Monday's defense lawyers had tacitly agreed to step out of the way and let Mary's lawyers do what they could to help acquit Mary even if it meant that their client would be convicted and hung. In short, Monday would be "sacrificed" to assure Mary's acquittal. More bluntly, they were accused of being in a "conspiracy to hang their client, the negro, in order to save Mrs. Sheedy."

Such an outcome, it was believed more ominously, would satisfy public opinion which demanded that someone be brought to justice. The implicit assumption was, of course, that the jury would, no matter what, be prejudiced against an African-American and thus likely to convict him.

The fear was that this might drag down Mary with him. Thus by letting the jury achieve satisfaction that justice had been satisfied, the jury could look the other way, ignore or discount the evidence against her, including Monday's incriminating confession, and acquit Mary, even if she was indeed guilty. This would also allay concerns that someone got away with murder.

Likewise, this outcome would also allay concerns expressed throughout the trial about convicting a woman for murder and thus raising the possibility of the death penalty for a woman. Thus far no woman had been convicted of murder in Nebraska.

The defense would, for the most part, play to this disinclination among a jury of men to convict a woman by presenting Mary, as much as possible, as a refined, cultured, genteel woman who, it is difficult to image, could have done the things she was accused of. Either way, the legal effort to try to convict a woman, seemed, to some, legally counterproductive.

As it happened, the jury acquitted both, leaving Vanity Fair crowing that "the lawyers and papers that harped on the yarn that the negro was to be sacrificed to save the woman have been put in a ridiculous light."

Conspiracy for Money

The belief that personal interest in the outcome involved money lays the basis of most of the other conspiracy theories. Initially John Sheedy was alleged to have had an estate of $200,000. Acquiring that fortune was, of course, portrayed as one of Mary Sheedy's primary motives for wanting her husband dead.

Likewise, Monday McFarland was motivated by a promise of $15,000 from the estate if he successfully killed her husband. In court, at the closing of the state's argument, attorney Frank Hall submitted inventory documents that stated that Sheedy's estate stood at only $57,483.28—though apparently few believed it was this low, believing instead that Sheedy had considerable funds hidden elsewhere.

Though it is likely that there would be other claims on the estate, according to Nebraska State Law of 1889, Mary Sheedy was entitled to half of the estate no matter what other claims there were and, most importantly, whether or not she was convicted. John Fitzgerald was appointed administrator of the estate and, on her lawyer's advice that the estate fight could go to court, Mary Sheedy had herself also made administrator.

Coincidentally—or ominously—the money stakes had been raised only nine days before the murder, when the Nebraska Supreme Court had ruled that a person "could not take by inheritance the estate of a person he murders." Under this new law, if Mary were convicted, she would now get none, and the estate would revert to the control of John Fitzgerald and thus stay within the Sheedy family, which is, of course, what Dennis Sheedy wanted.

Hence many observers drew the conclusion that Dennis Sheedy and John Fitzgerald were less interested in finding out the truth than they were in gaining the conviction of Mary Sheedy at all costs. McFarland's defense attorney J. E. Philpott spelled out these concerns in his opening argument. He "pointed out the financial interest that Dennis Sheedy must have in the prosecution." "They had two incentives—first the desire to win this great suit and second the money there is in it.

The money would be no inconsiderable sum and it must come either from the pockets of Dennis Sheedy or the estate of John Sheedy" hence they wanted a "share of the estate that would otherwise fall to her [Mrs. Sheedy]."

Attorney Strode even accused Dennis Sheedy of taking over his brother's affairs after his death, "settling with the gamblers" and then taking what money Sheedy had in his safe, the amount of which "nobody knew." So, too, defense attorney Royal Stearns noted that they had all conspired in order to "get the whole of John Sheedy's estate rather than half of it."

It is blood money, a conspiracy to convict for love of money." This, he remarked, was evidenced by the efforts of the estate administrator John Fitzgerald to refuse to give Mary Sheedy any support from the estate. ("Twelve Good Men and True," The Nebraska State Journal May 12, 1891)

Colonel Philpott, attorney for McFarland, followed up by even claiming that James Malone and Marshal Melick were in the conspiracy to "secure the reward" offered by the estate, and thus motivated at any cost to coerce a confession and secure a conviction of McFarland.

The Lincoln Herald, noting the presence of so many women in the inquest, asked some of them why they were there. In general, the view was expressed that they were there to support Mary Sheedy from a conspiracy of men who were ganging up to convict her. They "were there to sustain by their presence and sympathy one of their own kind who was being hunted and hounded to death by the perverted arm of the law who might, for aught they knew be the victim of a conspiracy as foul as the one attributed to her." ("Nothing But Lies.," Lincoln Herald January 31, 1891)

Jesse Strode would play on this suspicion by denouncing the physical evidence presented in court as "manufactured" and thus evidence of a "damnable conspiracy."

Worries about money worked both ways, however. Concerns were also openly expressed that the both the defense attorneys, and, indirectly and more problematically, the prosecution attorneys, had a financial interest in securing Mary's acquittal.

For the defense attorneys, of course, acquitting one's client was also a legal goal, no matter if the client was guilty or not. The fact that if she was acquitted, she would inherit half of Sheedy's fortune, and thus be able to pay them, only worked as a stronger motivation to work hard for her acquittal.

As the Omaha Bee noted: "In addition to the glory of winning her case, the attorneys have the prospect of winning a big fee, and it all depends on whether she is acquitted or convicted. In case of conviction her attorneys will not get anything as then Mrs. Sheedy will have no claim whatever to the money of the estate. If acquitted she will get the bulk of her murdered husband's property and will, it is believed, deal liberally with her attorneys." ("From the State Capital.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) April 28, 1891)

Conversely, John Fitzgerald, administrator of the estate, and Dennis Sheedy, wanted a conviction for the same reasons. If Mary was convicted the money would revert to the estate and thus to their control. With such control they could more easily pay their lawyers, Genio Lambertson and Frank Hall. Though clearly Fitzgerald and Sheedy had other means to remunerate their lawyers, some saw this as a monetary driven explanation for the strangely lethargic prosecution.

One the other hand, if Mary were acquitted and she retained her share of the estate, the estate—with Fitzgerald as administrator—could go after her for attorney fees anyway, leading the strange prospect of Mary paying the lawyers who worked for her conviction.

Vanity Fair noted that even though now with the acquittal "Dennis Sheedy will not gobble up all of John Sheedy's estate, and Dennis Sheedy will have a handsome bill to foot to meet Attorney Lambertson's fees." Yet because Mary was to gain half the estate, and John Fitzgerald was the administrator, it was suspected that Dennis Sheedy would go to the estate for funds to cover Lambertson's fee which is paid equally by all parties holding a share in the estate.

Hence, Vanity Fair mused, "Mrs. Sheedy will have the queer experience of paying half of one of the attorneys who used all his ability and eloquence to hang her." When a rumor spread through Lincoln after the trial that the estate—i. e. Fitzgerald—was going to sue Mary to "debar her from any share" of the estate, The Lincoln Herald remarked that apparently "the lawyers will get it all in the long run." ("[Untitled] It is rumored that the co-heirs of Mrs. Sheedy. . .," Lincoln Herald June 13, 1891)

All of this was given further credence when, after the trial, some of the lawyers involved pressed for payment of their fees by whatever means possible. Though the defense attorneys Stearns, Strode, and Weir were pleased with the outcome, and the prosecutors seemed to feel that they had done the best they could, public opinion focused on the lawyers efforts to acquire large fees for a case of more than ordinary importance from Sheedy's estate or the district court.

After perfunctory expressions of joy or disappointment over the verdict, the prosecutors scrambled to recover costs and fees from the court, while the defense attorneys pursued their fees.

Indeed, the day of the verdict, Charles Gates Dawes, prominent lawyer and businessman, wrote to his friend J. D. Cox, reporting not on the verdict but on the scramble for fees. He noted having heard that "Colonel H. W. Weir of Boise City," who had arrived later in the case for the defense, apparently at the request of Mary Sheedy's relatives, to back up Stearns and Strode, objected to the proposed fee of $15,000 and "lopped off $2500" to make it only $12,500 for Strode and Stearns (equivalent to about $200,000 today).

Dawes wrote that he got involved when Colonel Weir, "counsel for Mrs. Sheedy," apparently not believing the state's evidence presented in court about the size of Sheedy's estate, asked him to research Sheedy's real estate holdings, because Weir expected he would "have to take a mortgage for his fee." Dawes thought Weir "an able and genial gentleman," who "has a tough client in Mrs. Sheedy."

After poking around in public records during the Decoration Day weekend, Dawes gave Weir the "disappointing" news that the state's evidence was reasonably accurate, the worth Sheedy's estate being only about $54,500 (about $1,000,000 today), consisting mostly of the Hotel Mack, the Sheedy residence, another downtown lot, and eighty acres in Clay County. Meanwhile, McFarland's lawyers, with no access to Sheedy's estate, were remunerated by the court. [1]

1. Portrait and Biographical Album of Lancaster County, Nebraska (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1888), 695–96; State vs. McFarland and Sheedy, Case File 39, Appearance Docket, Volume C, 165; Criminal Complete Record, Volume E 292–97; Volume F, 347–427, Lancaster County District Court, RG0207, NSHS; Omaha Bee, May 30, 1891; Charles Gates Dawes Diary, May 30, June 1, 1891; Dawes to J. D. Cox, May 29, 1891, Charles Gates Dawes Papers, Northwestern University. [Back to Reference]

Dawes, Charles Gates [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Hall, Frank M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Malone, James [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Melick, Samuel M. [Brief Biography]
Philpott, James E. [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, H.W. [Brief Biography]

Public Response to the Case and Trial

As the alleged facts of the case, established by McFarland's confession and supported by testimony at the coroner's inquest, became public, they triggered a general crisis of confidence in Lincoln society.

As Genio Lambertson, the prosecuting attorney remarked, "no event has ever taken such a hold on the public mind, awakened such profound interest, excited so much discussion, or plowed it self so deeply into the life of our people" as the Sheedy murder, "unparalleled in the criminal annals of our state." ("Yesterday Afternoon.," Lincoln Weekly News June 4, 1891)

After avoiding the disorder, crime, and violence so common across the urban frontier for many years, the murder shocked residents; it raised fears that crime was on the rise and also threatened the city's orderly reputation. Indeed, since its founding in 1867, the city had experienced few murders and only one Lincoln man had been executed.

Additionally, the identity of the alleged assailants and McFarland's lurid confession sent waves of concern and panic through Lincoln's middle class. Mary Sheedy's story raised profound worries about the integrity of the class, gender, and racial systems that had sustained society in the state capital for a generation.

For years, the Sheedy's had been moving on the edges of Lincoln's genteel society. Although John was a known gambler, he was also praised for his civic-mindedness in downtown development, his active interest in the affairs of the booster ethos, his liberality in giving to local charities and institutions, and his magnanimity toward "friends" among the city's elite.

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

Such corruption undermined the middle-class sense of order, its image of itself as having been built on strong moral character cultivated through self-discipline, hard work, marriage, genteel living, and civic involvement, and its confidence that it could police itself and maintain a moral social order.

For those who viewed her as a corrupted perpetrator, Mary compromised a fundamental bourgeois tenet of female purity and incorruptibility. Worse still was the possibility that Mary had not been corrupted but had deliberately used her sexuality to pursue her own self-interests. Although many middle-class women might have sympathized privately with 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.

Viewing Mary as a victim rather than a perpetrator offered little comfort. Her seduction by several men seemed to confirm growing fears of a predatory threat to moral, middle-class women posed by the "sporting men" or "dudes" of the male subculture along P Street.

By 1890, John Sheedy was a well-known figure in the Uptown district, and in the minds of many Lincolnites, he stood for the gambling, drinking, illicit sex, and interracial socializing—"mixing"—that many feared was corrupting urban society.

Monday McFarland's involvement further racialized those fears and conflated them with rising racial tensions that accompanied the growth of Lincoln's small black community. In the mid-1890s, middle-class people in Lincoln and throughout the northern United States increasingly believed that interracial mixing threatened American social order.

Though most townspeople seemed to believe McFarland's confession (he did, after all, repeat it three times), and thought Mary was guilty, the aggressiveness of the prosecution raised concern and generated sympathy for her. To many 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.

Mary's supporters were convinced that she was the victim of a corrupt conspiracy among greedy police officials, boosters, businessmen, lawyers, and even newspapermen, who wanted control of John Sheedy's estate whether through loyalty to Sheedy or through 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's complacent post-frontier society.

Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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