Drop Dead Gorgeous: The Scandalous Trial of Jessie Costello

In 1933, Jessie Costello was charged with murdering her husband – then beat the rap with her charm and beauty.

By Stephanie Almazan
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Jessie Costello longed to escape her suffocating marriage.

The fun-loving young lady from Peabody, Massachusetts was the dancing definition of a flapper – bobbed hair, short skirts, a brassy personality. Yet by age 21 she found herself married to a stern Irish Catholic fireman named Bill. By age 30, she was a weary mother of four.

So the unhappy housewife struck up an affair with a married policeman named Edward McMahon. She nicknamed her beau “Big Boy” and struggled to keep their liaison a secret.

One day in February of 1933, a candy saleswoman rang the doorbell of the Costello home. Jessie invited the woman inside and soon agreed to purchase an assortment of sweet treats.

She left to get her purse – then let out an awful scream. “My husband,” she cried, “he’s dead!”

jessie costelloPurported photos of Bill Costello (left) and Edward McMahon (right), via New England Historical Society and Strange Company

Sure enough, Bill Costello’s body lay crumpled on the bathroom floor. An autopsy revealed he died by cyanide poisoning. Suspicion immediately fell on the widow.

Authorities arrested Jessie and, in the summer of 1933, she was put her on trial for the murder of her husband. New England media arrived to cover the case, yet soon shifted their focus away from the drama of the courtroom and toward the allure of Jessie herself.

Reporters fawned over the “buxom prima donna” and “glamorous siren,” turning her into an overnight sensation with breathless accounts of her beauty and charm. Photos emerged of Jessie Costello’s courtroom comings and goings, impeccably dressed and smiling for the crowd.

Jessie, meanwhile, bathed in the spotlight of her new-found fame. She turned every activity into a photo opportunity – including a cemetery pilgrimage to place flowers at the grave of her dearly departed husband.

jessie costelloA newspaper illustration of Jessie Costello’s visit to her husband’s grave, via Strange Company

Inside the courtroom, compelling evidence mounted against her. The prosecution explained that Jessie Costello collected her spouse’s life insurance just days after the man’s demise. “Kiss-and-Tell Cop” Edward McMahon shared every last scandalous tidbit of their affair. A local pharmacist testified to selling Jessie cyanide, warning her that it was poisonous. There was even evidence that she had purchased pill capsules exactly like those found in her husband’s stomach.

The noose seemed to be tightening around her – yet the accused shrugged it all off. Not only did she deny every accusation, she merrily conversed with the all-male jury, who were unable to resist her loveliness. One reporter wrote they were “as helpless as twelve rabbits under the influence of those glittering ophidian eyes.”

During recess, four of the men would break out into song: “Sweet Adelaide,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” were among their favorite tunes. The bailiff routinely brought flowers while Costello read through her daily stack of love letters.

By summer’s end, the jury delivered their verdict. Jessie Costello was acquitted of all charges.

jessie costelloA newspaper clipping of Jessie Costello, via Strange Company

So what did Jessie do with her new-found freedom? She headed to the bright lights of Broadway, of course.

Costello scored $2,400 for the rights to her life story and another $1,100 to appear on stage for four days. An adult performance hall offered her a very lucrative deal to do burlesque for ten weeks – but Costello found it unsophisticated and declined.

Jessie granted interviews with a young Ed Sullivan of The New York Daily News and Walter Winchell of The New York Daily Mirror. Even Hollywood called, offering her roles in silver screen features.

The media darling lived lavishly and spent her money like there was no tomorrow. But fame is a fickle beast. Soon, the offers dried up and it wasn’t long before Jessie was forced to find work as a hostess at a pub, struggling to keep her family together.

Jessie Costello’s 15 minutes of fame were up.

She spent the rest of her life in New Hampshire, living off the meager pension provided to widows of war veterans. Jessie made headlines one final time, when a local farmer asked for her hand in marriage. She turned the man down, apparently due to his modest lifestyle. “I shall climb again,” she reportedly said.

Jessie Costello died on March 15, 1971. The spectacle of her funeral reportedly drew a crowd of 200.

[via New England Historical Society; Strange Company; Boston Public Library]

Slideshow images courtesy of the Boston Public Library