Pity poor Catherine Chappelle Rosier. When she killed her husband, Oscar, and his stenographer Mildred Rickett (better known to her friends as Gerry) in 1922, Catherine, described in the press as “fragile and not too brainy,” was pushed below the fold by the death of Pope Benedict XV.
When she was acquitted of the homicides (We can’t really call it murder if she was acquitted), the nomination of Al Smith for president by the Democratic Party — the first Catholic to be chosen — almost caused her story to fall off the front pages altogether.
While she was probably relieved — if she thought about it at all — her case contained a bit of legal legerdemain and jury nullification that reminds one of the case of Judson Doke, who was freed after admitting he shot the man who was paying too much attention to his wife.
Her case may have been below-the-fold quality when compared with the death of a pope and the nomination of a Catholic to run for president, but under most circumstances in those Jazz Journalism days a female murder defendant like the former clothing model half her husband’s age was always front page news.
Catherine never denied shooting her Australian-immigrant husband and his secretary, claiming “emotional insanity” brought about by suspicion of the advertising executive’s suspected dalliance with his employee as the cause.
“I will show you than an unseen power controlled the hand that held the pistol,” defense attorney John R.K. Scott said in his summation. “Her unbalanced mind had no control over her fingers.”
The Philadelphia jury bought her claim of insanity — which the California jury rejected in Doke’s trial — but just as it was with Doke, the “unwritten law” of crimes passionel came into play during the trial for the murder of 19-year-old Gerry Rickett.
And just like in Doke’s case, the “unwritten law” worked out in her favor. This time, however, the unwritten law was expanded to include flirting.
It took the Philadelphia jury a little longer to find Catherine guiltless of the murders than the California jury that acquitted Doke: Her jury was out for an hour and 45 minutes, according to the New York Times, but one juror told the paper that “we could have acquitted her without leaving the room.”
Although she was only on trial for the murder of Mildred, when Catherine was acquitted of her murder the judge in the case handed down a directed verdict, finding Catherine innocent of the murder of Oliver Rosier — even though she had been charged, no evidence had been presented. While that’s unusual in judicial circles, it only makes sense that if she wasn’t guilty of gunning down her husband’s alleged lover in cold blood, she could not be guilty of killing her husband in the same act.
“It would be a waste of money to bring Mrs. Rosier to trial on the other indictments (she had also been charged with voluntary manslaughter),” Judge Barratt said from the bench. The prosecutor demurred and offered no objection to the judge’s order.
The stress of waiting for her fate to be determined in Gerry’s case caused the hyper-sensitive Catherine to faint twice. By the time the jury handed down the directed verdict she had recovered enough to smile in gratitude and shake hands with the jurors.
The courtroom was filled with women supporters and the verdicts were “attended with unusual demonstrations,” the Times reported.
“Both times the women, who jammed the courtroom, surged forward to throw their arms around the defendant,” the anonymous reporter wrote. “At least six women fainted and in the case of one some difficulty was experienced in restoring her to consciousness.”
The gallery of women at one point hissed a female prison guard who testified that Catherine showed no signs of insanity while incarcerated.
However, not everyone was happy with the verdict. James Chandler, a member of the jury received three anonymous notes after the trial:
“A little thing like perjury doesn’t trouble you,” one read. “Oh, you prevaricator!” said another. The third suggested that Chandler and his fellow jurors be hanged.
The Syracuse Herald pointed out the problem with the possible precedent set by Catherine’s acquittal.
Whether infidelity excuses murder is something that many juries have disagreed about at many times and many places, but the law does not say that unfaithful husbands may be killed off. If it did, the murder rate might jump to alarming proportions and innocent bystanders would probably have to go about dressed in armor to avoid stray bullets.
The facts of the case were straight-forward: After a lunch at the Hole in the Wall where she allegedly imbibed a “few cups of tart Greek wine of the red ink variety,” Catherine began stewing about the relationship between Gerry and Oscar. They were probably alone and at that moment were engaged in what she said were “amorous dallyings instead of work.”
She decided to surprise them and on the way to the office stopped off at a department store where she purchased a pistol. She later told police that it was her plan to kill herself in the presence of the pair.
Instead, she showed up unannounced at the Rosier Advertising Agency, one of Philadelphia’s leading agencies and did find Oscar and Gerry “alone.” She pulled the revolver and shot the two of them, after which she began “screaming hysterically” and fell to the ground begging her dying husband’s forgiveness. She immediately surrendered to police and was taken to the Moyamensing reformatory. She was allowed to attend Oscar’s funeral.
It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that Catherine wasn’t all there mentally — or she might have been crazy as a fox. Upon her arrest she reportedly wavered between catatonic and overwrought, going back and forth as circumstances demanded. In her court appearances her only emotional reaction came when she was allowed to hold her baby. It came out at her trial that her mother once sought the help of the Moral Welfare Society, claiming that Catherine was incorrigible.
Shortly after Catherine was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder most newspapers made it clear which side of the case they favored:
Where does harmless pleasantry end and serious flirtation begin between a man and his stenographer?
This question will be answered when Mrs. Catherine Rosier, 23 (sic) years old and mother of a 4 (sic) -months-old baby, goes on trial for her life…
Young, pretty, with a beautiful home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and the mother of a chubby, blue-eyed boy, Mrs. Rosier apparently had everything to make her happy. None dreamed of the disappointment which she now says had entered her life.
The papers, however, were not so kind after the trial was over, with one claiming that “Tears, Fainting, and a Prattling Baby and Ghastly Pallor of Slayer All Assist in Embarrassing the Prosecution:”
This is a sob story. That is, it is the story of a woman who sobbed. A young and pretty and fragile woman. A woman on trial for murder. Justice, who is represented as being blind, could not sec the tears, but perhaps she heard them fall. And Mrs. Catherine Rosier, young and pretty and fragile, was acquitted of a double murder.
There is no evidence that Oscar and Gerry ever engaged in anything other than flirtatious behavior, although Catherine claimed that Oscar had proclaimed his attraction for his steno girl. What constituted flirtatious behavior in the 1920s was not expanded upon at the trial, but it is fair to say that there was never any evidence of a sexual affair between Oscar and Gerry.
The attack was not immediately fatal to either Gerry or Oscar, and on their deathbed dying declarations they each strenuously denied that there was anything untoward between them.
It is also fair to say that after the murder Catherine was acting like someone not in her right mind.
“The young widow was still in a highly nervous state tonight (Jan. 22, 1922) and the police had been unable to obtain any statement from her,” The New York Times reported. “Her only calm moments was (sic) the brief period that she was permitted to hold her three-months-old baby boy who had been brought to the city hall by her mother. Nearly all day she paced the floor of her cell, sobbing and wringing her hands.”
According Oscar’s attorney Frank H. Schrenk, Catherine, Oscar’s second wife (the first died in 1919 and left Oscar a widower with one child) was “jealous of every woman her husband employed, and their home life was one of constant friction.”
Catherine’s brother-in-law, Arthur, who was Oscar’s partner in the advertising concern, testified that several days before the shooting Catherine accosted her husband with a milk bottle and cried “I’ll kill you!”
The defense countered that Arthur was a co-conspirator with his brother to force Catherine into a divorce. In her statement to police she told them that Arthur had “forced his attentions on her as part of a plan to help Oscar obtain a divorce.”
Arthur’s testimony apparently caused Catherine to collapse once again, and the Times reported that it took 3 minutes to revive her.
Crazy or not, Catherine knew how to ensure she would live comfortably ever-after. She sued the companies insuring Oscar’s life for payment, eventually winning $35,000. She also protested against Oscar’s deathbed will that left his entire $60,000 estate to his 11-year-old son, Oscar Jr.
After she was acquitted and won her lawsuit against the insurance companies she told reporters that she just wanted to “forget and rest.” The press, with a bunch of other first-rate trials to cover, happily obliged and Catherine Rosier took her ill-gotten gains and traveled into the sunset.
“I intend to rest and forget,” she said. “I am so happy I cannot realize it. All my love will be centered in Richard (her baby).”
As for Oscar, Jr., Catherine said she planned to love him as well and raise him as her own. Raising him as her own apparently meant shipping him off to boarding school, after which he indicated he wanted nothing to do with his stepmother. A judge granted his request, assigning him “free agent” status.