Anna Mae McNeil, “Murder”, 5 February 1933

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Anna Mae McNeil

On the day Anna Mae McNeil shot her husband dead, heavy snow fell across New Castle. The three young men who always practised basketball shots behind the wool warehouse on Moravia street had built a bonfire so they could keep playing through the snowstorm. Four other boys had been seen roller skating on North Cedar street around the same time, as though it were summer. A family in the south of the city had stopped to observe a flock of ducks swimming calmly in the big run although the stream was filling with ice and slush. Shops lost out on what passing trade there might have been because their windows were so thick with frost they might as well have been beaver board. Men in horse-drawn open carts warmed themselves with fires that they kept smoldering in tin buckets at their feet, while those in cars had to stop every so often to clear snow from their headlights. Roads throughout the county were blocked, but the new Wilmington highway north of town was clear as far as the Walmo neighborhood, where Anna Mae and her husband Harold lived.

Like most people in New Castle in 1933, they had no money. Harold earned a few dollars as a part-time foreman at Johnson Bronze, but nothing like as much as before the depression had shut down almost every factory and mill in the region. They lived in Anna Mae’s parents’ house, her father having gone to Ohio to find work after American Sheet and Tin Plate closed down. Harold drank every day. Every few weeks, when he got drunk, he beat Anna Mae—black eyes, bruised ribs. If she could, she locked herself in her bedroom when he got started, but she wasn’t always able to. On new year’s day, he had knocked her unconscious.

Harold spent the last day of his life in New Castle bars, while Anna Mae stayed home with their three-year-old son, Lee. Around ten at night, Harold arrived home with a small group of people. What followed is best told in Anna Mae’s words, spoken in court two days later.

“I hadn’t known we were going to have company. I knew Mr and Mrs Webber very well, but didn’t know Miss Morrisey and Mr Carpenter before. There was a small amount of liquor in a bottle in the cupboard and Harold mixed some highballs. Later, we danced to the music of the radio. All evening Harold had been acting in a sullen manner, although he had done nothing out of the way.

“Our guests left at about one o’clock. I started to tidy up the living room while Harold locked the garage door. As soon as he came in, he came over to me. I was getting ready to go upstairs. He called me names and struck me. I backed into a corner, saying, ‘What’s the matter now?’ He said, ‘You cheap little ____. You had to ask the boys to dance with you.’

“I got away from him and ran upstairs. I looked into Lee’s room to see if there was a key in the door but couldn’t find any. When I got to my room I remembered the gun in the dresser drawer and got it. I took it in my hand and went to Lee’s room. I was fully dressed. I thought that if I could get my clothes off and get in bed with the baby he would let me alone. I took off my shoes and stockings and laid down on the other side of Lee. I knew he would have to come around the bed to get me.

“When he came upstairs he made after me. It is a single bed and there is a space of about a foot and a half between the bed and wall, with a chair in the corner. He came around after me and I got out of bed and got behind the chair. He reached over and struck me and tore the sleeve of my dress. I had the gun in my hands. He dared me to shoot him. He said, ‘You’re just as yellow about shooting me as you’ve been yellow about everything in your life.’ He said, ‘I’ve beaten you before, but that’s nothing to what you’re going to get now.’ He came closer and was reaching for the gun. I knew if he got the gun he would shoot. I meant to shoot at the floor. I thought if I hit him in the foot or leg he might leave me alone.

“When the gun went off I was surprised as I didn’t know I could pull the trigger. I had tried it one fourth of July when my father had the gun out and I couldn’t pull the trigger then. He stumbled backwards and fell on the bed, his head at the foot and his feet hanging over the edge. I came and looked at him and saw the powder burns on his shirt. I went downstairs and put the gun on the table at the foot of the stairs. Little Lee came down and I told him to go back upstairs with his daddy. I screamed for Mr Richards next door, but he couldn’t hear me. I knew the Snyders had a phone and I went over to call a doctor.

“I ran back to our house and got some water in a basin, and a rag. I sponged off the wound and he asked me to get him a glass of water. I don’t know just what time he died, but it was less than half an hour after I shot him.

“I was desperate, I guess, when he started after me. I was alone in the house with him, save for the baby, and I guess I must have lost my mind for the time.

“There isn’t much use saying I’m sorry now, I guess. He’s dead and I killed him.”

The inquest took most of the day, a sorry litany of evidence from people who knew about the beatings but had done nothing. Her friends knew. Her mother knew. Her doctor knew. Her neighbours knew. Everyone who saw her bruises knew. Harold’s father and sister knew, too. “No woman ought to live with any man who beats her,” Harold’s father said. The prosecutor asked him if he thought Anna Mae was to blame for his son’s death. He replied, “Of course she’s to blame, but I don’t think she ever intended to kill him. As far as me and my daughter are concerned, we don’t intend to prosecute her. We’ve known her since she was a little girl and I never knew of her to do anything out of the way. I think she is a wonderful little girl.” The prosecutor asked if he and his son had been friendly. He said that they had always been inseparable, “Just like two pals.”

The jury found that Anna Mae had killed Harold in self defense, and the alderman dismissed the charge of murder. She was free to go. She returned to the house in Walmo. There is no further record of her life.

A few months later, in a rented room in a house on Atlantic avenue, Harold’s father shot himself in the chest. The bullet missed his heart but he died of the wound in hospital the next day. The newspaper reported only that he had been despondent because he was out of work and unable to pay his rent. He was buried in Oak Park cemetery, next to his son.

Sources: New Castle News (6 February 1933, “Pa Newc Observes”, “Self Defense May Be Plea”, “Shoots Her Husband”; 8 February 1933, “Mrs McNeil Set Free”; 19 June 1933, “Wm J McNeil Tries Suicide”; 21 June 1933, “Deaths Of The Day”).

8 Comments

    • Thanks John. I’m still working through the mug shots you sent — some very great stories there, and quite a few people who’ve cropped up in the stories of other people in my mug shots. Always good to be able to put a face to a name…

  1. atrmws says

    Water, Water, Wife Of Mine
    by atrmws

    All this shooting, mammy
    You didn’t shoot daddy did you

    Nor knew you could even muster
    Strength to pull the trigger

    He wouldn’t beast you no more
    Your name, Anna Mae McNeil

    The jurors would ignore
    (They’d seen it all before)

    Kindly-hearted to your plight
    Him, Harold, beast of blight

    Until you put the bullet in
    And every single night

    Water, water, wife of mine
    You’ve done for me this time

    • Excellent! I wonder what she’d have said if she’d known somebody in the 21st century would take the time to write a poem about her…

      • She may have exhibited some sort of chilling pride. It was only her word, after all, to support her account of self-defense.

  2. Mathew W says

    I lived in New Castle, PA for a couple years. It’s where I met my now wife, and it’s where my parents live (my mother’s side of the family is from there).

    I found this site not too long ago, and was compelled to write a song based on this story. You can listen below if you are interested:

    Thanks for the great blog, it’s been an interesting source of inspiration for my songwriting.

    • Thanks for letting me hear the song, Mathew. It’s great! An interesting take on the story, too — you paint Harold as a much more sympathetic character than I would tend to view him, of course. It’s amazing to think of someone writing a song about these people (and poetry, as can be seen in a previous comment on the page) decades after the last time anyone other than a few friends or family members thought about them. What a strange world we live in…

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