HE DIED IN PUBLIC SIN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF
SEN. PETER R. MORRISSEY

by James M. Gallen


When contemplating the reactions of contemporary society to the private lives of public and private individuals, we often wonder how our reactions compare to the reactions of prior eras.  An insight into the mores of more that a century ago, near the end of the Victorian era, is provided by the reaction of the Missouri community to the sensational murder of Senator Peter R. Morrissey on May 13, 1895.  Morrissey was born in his mother's boardinghouse at Second and Clark in St. Louis on August 14, 1859.  This son of Irish immigrant parents was a big-bodied, big-hearted man,  well liked by his fellow senators, a worthy representative of that class of saloonkeeper politicians which has for so long graced Missouri political life.

Morrissey began his education in the St. Louis Public Schools and received a commercial education at St. Louis University.  He then went into business at the age of 19, taking a position as a bill clerk with Scharff & Bernheimer where he rose to the rank of bookkeeper.  At the age of 24, while a bookkeeper for Charles P. Burr, he was elected to a term on the St. Louis House of Delegates from the First Ward in 1885.  He was later elected to the Missouri Senate from the Thirty-first District in St. Louis in 1892. (1)

Morrissey's term in the House of Delegates extended from April, 1885 to April, 1887.  He was active in the sessions of 1885 and 1886.  In the session of 1885 Morrissey was a member of the minority.  He was assigned a seat on the committee on Markets. (2)

In 1886 Morrissey was a member of the majority.  His status among his peers was demonstrated by his selection as Temporary Clerk during the organization of the House on April 20, 1886.  During this session he was a member of the Committee on Public Improvements. (3)

Morrissey returned to elective office with his election to the Missouri senate from the Thirty-first District in St. Louis in 1892.  A member of the Democratic majority, he received committee assignments consistent with his newcomer status.  In 1893 he was appointed to Committees of Constitutional Amendments, Federal Relations and Public State Buildings and Privileges and Elections.  In the 1895 Session there was some realignment of the Committees as he was appointed to the Committees on Constitutional Amendments and Public Buildings, Eleemosynary Institutions and Public Health and Township Organizations and County Boundaries.  It is interesting that none of the bills which he introduced were assigned to his committees.  An active, but not always effective legislator, Morrissey introduced a number of bills during the sessions, some reflecting concerns which still confront legislators.

During the 1893 session Morrissey limited his sponsorship to two bills relating to the duties of the coroner in the city of St. Louis and a third bill entitled "An Act to provide for the election of justices of the peace in cities of 300,000 inhabitants or over." The 1895 session saw Sen. Morrissey's legislative interests broaden to include many issues of statewide import which remain, albeit in different forms, subjects of public debate and legislative activity to the present day.  Morrissey's interest in conservation and the ecology was demonstrated in his introduction of "An Act to prevent the extermination of deer within the State of Missouri", which antedated the successful restoration of deer during the twentieth century.  This bill was passed by the Senate on February 25 on a vote of 21-8-5.  His sensitivity to women's issues was demonstrated by his introduction of "An Act to inflict corporal punishment upon person found guilty of wife-beating."  His subsequently recorded behavior would suggest that Morrissey saw a distinction between men who married women and then beat them and men, like himself, who just beat them.  Anticipating contemporary debates on gaming issues, Morrissey offered a successful amendment to an act involving offenses against public morals and decency in relation to lotteries.  An interest in fair competition for the laborers of Missouri led him to introduce "An Act to provide for the branding and marking of convict made footwear manufactured by convicts in the state penitentiary or other penal reformatory institutions."

Among his other legislative initiatives were a bill elating to the police (the only one of the bills he sponsored which actually was enacted into law), one dealing with the criminal law and four relating to corporations, commercial law and utilities. (4)

These legislative initiatives responded to the issues of his day which still arise a century later.  His limited success identifies Morrissey as a man before his time, but, in reality, he had very little time left. Morrissey left Jefferson City on Friday, May 1, 1895 and returned to St. Louis.  On Sunday evening, May 13, Senator Morrissey was at his saloon on Eleventh street and Clark Avenue eating and drinking with his friends, Drs. Charles Frank and Thomas O'Reilly, when Maud Lewis, who was know as Morrissey's mistress, entered the saloon with a companion who was boarding at Lewis' boarding house at 2719 Wash Street (5)  Lewis was a jealous lover who had made threats against Morrissey as recently as three days before the murder.  Among the threats were "I'll shoot his G-- d----eye out" and "I'll shoot the pretty brown eye of the s-- of a b----." Lewis and her companion joined the Morrissey party.  Refreshments were served several times with the women drinking champagne.  Maud repeatedly invited Morrissey to go home with her.  Morrissey, who had reportedly decided to break off his relationship with Lewis, resisted with strong language stating that he had fiends with him, to which Maud retorted "Damn your friends."  Morrissey continued to resist, at one point telling Lewis that he proposed to go and see some other woman that night.  Morrissey seemed vexed by Maud's persistency, and at one time took a bank note from her purse and tore it in two, throwing the pieces on the floor.  He eventually agreed to accompany Lewis to her boarding house if his two friends from the medical profession would accompany him.  The party of five then crowded into a cab and proceeded to the boardinghouse, arriving at about 2 a.m.  Morrissey seemed very drowsy and fell asleep in the cab. After some conversation in the parlor, Morrissey accompanied Leis to her room while the other men went to the other apartments where they entertained by other women. (6)

Ten to twenty minutes later the occupants of the house heard two shots ring out and heard Maud shout that Pete had been killed.  Upon arrival at the room the others found Morrissey in a night shirt with two bullet wounds in his head.  The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that "Where his right eye had been was a ragged red hole with blackened edges, out of which a mixture of blood and brains was slowly oozing.  The mouth was a mass of mangled flesh and clotted blood."  Two police officers who heard the shots investigated the crime.

After the arrest had been made members of the press began their investigations of the crime.  Unencumbered by current constraints on pretrial publicity, the press and public seemed to have unrestricted access to the defendant, Maud Lewis.  On the afternoon after the murder a Globe-Democrat reporter called on the defendant in her cell.  He reported that she was "(V)ery nervous, with a wild look in her eyes, indicating insanity."  On a second visit that day Lewis was more sedate and willing to talk about the events.  Maud related that she and a girlfriend were celebrating the friend's birthday with champagne when they entered the saloon.  While there, Pete and some of his friends began making fun of them, abusing them in course language.  After they had arrived at the boarding house Pete began to kick and beat Maud.  She displayed the marks on her hands to verify her story.  She then related that she had been abused by Pete for two or three years although she had always treated him right, giving him money on several occasions.  Lewis then told the reporter "Oh my: why did I do it!  It was an accident, and I don't know how I happened to pull the trigger, and oh, if I could only go to Pete now how happy I would be!  But I'll get to him this week, for where he is that's where I want to be. Yes, I killed him, but why?  I don't know.  I was not jealous of him but I couldn't stand his rough treatment, and has been beating and abusing me ever since we have been going together."  At this point Lewis broke down and would speak no more.  Investigation with the neighbors revealed that Lewis had been acting strangely for some time past and this was probably from the effects of drink. (7)

A reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also interviewed Lewis in her cell.  Her report of the events was interrupted by sobs.  She told him about the beatings Pete had administered to her including the one the preceding August which landed her in City Hospital for several days and after which she had continual pains in the head.  She could not explain her actions but did know that she was not right in the hear.  Lewis stated that: I drank a great deal to overcome the worry it caused me.  If I have spent 5 cents for a drink in saloons since then I have spent $500, although I had everything I wanted to drink in my house.  But that was not what I wanted-you know how it is.  But Pete loved me and when not drinking he was good to me.  When he drank beer he was good-natured but whiskey made him crazy.  I loved him and he knew that anything I had was his.  I had loved him for five years and during that time he did not give me over $50.  I did not want his money.  His love was all I ever asked. I have given him money often and would give him more.

     If he were only alive I would gladly give up my life.  I only wish he had killed me last August.  I don't know why I did what I did, and I can't remember anything about it.  We were both very drunk; that's all I can remember.  He abused me that night, and you know a drunken woman can't fight, but I did not kill him for that.  I was willing he should go home to his folks, but not to any other woman, for Pete was the whole worked to me.

     No, I have not hired a lawyer.  I don't want one.  The sooner they kill me the better, for I shall be with my Pete.  I will not deny him anything.  I hope they'll hang me and have it over soon, and if they turn me loose I'll go no further than across the street if I can find what I want the quick." (8)

Apparently Maud was not the only woman in Morrissey's life and even when passion reigned thoughts turned to property.  The Post-Dispatch reported that Pete's alleged common-law wife, Stella Palmer, lived in a house furnished by Morrissey and was recognized by him.  Morrissey's intimate friends denied this and reported that Palmer was nothing more to him than several of his women friends.  It was reported that Palmer's child had been taught to call Morrissey "Papa" even though it was never claimed that he was the child's father.  The child's parents had reportedly been killed in an explosion after which Morrissey turned the child over to Palmer for care.  Morrissey was said to have provided the child's support.  Morrissey's friends were worried that Palmer may claim to be his common law wife in order to share in the $7,500 insurance policy on his life. (9)

The sympathy displayed to Morrissey at the site of his trade was not universally shared in the halls of government.  The word of the murder shocked the Senate which sent a five member delegation to the funeral to act as honorary pall bearers, but not until after some debate.  Senator Samuel P. Davisson of Bethany in Harrison County protested the appointment of a delegation for the following reasons:

First-Official position should be no cloak to give crime respectability. Second-It is contrary to good public political and morals for the state to recognize at public expense and by a vote of its representatives any man of bad character. Third-An official recognition of the character make in the minds of the young licentiousness respectable and honorable and brutality legitimate. Fourth-This Senate should be courageous in placing the stamp of disapproval and indignation upon a course of life such as the late Senator led. Fifth-The greatest fear of the stability of American institutions is bad men in public places.

After debate in which it was suggest by senator John M. Williams that because Senator Morrissey was now dead his failings should be covered with the mantle of charity the chair declared the protest out of order and it was defeated with only the sponsor voting for it. (10)

Although his Senate was forgiving, his Church was not.  Reflecting the interest of the public in the views of the moral authorities of the era, the newspapers sought and reported the views of Catholic and Protestant clergymen.  The first indication of the funereal arrangements came from the Senator's brother, Ed Morrissey who reported that he would make the funeral arrangements and that "The services will be held in the Cathedral, the old church in which brother Pete was baptized." (11)  This announcement was quickly corrected by the rector of the Cathedral (now Old Cathedral), Fr. Eugene Coyle.  The Post-Dispatch reported that every possible pressure was brought to bear on Fr. Coyle by the family and friends of the Senator.  His mother and sister, Mary Morrissey, waited on him at the rectory on the morning of may 14 and pleaded on bended knees for a revocation of the edict.  Friends of the Senator were sitting in his tavern on May 15 discussing the sad state of affairs when one suggested that under the laws of the Catholic church one who had asked for a priest or in any way indicated repentance before death could be buried from the Church.  Several of the party then proceeded to the holdover where they were granted access to Maud Lewis and obtained a signed statement declaring that just after being shot Morrissey cried out for a priest and died.  This was delivered to Fr. Coyle on May 16 to no avail. (12)

Fr. Coyle described his role as that of a judge merely enforcing the law of the Church.  In explaining his position Fr. Coyle was quoted in the Post-Dispatch: I have refused the rites of the dead because Mr. Morrissey died in sin without the pale of the Church.  To grant the ceremony would be to mislead the faithful.  There is not one extenuating circumstance and to allow the body to enter the church would be against my conscience.  The last time I saw poor Morrissey was two years ago when he came here.  As he was leaving he told me that any time the church needed money to call on him for $25.  His family are my parishioners and I could feel no malice in a case like his.  It is my duty, and I only regret that the disgraceful nature of the case makes it impossible for the Church to overlook it, and places the responsibility on me.  I hope no more people will wait upon me, for the cardinal edict of the Church is irrevocable and it only prolongs my agony. (13)

Multiple opinions were expressed concerning Fr. Coyle's decision.  A friend of the Senator remarked that the Senator died under circumstances very similar to that of Archduke Rudolph of Austria who apparently killed his mistress and then committed suicide.  The Archduke was granted a Christian burial, participated in by the Bishop of Vienna and many other priests.  Fr. Coyle responded to this criticism by stating that he was not aware of the circumstances of the Archduke's death and could not reply to the question.

Several Protestant ministers were interviewed by a Post-Dispatch reporter.  Rev. Jesse Bowman Young, a prominent Methodist and editor of the Central Christian Advocate said: "The refusal of Fr. Coyle to admit the remains to the Cathedral is a matter of discipline of the Roman Catholic Church, and I, an outsider, do not care to comment on his action."

Rev. John W. Allen, a leading Presbyterian minister, observing differing purposes in the rites, said:

 "We would offer no objection to the admission of the body to one of our churches, because the services would be only for the benefit of the living who would be asked to take a lesson from the fate of the deceased.  With the Catholics, the rites for the dead directly concern the soul of the decease, and hence their rules differ from ours."

More judgmental was Rev. Dr. John Mathews, pastor of Central Methodist Church who said: "I approve of what Fr. Coyle has done, but I would base action in a like case not on the law of the church, but on the law of God as declared in the Bible." (14)

In commenting on the general implications of Morrissey's legacy Rev. Dr. Mathews continued: "The career of Senator Morrissey is disastrous to the moral of the rising generation.  They see such a man as he, a saloonkeeper, violating the laws of God and man, and yet sitting in the high places making laws for the people.  It is astounding that only one man, Mr. Davisson, put himself on record in the State Senate as opposed to the honors to be bestowed on Senator Morrissey."

After all the public outcry and debate Pete Morrissey finally was laid to rest by his friends and family.  The funeral began at the family residence and a one hundred carriage procession progressed to Calvary Cemetery where the internment took place without any religious services. As the Post-Dispatch reported "Pete Morrissey was buried as he lived and died, without the bans of the church into which he was born and baptized."  His friends and colleagues from the Senate did accompany him to the end. (15)

For her part, Maud Lewis abandoned her request for the death penalty wand sought acquittal of the charges against her on a plea of insanity.  She was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years in prison in the St. Louis Criminal Court.  Here conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Missouri. (16)

Peter Morrissey's intrusion onto the public minds and conscience of Missouri did not end with his burial and the conviction of Maud Lewis. In 1896, even before her conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court, her sister, Mrs. R.J. Spaulding, petitioner that Maud Lewis be pardoned. Mrs. Spaulding promised that if the pardon was granted she would immediately take Lewis to California where she would be placed in a sanatorium and properly treated and from which she would never return to Missouri.

The movement for a pardon resurrected the testimony of Alport Andrews, husband of Maud Lewis.  Andrews had testified at the trial that he, not Maud Lewis, had killed Morrissey.  The jury had not believed his testimony after the prosecution had proven that Andrews was a morphine fiend.  He executed an affidavit outlining his side of the story which formed the basis for a newspaper article. (17)

the main argument for the pardon was very similar to defenses used in may contemporary cases involving women accused of violence against abusive lovers.  The multitude of leading citizens who wrote to Governor Lon Stephens I support of the pardon asserted that Morrissey had abused Lewis and that she had acted properly in killing him.  Attorney James R. Waddill related that:

(T)he evidence discloses fearful and awful provocation, and a semi-crazed condition induced and provoked by the deceased.  I am advised and believe that this woman now bears on her body scars and marks made by the terrible assaults of the deceased.  I am told and believe that she now has a silver plate covering a hole in her skull as a result of an assault by the deceased.  There I say that even if guilty the prisoner had fearful and almost irresistible provocation.

J. O'Small opined that "(T)he mistake of her life was that she did not kill him sooner."  C.S. O'Conner, a reporter who handled the story assured the Governor:

(T)hat no grievous wrong was inflicted upon this community when Morrissey ceased to exist...Morrissey was killed while beating his mistress.  She had a right to kill him in my opinion.

Governor Lon Stephens brought the case to a close o January 3, 1901 when he issued a pardon to Maud Lewis. After noting that a large number of the good citizens of St. Louis and Missouri had written to him urging clemency and, after an examination into the case, Governor Stephens concluded that "Maud Lewis was more sinned against than sinning."  Like many current defendants her response to violence was condoned, albeit with the condition that she leave Missouri and never return. (18)

The life and death of Senator Peter R. Morrissey forced Missouri to confront the problems of how to deal with a high public official whose private life does not measure up to the expect moral standards of the day as well as its stand on the issue of domestic violence.  The Missouri of the 1890s mad its response.  In the Twenty-first Century Missouri and America respond to comparable situations in ways somewhat different and somewhat similar.  Despite all the changes of the Twentieth Century some qualities of human nature seem unaltered.

FOOTNOTES

1. Jefferson City Daily Tribune, May 14, 1895.
2. Journal of the House of Delegates, St. Louis, April, 1885 to April,
1886.
3. Journal of the House of Delegates, St. Louis, April, 1886 to April,
1887.
4. Journal of the Senate of the 37th General Assembly of the State of
Missouri.
5. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 14, 1895.
6. State v. Lewis, 136 Mo. 84, 37 S.W. 806 (1896)
7.. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 14, 1895.
8, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 1895.
9. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 1895
10. St. Post-Dispatch, May 16, 1895.
11. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 14, 1895.
12. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 1895.
13. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 15, 1895
14. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 1895.
15. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 1895.
16. State v. Lewis, 136 Mo. 84, 37 S.W. 806 (1896)
17.  St. Louis Republic, November 29, 1897.
18. Missouri Department of Corrections Archives.

James M. Gallen is a St. Louis attorney and first cousin, three times
removed of Peter  R. Morrissey.

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