Emma Simpson

Part One - The Marriage and The Murder


It’s 1919, Woodrow Wilson is president, World War I has just ended, Spanish Flu is in it’s third wave, the 18th amendment authorizing Prohibition goes into effect, the 19th Amendment Suffrage for Women is passed by the US Congress and sent to the states for ratification, riots sprout off all over the country, Steel riots, Mining riots, most importantly the Red Summer Race Riots.  It was also the year that Emma Simpson, in a court room, shot her husband of 16 years, Elmer Simpson.


Emma Simpson

Emma’s Early Years

Emma Simpson was born to Charles Taunton Spackman and Eliza Spackman on March 31, 1875 in Belvidere, Illinois.  She had eleven siblings, five brothers and six sisters.  Charles Spackman was a Justice of the Peace and known as “Squire”. He tried many cases from Bank Robbery to trespassing chickens that ate another farmer’s corn.  He also performed numerous marriages.   March 26, 1917, Squire Spackman was found mentally unsound and sent to the Elgin Insane Asylum where he died September 18, 1917. Her mother Eliza was a committee woman for several woman’s groups in and around Belvidere. 

Emma grew up in Belvidere and had a happy childhood.  She won the most votes as the most popular young lady at the G.A.R. Fair in 1891 and won a sewing machine.  She also was the understudy for the leading lady in the play “True Blue” in 1892, she played the role of Nellie Grover and received rave reviews for her clear enunciation and earnest acting. 

Emma moved to Chicago to work as a stenographer for her uncle J.M. Roach who was the president of Chicago Union Traction Company, later the Chicago Railways Company the largest mass transit company at the time in Chicago with 3,100 trolleys.  There in Chicago, she met Elmer Simpson, a telegrapher that was 17 years older than she was.  Emma and Elmer were married on March 12, 1903.


Emma Simpson Elmer and Jean

The Marriage

After nine years of marriage, May 18, 1915, Emma learns that there is another woman, Elmer’s brother, Arthur’s sister-in-law, Jean Webster.  Emma calls Jean Webster’s husband and the police and they raid the hotel room that Elmer and Jean are using.  Elmer and Jean are arrested as adultery was illegal at that time in Chicago. 

In March 1917, Elmer obtains divorce by default from Judge Barasa without telling Emma.  Emma finds out and gets the divorce vacated the following day by Judge Thomson.  Emma represented herself with a bill for separate maintenance.  Jean Webster was listed as co-respondent.  Judge David Brothers offered her a divorce, her reply was, “I don’t want a divorce, I don’t want my husband free to marry her.”  Elmer replied that Emma was employed as a private secretary to her uncle JM Roach and made sufficient to support herself.  Emma was awarded $7.50 per week.  Arthur Simpson, Elmer’s brother, denied that his wife’s sister, Jean had anything to do with breaking up the marriage although her husband had divorced her.

April 25, 1919 Elmer Simpson, telegraph operator was shot 4 times by Emma.  The motive was jealousy of Elmer’s sister-in-law Mrs. Jean Webster. 

Emma took Elmer to court asking for an increase in her temporary alimony, which was given to her in February, $7.50 per week and named Jean as co-respondent.  The Judge agreed with Emma after Elmer argued “Why — this woman makes $200 a month as Secretary to J.M. Roach”, and gave her $9.00 a week, which today is about $140 a week. 

Judge David Brothers then left the bench and into his chambers.  The Simpsons were sitting on opposite sides of the table when Elmer said “Emma — lets go back and be happy again” and asked why she refused to divorce him. 

She replied “I’ll give you a divorce when you get something on me, then you can marry Mrs. Webster… “

Which he interrupted with “Say right now that you are living with…”

The Murder

When Emma pulled a 38-caliber pistol from the folds of her dress.  The first two chambers were empty, but Emma continued shooting the remaining 4 bullets into Elmer.  After the last shot Emma dropped the gun and calmly said “Now I am vindicated!” 

“You’ve Killed Him!!!” shrieked Bertha Fischer the 18-year-old court reporter.

 “I hope so!  He tortured me every minute of the last four years and he deserves it!” retorted Emma. 

First aid treatment was administered to Elmer by Dr. W.O. McNally and he was taken to St. Luke’s Hospital.  Judge Brothers returned to the court room and ordered Emma to be held without bail pending the Grand Jury. 

By then the press had arrived and a reporter from the Chicago Tribune interviewed Emma on the walk to jail.  “That man has lived by my permission since July 12, 1915. On that date I found him in a hotel with Mrs. Jean Webster. Her husband was with me and we had them arrested.” 

“Since that time, he has repeatedly called on that woman.  He has loved her.  My life has been besmirched with dirt.  I have always loved and worked for Elmer, and he has repaid me with unfaithfulness.

“Of course, I took a gun to court with me, but I didn’t expect to shoot. He said something to me – something nasty, indicative of his whole nature.  It made me boil – I could not stand it any longer. 

“When I go to court for this, I will defend myself.  I will need no attorney – the new unwritten law, which does not permit a married man to love another woman, will be my defense.  It will save me. I am perfectly confident of that.”

Elmer seemed to be healing well and told his doctor, James Hall, “I guess I nagged her too much.  You know, doctor, a woman can’t stand as much nagging as a man and I guess I was a little too severe with her.”

Elmer Simpson died because of infection from the gunshot wounds.  The wounds were healing nicely then infection struck.  “Simpson did not die directly as a result of the shooting.  An infection which set in where the four bullets entered his body caused his death,” said Dr. Hall and Dr. L.L. MacArthur.

Part Two - Emma Simpson's Trial

Clarence Darrow

Attending with her attorney Clarence Darrow, yes THAT Clarence Darrow. Attired in a fetching plain white linen frock, white pumps and a sable sailor, Emma appeared for the first day in Judge George Kersten’s court to undergo the ordeal of a trial before a jury of twelve men selected from a group of 200 prospective jurors called. 

For the first day of court, Emma Simpson, wore a white suit, the whitest of shoes, and a black patterned veil in Judge Kersten’s courtroom.  The first witness was Elmer’s mother, Mrs. Anna Simpson.  Elmer had been living with his mother since his separation from Emma.  Mrs. Simpson’s testimony wasn’t much; she had kissed him goodbye in the morning, visited him in the hospital the next day and purchased a coffin the following day. 

Our friend Bertha Fischer then testified that Emma had a “look of hatred” as she pulled the trigger. 

Gus Villvock the bailiff added that she stated, “I hope he dies”. 

Another bailiff William Curran was charged with taking Emma down to the jail stated that she said, “You needn’t hold my wrist so tightly, I won’t try to get away”.  Emma also told him in the elevator, “You couldn’t get justice done in these courts.  Elmer had been lying about me.” 

Each time a witness was asked to point out the woman who had shot Elmer, Emma covered her eyes.  When the coroner James Simonds testified, Anna Simpson cried and Emma kept her eyes shielded and was very still. 

Clarence Darrow, attorney for the defense stated that his defense was that Emma was only insane on the subject of her husband.  His cross examination included asking each eye witness the color of her face and the look in her eyes and whether or not they were wild. 

Elmer's Mom

Several of Emma’s friends and neighbors testified at the trial.  Harry McCormick testified that Elmer used Emma as a “financial convenience” and that she had been insane for nearly two years.  Mr. McCormick was a co-worker of Emma at Chicago Surface Lines.  He stated “For five or six years she was worried over the troubles between herself and her husband.  After the divorce proceedings started her hair began to turn gray, her face haggard and she was unable to concentrate on the business matters with which she had previously been familiar.  For several months she haunted my office asking my aid.  After her divorce case started she became insane over the subject of her domestic life.  I often found her in her office , her hair disheveled, her eyes staring, using violent language.  I saw many of the letters written by Elmer Simpson to his wife.   It was apparent that he was using her as a means for money purposes only.  His letters were substantiated by the story she often told me that he regarded her only as a financial convenience for himself.  It was because of this attitude that I advised her to obtain a divorce.” 

Assistant State’s attorney Murphy asked Samuel Frielander, Emma’s divorce attorney, to identify the revolver used by Emma.  “Take it away!” screamed Emma, leaping to her feet and pointing at the gun.  After standing for a few seconds staring pointedly at the gun she fell back into her chair in a faint.  Court was adjourned for an hour while medical aid was called to revive her. 

Eighteen witnesses for the defense were called.  Neighbors testified that Emma was a hardworking, faithful wife that had nursed Elmer back to health from tuberculosis. 

Malcolm Webster, former husband of Jean Webster takes the stand.  On the stand Malcolm a pale, small, determined looking man, graphically described how he once grabbed his wife by the hair and flung her clear across the room when he found her in the company of Elmer.  He ended his testimony by stating his belief that Emma was mentally unbalanced because of the troubles with Elmer. 

John M Roach

John M Roach, Emma’s uncle was the next to take the stand.  He testified that Emma was an excellent stenographer and secretary.  His testimony continued, “About five or six years ago, Mrs. Simpson told me her husband had gone into court and obtained a divorce from her without her knowledge.  She was an entirely changed person in every way from then on.  She seemed to want to be left alone and wanted no one to see her.  She cried and wept continuously after that.  She said a woman who did no wrong seemed to have no chance whatever in the courts, but a man who did everything wrong could drag her from one court to another.  Finally, she blew up entirely, is the best way that I can express it.  There was as much difference in her then and before her trouble as night and day.” 

Mr. Roach then said that he advised his niece to get a divorce as she was going insane on the subject.  She told her uncle that she did not believe in divorce.  She also told him that Elmer had threatened to kill her over the telephone, and she told her uncle where she had hidden some papers in case anything happened to her.  He ended his testimony by telling the court that her father CT Spackman had died in the Elgin Insane Asylum. 

Five physicians, Dr. H. I. Davis, Dr. William Stearns, Dr. Archibald Church, Dr. William Krohn, and Dr. Harold Moyer testified.  Dr. Moyer testified it was his belief that Emma suffered from manic depression, making her insane at the time of the shooting.  Dr. Church testified ” egregious egotism and lack of self-control which suggested insanity”.  Clarence Darrow then called rebuttal witnesses. 

Attorney Francis Callahan, a witness testified that he believed that Emma was insane. Elmer Simpson’s attorney, Israel Pearlman testified that Emma was “absolutely sane”. 

Part Three - Closing

Emma Simpson

Prosecutor Murphy asked for life imprisonment saying, “Something needs to be done about willful, malicious, and deliberate murder.”  He then pointed to Emma and called her a Jealous, angry gun toter. He followed with, “The state of Illinois asks you, gentlemen, to put an end to these killings by these women wild with jealousy.  We have shown there is no insanity in this case.  This paragon of virtue in her own mind was always right and her husband Elmer wrong–“

At which point Emma jumped up and shouted, “Mr. Murphy, he was not all wrong, — he was all right until that woman Jean Webster got hold of him.” 

Later when Mr. Murphy was telling the jury that Emma while insane was earning her own living, she cried out, “I did not!”

Mr. Murphy’s final statement was, “Gentlemen, there are many women in Chicago waiting to see what you will do.  

Clarence Darrow followed.  “You may lock Mrs. Simpson up for the rest of her life, but that won’t stamp out happenings like this.  Does it seem to you, gentlemen, that a person in his or her right mind would pick out a court, a temple of justice, where a dozen persons are gathered to do a murder? It is not only murder, but more serious, contempt of court.” 

Darrow went on to uphold his plea that Emma was insane as it related to Elmer.  “A man would not worry about troubles with his wife but would worry about making money and go crazy on the subject.  A large number of women under the same conditions as Mrs. Simpson faced, would go insane.  If a man died his widow might go insane, but if a woman died, I would need proof that the husband went insane.  If a woman lost a million dollars, I doubt she would go insane, but a man would.”

Clarence Darrow closed by stating to the 12-member male jury, “You’ve been asked to treat a man and a woman the same — but you can’t, no manly man can.”

The jury was sent to deliberate. The Prosecutor left the courthouse.  The judge went into his chambers, and Clarence Darrow was gathering up his papers when there was a knock on the door and the bailiff told him the jury had reached a verdict.  It had taken half an hour.  Emma came back in the courtroom having changed from the white she had worn throughout the trial to a black velvet gown. 

“You have the verdict, gentlemen” asked Judge George Kersten.  “Let it be read.” 

The jury foreman stood and read. “We, the jury find the defendant, Emma Simpson, committed the act charged in the indictment, but at the time of the commission of  said act she was a lunatic or insane person and that she has not permanently recovered from such lunacy and insanity.” 

After the trial one of the jurors, Max Leviton was questioned by the Chicago Tribune and told them, “We had been undecided until this morning as to whether she was insane — but when Mrs. Simpson interrupted the prosecuting attorney twice, we figured a sane person would have acted differently.”  He further told them that two ballots had been taken, the first one stood 6 to 6 on the question of insanity.

When she was back in her cell, she told a reporter when asked if she was happy with the verdict, “Yes, but that won’t bring my husband back.”

The story was not just covered all over Illinois but also appeared in newspapers in Kansas City, Topeka Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Bartlesville, OK, Fort Worth, TX, St. Joseph, MO, Davenport, IA, Meriden, CT, Beatrice, NE, Little Rock, AR, and even in Canada. 

September 30, 1919, Emma Simpson was sentenced to the Elgin Insane Asylum, where her father had been and died.

November 24, 1919, Emma Simpson is freed from Elgin Insane Asylum.  In an Elgin City court packed with a sympathetic crowd, Judge Frank Shopen declared her sane.  Emma stayed in the hospital for fifty-one days.  During this time, she made surgical dressings and combed the other patient’s hair.  Following the decision Emma approached the judge and held out her hand.  “God bless you!” he smiled.