Jessie Costello, The Boston Globe, August 1, 1933

Jessie Burnett Costello was born on September 15, 1902 to Jessie B. Fyfe and Andrew J. Fyfe in Yonkers, New York. Her parents had emigrated from Scotland.

The family moved to Peabody, where Jessie met her husband, Captain William J. Costello, a Peabody firefighter seven years her senior.

William Costello, circa 1918

Captain William Costello, 1933. The Leslie Jones Collection, the Boston Public Library.

William and Jessie married shortly after World War I. They had four children, one of whom died when he was 16 months old. According to the 1930 census, the Costellos lived at 21 Fay Avenue in Peabody. By all accounts, it was a full house. Jessie, William, their children, Anna, Jessie and Robert lived there with Jessie’s parents and her brother Andrew, along with William’s father John.

The Costello children with their grandfather Andrew Fyfe,
The Boston Globe, July 14, 1933

On February 17th, 1933, William was home sick with stomach pains. Jessie was polishing the brass and their housekeeper, Catherine Simbolest, was also cleaning the first floor of the home. Nellie Ayers, a door-to-door saleswoman, knocked on the door and tried to sell Jessie chocolates. At first hesitant, Jessie decided to get a few for her children and went upstairs to get money. Jessie screamed and rushed downstairs. She found William dead on the hallway floor.

William’s death turns Jessie into a national celebrity, and the murder trial that follows is the most sensational murder trial in Peabody’s history.

Glass Print Negative, The Leslie Jones Collection. Boston Public Library. “Mrs. Jessie Costello at Salem Court, Murder Case,” 1933.

On February 19th, the day of William’s funeral, Jessie was taken in for questioning. Cyanide was found during an autopsy. Jessie was questioned about having a mixture with oxalic acid and cyanide in her home. She insisted she had always used the compound to clean the boiler and polish other household brass.

On March 17th, Jessie was formally charged and brought to Salem Jail. During the trial, Jessie was accused of having an ongoing affair with Edward McMahon, a local policeman. McMahon’s graphic testimony of their relationship was too lewd to be published in the papers. McMahon spoke of their time “parking” on Hog Hill (Felton Street) and was nicknamed the “kiss and tell cop.” Jessie described McMahon as a family friend, who Jessie and William took into their home when he fell on financial hard times and health issues. The prosecution set out to assassinate Jessie’s character.

What the prosecution didn’t factor was Jessie Costello’s charisma. She was beautiful, well-spoken and composed throughout the trial. The reporters loved her and often asked her to pose for photos going into the courthouse. The jury was so enamored with her that one asked if he could bring her flowers.

On August 15th, the trial ended with an impassioned plea from Jessie herself, saying she loved her husband and that she just wanted to be reunited with her children.  The jury found her not guilty after an hour and 43 minutes of deliberation. Cheers of hundreds of spectators were heard outside Salem Superior Court.

Glass print negative, The Leslie Jones Collection. Boston Public Library. “Jessie Costello Leaves for New York,” August 1933.

Her fame fizzled and by 1940, she was living at 5 Ethel Avenue in Peabody, with her three children. She lived a quiet life in Peabody until her death at age 68 in 1971. Her funeral was attended by over 150 people, including her son, Robert, who had become the Chief of Peabody’s Police. Jessie was buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Photograph, The Leslie Jones Collection. Boston Public Library. “Mrs. Jessie Costello at Home,” March 1935.



The Salem News, “Peabody Paragraph” February 20, 1933.

Coverage of Costello Trial, 1933, The Boston Globe, – March to August 1933.

Jones, Leslie. The Boston Public Library. Costello Murder case. 1933-1935. Web accessed 24 Feb 2023. <>

The Salem News, “Peabody Paragraph” February 20, 1933.

Coverage of Costello Trial, The New York Times, August 19, 1933.

Peabody City Directory, 1933 and 1935.

Obituary of Jessie Costello, The Boston Globe, March 30, 1971.

“Justice and Jessie Costello”, May 5, 2014; Can be accessed here –, US Census for 1930, accessed February 20, 2023.