In El Dorado, Kansas, at the turn of the last century, a love triangle assumed its ancient form, but this one had a wickedly sharp edge to it and would give the people of Kansas fresh sensations for many years and one of the most remarkable criminal cases in its history.
The apex of this triangle was Olin Castle, son of an undertaker, a handsome man of 24 who worked as a variety store clerk. Alongside him worked a clerk by the name of Jessie Morrison, the daughter of a former probate judge, who at 27 was staring down the barrel of spinsterhood. Jessie was desperately in love with Mr. Castle, and he reciprocated her affections. But his head was turned by a neighbor, Claire Wiley, who was younger and prettier.
Castle decided on the younger lady, and they were wed on June 13, 1900, defying superstition as to the date.
Jessie did not take the news well. Eight days after the Wiley-Castle nuptials, Jessie Morrison paid a call on her former rival in the bride’s new home.
Then the neighbors heard the new Mrs. Castle screaming.
When the women who lived nearby rushed into the Castle home, they found Claire Castle lying on the dining room floor, bleeding heavily from her throat. Jessie Morrison was standing over her with a straight razor in her hand. They pulled Jessie away and took her to the authorities, who spirited her to jail.
Claire Castle was terribly wounded, suffering from numerous severe cuts. She gave a written statement explaining that Jessie Morrison had called on her uninvited, started an argument, and attacked her. Mrs. Castle died eighteen days later (probably of a massive infection), but not before expressing her forgiveness for what Jessie had done.
Jessie Morrison was put on trial for murder in the Butler County Courthouse in November, 1900. The evidence against her was damning. The key witness for the prosecution was Mrs. Spangler, the first neighbor to enter the Castle home. She told the jurymen that she saw Claire Castle lying on the floor, her torn dress saturated with blood; Claire was screaming, “Get off me, Jessie Morrison! You are killing me!” Mrs. Spangler grabbed Jessie. “I said: ‘Woman, what have you done?’” Mrs. Spangler testified. “She said she had killed Mrs. Castle and would kill me. ‘I cut her all to pieces with a razor,’ she said.” Seven other neighbors who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the attack corroborated Mrs. Spangler’s testimony.
Things looked dark indeed for Jessie Morrison, and the newspapers reported that she looked dejected as the trial began. The penalty for murder was death by hanging. When her victim’s dying declaration was read into evidence, Jessie’s chest heaved and she gulped continually.
But then it was the defense’s turn. The lead defense attorney suggested that the whole affair was Mr. Castle’s fault, that he stimulated jealousy between the two women, and “Mrs. Castle is better off in her grave than living with such a man as he had shown himself to be.” The defense claimed that Jessie Morrison was acting in self-defense.
Miss Morrison testified at the trial and was quiet and self-possessed. She claimed that on the day of the tragedy, she so happened to be passing the Castle home when Claire called her into the house, accused her of trying to end the new marriage, and when Jessie denied it, called her a liar. Per Jessie’s testimony, Claire Castle began the fight, grabbing her husband’s razor, and compelled Jessie to attack her to save herself.
The prosecution matched this testimony with evidence from numerous witnesses that the razor in question actually came from a display in the store where Jessie Morrison and Mr. Castle worked.
And thus the case was presented to the jury, but the men who heard this evidence were unable to reach the same conclusion, and the case ended in a mistrial. Jessie Morrison had to be tried a second time in the spring of 1901. On the next go-round, the jury again had a great deal of difficulty and wrangled for nearly 30 hours. All but one juror saw through her wretched excuses and fought to convict her of murder in the first degree. The lone holdout for an acquittal finally agreed to a compromise, and the jury announced its decision: a conviction for second-degree manslaughter. The penalty was three to five years in prison.
Miss Morrison should have accepted this stroke of luck and served her brief stretch. But her attorneys appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which granted her a new trial. The third time Jessie tried her luck in 1903, the jury convicted her of second-degree murder, and she was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
As Jessie began serving her sentence, an hysterical agitation gripped Kansas, and public sympathy for the prisoner reached the highest political levels. The Kansas Supreme Court, citing bias in the trial judge, ordered a fourth trial. But before yet another proceeding could be held, Governor Stubbs ordered her parole in 1910 (on condition that she go to church). The governor declared that Jessie Morrison’s first trial “more nearly gave justice than the two following.” But the forgiving voters of Kansas were not thoroughly satisfied with her release, and following the public opinion, the succeeding Governor Hodges gave Jessie Morrison a full and unconditional pardon in 1913.
After her parole and pardon, Jessie Morrison moved to West Virginia and took up a quiet life. Olin Castle married again – the second time to a woman reporter who fell in love with him while covering the Morrison trials for the El Dorado Republican.
And the rest of us are left with a mystery to ponder. In the face of devastating evidence that Jessie Morrison was a cold-blooded murderess, a jealous monster who cut down her rival for spite, how did she manage to secure such outcomes? Her gender had everything to do with it. The death penalty also may well have been a key factor; she certainly wasn’t the first woman (nor would she be the last) to escape a first-degree murder conviction in a death penalty state in the face of overwhelming evidence. One is forced to conclude that some of the jurors, the Supreme Court, two governors, and a majority of the people of Kansas were more horrified by the prospect of seeing the body of a woman swinging from a stout rope than by the body of a young bride lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood.
1900 Census, El Dorado, Kansas; 1910 Census, Kansas State Penitentiary
"Jessie Morrison's Story," Sandusky Daily Star, Dec. 8, 1900.
"Favors the Defendant. Judge's Instructions in the Morrison Case," Anaconda Standard, Dec. 9, 1900.
"State's Case is Finished," Anaconda Standard, June 20, 1901.
"Verdict Reached. Sensation [sic] Murder Trial Ends in Finding Miss Morrison Guilty," Davenport Daily Leader, June 28, 1901.
"Jessie Found Guilty. Jury Agreed on Manslaughter in the Second Degree. Received the Verdict Stoically," Delphos (Ohio) Daily Herald, June 28, 1901.
"Jessie Morrison Guilty of Manslaughter," Humeston (Iowa) New Era, July 3, 1901.
"Jessie Morrison Released," Lima Times Democrat, Oct. 9, 1902.
"Jessie Morrison Gets Full Pardon; Governor of Kansas Frees Convicted Slayer of Rival," Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, Feb. 26, 1913.
"Man Whose Wife Was Killed by Jessie Morrison Has Married Again," Newark Advocate, April 22, 1903.