Single gunshot ends Prohibition-era Galveston romance

"View of gulf and boulevard at night from Hotel Galvez, Galveston, Texas." Card. 1930. Digital Commonwealth

“View of gulf and boulevard at night from Hotel Galvez, Galveston, Texas.” Card. 1930. Digital Commonwealth

John W. Adams “worshipped the very ground that Marie Doherty walked on.” For her part, Marie said several times she “would rather die than give him up.”

The people packed into the 56th District courtroom on Nov. 14, 1930, sitting amid a blue haze of cigarette and cigar smoke, gasped in unison at the bold declaration by J.W. Coward, the second defense witness for Adams in his trial for shooting Doherty eight months earlier.

Doherty, a 27-year-old divorcée, was half Adams’ age. The white-haired, red-faced special officer of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson railway, was a well-known Galveston official who’d also served as a former deputy sheriff and probation officer. He didn’t deny shooting Doherty. But he claimed it was an accident sparked by her obsession with him. Prosecutors maintained Adams killed Doherty in cold blood after the passion of their tawdry affair cooled.

As the early spring sky faded toward dusk on March 6, 1930, Adams came looking for Doherty at her house at 215 16th Street. He didn’t find her, but he did discover a jug of whiskey under the kitchen table. After pouring himself a half tumbler, he took his gun and marched across the street to a well-known, if seedy, speakeasy. One of the later witnesses described Ernest Sigmon’s establishment as “just an ordinary rat beer joint.” Adams banged on the door and asked for Marie. The proprietor said she wasn’t there and told Adams to go away. But he forced his way through the door, firing one shot into the floor. Adams stalked through every other room in the house, firing three more shots into the floor. He eventually found Marie hiding behind a door.

Witnesses gave differing accounts of what happened after that. Some said Adams dragged his young lover down the steps and across the street, holding her arm with one hand and pointing the gun into her side. Others, including Adams, said they left together amicably. At one point, he stumbled and she helped him up. When they got to her front porch, one witness said they appeared to be arguing with Marie trying to pull away as Adams continued to point the gun at her. Adams claimed Marie tried to grab the gun from him, vowing to end her own life rather than give him up.

When the gun went off, the bullet tore through the young woman’s abdomen and skittered down the hall. She collapsed, a pool of blood quickly spreading beneath her. Adams went to a neighbor’s house to call for help but no one would come to the door. He ended up walking to the corner store owned by A. Del Pappa and summoned the police and an ambulance. When Marie arrived at John Sealy Hospital, she confirmed to police that Adams shot her, but couldn’t say much else. A few hours later, she died.

When he took the stand on the second day of his murder trial, Adam denied Coward’s claim he “worshipped” Marie. He said he fell into her clutches during a weak moment when his wife was ill. He described Marie as “unruly,” especially when she’d been drinking. That’s why he went to get her from Sigmon’s place that day, he said.

“She would come down to where I was working and get into my car and I couldn’t get her out,” he said. “I tried several times to break away, and I told her finally that if I didn’t break away, I’d lose my wife and my job and everything I had in the world, and she threatened to kill me and my wife and herself if I did.”

Coward and other witnesses bolstered that claim by recounting a time when Marie had to be taken to the hospital after trying to poison herself. Coward said he heard Marie make threats against her rival.

Adams’ wife, Grace, sat through the trial at her husband’s side, excusing herself only during the testimony about his devotion to Marie. She had already suffered through a terrible battle with breast cancer, the illness that evidently drove Adams into Marie Doherty’s arms. Just before he was scheduled to stand trial in May, Grace took a turn for the worse and prosecutors agreed to put the trial on hold until the end of the year. Although she initially was described as a material witness for her husband, The Galveston Daily News never mentioned her taking the stand.

Prosecutors asked jurors to impose the death penalty. As part of their defense strategy, Adams’ lawyers described to the court—in vivid detail—what happens to someone in the electric chair. Adams and his wife sobbed so loudly during the closing arguments the judge had to warn them to settle down.

After two and a half days of testimony, jurors debated Adams’ fate for three hours and 45 minutes. When the foreman read the verdict of “not guilty,” Adams collapsed again in tears, then rushed to the jury box to shake each man’s hand. After that, Adams faded from the news—mostly. In March 1931, he was back in court again, this time before the justice of the peace, after another woman filed charges against him for cursing and abusing her. The newspaper never reported whether he was found guilty.

It’s not clear what happened to Adams after that. His wife died in 1936, and he was listed as a survivor. But after that, The Daily News never mentioned him again.

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