Murder At the Cathedral

Murder at the Cathedral (continued)

Continued from page 14 of the September/October 2008 issue of The Grand Rapids Lawyer.


The 400 parishioners awaiting the start of Mass then saw Mr. McCarthy walk to the front of the altar, swinging the gun from side to side to back down the congregation. The killer held parishioners at bay, including Grand Rapids Police Captain Matthew Fritzen. Fleeing the church and walking down Sheldon Boulevard, McCarthy kept backing away from Captain Fritzen and other parishioners, threatening to shoot. He made his way to an alley behind St. Andrew’s School. Suddenly, Conrad Hoogerhyde, 54, of 1850 Preston Avenue, N.W., sprang from behind a house and onto McCarthy’s back, grabbing the gun. A struggle ensued but Captain Fritzen, Hoogerhyde and others succeeded in subduing McCarthy. 


When first questioned after his capture, McCarthy, smartly dressed in a gray suit, was calm, despite the fact that he was slightly injured from pellets from the shotgun blast ricocheting against the pew. He was bandaged at police headquarters by a physician. Police Chief Frank J. O’Malley detailed a police officer to stand by McCarthy’s cell in the event of a possible suicide attempt. According to O’Malley, McCarthy had hoped for reconciliation with his wife. He admitted owning the 12-guage shotgun, but told police that his memory failed him on the events concerning the shooting. He claimed that he brought the gun for a suicide attempt.


Later McCarthy told police he was a 35-year-old designer, draftsman and salesman. He had been married and divorced once already before his marriage to the former Miss Mary Jane Madigan. Mr. McCarthy, a life-long resident of Grand Rapids, had been working as an industrial designer for a soap firm out of Detroit. In the 1930’s, McCarthy had some local prominence as a lightweight amateur boxer.


Mary Jane Madigan McCarthy was a 1926 graduate of Catholic Central High School. She had degrees from Michigan State College and the New York School of Social Work. She was a member of the National Conference of Social Workers, and a member of the local coordinating counsel of social services. Still a young woman, she had already accomplished much and was enjoying a promising and successful career. At the time of her murder, Mary Jane McCarthy was area WPA supervisor for eight counties, including Kent, Barry, Ottawa, Allegan, Mecosta, Montcalm, Isabella and Ionia. Here, in the depths of the Depression, her accomplishments and position were indeed impressive.


Within days of Mary Jane’s death, Willis McCarthy stood sobbing in court, where he was arraigned before Police Judge Edward G. Burleson. He was represented by attorney Roman F. Glocheski. A warrant charging him with murder “willfully and with malice aforethought” was brought by the Prosecutor’s Office after Police Chief O’Malley completed taking statements from 28 witnesses. Glocheski informed Judge Burleson that he would not oppose the contention that his client killed his wife, but told the court that a plea of insanity would be made. Kent County Prosecuting Attorney Menso Bolt was then obligated to have McCarthy examined by a psychiatrist.


The case proceeded to trial in a precipitous fashion. Glocheski obtained one adjournment, but Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Taylor had advised counsel that the matter would be tried no later than February. The prosecution and defense named about 60 witnesses for the trial. The names of the witnesses were actually listed in the February 23, 1941, Grand Rapids Herald which noted:

“Roman Glocheski, attorney for the accused man, said Saturday he would adhere to his original plan of basing the defense of his client on an insanity plea, despite the finding of four psychiatrists who pronounce McCarthy sane.”

The trial commenced on February 26, 1941. Grand Rapids Herald headlines proclaimed that McCarthy’s friends’ testimony erased his insanity defense. At the end of the first day of trial, two important witnesses were called by the prosecution; both were longtime friends of the accused, and both described Willis McCarthy’s behavior as “normal.” The sanity issue had come out when Robert Smith, of 47 Leonard Street, N.E., the home where McCarthy stayed the night before the slaying, said that Willis McCarthy “acted perfectly normal to me,” and that “there was nothing different at that time than any other period.” The other witness, Lewis Schurhardt, a Board of Education employee who lived at 105 Dean Street, N.E., had known Willis McCarthy for six years and had “always liked him.” Schurhardt had visited McCarthy in jail. At one point in the conversation at the jail, Schurhardt testified that he had said “I don’t think Willis should be with people who are not normal” referring to a discussion of the institutional hospitalization that could follow. On cross-examination, Glocheski asked “Do you think a man normal when he goes to church and fires a shot at his wife’s head?” Glocheski then elicited answers that McCarthy was in love with his wife and had tried to get her back. Glocheski then asked, “When a man is as much in love with his wife as he was and blows her head off, do you mean to say he’s normal?” The case began on Monday. By Wednesday, Prosecutor Bolt had rested his case.


At the close of testimony, the attorneys gave their closing arguments. The defense had produced no expert testimony on the insanity issue, offering only the testimony of associates, friends and relatives of Willis McCarthy to tell of his avowed love for his wife, of his jealousy and what the witnesses stated were abnormal acts in the period of final estrangement of the couple. “We all know jealousy is insanity,” Glocheski said at one point in his closing. “No man becomes suddenly vile who has lived a life without fault. If he does, it is not because he wants to, but because God has taken away his reason.” Glocheski attacked the testimony of two psychiatrists, called by the prosecution, who testified that McCarthy was sane and put great stress on the fact that they examined McCarthy 25 days after the killing, when “that soul wrecked by pain, that mind absorbed by a woman, had been rested—after he had recovered his reason, rested, reconciled himself.” 


Prosecuting Attorney Menso R. Bolt, in his closing argument, characterized the defendant as a “cunning, deceiving coward.” Bolt contrasted McCarthy’s ten Depression-era jobs with his wife’s two, her raise from $22.50 per week to $175 per week, compared to his $15 per week on his last job. Assistant Prosecutor Arnold Levandoski, in his opening argument to the jury, had told them that “McCarthy was not insane – he was perturbed over the fact that he was going to lose a meal-ticket.” With a divorce judgment imminent after the statutory 60-day waiting period had run, “The breadwinner was going to make him go out into the world alone.” At another point in his closing, Bolt referred to McCarthy’s claim that he took the sawed-off shotgun in order to shoot himself:

“Did anybody stop him?” Bolt shouted. “Why didn’t he shoot himself? Because he’s a coward. As Mary Jane McCarthy sought safe haven in her church, he followed her to give her a last chance – for the next day, the 60 days would have been up and she could have had a divorce. But he was not man enough to face her in court. He had to sneak in behind her and blow her brains out.”

There was no rebuttal. An hour of argument for each side had been agreed upon. The Court’s charge was completed at 4:15 p.m., the names of two jurors – Mrs. Louella Avery and Mrs. Mary Richter, were drawn from the clerk. 14 jurors had heard the testimony of the argument and these two, as extras, were excused. Judge Taylor told the jury that only three verdicts were possible: first degree murder, second degree murder or not guilty because of insanity:

“Temporary or emotional insanity which enables a person who does not choose to bridle his anger, passion or jealousy, or allows it to continue and to get and keep the upper hand of him just long enough to enable him to commit an act of violence and then subside, is no defense,” Judge Taylor told the jury. “Mere frenzy or ungovernable passion, however furious, is not insanity,” the Court declared. “Temporary mania is not insanity. The question is not whether his mental faculty was impaired or not impaired, but, did he at the time of so doing know it was wrong to kill her, and could he have refrained from so doing if he had chosen to do so.”

The jury was out for only 20 minutes, and McCarthy was found guilty of first-degree murder. It was a “proper verdict” Judge Taylor told the jurors. “Every privilege and every consideration” had been given to the murderer. McCarthy was immediately sentenced to the Southern Michigan Prison at Jackson, to solitary confinement and at hard labor “for and during the term of your natural life.”


Motions to set aside the verdict and life sentence imposed upon McCarthy were filed on March 15, 1941. Alleged errors claimed by Glocheski were admission of prejudicial pictures, as there was no question that McCarthy had killed his wife; references to a psychiatrist engaged by the defense who was not present in the courtroom; refusal of admission of certain letters which Glocheski claimed would have been evidence that the murder was not premeditated; failure to instruct the jury that a manslaughter verdict was possible; failure to instruct the jury that the prosecution must show malice aforethought and failure to instruct the jury that a manslaughter verdict could be returned even if the killing had been intentional, if there was a possibility that McCarthy had been “upset by some cause and had not had enough time for his normal reason to assert itself.” The day before the motions were filed, McCarthy unemotionally left for Jackson Prison.


Mr. Glocheski’s motions were denied. There is no record of any appeal. On January 28, 1946, Willis John McCarthy was found dead in his cell in the Southern Michigan Prison. The coroner found that he died of a heart ailment.


Mary Jane Madigan McCarthy is buried in Woodland Cemetery.




The author, Tom Saxe, is a shareholder at Rhoades McKee and was an altar boy at St. Andrew’s. Lee Sullivan from the Grand Rapids Bar Association provided all of the extensive and tedious research into the newspaper archives.

© 2008