This month we welcome guest columnist Paul Putz
Sea captain and wounded Civil War veteran Thaddeus Leighton of Steuben, Maine, moved to New York City sometime around 1882 to operate a tug boat. He took up residence with his wife and four daughters at 418 Vernon Avenue in Queens (today near the Queensboro Bridge pier). His daughters were Josephine, Eleanor, Mable and Gertrude. His wife was Julie Burk of Ireland.
The move from a sleepy fishing village to New York’s teeming streets was the adventure of a lifetime for the elder Leighton girls. Young and adventurous, they would soon launch into adulthood. They too, had dreams, the pursuit of which would bring this little family unspeakable tragedy and hurl the daughters of Thaddeus Leighton into the glare of notoriety.
Josephine was the eldest and they called her “Josie.” She was born in Maine in 1882. The daughters were sufficiently educated, at least in the academic sense, to allow for acceptance on a social level for which it would be said they should be grateful. Perhaps it helped that she was beautiful, a description repeated in the many accounts of her life, that she caught the attention of Payton Noble. His father, Solomon, of Plymouth Puritan stock, was a former New York Assemblyman and Tammany stalwart and who lived in a grand Ravenswood mansion. Payton’s brother, Daniel was the surrogate judge in Queens County.
Josie and Payton started a charming little affair, she a 19 year old beauty and he, a decade older, was rising clerk in the magistrate’s court. They cuddled up in an apartment at 152 12th Street (today 44th Avenue) in Long Island City where, according to Josie’s testimony, they never fought – and according to the neighbors – they raged and threatened one another at full volume.
On the evening of November 12, 1904, they went out to visit friends, returning to their apartment before midnight. Not long after they arrived, Josephine shocked the people living on the floor below by appearing in their doorway crying hysterically and repeating her husband’s name.
In her hand was a small pistol.
Upstairs they found Payton Noble dead from gunshot wounds.
The police found sufficient circumstantial evidence to charge Josie with second degree murder and she languished without bail in the Queens constabulary for over a month. Through the effective pleas of her younger sister, Eleanor, a wealthy merchant vouched for her release on bond. That Eleanor was able to accomplish this at her age was remarkable and the papers made much of the sister’s fortitude and capability while nonetheless anguished.
Meanwhile, a capable attorney was engaged, assisted by a bright young solicitor of English and Turkish extraction named Nassib Abdullah Shibley. The comings and goings of this little group were eagerly recorded by the press. At the trial the following April, Josephine Noble explained that the shooting was accidental, the result of the couple’s playful toying with a gun that proved to be loaded.
After a brief consultation, the jury awarded Josie her freedom but not after the entire city was aware of the incident and its players. No one thought there would be more.
Two years later Josie’s sister Eleanor and the attorney Nassib Shibley were married and in less than the allotted time, a son was born to this union. They took up rooms at 508 West 123d Street where on the night of November 3, 1908, their bodies were found in bed.
In a ghoulish repeat of history, the papers ran stories about another Leighton girl’s marital problems, this time with double tragedy as a climax. Shibley had poisoned his wife and slit his wrists in a fit of jealousy, citing in a suicide note that Eleanor’s love of nightlife ran counter to his wishes as a husband (Shibley did not mention, as friends did, a certain Gypsy violinist).
In a note, he asked his sister-in-law Josephine to care for the couple’s two year old son, Leo.
In the next installment, the continuing adventures of Josephine.