Updated: Apr 27, 2021
The beautiful colonial house that sits on North Street was ominously called “The Shadows”. J. E. Norton Shaw and his wife, Helen Sherman Shaw happily lived in the house since their 1909 marriage. In that time they enjoyed bird watching, plays, traveling and many other activities. But on Thanksgiving weekend, 1926, the house would witness a terrible tragedy and the quiet life they lived would be shattered.
Helen Sherman was born in New Bedford on October 28, 1880 to William Sherman and Rosa Cook. Before marrying, she attended Brown University and graduated in 1902. While at Brown she helped form the Komains, a theater club for women. The only option for women actors at Brown at that time was a sorority that performed Shakespeare plays. The Komains would produce their own plays and the women would play both the female and male parts of the play.
After leaving Brown, Helen Sherman would go on to teach school in places like Quincy, Grafton, and Mattapoisett. It is perhaps during her time teaching in Mattapoisett that she met J. E. Norton Shaw, a lawyer who lived in town.
James Ebenezer Norton Shaw was born in Mattapoisett on February 7, 1876 to Bruce Freeman Shaw and Eliza Angelia Cook. Norton, as he was called, was raised in the town almshouse on Aucoot Road, his father being the keeper of the almshouse. Norton attended school in Mattapoisett and prepared for college at Tabor Academy in Marion where he graduated second in his class. At Tabor he was described as being “satisfactory in deportment and morals”. Though he failed an earlier attempt at his preliminary exams, his work was faithful and completed out of his sense of duty. His family “stands well” in Mattapoisett and he was influenced to pursue a liberal education. After studying at Tabor he enrolled at Harvard University.
After graduating from the college in 1898, Shaw went on to the Harvard Law School where he earned a law degree in 1901. From there he opened up a practice in New Bedford and had an office located at the Masonic Building. About eight months before marrying Helen, Shaw purchased “The Shadows” from his father.
The Shaw’s lived a quite life and had no children. While they lived at the Shadows, Mr. Shaw would “motor to and from” his office seven miles away. They spent their leisure time studying birds and reporting their findings to groups and publications dedicated to protecting birds such as Bird-Lore. They also took part in yacht racing, farming and “motor cruising” throughout New England. They traveled to Maine and Canada for canoeing trips and to explore forests. Helen particularly enjoyed watching sports including boxing matches in New Bedford. A woman at a boxing match drew much notice in those days but she apparently didn’t mind.
Mr. Shaw was also very much engaged in his work as an attorney in general practice at the Masonic Building in New Bedford.
In 1926, he was appointed co-executor of the will of George Russell of Acushnet. Russell had bequeathed a large portion of his estate to Acushnet worth around $140,000. The money was to fund a new library, upkeep of the town’s cemeteries and for other projects.
Russell, a Mayflower descent, taught school in Acushnet, Fairhaven and New Bedford for 22 years. He was once noted by the town of Acushnet for his success as a teacher due to his qualities of “firmness, patience and self possession”. After teaching, Russell went in to the banking business. In 1880, he married a woman named Abbie Pilling but by 1900 they had divorced having had no children.
Russell had become lonely and had fallen for a much younger woman named Rebecca Maud. He was in his 60s while she was in her 20s. Apparently they had developed a friendly relationship. At some point he began to refer to her as his “sweetheart” and proposed. She declined his offer despite the urging of her friends to marry him. She later married Wallace Holmes and Russell did not speak to her for a year.
They were soon on good terms but Russell’s infatuation for her did not end. When she became pregnant he offered her $40,000 to name the child after him if it was a boy. She accepted his offer and named the baby boy after him. But the baby did not live and Russell died soon after.
Before Russell died, he had hired J. E. Norton Shaw to be the executor of his will. Russell called a meeting with Mrs. Holmes and Mr. Shaw and instructed the attorney to invest the $40,000 in bonds for Mrs. Holmes. At least that is the story Mrs. Holmes told in court.
Rebecca Holmes and J. E. Norton Shaw were to attend a hearing on November 29, 1926 due to objections raised by the town of Acushnet. The town had questioned the nearly $40,000 paid to Mrs. Holmes and two payments made to Mr. Shaw of $2,200 and $1,700. The money had come from Mr. Russell’s estate.
The hearing would not take place. On Thanksgiving, Mr. Shaw spent the day with his friends and family in a cheerful mood. The court hearing, his friends would later say, didn’t seem to bother him. The Friday after Thanksgiving, Shaw went to his office as usual and left at the end of the day, leaving the papers related to the estate and court hearing on his desk in preparation for Monday’s hearing.
He came home around 3:30 and changed in to some old clothes and grabbed his shotgun. He told his housekeeper, Catherine Sherman, he saw a rat in the yard on the way in and he was going out to shoot it. At about 4:45 he came back in the house and said the rat had got away. Shaw then went up stairs where his wife was getting dressed for her evening walk. A moment later a shot rang out.
“My God, I’ve shot my wife! The gun went off! Call Dr. Tilden, quick!” he yelled down to the housekeeper.
Ms. Sherman ran to the phone to call Dr. Tilden who said he would be right over. Putting down the phone she turned to hurry up the stairs when she heard the second shot. After Dr. Tilden arrived he called for Dr. Raymond Baxter of Marion a medical examiner. They examined the Shaw’s as they lie dead in the bedroom; Mrs. Shaw with a gunshot wound to the chin and neck, Mr. Shaw with a gunshot wound to the head.
Mr. Shaw’s aged mother, who lived across the street from the Shadows, was unaware of the tragic events that had taken place. For days afterward no one had the heart to break the bad news.
Initially, Dr. Baxter ruled the incident an accidental homicide and suicide. A week later while the Shaw’s bodies lay in their home for the funeral services, the District Attorney Winfield M. Wilbar, stated that Dr. Baxter exceeded his authority in the ruling. Later a private inquest was held and the judge later agreed with Dr. Baxter’s findings.
Boston Evening Standard, 01/21/1927 - Judge cannot find Mrs. Shaw’s Death was Accidental, husband shot her and shot himself.
However, Shaw and Holmes were later charged with conspiracy to deplete the Russell estate. Judge Mayhew R. Hitch found that Russell was incompetent of the time he gave Mrs. Holmes $40,000. She was charged with maladministration and Mr. Shaw was charged with fraud.
Two years later the house was sold to Benjamin S. Blake of Weston, Mass. Today, the house is no longer known as the Shadows and the Shaws lie side by side in the quiet Cushing Cemetery as moss grows over their neglected headstone seemingly trying to hide the tragic history of the end of their lives.
Article and research done by museum President, Kyle DeCicco-Carey.