Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Woodwards: Tragedy in High Society

Grand Jury

The morning after the shooting, North Shore society was buzzing with rumor and gossip. At a luncheon attended by friends of the Woodwards the next day, the Duchess of Windsor summarized the feelings of the seen-it-all members of society's elite.

Police question Paul Wirths (center) about burglary
Police question Paul Wirths (center)
about burglary

"Nothing like a murder in the country to cure what ails you," she said, apparently unaware that Ann had not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The allegations of murder stuck, however. Not knowing that Billy's estate left almost everything to his children in trust, her "friends" simply assumed that Ann had killed her husband to get at his money.

Nassau County police began investigating the incident and were quickly able to find the tramp that had been burglarizing the Oyster Bay homes. The man, Paul Wirths, admitted trying to break into the home when the shots rang out. There were some who believed Wirths had been paid by Elsie Woodward to make his claim and years later, Wirths tried to blackmail Ann using that story.

In the face of widespread press coverage, the district attorney convened a grand jury to investigate the shooting. Shortly after she buried her husband, Ann Woodward appeared before the grand jury and told her account of events.

The jurors took just 30 minutes to deliberate the facts and find that Ann had acted without malice and that the shooting was unintentional. She was completely exonerated in the eyes of the law.

The tongues continued to wag, however.

Even though Elsie Woodward had made no secret of her disdain for her daughter-in-law, many people believed that she had paid to make charges go away. Rather than subject the family to the public scandal of a murder trial, they reasoned, Elsie had opted for a cover-up.

Woodward home with locations marked, police evidence
Woodward home with locations marked,
police evidence

Quickly, Ann became persona non grata in New York Society. As Billy Woodward's wife she was barely tolerated because she wasn't born into the circle. As his widow and killer, she was ostracized. Behind her back they called her 'Annie Get Your Gun' or 'the murderess.' As the days went by the stories began to circulate about the "truth" behind the Woodward marriage and Billy's death.

Over petit fours and champagne, the grande dames whispered that Ann had once been a prostitute. She had been previously married and had killed Billy when he discovered that her first marriage had never been legally ended. Unfortunately for Ann, the rumors gained a measure of truth when it came out that her father was not the "late Col. Crowell," as was listed in the Woodwards' wedding announcement, but was, in fact, alive and well and estranged from his daughter (he erroneously thought the actress Eve Arden was actually his child).

Conversely, Elsie Woodward's prestige rose with her son's death. She struck up a friendship with Frank Sinatra and Andy Warhol. Whether or not she believed her daughter-in-law murdered her son, she never let slip. She did, however, continue to reign over Ann and demand her presence at courtside.

"Mostly, the furs-and-pearls set took its cues from one of its dowager empresses, Elsie Woodward, whose visceral hatred (for Ann) was apparent despite a front of civility," wrote Mike Dorning in a review of Braudy's book. "The social invitations she issued only fed the rumor that Elsie had put family name ahead of legal justice and signed checks totaling $400,000 to end the criminal investigation."

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