On June 7, 1904, New York’s Yiddish-language theater world was shocked by a bizarre attempted murder-suicide, perpetrated by one of its leading lights. The shooter, and sole fatality, was Moishe “Morris” Finkel, a veteran actor, director and producer. He shot his estranged wife, Emma Thomashefsky, injuring her seriously, before turning the gun on himself.
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Thomashefsky, some 25 years his junior, was herself Yiddish-theater nobility, the younger sister of the leading Yiddish actor of his day, Boris Thomashefsky.
Finkel, who was born around 1850 in Odessa, became involved in Yiddish theater in Bucharest, the center of this activity in late-19th-century Europe. As a producer, he was the business partner of playwright Abraham Goldfaden and then of actor Sigmund Mogulesko, two of the greatest theater figures of their day. He also acted in a number of the shows he produced.
In 1886 Finkel, like many other Yiddish theater figures, emigrated to New York. He came with his wife at the time, Annetta Schwartz, the female star of Goldfaden’s theater company. When their marriage failed, Schwartz returned to Romania, but Finkel, who Yiddish actor and impresario Jacob Adler once said “never smiled,” stayed on to try his fortune in the New World.
Working for the rival
A few years later, in 1893, Finkel, then in his 40s, met and fell for a 16-year-old chorus girl named Emma Thomashefsky. The feelings were apparently reciprocated, and the couple married. According to librarian and writer Faith Jones, who in a 2006 article in The Forward surveyed the coverage in New York’s Yiddish press of Finkel’s death, the first years of their marriage were serene enough. They had two daughters of their own, Bella and Lucy, and Abem, Finkel’s son from his first marriage, lived with them as well.
Thomashefsky was closer in age to Abem than she was to her husband and the two became quite close, which was the source of some marital tension.
Matters deteriorated further in 1903, when Finkel lost a lawsuit over control of New York’s Grand Theatre and was forced to sell his shares in it to Adler — who then hired Thomashefsky to star with his company in the upcoming season. It was another blow to the marriage.
Shot in the spine
Thomashefsky began an affair with David Levinson, a fellow actor in Adler’s company, and after borrowing money from her new boss she initiated divorce proceedings against Finkel.
In her article in The Forward, Jones references a piece in the Yidishe Velt that reported Levinson as having claimed that Finkel had hired a private investigator to track her the young couple’s movements. “[O]n one occasion, when the detective alerted Finkel that Emma and Levinson were sitting together in Central Park, Finkel arrived on the scene and began beating Emma,” Jones writes.
In the summer of 1904, Thomashefsky rented a house in New Jersey and moved in with the children. On June 7, Finkel showed up. When he saw Thomashefsky and Levinson walking together he pulled out a gun and fired at his wife and her lover and then shot himself. Finkel died immediately, Thomashefsky suffered a spinal injury and Levinson was unharmed.
Thomashefsky spent years convalescing and never walked again, although there are photographs of her propping herself up with two canes to stand upright. She eventually returned to the stage part-time, in roles that allowed her to remain seated. She died in 1929, aged 52.
When Boris Thomashefsky wrote his memoir, 33 years after the shooting, he claimed that he had begged his sister not to marry Finkel, and had even had her swear, onstage before an audience of 2,000, that she would stop seeing the older man. Clearly, that was not a promise she kept.
In a strange case of history nearly repeating itself, one of Boris’s own sons, Milton “Mickey” Thomashefsky, an ear, nose and throat doctor, made the mistake of carrying on liaisons with two women at the same time, one of them his nurse. When the latter discovered that he was two-timing her, she stabbed him and returned a few days later to shoot both him and herself. She died, Mickey lived for five more years.