Martha Macheca Sheldon, award-winning author of a New Orleans underworld history/biography, died August 29, 2020, following a valiant battle against cancer. She was about two weeks shy of her eighty-fifth birthday.
Known to her many friends as “Marnie” and “Mardi,” Sheldon was coauthor of Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia, published by iUniverse early in 2007. The book’s release – the culmination of more than a decade of research into her own family history – was celebrated with an April signing event at the Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans. Deep Water became silver medalist in the South Region Nonfiction category of the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards. A second edition of the book was released early in 2010.
Sheldon followed family roots to 19th century New Orleans. In that time and place, her Macheca ancestors were generally well-to-do, law-abiding entrepreneurs and pioneers of the fruit trade. Her ancestor, John Macheca, was a principal owner of the New Orleans-Belize Royal Mail and Central American Steamship Company, which transported Central American produce to U.S. ports and held a contract for delivery of mail to the British colony of Belize.
However, Sheldon learned that John’s half-brother, Joseph P. Macheca, had been the leading suspect in the 1890 Mafia assassination of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy and one of the victims in the 1891 Crescent City lynchings, the single largest lynching event in American history.
“I heard a lot about family history while growing up,” Sheldon remarked in 2007, noting that there had been no family discussion about Joseph P. Macheca. “When I learned there was a missing piece of the story, I was determined to find it. My father and other relatives wouldn’t talk about it. Over the years, I was able to pick up bits of information from various sources, until the skeleton was finally out of the closet.”
Sheldon was born Martha L. Macheca on September 14, 1935, in St. Louis County, Missouri. (The 1940 U.S. Census located the family home on Conway Road in Clayton Township.) Her parents were Arthur M. Jr. and Marie Lucks Macheca. She graduated from Villa Duchesne Sacred Heart High School and earned a bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis. While at college, she met Stephen B. Sheldon, a St. Louis native (born November 27, 1931) and a veteran of the U.S. Marines. They were married in 1958. Stephen Sheldon became a highly regarded freelance cartoonist, animator and painter.
The Sheldons lived for a time in Los Angeles, California, where they worked in the production of television commercials for Gardner Advertising. Martha Sheldon also worked for an interior design company.
They later returned to their home city of St. Louis, where they raised their daughter Kate. Martha Sheldon’s favorite activities included tennis, spending time with family and communicating with friends. She became involved with volunteer work for SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, Malcolm Bliss Mental Health Center and Barnes Jewish/Christian (BJC) Hospital. She served on the Auxiliary Board of Directors at BJC, and was a member of the Risk Management Board, a Patient Representative Director and Public Relations Director. Stephen Sheldon set aside his art supplies in 1996 and became a dispatcher for the ranger base at the St. Louis Zoo.
At that time, Martha Sheldon began the research that would lead to Deep Water. Near the end of 2002, she communicated with Thomas Hunt, a Connecticut researcher then assembling a website dedicated to American Mafia history, and they shared information they had discovered about Joseph P. Macheca. They agreed in December 2002 to partner in the telling of Macheca’s life story and the events surrounding the 1890 Hennessy assassination.
Tragedies struck just as their book was taking shape in 2005. Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in late August, imperiling Sheldon’s family and friends in the region as well as Macheca-related documents just discovered by New Orleans archivists. On October 28, 2005, Martha Sheldon’s husband of forty-seven years succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of seventy-three.
According to an online obituary, Martha Sheldon spent her last days at St. Sophia in St. Louis. She is survived by her daughter, Kate, and her brothers John Macheca and Arthur Macheca III. In addition to her husband Stephen, she was preceded in death by her sister Mariana O’Conner.
Services were private. At Martha Sheldon’s request, her ashes were to be scattered under a full moon at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Donations may be made to the American Cancer Society.