Date: November 5, 1872
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Victim: Abijah Ellis
Cause of Death: Blows from an axe
Accused: Leavitt Alley
The afternoon of Wednesday, November 6, 1872, two barrels were seen floating in the Charles River near the gas-works in Cambridge. Some employees of the gas-works pulled them ashore, opened them, and were horrified at what they found. In one barrel, packed with wood shavings and horse manure, was a man’s headless, limbless torso. In the other, similarly packed, were his arms, legs and head. The police and coroner were called; they determined that the man had been killed by three or four blows to the head from an axe. On close examination of the contents of the barrels, they found among the wood shavings, a piece of brown paper, upon which was written, “P. Schouller, No. 1049, Washington Street.”
Some time between midnight and one a.m., Boston Police Chief, Edward Savage went, with officers Skelton and Dearborn, to the home of Leavitt Alley. Alley went with them to the stable where Alley kept four horses. They saw the wood shavings and piles of manure, but found nothing unusual that night. The following day, the police took Alley to Cambridge to look at the body and the barrels. Alley said that he recognized one of the barrels and that it had been in his stable; the other he was not sure about.
The body had been identified as that of Abijah Ellis, an elderly Boston real estate broker. Alley had purchased a house from Ellis and had fallen behind in his payments. He said he was with Ellis on the previous Saturday and made a small payment on his account. Alley promised to meet him on Tuesday and pay some more, but Alley said they did not meet that day. The stable was searched in the daylight and under the manure, and the police found blood spatters on the floor boards. Blood stains were also found on Alleys clothing. That Saturday, Leavitt Alley was arrested for the murder of Abijah Ellis.
Trials: February 3, 1873
Leavitt Alley’s trial was delayed by the Great Boston Fire, which started the night of his arrest and raged for twelve hours, destroying 776 buildings in Boston’s downtown and financial district. From his jail cell, Alley was heard to lament the business he lost by being imprisoned during the fire, “I should have such a mighty good chance to clear half a thousand dollars, if I only had my team.”
When the trial began, Massachusetts Attorney-General, Charles R. Train, presented the government’s case. The prosecution contended that Leavitt Alley had murdered Abijah Ellis on the night of November 5, during an argument about money Alley owed Ellis. Ellis was known to carry large sums of money with which the prosecution contended was stolen by Alley. They would endeavor to prove that Alley had dismembered the body in his stable and packed it in barrels. The following morning he pushed the barrels down the sluiceway of the Mill-dam, into the Charles River.
The prosecution called witnesses who had seen an express wagon near the Mill-dam in Boston, carrying two barrels covered with a piece of old carpet. One man recognized Alley as the driver; others said the wagon was pulled by a very sick horse. An epidemic of horse distemper was spreading through Boston in 1872—it was known that one of Alley’s horses had the disease.
Ellen Kelley, who lived near the stable, testified that on Tuesday night she heard voices coming from the stable. It was a loud argument, but she could not make out the words until someone shouted “God damn you.” A number of witnesses said that on November 6, Alley had paid them money he owed; one man saw him pull bills for a large roll in his pocket.
Regarding the blood stains in the stable and on Alley’s clothing, Alley claimed that a veterinarian had been bleeding one on his horses, treating it for distemper. The blood stains were horse blood, not human. In 1872 it was impossible to prove, with certainty, that a blood stain was human blood, however, in the universities and hospitals of Boston and Cambridge were several experts who did a microscopic analysis of the stains and contended that the blood was human, not horse. It was determined by the size of the corpuscles—according to the testimony, a human corpuscle is 1/3200 in. and a horse corpuscle is 1/4200 in.
|Lewis Stackpole Dabney|
Several witnesses had seen the barrels floating near the Mill-dam at various times during the day. If they had all seen the same barrels, the barrels would have had to travel faster than could be accounted for by the tidal flow of the river to be found at the Cambridge gas-works when they were.
The attorneys questioned the motive, saying Ellis’s death would not end their client’s debt on the house. They also attempted to prove that Alley’s financial position was healthy and he did not need to kill for money.
They also pointed out that the blood analysis had been done on dried blood. In order to measure the corpuscles, the blood had to be re-hydrated. The resulting size of the corpuscles would depend on the quantity and nature of the solution used. The measurement could not be accurate.
The trial lasted for nine days. The jury retired to deliberate shortly before 6 o’clock, the evening of February 12, 1873. Shortly before 10 p.m. they returned with a verdict: not guilty.
Verdict: Not guilty
The prosecution of the case had been lack-luster. There were too many gaps, too many suppositions and too many leaps of faith. They were unable to present an unbroken chain of evidence against Alley.
Many years later, Ira Nay, a juror in the case, told the Boston Globe that Attorney-General Train had appeared logy, and that the jury referred to him as the “mud-turtle.” Nay said that he and several other jurymen believed that Alley was guilty, but that the Commonwealth had not proven it, so they voted to acquit.
Leavitt Alley died two years after the trial at the age of fifty-nine. It has never been determined who killed Abijah Ellis.