Saturday, May 3, 2014

Cain and Abel.

Hiram Sawtell
Like the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel, the Sawtell brothers of Boston took divergent paths through life. While Hiram settled down and raised a family, supported by his successful fruit business, Isaac was doing time in Charlestown prison. And as with the Bible’s first murderer, Isaac’s jealousy of his brother became unbearable. Upon his release from prison, he lured Hiram from his family and killed him in cold blood.

Date:  February 5, 1890

Location:   Rochester, New Hampshire

Victim:  Hiram Sawtell

Cause of Death:  Gunshot

Accused:   Isaac Sawtell


Isaac Sawtell
In 1876, Isaac Sawtell was convicted of three counts of rape and sentenced to thirty years at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown. His good behavior in prison led the officials to believe that he had reformed and after serving thirteen years he was pardoned and released.

When Isaac returned from prison, he was welcomed by his brother, Hiram, who offered him work in his fruit store and even spoke of forming a business partnership. But their good relations did not last long; Isaac was upset to learn that property owned by their father, now deceased, was in his mother’s name and being managed by Hiram. In December 1889, behind Hiram’s back, Isaac persuaded their mother to transfer the property to him. When Hiram heard of this, he filed an injunction to prevent his brother from selling the property.

On February 1, 1890 Isaac told Hiram’s wife, Jeannette, that he and his mother were taking a trip to Lowell and that Hiram had given permission for his seven-year-old daughter, Marion, to accompany them. Reluctantly, Jeannette let Marion go with Isaac, only to find out that Hiram had not given his permission. Two days later Hiram received a telegram from Isaac, sent from Rochester, New Hampshire, saying that Marion was sick with the grip and to come immediately. The next day Jeannette received a similar telegram. They decided that Hiram would go alone to take care of Marion, and he took a 1 P.M. train from Boston to Rochester. Hiram was never heard from again.

Isaac, his mother, and Marion, now healthy again, returned to Boston on February 6. The next day Jeannette found Isaac in the fruit store and asked what had happened to her husband. Isaac claimed that he had not seen Hiram in Rochester and did not know where he was. Jeannette called him a liar and accused him of murdering Hiram. She waited two more days for Hiram's return then took the story to the police.

When the Boston police went to question Isaac, they found that he had left the city again. They traced him back to Rochester, New Hampshire, but by the time the detectives arrived Isaac had left town. After interviewing several people in Rochester the detectives had reason to believe that Isaac had murdered his brother there. Hiram had purchased a pick, a shovel and an axe from a Rochester hardware store. He had rented a buggy and had been seen riding with a man who resembled Hiram, with his distinctive side-whiskers and shaved chin. Several people reported hearing three gunshots on February 4, near the road where the two men had been seen. The Boston detectives and local police organized a search of the woods nearby.

Meanwhile, the manager of a hotel in Portland Maine was suspicious of a man who had registered as J. Bridge. He was afraid that the guest planned to skip out on his bill and thought he resembled a published description of Isaac Sawtell. He took his suspicions to the police who put Mr. Bridge under surveillance. The police recognized the man as Isaac Sawtell and they arrested him on board a train preparing to leave for Montreal.

When Sawtell was arrested he had two train tickets to Montreal. It was speculated that the second ticket was for Dr. Blood, a Boston conman that Sawtell had met in prison. When Dr. Blood’s picture was printed in a Boston newspaper, he was recognized by a Dover, New Hampshire hotel keeper who said Blood had come in looking for a room. He was carrying a package “…done up in newspaper, about the size of a man’s head.” Dr. Blood publicly denied any connection to Sawtell. His name came up a few more times in the reporting of the murder, but Dr. Blood was never questioned by police.

Where Hiram Sawtell's body was found.
In Rochester the search was beginning to bear fruit; they found a bloodstained axe wrapped in
newspaper, a shoe identified as Hiram Sawtell’s and a bloody handkerchief with the monogram, “S.” Then near an abandoned farmhouse they found the partially buried body of Hiram Sawtell. He was naked except for his socks, there were three bullet holes in his chest and his head and arms had been cut off. Apparently, the killer had started to dig a grave but grew tired of the job, so he chopped off the arms and head, allowing the body to fit the hole he dug. The head and arms were nowhere to be found.

To complicate matters, the search had extended beyond the New Hampshire border and the body was found in the woods outside of Berwick, Maine. The question of whether the murder was committed in New Hampshire or Maine would be a significant one, since New Hampshire had the death penalty and Maine did not. An inquest was held in York County, Maine and the jury determined that circumstantial evidence pointed to the murder being committed in New Hampshire.

A coroner’s jury was called in Rochester, New Hampshire, with nearly 2,000 people trying to get into the town hall to hear the proceedings. Isaac maintained his innocence, saying that the body was not Hiram’s and that Hiram would show up alive when the time was right. Isaac Sawtell was indicted for the murder of his brother.

Trial: December 16, 1890

Dover Courthouse
Isaac Sawtell’s trial was held the following December in Dover, New Hampshire. To cover all bases, Sawtell was charged with three counts of murder: the willful murder of his brother Hiram, an accessory before the fact in New Hampshire of the murder committed by persons unknown in Maine, and an accessory before the fact in New Hampshire of the murder committed by persons unknown in New Hampshire.

With between 60 and 70 witnesses, the state presented a case which, while circumstantial, was quite convincing. They pinpointed the precise location of the murder as a barn owned by Jed Morrill between Rochester and East Rochester, New Hampshire. Several witnesses testified to hearing three gunshots the night of February 5. The defense challenged the state’s witnesses, questioning the dates and identifications. They also denied that there had been any bad blood between the brothers. But the defense’s case was much weaker than the prosecution’s.

The verdict was read on Christmas day 1890. The judge decided to hold court that day so that the jury, who had been sequestered since December 16, could spend at least part of Christmas day with their families. After deliberating less than two hours the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder.


Map drawn by Isaac Sawtell.
Sawtell was sentenced to hang more than a year later, on the first Tuesday in January 1892. During that time Sawtell’s attorney filed an appeal, but the verdict was upheld. Then, on December 1, 1891, Isaac Sawtell confessed to shooting his brother but said that the crime had been committed in the State of Maine. He also drew a map telling the police where they could find the Hiram’s head. They found the head, now just a skull, and it had a bullet hole. This added another wrinkle; it meant that four shots had been fired and all of the state’s witnesses heard only three.

But regarding the location of the murder, this sworn affidavit contradicted a previous sworn affidavit by Sawtell which stated that he had no pistol and did not kill his brother. The State of New Hampshire saw no reason to believe the second over the first and Sawtell was not granted a new trial.

This was Sawtell’s last hope. On Christmas Eve, 1891, just ten days before his scheduled execution, Isaac Sawtell suffered a stroke. As usual with death row illnesses, the doctors did all they could to save him for the gallows but after twenty-four hours he was still unconscious. Sawtell died on January 26. Rumors spread immediately that Sawtell had intentionally cheated the gallows by taking opium in some form, but an autopsy the following day proved conclusively that Isaac Sawtell had died of apoplexy.

"Headless in the Woods." Sun 15 Feb 1890: 4.
"Sawtelle Must Hang." The Day 26 Dec 1890.
"He was Foully Murdered." New York Times 15 Feb 1890.
"Hiram Sawtelle's Skull found." New York Times 7 Dec 1891.
"Most on the Mystery." Lake George News 20 Feb 1890: 1.
"The Sawtell Murder." Boston Evening Transcript 1 Dec 1891: 1.
"HIs Brother's Blood Found Upon Him." New York Herald 15 Feb 1890: 5.
"A Very Macabre Christmas Greeting." Portsmouth Herald 11 Dec 1958: 17.
"Lone Grave." Boston Daily Globe 23 Dec 1890: 1.
"Issac's Fate." Boston Daily Globe 7 Dec 1891: 1.
"Found Guilty." Boston Daily Globe 26 Dec 1890: 1.
"State Opens." Boston Daily Globe 17 Dec 1890: 3.
"Isaac's Cry." Boston Daily Globe 1 Dec 1891: 1.
"Dying in Cell." Boston Daily Globe 26 Dec 1891.
"'Twas Apoplexy." Boston Daily Globe 28 Dec 1891: 1.
"Was it Opium?." Boston Daily Globe 27 Dec 1891: 1.
"In Isaac's Defense." Boston Herald 24 Dec 1890: 1.

"The Modern Cain and Abel" - anonymous.


Unknown says:
January 3, 2017 at 1:41 AM

Edmund Pearson once quoted a couplet based on this crime in one of his essays. He said it was made into a type of "cockney" joke:

"Two brothers in our town did dwell,
Hiram sought heaven, but Isaac Sawtell" [as in "sought 'ell"].

Unknown says:
July 8, 2017 at 4:10 AM

what happened to the girl?

Kimberly J. Sawtelle says:
January 1, 2019 at 10:57 AM

Happy to have found your post. I stumbled across this story of my distant relatives while doing my own research on murders that happened in Maine in the 1800s. I found coverage in the Maine and NH papers but will now expand my search to NY and Mass.

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