Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Sleepwalking Defense

The morning of October 27, 1845, the body of Maria Bickford, a beautiful young prostitute, was found murdered in her room in Boston’s Beacon Hill. Her throat had been cut from ear to ear and her bed had been set on fire. The prime suspect was Albert Tirrell who had been keeping Maria and who was seen arguing with her the day before. Tirrell was represented in court by prominent attorney and former US Senator, Rufus Choate, who used a three pronged defense: Maybe Maria Bickford had cut her own throat, maybe someone else killed her, or maybe Albert Tirrell killed her while sleepwalking and was not responsible for his actions.

Date:  October 27, 1845

Location:   Boston, Massachusetts

Victim:  Maria A. Bickford

Cause of Death:  Slashing

Accused:   Albert J. Tirrell

Maria Bickford was born Mary Ann Dunn in Bath, Maine, and in her teens moved with her family to Bangor. There she met, and at age sixteen married, James Bickford, a shoemaker. They lived modestly but happily for three years until 1842 when several of Maria’s friends convinced her to visit Boston with them. She was captivated by the fashion and liveliness of the city and returned home a changed person. Maria became dissatisfied with her humble condition and told James she wanted to move permanently to Boston. An attractive young man in living in the same boardinghouse caught Maria’s eye and she began flirting with him. That October she ran off with him to Newburyport, Massachusetts. In the words of James Bickford:
Ere she became acquainted with this man she was one of the most virtuous of her sex, but his insinuating plausibility quickly drew her into a whirlpool of vice.
Her new lover soon abandoned Maria and she turned to prostitution, working in brothels first in Boston, then in New Bedford. There she met Albert Tirrell and the two began traveling together.

Albert Tirrell was married with a child when he met and became hopelessly infatuated with Maria Bickford. He was the son of a prominent Weymouth shoe manufacturer who had served for twelve years in the Massachusetts state legislature. Upon his father’s death Tirrell inherited $8000, a sizeable fortune in 1844. Within a year and a half he had squandered it all on Maria. He bought her whatever she desired and when they travelled they stayed in the best hotels. They rented a furnished a house in Boston that Maria ran as a “house of assignation” under the name Maria Welsh. During this time Maria wrote to her husband in Maine that Albert Tirrell was abusing her and she wanted to get away from him. After a quarrel with Maria in June 1845 Tirrell broke up the household. Not long after that he was arrested for adultery and lascivious cohabitation.

In October 1845 Maria Bickford was living in a disreputable boarding house on Cedar Lane in Beacon Hill. On October 26, Albert Tirrell, out on bail, visited Maria Bickford at the boarding house. The owners of the house, Joel Lawrence and his wife saw Maria and Albert arguing that day. Around 5:00 AM the next morning the Lawrences heard a shriek then a heavy thud coming from upstairs. Then they heard someone rushing down the stairs and out the door. When they went to investigate they found Maria Bickford on the floor with her throat cut; her windpipe and jugular vein were severed. Several fires had been started in the room and Maria’s face and hair had been burned. The walls were spattered with blood and a bloody razor was found at the foot of the bed. Some articles of men’s clothing were in the room, along with a letter initialed A. J. T. to M. A. B.

About 5:30 that morning, Albert Tirrell went to a nearby stable and requested a horse to take him to Weymouth, explaining that “he had got into a little difficulty and wanted to go to his wife’s father.” From Weymouth Tirrell traveled through Vermont to Canada. In Montreal he wrote his family that he was bound for Liverpool. The boat he took had to turn back because of bad weather. In New York City he booked passaged on a boat for New Orleans. Authorities in Louisiana had been alerted and on December 5, they boarded the boat and arrested Tirrell.

Trial: March 24, 1846

When Albert Tirrell was a fugitive, public opinion in Boston sided with Maria Bickford and everyone was anxious for the capture her killer. But by the time of Tirrell’s trial, the public had turned against Maria and now viewed her as an evil seductress who took advantage of Albert Tirrell.

Circumstantial evidence against Albert Tirrell was quite strong, but when Terrell’s family hired a high-powered defense team led by noted orator and former U.S. Senator, Rufus Choate, it became obvious that facts alone would not decide the case.

The prosecution presented testimony from the Lawrences and other residents of the boarding house who knew that Tirrell had spent the night with Maria Bickford and left her room before dawn. The defense questioned witnesses who tarnished the reputation and credibility of the Lawrences and their boarders, and thought much of the testimony was disallowed as hearsay, it made an impact on the jury. They also brought in witnesses who knew Albert Tirrell and swore he was a good, upstanding man before becoming infatuated with the harlot Maria Bickford.

Choate and fellow defense attorney Annis Merrill offered alternative scenarios for Bickford’s death. First, that she killed herself. They continually echoed the testimony of the coroner who stated that suicide was “the natural death of the prostitute.” Second, they postulated that someone else had killed her. A fireman had testified that Joel Lawrence had at first tried to keep him out of Maria’s room; was he trying to hide something? Finally, they introduced numerous witnesses who knew that Albert Tirrell had suffered from somnambulism all his life. Relatives and friends told anecdotes of Tirrell walking in his sleep. One cousin testified that as recently as September 1845, Tirrell had pulled him out of bed brandishing a knife while in a sleeping state. If Albert Tirrell killed Maria Bickford, it was while sleepwalking and he was not responsible for his actions.

Rufus Choate, 1850
On March 27, Rufus Choate gave his closing arguments before a packed courtroom. He told the jury he did not intend to take up much of their time, then talked for five hours straight before breaking for dinner. After dinner he spoke for an hour and a half more. Choate was famous for his rapid-fire approach to oratory and there is no definitive record of his speech. As one stenographer put it, “who can report chain lightning?” The Boston Daily Bee quoted Choate at the climax of his argument:
How far does the testimony lead you? Did any human being see the prisoner strike the blow? No. Did any human being see him in the house after 9 o’clock the previous evening? No. Did any human being see him run from the house? No. Did any human being see him with a drop of blood on his hands? No. Can anyone say she did not take her own life? No. Can anyone say that on that night he was not laboring under the disease to which he was subject from his youth? No. Has he ever made a confession of the deed? To friend or thief taker not one word.
On Saturday, March 28, the judge spoke for an hour and a half giving instructions to the jury that were generally favorable to the defense. He spoke of Maria Bickford’s depraved character and referred to somnambulism as a form of insanity. The jury retired to deliberate then returned two hours later with a verdict of not guilty. As in the trial of Richard Robinson for the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett ten years earlier, the packed courtroom greeted the verdict with “a roof-shaking hurra” and spectators broke into applause.

Verdict: Not guilty


Albert Tirrell still had to stand trial for arson, also a capital crime in 1846. Using similar arguments, Choate won Tirrell an acquittal on this charge as well. Tirrell pleaded no contest to the charges of adultery and lascivious cohabitation but the judge would not dismiss them. Albert Tirrell was sentenced three years hard labor in the state prison.

Following Tirrell’s acquittal, Rufus Choate was besieged by criminal defendants anxious for his services. Choate turned his back on private practice for a time to become Massachusetts Attorney General, but he was never able to escape the reputation of introducing the sleepwalking defense. On his death he was critically eulogized by attorney Wendell Phillips as the lawyer who “made it safe to murder.”

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century


Cohen, Daniel A. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature And the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Hobson, Barbara Meil. Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition. New York: Basic Books, 1987


jonback says:
August 30, 2019 at 6:34 AM
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