Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Boston Barrel Tragedy

1872 was an eventful year for Boston, Massachusetts. That year the city hosted the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival, lasting 18 days and drawing thousands of visitors. The Boston Red Stockings won the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players Championship. The Great Boston Fire devastated 65 acres of downtown real estate. And the dismembered body of Abijah Ellis was found stuffed inside two barrels, floating in the Charles River.

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.”

Washington Street
Boston police went to the Washington Street address where Mr. Schouller manufactured billiard and bagatelle tables. There they learned that Levitt Alley, who ran a delivery business, was in the habit of taking wood shavings from the factory for use in his stable. The previous Monday, Mr. Alley had taken three barrels of shavings to his stable on Hunneman 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
Leavitt Alley’s defense attorneys, Lewis S. Dabney, and Gustav A. Somerby, challenged the circumstantial evidence against their client. Some of the witnesses who saw Alley the morning of the 6th gave contradictory testimony. One witness saw him at the Mill-dam at half-past eight, another saw him between seven and eight, on Charles Street, driving the other way. They could not both be right.
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.


Alley, Leavitt, and Franklin Fiske Heard. Report Of The Trial Of Leavitt Alley, Indicted For The Murder Of Abijah Ellis, In The Supreme Judicial Court Of Massachusetts. Boston: Little, Brown, 1875.


The Boston Daily Globe, July 25, 1876
The Boston Daily Globe, May 16, 1892
The Boston Sunday Globe, January 29, 1905


The Boston Fire


Unknown says:
January 29, 2014 at 1:00 AM

Overall a good summary of the events and trial, exactly what I was looking for.
The only small issue I had was a typo in the second paragraph the section titled Synopsis. The second sentence reads “There they learned that Levitt Alley, who ran a delivery business, was in the habit of taking wood savings from the factory for use in his stable.” Were it should almost certainly refer to wood shavings instead of savings.

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 29, 2014 at 11:59 AM

Thank you Sirberus, I have corrected the error. I don't proofread these posts as closely as I should.

Blog by Haseeb. says:
March 22, 2021 at 1:22 AM

The average adult weighing 150 to 180 pounds should have about 1.2 to 1.5 gallons of blood in their body. Visit my site how many pints of blood in the human body Thanks.

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