Saturday, January 7, 2023

Murdered at Prayer.

A.E. Ambrose was working in his yard in South Byfield, Massachusetts, the morning of January 3, 1879, when he was surprised by two of his neighbors, Mrs. Caldwell and her sister Miss Brown, excitedly running toward him. Mrs. Lucy Caldwell was known for her erratic behavior and always seemed somewhat excited, but he had never seen Miss Brown looking so terrified.

Mrs. Caldwell exclaimed, “Go up and take care of him; he threatened to kill me, and I hit him with an axe, and I don’t know, but I have killed him.”

Ambrose hurried to the neighbor’s house. In the kitchen, he found the warm but lifeless body of her husband, John Caldwell, lying on the floor, surrounded by a dark pool of clotted blood. His skull had been split open; the frightful wound was eight inches long and five inches deep. A large axe was leaning on a chair. Ambrose took his wagon into town to notify the deputy sheriff.

Miss Brown told the deputy that Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell had been arguing loudly that morning before coming downstairs to breakfast. It was their custom to eat breakfast at about 8:00 and have family prayers afterward. Mr. Caldwell read a chapter from the Bible, then knelt on the floor to pray. Miss Brown joined him, but Mrs. Caldwell did not. He was almost finished praying when Miss Brown was startled by the sound of a violent blow. She sprang to her feet and was horrified by the sight of her brother-in-law lying on the floor with his skull split open and his wife holding the fatal axe. Miss Brown fled from the house, followed by her sister, and both ran to the home of Mr. Ambrose. Mrs. Caldwell did not attempt to escape as the deputy placed her under arrest.

The Caldwells were well-known and widely respected in South Byfield, but Lucy Caldwell was viewed as “partially deranged.” She sometimes needed supervision, which was why her sister was staying with them. Some believed that her insanity stemmed from her disappointment that her husband’s prominence in the community had not led to financial success. The family physician, Dr. Huse, confirmed that Mrs. Caldwell had, for some time, suffered from “morbid excitement.” Mr. Caldwell had contacted the doctor on the previous Monday to consult him about having her confined and to get an opiate to help her sleep.

At her arraignment, Lucy Caldwell pleaded not guilty, saying she was justified in killing her husband because of his ill-treatment of her. She claimed he had threatened to kill her. The case never went to trial; Lucy Caldwell was judged insane and committed to the asylum in Danvers, Massachusetts.

“Arraigned for Murder,” The Boston Globe, January 2, 1879.
“Arraignment of the Byfield Murderess,” Boston Evening Journal, January 2, 1879.
“The Byfield Murder,” The Boston Globe, January 1, 1879.
“The Byfield Murderess,” Boston Evening Transcript, January 14, 1879.
“The Byfield Murderess Seat to the Insane Asylum,” Boston Evening Transcript, February 5, 1879.
“The Byfield Tragedy,” The Boston Globe, January 1, 1879.
“The Byfield Tragedy,” Boston Post, January 2, 1879.
“Eastern Massachusetts,” Springfield Daily Republican, January 1, 1879.
“Murdered at Prayer,” Illustrated Police News, January 11, 1879.
“A Shocking Tragedy,” Boston Post, January 1, 1879.
“Suburban Short Notes,” Boston Post, February 4, 1879.
“Terriible Deed of an Insane Wife,” Evening Post, January 3, 1879.


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