The Sleepwalker on Trial

Even for Boston in the 19th century, it was an unusually brutal murder.

Based on police reports,  the murder occurred on October 27, 1845.   The victim, a 21-year-old prostitute named Maria Ann Bickford, had apparently just finished dealing with a client in the upscale "boarding house" (i.e., brothel) in Boston where she lived and worked.   Not only had she nearly been decapitated and her throat cut from ear to ear, but the killer had set several fires  in the brothel before leaving.   The fires had likely been set to conceal the crime but they were doued before long and Bickford's body was quickly discovered.  A man's vest and cane, covered with blood, were found at the scene. 

Since the landlord insisted that the house had been securely locked to prevent any intruders from getting in, police only had one real suspect in the killing.  Albert Tirrell was a twenty-two year-old paramour of Maria Bickford.    The son of a successful manufacturer and a member of a well-established family, Tirrell been living with his wife and two children in Weymouth, Massachusetts when he apparently grew tired of the domestic life.   Whether he had abandoned his family before or after meeting Maria Bickford in a Boston brothel isn't clear but they certainly became inseparable afterward.

Maria Bickford's history was little different from Tirrell's.   Born and raised in Bangor, Maine, she had married a shoemaker at the age of sixteen and had one child who died in infancy.  Taken by friends to Boston to help her get over her grief, Tirrell-Trialshe quickly became fascinated by Boston life and abandoned her husband after only three years off marriage.  Though she took up with a paramour, who then abandoned her, Bickford quickly turned to prostitution to support herself.   Her youthful beauty made her extremely popular and she quickly became established in brothels catering to the wealthy Boston elite.   Certainly becoming Albert Tirrell's constant companion did nothing to change that. 

Whether Tirrell was just her lover or Maria's pimp as well was never clear though they often traveled together moving from one new address to another.   Despite never marrying (they were both still legally married to other spouses),  Albert and Maria often posed as husband and wife as they stayed in some of the most fashionable hotels along the East Coast.    They also scandalized Boston society and Albert was even tried for adultery at one point (it took an impassioned plea from family members, including his young wife, to save him from prosecution).   He and Maria frequently quarreled but she would claim that she didnt mind because they had "such a good time making up."   Under the name "Maria Welch", she and Tirrell maintained a house on London street for a time.   That the house was basically a front for Maria to entertain clients was hardly a secret (Maria's name was on the front door).    Since prostitution was still technically illegal, despite Maria's exclusive clientele, they rarely stayed at any address for long.

By the time of Maria's murder, she and Tirrell were both living at a thinly-disguised brothel in Boston.   An elderly couple ran the place and advertised it as a boarding-house but the fact that people rented the rooms for one purpose seemed clear enough.    Though Albert supposedly lived elsewhere, he stayed with Maria frequently and was known to have slept there on the night of her death.    Other residents on the house reported hearing loud noises coming from Maria's room early in the morning but nobody investigated until after the body was found.   When police tried to question Tirrell about the murder, they found that he had disappeared.  Still, he was their only suspect since he had been seen with the victim earlier that night and was likely the last person to see her alive.    The bloody clothes that had been found in Bickford's room were identified as belonging to Tirrell.  Also, one witness had reported seeing Tirrell afterwards arguing with a livery stable keeper about getting a horse.   Tirrell had reportedly said that he was "in a scrape" and needed a horse and carriage as fast as possible.

Albert Tirrell disappeared for months until Louisiana police, acting on a tip, arrested him on  a boat in the Gulf of Mexico on December 5.   As Boston police later learned,  Tirrell had driven to the home of some relatives in Weymouth, MA on the day of the murder.   These relatives had supplied him with money which he then used to flee to Canada.   From Montreal, he formed a convoluted plan to sail to Liverpool but bad weather eventually led to his sailing to New Orleans instead.  It was there that he was arrested and returned to Boston where  he was charged with the murder of Maria Bickford.

While nobody could be certain who was responsible, a book titled The Life and Death of Mrs Maria Bickford was released shortly before the trial began.   The book, a largely fictionalized account of Maria Bickford's life up to the time of her murder, portrayed her as a beautiful and tragic figure who had been victimized by all the men in her life.   Though portraying Maria as a tragic victim, the book also highlighted all of the stereotypes associated with prostitutes.   Despite claims of being "true to life", the book was largely fabricated and was obviously meant to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Tirrell's upcoming trial.   There is no evidence that any of the jurors in the trial actually read the book but it likely addded to the media circus surrounding Albert Tirrell.

Despite the scandal that Tirrell brought to his family, they were well-to-do enough to hire Rufus Choate to defend Albert in the lurid trial.   Choate, a prominent lawyer and politician, had already served both in Congress and as a Senator and was legendary for his skill as an orator.  Since virtually everybody in Boston knew about the overwhelming evidence against his client, thanks to the "scandal sheets" that described every detail of the case, Choate was obliged to try a different strategy to save his client.  

First of all, he attacked Maria Bickford's character to make her less sympathetic to the jurors.  Through evidence carefully orchestrated by Choate, Tirrell's cousins portrayed Maria Bickford as a shameless siren who had seduced poor Albert away from his wife and children.   They also claimed that she had a fatal hold on Albert and that she forced him to spend nearly all of his inherited wealth on buying her jewelry and dresses while she continued to throw herself at other men.   Despite this apparent abuse, Choate also insisted that his client would have had to be completely irrational to kill Maria due to his love for her.   As Choate pointed out, she had "for a long time had held him spellbound by her depraved and lascivious arts."   There was also a touch of racism added in as Choate also brought in two witnesses who testified that they had seen Maria with non-white clients (likely meant as proof of her "moral turpitude").  As a "fallen woman", anything Choate could say about Bickford must have seemed plausible enough to members of the jury, all of whom had seen the rise of urban prostitution in their lifetimes. 

To explain away the evidence against his client,  Choate and his defense team would do everything in their power to blacken Maria Bickford's reputation further and even suggesting that the wound to her throat had been self-inflicted.  He also broadly hinted that prostitutes were prone to committing suicide due to their immoral lifestyles.  But Rufus Choate didn't push this argument very far.   Considering that Maria had been nearly decapitated, arguing that she had done it to herself would have been too much for even a sympathetic jury to swalllow.  Not to mention the trifling problem of who had set the fire that nearly consumed her body.

All of which led to his second great defense strategy:  sleepwalking.   Since somnabulism was still considered to be a mysterious phenomenon without a rational explanation, arguing that Choate must have committed the murder while in a trance state was a bold move on Choate's part.     As he stated in the courtroom, "Evidence will be produced to show that it had pleased Almighty God to afflict the prisoner with this species of mental derangement.”   That evidence included anecdotes from history including famous people such as Alexander the Great acting strangely while sleepwalking.    Family members and friends of the defendant also described episodes from Tirrell's life showing that he had been sleepwalking from a young age.     To cap off the testimony on Tirrell's behalf, Walter Channing, dean of Harvard Medical School, testified that it was theoretically possible for a man to commit murder while sleepwalking.

Whether it was the character assassination of the victim or the novel sleepwalking defense, Choate's ploy worked.   Really though, it was his own amazing skill at rhetoric that truly swayed the jury on his client's behalf.  Even the court stenographer recording Choate's arguments during the trial complained that she had difficulty keeping up with him.  "Who can report chain lightning?",  she reportedly said.

It took only two hours for the jurors to hand down a not-guilty verdict.   Spectators applauded and Albert Tirrell burst into tears.   Of course, his legal problems were hardly over.  He still had to stand trial for arson (which was also a capital crime at the time) but Choate got him off on that charge as well.    According to historical record, Tirrell later unsuccessfully tried to get Choate to refund half his legal fees because "his innocence was so obvious."  Not that Tirrell escaped justice completely.   The judge refused to acquit him on the charge of adultery and he eventually spent three years in a state prison.   From what I could find, he vanished into well-deserved obscurity after his release.   Whether he ever went back to his long-suffering family doesn't seem to be recorded.

Afterward, Choate left private practice to return to public office (after being reportedly besieged by defendants hoping he could help them as well).   Despite his reputation as a statesman, Rufus Choate never quite lived down being the one to introduce the sleepwalking defense.   After his death in 1859,  one lawyer eulogized him by saying that Choate was "the lawyer who made it safe to murder." 

Miscarriage of justice or not?  You be the judge.

 

           

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