My cousins, Chet and Marjorie Oberlander spent a large part of their vacation to Massachusetts in the 1990’s tracing the murder of our Tirrell cousin, Francis Tirrell in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Their quest was successful and after returning home they shared their findings with me.
I’ve added a few items to their findings and report, but they should be credited with the fullness of the information and thanked for their efforts, time and expenses in bringing the information and photos to light.
True Detective Mysteries
Vol. 25 No. 3
Smile of Doom
A Massachusetts Crime Classic
A piercing scream rang through the Tirrell house in the little village of Weymouth, Massachusetts. It emanated from the slender throat of a terror-stricken child, eleven-year-old little Louisa Tirrell, and was followed by other shrill cries and calls of “Mother! Mother!”
“Don’t scream, Louisa,” remonstrated the dying girl in the bed beside her. “Get up and wake fathers.” She moaned feebly once or twice, and then passed into a violent convulsion succeeding others, which had awakened and frightened the child. She was Betsey Frances Tirrell, twenty-six, the petted daughter of Wilson Tirrell, the wealthy shoe manufacturer. The child Louisa, who was now crying softly, too frightened to move, was her half-sister. It was shortly after nine o’clock on the night of May 3rd, 1860.
A guest in the house, George Hersey, whose room was just across the hall, had overheard the cries. He had retired at early candlelight owing to a violent headache. Hastily slipping on a dressing gown, he hastened to the bedroom from whence the cries had proceeded. Bestowing only a cursory glance at the form thrashing about in a paroxysm of pain, he ran to the bedroom of Wilson Tirrell.
An imperative knock, then a peremptory summons. “For heaven’s sake, hurry, Mr. Tirrell!” he shouted. “Frances is in a fit, or something!”
The slightest intimation that there was anything wrong with his lovely daughter, Frances, was sufficient to arouse Wilson Tirrell to immediate action. He bounded out of bed and ran to her room.
The girl was lying on her left side, her head hanging grotesquely over the edge of the bed. He limbs were drawn up, her feet turned inward and her fingernails inverted into the palms of her hands. She was a beautiful girl, but now her teeth were clenched and her face contorted by an unnatural grin. Her snow-white throat was badly swollen.
“My poor girl!” groaned Tirrell. Gently, embroidered collar of her nightgown, which seemed to be choking her. He turned to Hersey. “Hitch up the bay mare, George, and get Dr. Howe here quick as the Lord will let you.”
The slight, girlish figure stirred and the blue eyes opened as Mrs. Tirrell appeared in the doorway. What’s the matter?” she asked, sleepily. “I don’t know, but for heaven’s sake do something!” snapped Tirrell. “Rub her, can’t you? Her limbs’ are cold and stiff. Can’t you help any?” The stepmother began massaging the girl’s arms, which were rigid – inflexible, while her whole body twitched violently. “Oh, I’m so sick, so sick, “ she wailed. “Please do something. Get me some physic or something.”
She went rapidly from one spasm to another, then seemed to relax for a moment. “Kiss me, father, I’m dying,” she exclaimed, piteously. The doctor will be here in a moment, Frances,” assured Mrs. Tirrell, soothingly, “Just try to rest a minute.”
Without stopping to divest himself of his greatcoat, the venerable doctor mounted the stairs and entered the room where the sick girl lay apparently unconscious. Silently, he reached for the wrist, then felt the arm above the elbow. Tirrell watched with bated breath as he pressed his thumb on the carotid artery in the neck, letting his hand drop to the left breast. He looked up to meet the agonized gaze of the grief stricken father, too dazed to ask a question. “She’s gone,” he announced solemnly.
Tirrell gazed at him through tear-dimmed eyes. He seemed unable to grasp the significance of the words. Only four months previous he nineteen-year-old daughter, Mary had passed away. This last blow was the last straw. He couldn’t believe it. At nine o’clock Frances had bidden him a fond good night and had spoken of the pleasure he had planned for the morrow – a trip to the circus at Fall Rive – and now at ten o’clock her spirit had returned to its maker and for her there could be no tomorrow except in another clime.
“What caused her death, Doctor?” “I don’t know,” responded Dr. Howe, slowly, “the symptoms are peculiar.” “Probably indigestion,” suggested Mrs. Tirrell, “she had lobster for supper last night.” The physician looked at her curiously. “No, it wasn’t indigestion,” he said curtly.
“What do the symptoms indicate?” asked Tirrell, persistently. “I hardly know how to answer you. I haven’t yet formed an opinion that I dare express. I think perhaps it will be well to have an examination.” Tirrell looked startled. “You mean an autopsy?” he faltered. “Yes, I think it would be advisable to determine accurately the cause of death.”
Tirrell was alarmed. He had lost two children within four months. He began to speculate on the cause. Was it possible, he wondered, if the well water was contaminated? He choked a little as he asked anxiously: “Do you think Frances was poisoned, Doctor?” “Well, there are symptoms which indicate that she may have been.” “You mean unintentionally poisoned, of course.” “That isn’t for me to say,” replied the physician gravely. Then he added with a slight show of irritation, “You’re pressing me too hard, Mr. Tirrell, I expect the autopsy will tell us a great deal.
“Just one question more, Doctor. Do these symptoms of which you have spoke indicate any particular poison?” “I think they do. The unusual rigidity of the body, for instance. Then, as you probably noticed, the angels of the mouth were drawn up exposing the teeth. It is caused by a spasm of the facial muscles and is a condition known to the medical profession as risus sardonicus. I would say that these conditions are present in strychnine poisoning.”
Tirrell’s face expressed amazement. “There is no way in which Frances could have obtained strychnine and to think that she would commit suicide is incredible,” he declared.
Dr. Appleton Howe, who was approaching seventy, was a shrewd old practitioner. He had brought into the world half of the younger generation in Weymouth. He had been in practice nearly forty-two years. He was an expert pathologist and was well versed in toxicology. He was circumspect withal and he had not told Wilson Tirrell all that he had seen or all he suspected. “I may be mistaken,” he said, “but I think we should know. I will call tomorrow morning and arrange for the examination. If you are agreeable, we can proceed with it tomorrow afternoon.”
But when George Hersey learned that an autopsy as contemplated, he vigorously opposed it. It seemed like a profanation of the dead girl, he said, adding, “It is butchery. I would never permit a friend of mine to be cut up if I had anything to say about it,” he concluded.
Now it is essential for a proper understanding of this mysterious case – one of the strangest in the history of criminal jurisprudence in New England – that the reader should know something of the locale and the persons involved. Weymouth, fifteen miles southeast of Boston, was settled in 1622 and became one of the earliest shoemaking towns in America, and the manufacture of shoes is still its principal industry.
One of the pioneers in this business was Wilson Tirrell. He was a man of competence and was respected accordingly. By his first wife, he had four children: William B. Hersey, a brother of George Hersey, Mary, and Betsy Frances, usually referred to as “Frances.” On November 30th, 1845, the mother of these children died, and in March 1846, he married Almira Blanchard, by whom he had one child, Louisa, who at the time this story opens was twelve years old.
The Hersey brothers, George and William, came to Weymouth from Hingham. Their father was rich, very rich for those days. On January 9th, 1857, George was married to an eighteen-year-old girl. This young wife, Emeline Hersey, died on the seventh of February following.
George C. Hersey was a young man of exemplary character, attended church regularly and was a welcome visitor at every Weymouth fireside, honored and respected by all. He was industrious, too, earning good wages at the shoe factory of Nathaniel Shaw & Co., where he was employed on a stitching machine. He was thrift and provident and had saved quite a sum of money.
When after the death of his young wife be began showing attention to Mary Tirrell, old man Tirrell welcomed him figuratively, if not literally, with open arms. During the last days of December 1859, Mary Tirrell was taken suddenly ill and when she passed away on January 2nd, 1860, George was at her bedside to receive her last farewell kiss and to mingle his tears with those of her father and sister. His devotion and his palpable sorrow touched Wilson Tirrell, who already looked upon him as a son, and he insisted that thereafter George should make his some with him. George gratefully accepted.
It was not long before Tirrell was consulting with George on all-important matters and before taking any decisive step in his business affairs he sought his advice and followed it. The advice as sound, and little by little George became strongly entrenched in the old man’s affections.
Frances, too, showed him many little sisterly attentions, mending and brushing his clothing, making his shirts and darning his socks. In fact, on the very day she died she was doing some needlework for him. In a short time George, it seemed to the family, responded to these attentions, accompanying the girl to religious meetings and passing his evenings in her society. While it was too soon after Mary’s death to admit of an engagement between Frances and George, there was a sort of tacit understanding to which there was no objection upon the part of Wilson Tirrell.
When Dr. Howe arrived the next morning to complete arrangements, Tirrell wavered. “Do you think this postmortem examination is absolutely necessary, Doctor?” he asked. Intuitively, the physician sensed where the opposition lay and he resented it. First, there was stepmother suggesting that the girl had died of indigestion and now here was a young man, not even a member of the family, attempting to divert him from his purpose and what he regarded as his duty as a physician.
“It seems to me essential that we should know what caused your daughter’s death,” he replied somewhat testily. “If she has been poisoned, as I suspect, and we establish the identity of the poison, it may save other members of your family from a like fate. I think I shall have to insist on an examination.” “Very Well” said Tirrell, “you probably know best.”
On Saturday, afternoon – the girl died on Thursday – Dr. Howe, Dr. Charles S. Tower and Dr. William D. C. Fifield met at the Tirrell home. As they were about to enter the keeping-room (death-room) where the body of the girl lay, Hersey made a peculiar request. “Dr. Howe will there be any objection to my being present at the examination?” he asked quietly. The old doctor regarded him searchingly. “Now what the devil does he want to be there for?” he mused. Aloud, he said: “Well, that’s an extraordinary request, but if nobody else objects, I shall not.” And thereupon Hersey followed the doctors into the room.
“I believe it is understood that Dr. Tower will operate,” said Dr. Howe, “but first I would direct your attention to the discoloration of the nipple and say that I found what seemed to me to be an unusual condition of the abdomen in a virgin.” I’m not going into the details of the autopsy further than is necessary. It is sufficient to say that the vital organs showed no signs of disease. The heart was normal and the lungs in a healthy condition. Suddenly, however, Dr. Tower paused in his work to exclaim, significantly, “Look here, gentlemen.”
Dr. Howe turned to Hersey. “We should like to be alone, now,” he said, and Hersey without a word of protest let the room. Dr. Tower had indicated a three months old fetus. Despite the fact that the organs examined were in a healthy condition, Dr. Howe was convinced that the girl was a victim of strychnine poisoning.
It seems pertinent to state here that, up to this time, there had been no record of an American case where there had been an examination for strychnine by chemical analysis of a dead body. In the famous English case of William Palmer, an analysis has been made but no strychnine had been found. Although without a precedent for the procedure, Dr. Howe directed Dr. Tower to remove the stomach and turn it over to Dr. Augustus A. Hayes, State Assayer, for analysis.
As Dr. Howe left the room, Hersey accosted him. “Have you found the cause of death, Doctor?” “No immediate cause, but we suspect she was poisoned,” replied the physician. “Heavens and Earth!” ejaculated Hersey raising both hands. “Do you think she committed suicide?” “Possibly. We found something, which makes that theory tenable. In short, we found that Miss Tirrell was pregnant.”
For a moment Hersey appeared stunned. Then he sprang to the defense of the dead girl. “You must be mistaken, Doctor. Frances was not that kind of girl. I would as soon think that of my mother.” “I know George. It was a shock to all of us, but there’s no possibility of a mistake. I shall have some more information in a few days.” Dr. Hayes shared the responsibility of the analysis with Professor Eben N. Horsford of Harvard University, to whom he entrusted one-third of the stomach.
On May 9th, Dr. Hayes reported in the stomach 2 1/10 grains of strychnine. Professor Horsford recovered 9/10 of a grain – a total of 3 grains. (It may be remarked that one-half grain is dangerous and in most cases fatal.) The news of the discovery traveled quickly and soon the whole town was in a blaze of excitement. Frances Tirrell, a girl whose name had never been spoken except with respect, involved in an illicit love affair. It was unbelievable. That she had poisoned herself to avoid exposure of her indiscretion was the consensus. No one even hinted that the poison cold have been administered with felonious intent.
Nothing had so stirred the sleepy New England village since the trial of the wealthy Albert J. Tirrell for the murder of the beautiful Marie Bickford, of which he was acquitted sixteen years previous. Old settlers in their dotage discussed the case over their toddy-sticks and girls in pigtails whispered the story among themselves and there was unanimity of opinion that George Hersey, despite his excellent reputation was the one responsible for the seduction of Frances Tirrell. Those who discounted the suicide theory thought that she had taken the poison by mistake under the impression that she was taking something to relieve her condition.
Hersey, conscious of the coolness everywhere, the averted looks and the questioning glances of Frances’ relatives, was greatly perturbed. To Susan Hersey, his sister-in-law, he said dolefully, “You know, Susan, they’re blaming me and it’s pretty hard to bear.” Susan patted his shoulder, reassuringly, “Don’t take it too much to heart, George. It will all come out some day. Think who there is who might have led Frances astray. Isn’t there someone, anyone, whom you suspect? Think hard.” “I’ve tried and I can’t. It was a terrible blow to me. Do you know even now I can’t believe it.”
But the worst was yet to come. That afternoon, Kingman Tirrell, Frances uncle halted him, as he was on his way upstairs. “I think you had better leave the house, George.” George stared as though not fully comprehending his words, and then he said dejectedly, “I didn’t think Wilson Tirrell would do this to me.”
Wilson Tirrell, however, refused to accept the suicide theory. He sent for Sheriff J. W. Thomas. “I think this case demands a thorough investigation,” he said tersely. “When Frances said goodnight to me at nine o’clock, I know that the thought of suicide was farthest from her thoughts. She asked me what she should prepare for breakfast and she was more cheerful than she had been for several days. She had just bought a new dress and bonnet which she was going to wear to Fall River the next day and she spoke several times about how much she was going to enjoy the circus.” “Do you really suspect George Hersey of poisoning her?” “Well, who else is there?”
The Sheriff reflected. Who else was there? Frances Tirrell, he well knew, had led a sheltered life. She had few gentlemen callers. To be sure there were her cousins, Austin and Albert, sons of her uncle Kingman, who came frequently and there were neighbors and friends who dropped in occasionally, but there was no one in whom the girl had seemed especially interested. To accuse George Hersey would be a serious matter. Who else was there? A though struck him and he asked suddenly: “Who retired first that night, George or Frances?”
“George. He went to bed with a headache about eight o’clock and Frances sat up and for an hour longer. They were hanging May baskets and one came for my little girl, Louise, who occupied the bed with Frances and who had gone to sleep. There was a doll in the basket and Frances said she was going to wake her up and show it to her, it would please her so much. A few minutes later she kissed me goodnight and went upstairs.” Again Thomas paused for reflection. It was plain that there was a motive for suicide, but he couldn’t conceive of a reason for Murder. Even if it were true that the girl had been indiscreet with Hersey, he could have married her without objection on the part of her family. Mentally, he reviewed all the known circumstances without reaching a conclusion and through all his deliberations the question of Wilson Tirrell recurred persistently, “Who else was there?”
All that night he tossed about feverishly unable to sleep. In the morning he went to see Mrs. Wilson Tirrell. Almira Tirrell, stepmother of the dead girl, was typical of the New England housewife of that day. She was orthodox from prayer meetings to pies and her sole diversion was playing the hymns of good old Dr. Watts on the wheezy old melodeon, heritage of a defunct ancestor. From which it may be readily seen that she was not a very lively companion for a young and impressionable girl.
“Excuse me Mrs. Tirrell,” began Thomas smoothly, “But I’d like to talk with you a bit about this strange death of your stepdaughter. What sort of a girl was she? How did you and she get along?” “Well, she was odd in some ways. Lately she hadn’t talked much to me. I asked her why she didn’t speak and she said shed didn’t feel like talking. Of course, we didn’t always think alike. When she didn’t do the work just as I want it done, I found fault, as she called it, and sometimes we’d have a few words.”
“I see. Do you think she committed suicide?” “Yes, I do, and I’ll tell you why. Yesterday, Ann Tirrell, Kingman’s daughter, you know, was looking through the chest of drawers in her room to see if she could find any poison and she found one of my platina spoons that I don’t use very often in a very peculiar place.” “Where was it?”
“Well, in the fireplace there is a wooden fireboard that Frances used to take out for ventilation and it was behind this fireboard that she found the spoon.” The Sheriff frowned. “Why does that interest you particularly?” “I’m going to tell you, if you’ll let me. There was some preserve in the bowl of the spoon, some of my currant jelly, and I think she put the poison in that.” “Where is the spoon now?” “Why, I suppose it’s on a shelf in the closet of Frances’ room where I left it.” “Get it will you please? I’d like to see it.” Mrs. Tirrell left the room and returned in a few minutes with the spoon. A small quantity of jelly remained in the bowl and here were traces of it around the edges.
“I’ll take this with me; we’ll see if there is any poison in it,” announced Thomas. Then, as though it was an afterthought, “was Miss Ann Tirrell alone in the room when she found the spoon?” “Why, no, I was in there, looking around.”
Dr. Hayes and Professor Horsford scraped the dried preserve from the spoon and found upon analysis that it contained pulverized crystals of strychnine. Sheriff Thomas at once interviewed the two neighborhood apothecaries. Loring W. Derby of South Weymouth told him that he had sold no poison of any description to George Hersey nor to any member of the Tirrell family. Amos White at Weymouth Landing and his clerk, Francis Amble, denied that they had sold poison to anyone.
Wilson Tirrell was not satisfied. “You’ve done the best you could, Sheriff,” he said, “but I want a detective. This mystery has got to be cleared up and the guilty ma punished. I’ll spend every dollar I’ve got if necessary. Now you get going.” Thomas called in Detective John M. Dunn of Boston and Dunn’s first sep was to search the Tirrell house from cellar to garret. He found nothing incriminating and after securing a promise of cooperation from Thomas, he took the train back to Boston.
Arriving at his office, he got his pipe going and pulled at it in quick emphatic draughts while he reviewed the facts he had learned from Sheriff Thomas. To his mind they didn’t indicate suicide, although he conceded there was a motive. One contemplating such an act, he argued, would be depressed.
Frances had spent the forenoon of the day on which she died at the home of her uncle Kingman, and he and members of his family had asserted positively that she had appeared more cheerful than usual. In the afternoon she had visited at the home of another uncle, Christopher Blanchard, where she had said she was feeling much better than she had felt for a long time and had talked vivaciously about he contemplated trip the next day. She had exhibited a breastpin containing a lock of Mary’s hair, which she was going to have braided the next time she went to Boston.
He smoked on with knitted brows while unconsciously he reduced his theory to a sort of quasi-syllogistic form. Frances Tirrell had died as a result of strychnine poisoning; there had never been any strychnine in the house. Conclusion: Somebody had purchased it somewhere and brought it there. He decided to concentrate on that angle.
As he sat there speculating on the various aspects of the case, subconsciously his eyes fell on a copy of the Boston Herald and he recalled that Wilson Tirrell was probably a subscriber to that paper, as he had noticed several copies of it about the house. From force of habit he picked it up, his subjective mind still theorizing on the mysterious death of Frances.
In those days the first pages were devoted almost exclusively to advertisements and before he realized it, he was absorbed in one that had caught his attention. It was nearly a column in length and the gist of it was as follows:
Dr. Morrill’s Female Specific
Dr. Morrill is a skillful surgeon and renowned practitioner. He is the unrivaled benefactor of humanity. His remedy in all cases of suppression is the one used by the Orients in preventing a too large increase of progeny. Price five dollars a bottle. Bottle of greater strength twenty dollars. Only to be procured at his office, No. 9 Howard Street, Boston.
Hastily jamming on his hat, Dunn hotfooted it for Howard Street. He found the ‘unrivaled benefactor of humanity” engaged and, extending a daguerreotype, he asked quietly: “have you ever seen the original of this picture, Doctor?”
Morrill gave it only a perfunctory glance and handed it back. “Yes, I have. He was in here at two different times. The first time he said he wished to ask me some questions about medicines for females in a family way. I told him that would be advice and that I should have to charge for it. “A few months after that, he came in again and pretended not to know me. This time he said that he came to get some advice for a friend. I replied that I did not consult with a second person. We had a little more conversation and I told him that the person needing advice had better come and see me personally. Then I asked her age and he said she was twenty-five and was about three months advanced in pregnancy.
“He then asked me what an abortion would cost and I told him that persons who did those things usually got from $25 to $500. He said, “Pooh! I can get someone for fifty cents.” “If you can do that, you don’t need any advice from me. By the way, I continued I think I’ve seen you before. You’ve been getting into this scrape often, haven’t you?” “He said that he had, that women were all alike and he could do anything he wanted with them. Then he said if I would let him have some medicine he would pay for it if it did any good. I told him I didn’t sell medicines that way. He stayed a few minutes longer and then left, saying he would see me again, but he never came back.”
Dunn regarded him in silence for a few minutes, then asked: “What was your medical school, Doctor?” “I never went to college.” “Did you ever study surgery?” “No.” “Your advertisement reads that you are a skillful surgeon and a renowned practitioner.” “Well, I was with Dr. Stevens while in Lowell and took advice from him. I treat all diseases because I read the same books other people do.” “Have you ever procured abortions?” “I decline to state.” “All right, just one thing more. Did this man, the man whose picture I hold in my hand, ever discuss poisons with you?” “Yes he did. He asked me if
I would sell him some strychnine. Said there was a dog in his neighborhood he wanted to get rid of. I told him I didn’t keep it. He then asked me if I would write him a prescription for it and I told him I would not.”
Dunn was not wholly satisfied with Morrill. That the man was an arrant scoundrel, there was no doubt. The picture he had shown him was that of George Hersey, but he was disposed to question the identification. He realized that the history of the criminal law is full of instances of mistaken identifications. The somewhat coarse language attributed to his caller, too, was unlike that of Hersey, who had the air and manners of a gentleman. The inquiry about strychnine, if true, might well be merely a coincidence.
Still, there was a possibility that Hersey, unable to procure medicine from Morrill, had resorted to poison to get himself out of his predicament. But why poison the girl instead of marrying her? Well, he would canvass the apothecaries.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Thomas had been making discreet inquiries in Weymouth. His talks with several shop mates of Hersey had resulted in startling disclosures. Edward Lewis, a shoe cutter in the factory where Hersey was employed, told the Sheriff that a few days prior to Frances Tirrell’s death, Hersey had asked about several poisons, arsenic, laudanum, etc., and finally had asked Lewis if he knew how strychnine operated. He referred to the famous Harvard case, remarking that Professor Webster had taken it on his way to jail, but it was ineffective. Lewis told him he knew nothing of the properties of strychnine or what constituted a fatal dose. “You’re sure this talk occurred before the death of the Tirrell girl?” asked Thomas. “I’m sure it took place before. It may have been a week before. I can’t tell exactly.”
Then Spencer C. Gurney, who also worked in the Shaw shop with Hersey, told of hearing the conversation with Lewis, but fixed the time as “a few weeks” before the death of Frances. Another shopmate, Frederick S. Torrey, said that Hersey had inquired what poison would take life quickest and with the least pain. Thomas meditated on this for some time, then went back to Loring Derby. “You say Loring , that you never sold any poison to Hersey. Now I want to ask you something else. Did he ever ask you anything about poisons?”
Derby considered. “Why, yes, come to think of it, he did. We had a conversation one day about the effect of strychnine and arsenic. I told him that strychnine produced death quicker than arsenic, because it went more into the blood.”
Thomas was now sold on the theory that Hersey was guilty. Back he went to the Tirrell house confident that the bottle, which had contained the strychnine, was concealed there in some place, which had not yet been searched. He turned everything topsy-turvy in bureaus and closets, even peering behind the etching of Stannard’s Brigade, which hung over the fireplace. Mrs. Tirrell eyeing him the while in evident disapproval, but again the search was fruitless.
“Land’s sakes!” she ejaculated, “it’ll take me half a day to clean up the mess you’ve made. I hope to goodness you’re satisfied this time, Sheriff.” Thomas calculated he was. “You’re sure there was nothing behind the fireboard except the spoon?” he inquired, moodily. “Nothing of any consequence; only some small pieces of colored paper.” “What did you do with them?” “Put them into the stove an burnt them up, of course. What did you suppose I’d do with them?” “Was there any printing on the papers?” “Yes there was, but the pieces were torn so small that I could only make out one word.” “What was that word?” “Lubin.” “Lubin!” Little did Almira Tirrell dream that she had disclosed a damning piece of evidence. The Sheriff continued his inquiries among Hersey’s associates and was elated when he discovered what appeared to be an adequate motive for the murder of Frances Tirrell. Hersey, one of his close friends said, was engaged to and estimable young lady named Loretta Loud. She was only sixteen, and infatuated with the older man, had readily agreed to keep their engagement a secret.
Loretta Adeline Loud, golden haired, blue-eyed and altogether desirable, lived with her widowed mother in South Weymouth. She was visibly embarrassed to receive a caller in the person of Sheriff Thomas, but by tactful assurances he soon succeeded in putting her at ease. Here’s what she told him: “I became engaged to George Hersey on the 25th of March, not quite three months after the death of Frances’ sister, Mary Tirrell. Our engagement was kept secret at his request. He said it was such a short time since Mary died that it might be considered sort of — well, disrespectful by Wilson Tirrell and he didn’t wish to offend him, but, of course, I told my mother,” she added quickly.
“So you expect to marry George, do you?” “No, I don’t. Our engagement terminated on the 39th of April; the Sunday before Frances Tirrell died. She died the following Thursday.” “Who broke the engagement?” “I did.” “What was your reason, Loretta?” The girl hung her head. “I ended it on the advice of my mother, because he made improper proposals to me.”
Sheriff Thomas was in a quandary. While Loretta’s story showed Hersey up in a bad light, it furnished no motive for the murder of Frances Tirrell since she had broken the engagement. There was no evidence to justify charging him with the crime. The conversations with his shop mates were susceptible of an innocent explanation. While he was pursuing his investigation in Weymouth, Detective Dunn was tramping the streets of Boston in search of an apothecary who had sold strychnine to Hersey or to some member of the Tirrell family.
He was utterly discouraged, however, because he had met with no success. With only two more stores to cover he had abandoned hope of discovering anything. One of these stores was that of E. F. and W. D. Miller, at the corner of Union and Hanover Streets. There he found in charge a young man apparently about twenty-three years old whose name he learned was Alfred William Coburn.
“I am a detective,” announced Dunn. “Have you sold anybody any strychnine recently?” The color mounted in Coburn’s face. “Yes – I – have,” he stammered. “Let me see your book. You recorded the sale, I suppose?” Coburn was perceptibly agitated. “No, sir, I didn’t.” Dunn’s eyebrows raised. “You know the law, I presume. Where poison is sold without a physician’s prescription, a record must be kept of the date of sale and the name of the purchaser.”
“I know I didn’t do right, but I was over persuaded. The man asked me if I would sell him some and I told him it was against the law. He talked me into it. Told me he wanted it to kill a dog and I finally concluded to let him have it, as he referred me to Frederick Whiton, the hatter across the street.” “How much did you sell him?” “Sixty grains. That’s what the bottle contained – one drachm; an eighth of an ounce. It was corked and sealed and plainly marked ‘poison.’ He paid me seventy-five cents for it.” “Can you describe this man?” “Yes, sir. He’s been in the store before and I talked with him quite a while the last time he was in. He was tall, rather slight with dark, bushy hair, and his face was full of whiskers. I particularly noticed his eyes; they were dark and very piercing.” “Did he tell you his name?” “Yes, he said his name was Tirrell and that he lived in Weymouth.” Dunn pulled the daguerreotype from his pocket. “Look at this closely and don’t make any mistake. Is that the man?” “Yes, sir. There’s not the slightest doubt of it.”
Upon this evidence, Sheriff Thomas and Captain James Lawrence Bates arrested Hersey at his father’s home in Hingham, Great Plains. He was arraigned before Judge James Humphrey trial justice for Norfolk County, charged with first-degree murder. He was held without bail to await the action of the grand jury. The arrest was a renewed sensation in Weymouth. Many persons indulged in the well-worn phrase, “I told you so,” but Hersey had staunch defenders who refused to believe him guilty and oddly enough these latter came, not from the church members with whom he had associated so closely, but from the more worldly in the little community.
To Dedham jail to identify Hersey (who had given his name as Tirrell) as the man to whom he has sold strychnine came Alfred William Coburn. The young man passed several cells containing prisoners until he came to the one near the end of the tier. He stopped and pointed his finger dramatically, “That’s him,” he declared. Hersey looked at him blankly. “What are you talking about? I never saw you before in my life.” “Well, I remember you perfectly well. I sold you sixty grains of strychnine.” “You’re simply mistaken,” responded Hersey shortly. Coburn shook his head. “No, sir, I’m positive. You came into Miller’s apothecary store where I work at the corner of Union and Hanover Street in Boston and coaxed me into selling it to you so you could kill a dog. You had been in the store before, too, and made a purchase.” Hersey looked at him defiantly. “What did I buy?” he sneered. “A bottle of Lubin’s perfumery.” Lubin’s perfumery.
With apprehension of Hersey, Wilson Tirrell’s mind reverted to the death of his daughter, Mary, who had died under circumstances similar to those of Frances. By his orders, her body as exhumed and by the stomach sent to Dr. Hayes for analysis. Dr. Hayes reported that he had recovered corrosive sublimate from the stomach and intestines. It was then recalled that Hersey’s young wife, Emeline, had passed away in convulsions and people began to talk of triple murder.
On May 28th, 1861, George C. Hersey was placed on trial for the murder of Frances Tirrell in the Superior court at Dedham before Chief Justice George T. Bigelow and Associate Justices Dewey, Merrick and Chapman. Attorney-General
Dwight Foster and District-Attorney Benjamin W. Harris represented the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Counsel for Hersey were two famous criminal lawyers, Hon. Elihu C. Baker and George S. Sullivan. The testimony of government witnesses was practically the same as has already been given here, so I will not weary the reader with a repetition. The defense witnesses were all character witnesses.
Sullivan, who made the closing argument for the prisoner, insisted that Frances Tirrell had committed suicide and that Coburn and Morrill were mistaken in their identifications. In his charge to the jury, Chief Justice Bigelow made this sage remark: “Circumstantial evidence has this great advantage – that various circumstances from various sources are not likely to be fabricated.”
The defense made no exception to this charge, but in later cases the courts have sustained exceptions to this statement to the jury, holding that it is an argument for the prosecution and have granted defendants new trials. The jury after being out five hours returned a verdict of “Guilty of murder in the first degree.” A motion in arrest of judgment was overruled and on February 8th, 1862, Chief Justice Bigelow addressed Hersey as follows: “The sentence is that you be taken from this place to the common jail at Dedham, there to remain until on such day as shall be fixed by the executive government, you be removed to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead and my God have mercy on your soul.”
Governor John A Andrew fixed the date of Friday August 8th 1862, for the execution. The gallows was erected in the rotunda of Dedham jail at about the center of the north side, between the wings. It was the gallows on which Professor Webster was hanged in Suffolk County for the murder of the wealthy Dr. Parkman, eight years previous.
Passes for the Hersey execution were issued to four hundred persons. The prisoner walked to the gallows with closed eyes. He was on the verge of a collapse and unable to walk unaided. Rev. Nehemiah Adams and a guard supported him.
The clergyman mad a long prayer during which Hersey breathed with great difficulty, drawing long, convulsive breathes. A black robe was placed on him and a black cap drawn over his face. His arms were strapped and the noose placed about his neck. At a signal from Sheriff Thomas, the trap was sprung and the soul of George Hersey passed into eternity.
At the request of Hersey’s brother the body was placed in a casket and delivered to Samuel Curtis of Weymouth for transportation to Hingham where it was delivered to relatives.
As has been seen, this was purely a circumstantial evidence case and like all cases of this character it comprehended the possibility of error. The identification witnesses might have been mistaken. The torn pieces of paper with the word “Lubin” did not show conclusively that it came from the particular bottle Coburn said he had sold to the defendant. There were still a great many people who believed the State had executed an innocent man.
Finally, the gossip assumed such proportions that Sheriff Thomas made public Hersey’s confession, which he had written in his presence and that of other officers on the morning of the execution. It was as follows:
Dedham, Mass., August 8, 1862.
I, George Canning Hersey, being now about to appear in the immediate presence of the All-seeing God and Judge, hereby declare in what respect I am guilty, and in what respect not guilty, in the matters which have been charged against me.
As to any act of even thought of procuring the death of either my wife, or of Mary Tirrell, of both of which I have been suspected, I am wholly innocent, so help me God. Nor did I ever use means with either of them for any purpose resulting in their deaths, so help me, God.
I hereby acknowledge that, in the sight of God, I am guilty of the death of Betsy Frances Tirrell, for which I was indicted, and for which I am now to suffer.
I hearby warn all young people, by my experience and fate, against the indulgence of lustful passions. These have brought me to my untimely end.
(Signed) George C. Hersey
The foregoing was signed by Mr. Hersey in our presence and declared by him to be his free act and deed, we witnessing his signature in his presence and in the presence of each other.
Dedham, August 8, 1862
(Signed) John W. Thomas, Sheriff
And so ends the terrible story of murder and the deaths of three young people due to the actions of one of them.
It is hard to imagine the pain and suffering that their families experienced as a result of George Hersey’s actions.