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George Hersey Trial for murder of Betsey Tirrell


Tile Supreme Judicial Court commenced a special session in this town on Tuesday, for the trial of George C. Hersey for the murder of Betsey Francis Tirrell, by poisoning, at Weymouth, on the third day of May 1860, and Edward R. Pope, of Quincy, on a charge of shooting Francis D. Fortier, on the 21st day of September last.

The Court came in at half-past nine.--- Present---Chief Justice Bigelow, Dewey, Merrick and Chapman. Before commencing the trial of Hersey, it was moved by Attorney General Foster that tile deposition of Dr. H.L. Saville, of Quincy, may be taken in the case of Pope, as he is Surgeon of the Fourth Massachusetts regiment at Fort Monroe, and is obliged to leave for that post immediately. The motion was granted.

Motion was also made by Attorney General Foster that Monday next be assigned for the trial of Pope, as the trial of Hersey would probably occupy tile remainder of this week. This motion was also granted.

G.S. Sullivan, Esq., counsel for Hersey, stated that the indictment against his client contained four counts; three charging him with causing the death of Miss Tirrell by poisoning, and the other with being accessory before the fact to her death by suicide. He moved that tile government be instructed to elect on which of these the defendant should be tried. This motion was overruled.

The Clerk then proceeded to call the following list of Jurors, comprising the First and Second Juries and Supernumeraries in attendance at the recent April term of the Superior Court, and a large number who had been summoned, in addition.


William Bacon, Jr., Roxbury, Foreman; Horace Abercrombie, Braintree, Jeremiah Allen, Walpole; Joseph C. Blake, Sharon; Peter Billings, Canton; John E. Came, Roxbury; Edward Clark, Medway; Harvey B. Coleman, Wrentham; Timothy Corey, Brookline; Calvin Davenport, Dorchester; Alonzo G. Davis, Quincy; Benjamin T. Dowse, Weymouth.


George E. Porter, Weymouth; Foreman; Abner Fales, Foxboro; George Fiske, Medfield; William A. Heyer, West Roxbury; William C. Hurd, Needham; John Jennison, Bellingham; John A. Newell, Dover; Simeon Palmer, Milton; Daniel W. Pratt, Cohasset; Edward B. Soutiler, Quincy; Stillman Stone, Dorchester; Washington Tower, Jr., Stoughton.


Joseph It. Wadsworth, Franklin; Adoniram White, Randolph; William Withington, Dedham; Joseph B. Young, Roxbury.


Ralph Arnold, Braintree; Orin R. Beal, Cohasset; Robert C.M. Bowles, Roxbury; Frederich Clapp, Dorchester; Ezekiel W. Cutter, Roxbury; Marshall C. Dizer, Weymouth; Rufus H. Draper, Dedham; Levi P. Dudley, West Roxbury; Charles H. Edwards, Quincy; Timothy Gay, Quincy; Thomas Harding, Medway; Daniel F. Hewes, Foxboro; Thomas B. Howard, Randolph; Abner Holbrook, Weymouth; Charles Hunt, Dorchester; Obed P. Johnson, Sharon; William S. Messenger, Roxbury; Otis F. Metcalf, Franklin; C. Willard Morton, Needham; Gordon H. Nott, Dorchester; George Packer, Roxbury; Addison Page, Walpole; Henry Pratt, Roxbury; Benjamin N. Sawin, Dover; George Sheldon, Wrentham; Robert Swan, Skoughton; Peter Talbot, Canton; Wm. S. Tilden, Medfield; John A. Tucker, Milton; William Thompson, Bellingham; Royal Woodward, Brookline.

The Jurors were called in alphabetical order, the opportunity for challenging having been given the prisoner in each case, and the usual questions were put to them by the Chief Justice, to ascertain if they entertained opinions which would prevent their finding a verdict of guilty, which should subject the defendant to the penalty of death. Twenty-two were called before the panel of twelve was completed. The first person called was Mr. Horace Abercrombie, of Braintree, who was set aside on account of conscientious scruples against the death penalty. Four, namely, Messrs. William Bacon, Jr., and John E. Came, of Roxbury, Timothy Corey, of Brookline, and Alonzo G. Davis, of Quincy, had formed opinions upon the case, and were consequently excluded; and five, namely, Messrs. Harvey B. Coleman, of Wrentham, Benjamin T. Dowse and Marshall C. Dizer, of Weymouth, Abner Fales, of Foxboro, and Charles H. Edwards, of Quincy, were challenged by the prisoner.

The Jury as finally empanelled was as follows:

Jeremiah Allen, Walpole, Foreman; Ralph Arnold, Braintree; Orin R. Beal, Cohasset; Joseph C. Blake, Sharon; Peter Billings, Canton; Frederich Clapp, Dorchester; Edward Clark, Medway; Ezekiel W. Cutter, Roxbury; Calvin Davenport, Dorchester; Rufus H. Draper, Dedham; George Fiske, Medfield; Levi P. Dudley, West Roxbury.

A long and carefully drawn indictment, containing several counts, was then read, in which Hersey was charged with administering strychnine to Betsey Frances Tirrell.

To this charge the defendant pleaded not guilty.

Attorney General Dwight Foster appeared for the government, assisted by District Attorney Harris. Messrs. Elihu C. Baker and George S. Sullivan, of Boston, appeared as counsel for Hersey.

The case was opened for the government by District Attorney Harris. He dwelt briefly upon the importance of the case---one of the most important in which the Court had ever been engaged. He would not urge an unreasonable conviction, but their duty was to see that justice was done. The evidence was in the main circumstantial. The guilt of the defendant could not be shown by eyewitnesses, but various independent causes combined to produce that conclusion. He gave a history of the case upon which the indictment was founded. Miss Tirrell had died on the third day of May 1860, after a brief illness of a half hour, having retired to her room in usual health.

Hersey had before been engaged to Mary Tirrell, a sister of the deceased. She had died in January, and after that Hersey, by invitation of her parents, had become an inmate of their household. An intimacy ensued between Hersey and Betsey Frances, but after three or four months an apparent coldness displaced the intimacy. On the evening of her death Hersey retired early, and about an hour after Betsey retired also. A short time after, the parents were aroused by the illness of the daughter, who died in half an hour in spasms and convulsions.

Two days after, a post mortem examination was made by Drs. Tower, Howe and Fifield, by which it was discovered that the deceased was pregnant. The examination was further proceeded with under the direction of a coroner, and no evidence of an unhealthy state of the system was found. The stomach, intestines and liver were analyzed by Dr. Hayes and strychnine in quite a large quantity was contained in then, sufficient to destroy life. Immediately after the death the conversation of friends was turned upon the cause of the death, and Hersey said it was butchery to have such all examination.

This protestation on his part continued until the day of examination. At that time, however, Hersey asked leave to be present at the examination, and he was allowed to do so. The attorney related other circumstances of the conduct of Hersey on that occasion, and of his appearance when the suspicion of poisoning was made known to him.

After the arrest of Hersey it was discovered that in the month of April 1860, Hersey came into an apothecary store on the corner of Union and Hanover streets, in Boston, where Mr. Coburn, an acquaintance of his, was employed, and making inquiries as to the effect of various poisons, purchased a large amount of strychnine. He stated that his name was Tirrell, and that he was a shoe manufacturer in Weymouth. On the Sunday after her death, a spool] with fragments of preserved fruit upon it was found in Miss Tirrell's room, and on its examination by Dr. Hayes strychnine was also found. Shortly after the death of Mary Tittell, Hersey entered into an engagement with a Miss Loud, which was known, to no one else.

They would show, as well as it could be done, that no person except Hersey could have been her seducer, as she had been in tile company of no other gentleman during the previous three months. It would also be shown that Hersey had made inquiries of a physician in Boston in regard to the means of procuring a miscarriage. The prisoner then stated that he was in trouble with a woman, but he had been so before and got clear of it, and would do so again, even if it cost the life of the woman. The counsel then showed a plan of the residence of Mr. Tirrell, and illustrated upon it the theory of the Government as to the manner in which the act was committed.

The first witness called for the government was Dr. Appleton Howe, of Weymouth, of whose testimony the following is an abstract:

Physician of Weymouth; been in practice 41 years; was called to Wilson Tirrell's house on the evening of the 2d of May last; called in haste by Hersey, who said that Frances was in a fit; went immediately to the chamber, and there found her lying on her left side on the bed, with her face partially buried in the pillow; felt for the pulse, and that had stopped; applied his thumb to the carotid, and found that and the heart perfectly still; told the family she was dead; remained there for an hour; an arrangement was made that night for a post mortem the next morning; was carried home by Mr. Hersey, who said he went to bed earlier than usual, but roused himself on hearing his name called, but thought the noise was made by some boys in the street; heard his name called again, and at once left his bed and called the parents; nothing more was said; the next day, by request of Mr. Tirrell, made an arrangement to have an examination made the next day; myself, Dr. Tower and Dr. Fifield met at Tirrell's house; were in the room next that in which the corpse lay; Hersey came up to him and asked if there would be any objection to his being present at the examination; replied that there would be none on my part, and Hersey followed into tile room where tile corpse was, and did not move during the whole time he was in the room; the chest was first opened, and the heart found without any signs of disease; it was removed from the body, arid a quantity of dark blood flowed from the veins, which were severed; not much blood in the heart; the lungs were crowded with blood, but otherwise healthy; the abdomen was next examined, and the small intestines were raised out of the pelvis, and pregnancy was brought to notice at once; I turned to Hersey and said we would be glad to have him leave the room; he immediately left; this was then communicated to the family, and Coroner Binney was called; this was about three o'clock; on the way to reach my horse was met by Hersey, who said, "Have you found any cause of death?" I replied, we have not found any immediate cause;" and said, what did you expect we should find?" He relied, "Nothing." *Hersey exclaimed, "Heavens and earth" raising both hands and trembling violently; the coroner arrived at about sunset; when the jury had finished, I was directed to superintend the further examination of the body; the brain was then examined, but nothing was found to account for the death; the stomach, liver and intestines were then removed, and carefully placed in a clean earthen pot, and delivered to Dr. Hayes in Boston; told Dr. A.A. Hayes there were some suspicions of poison; did not, at the examination of the body, find anything which would account for the death; the foetus found in the body was apparently two months old.

*Dr. Howe then said I suspect she has been poisoned. Source page 25 of James M. W. Yerrinton Book 1862.

The cross examination, which was brief, disclosed no material evidence. Mrs. Almira Tirrell, stepmother of the deceased, testified to the circumstances attending her death, and that for five or six weeks preceding that event, she had seemed sick and sad, and had pined away. The spoon found in Frances' room was shown to Mrs. T., and she recognized it as the one, which had been given to Dr. Howe. She also testified that a week before her death, the deceased was taken sick with vomiting, and that during that sickness Hersey was with Frances in her chamber.

Louisa M. Tirrell, half-sister, and Mrs. Betsey Richards, aunt of the deceased, testified to circumstances attending her death. Dr. William B.C. Fifield, of Weymouth, testified that he was present at tile post mortem examination, and his testimony confirmed that of Dr. Howe in all material particulars. At the time of the examination, he formed the opinion that the deceased had died from strychnine, and so expressed it at the inquest.

Mrs. Mary T. Vining, aunt of the deceased, testified that Hersey had said that it would not surprise him if Frances should make way with herself; and that after the inquest, Hersey had denied that he was the father of the child of which she died pregnant.

Austin Tirrell testified to conversation held with Hersey the day after the death, in which he expressed strong opposition to a post mortem examination.

At 7 o'clock the Court adjourned. On Wednesday morning the trial was resumed. Charlotte Tirrell, cousin of the deceased, testified to conversations with Hersey upon the subject of her death, substantially like those related by other witnesses.

Amos S. White, apothecary at Weymouth Landing, testified that he had not sold poison to Hersey or to any member of Mr. Tirrell's family.

Dr. Hayes, the well-known consulting and analytical chemist, testified that he had studied the properties of strychnine for tell or fifteen years, and had examined sixty-four stomachs for strychnine. He then proceeded ko give a clear and detailed statement of the examination of the stomach of the deceased, and testified that he had found in two-thirds of the stomach which he had examined, two grains and one-tenth of strychnine. The remaining third part he had given ho Prof. Horsford. The spoon found in the chamber of Miss Tirrell was also exhibited, which had been sent to Hayes by Dr. Howe. Dr. Hayes had examined the substance upon it, and strychnine was there found. Strychnine still exists upon the spoon, and also portions of jelly, which correspond with that found in the stomach.

The witness then went on to describe the nature and effect of strychnine--it is the poisonous principles of the nux yomica. Its use as an agent for producing death has been known only fifteen years; half a grain was sufficient for a mortal dose; and with one grain it would be impossible for life to continue; it is a spinal poison; contortions of the muscles are produced, which result in spasms and convulsions; there have been cases in which death ensued in sixteen minutes, when a dose of only half a grain was taken.

The cross examination of Dr. Hayes elicited nothing material.

Prof. Horsford, of Cambridge, testified that he had been a teacher of chemistry in Harvard College for fourteen years; has investigated the properties and symptoms of strychnine, and experimented upon various animals; has examined five human stomachs for strychnine; if a chrystalined body obtained from a solution of alcohol is mixed with oil of vitriol and stirred up with bichromate of potash, and then shows in succession the color of purple, red and orange, there is no doubt the substance is strychnine; confirmed all that Dr. Hayes had said in reference to color tests; received from Dr. Hayes, on the 24th of May, 1860, a quantity of course, grayish powder, which was said to be a part of the remains of Betsey Frances Tirrell, "cut down" by hydrate of potash. Witness described the process, which he went through and by which the presence of strychnine was discovered. He had experimented upon two frogs--on one with the strychnine of commerce, and on the other with that found in the stomach of Miss Tirrell, and both died in nearly the same time, with similar symptoms; in the portion of stomach which he had were nine grains of strychnine; half a grain is a dangerously large dose, though larger doses have been taken without causing death.

Dr. C.C. Tower, a physician of Weymouth, assisted in the post mortem examination of Betsey Frances Tirrell, and corroborated the statements of the other doctors iii regard to it.

Dr. Edward H. Clark, for eight years Professor of Materia Medica in Harvard University, described the effect of strychnine on the human system, corroborating the previous testimony of Drs. Hayes and Horsford.

Alfred W. Coburn sworn. Had been a clerk of E.F. Miller, an apothecary on the corner of Hanover and Union streets in Boston; Hersey came into my store in the latter part of April 1860, and bought hair brush, perfumery, &c, tile bottle of perfumery was of Lubin's, with a purple wrapper, with Lubin's name in water colors; he was in the store again about a week afterwards, and spoke of being in the store before; inquired if I had strychnine, and wished to know if I would sell it; I objected, but he said he wanted it to kill a dog, and after some talk I let him have it; he referred me to Mr. Whiton across the way, and said he knew him; I sold him an eight of an ounce in a bottle; a bottle of strychnine was shown, which was identified as similar to tile one sold; I told him I hoped no harm would come from it, and he said I should hear nothing of it; he told me he lived in Weymouth, and that his name was Tirrell, and his father was ir] business in Pearl street; he was summoned to see Hersey in the jail in Dedham, and recognized him from among the keepers and prisoners; I shook hands with him, but he said he did not remember me.

A close examination by Mr. Baker failed to shake the conclusiveness of Coburn's identification. Several witnesses were examined, but nothing of material importance was elicited. At 7 o'clock the Court adjourned until Thursday morning.

On Thursday, the evidence for the government was closed, and that for the defense, which was unexpectedly meager in extent and negative in quality, was opened and closed. At four o'clock, P.M., the Court adjourned until Friday morning, when the arguments were commenced.