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Extractions from “The Prostitute and the Somnambulist”

Albert Jackson Tirrell – trials for murder, arson and adultery


Cousins Marjorie and Chet Oberlander sent me three more booklets regarding another black sheep in the Tirrell family of Weymouth. I’ve extracted materials from the 100+ pages of the primary book to present a broad overview of the events surrounding the charges of adultery, arson and murder against Albert Jackson Tirrell (1824 –1880.) The extracts are from many pages and are not meant to create a cohesive storyline but rather an overview of the major events surrounding Albert Tirrell.

Albert was the son of Leonard and Abigail (Nabby) Thayer Tirrell and was born and died in Weymouth. He married Orient Humphrey Tirrell, the daughter of Noah and Susan Holbrook Tirrell.

The book describes Albert as a rounder who was often unfaithful to his wife and one who squandered his monies in revelries associated with his aberrant actions. His defense against the murder of his mistress, Mrs. Maria Bickford was that he killed her in his sleep and was a known sleepwalker (somnambulist). He escaped the murder and arson charges, but did receive a three-year sentence for adultery. He was wanted for adultery before the murder took place and frequently moved with his mistress using false names when renting.

Mrs. Bickford is reported to have been a lady who had loose morals and did not object to the use of sex to obtain material gifts and their apparent status. Although still married to her husband, she had other lovers in addition to Albert Tirrell. Some of her letters to friends detailing her activities are part of the information in the booklets. After his trial for murder and subsequent prison term for adultery, Albert moved in to his father-in-law’s home where his wife and two daughters were living. They quickly conceived yet another daughter. His wife died before he did and his daughters never married. The daughters lived lives of poverty and survived due to the kindness of others and by working in various domestic and related jobs.

The Extracts

The legal troubles of Albert Tirrell were first reported by the Boston press in a mildly satirical squib appearing on Monday, September 29, 1845, in the Daily Evening Transcript. The brief story, entitled "A Love Affair." contained the report of one Colonel Hatch, a correspondent to the Boston newspapers. Concerning the arrest in New Bedford the previous Saturday of an unnamed "young blood" accused of "some indelicacies with a young woman.' Accord­ing to Hatch's report, the young man had been armed with a six-barreled pistol and a dirk and had only been apprehended after "a hard chase of about a mile." The report concluded by noting that the suspect was to be brought to Boston that Monday to stand trial. The trivial scoop was promptly picked up by two of Boston's most widely circulated penny newspapers, the Daily Times and Daily Mail whose editors were always on the lookout for engaging filler to pad their spacious sheets.

The following day the Boston Post's regular Municipal Court column of­fered a more detailed account of the arrest in New Bedford, identifying the captured man as "Albert J. Tirrell, gentleman, of Weymouth." According to the Post, Tirrell had been indicted the previous May for an adultery allegedly committed in Suffolk County He had eluded arrest at the time and had remained at large until his dramatic flight and apprehension by the New Bedford officers. His unnamed paramour, reportedly present with him at a house in New Bedford. had successfully fled in another direction. Following his arrest and transfer to Boston, Tirrell was formally arraigned on the adultery charge and committed to jail pending trial at the next term of the Munici­pal Court.

As it turned out, Tirrell did not have to spend much time in jail, posting bail on October 2. About a week later, a number of his friends and relatives, including his young wife, wrote letters to Samuel D. Parker, the county prose­cutor, requesting a stay of proceedings on the adultery indictment in the hope that Tirrell might be reformed. Parker presented those letters to the judges of the Municipal Court, who agreed to suspend prosecution for six months, with Tirrell paying court costs and posting bond as a guarantee of his good behavior. On October 21 Tirrell came to court, paid costs, and posted bond. Then, in defiance of the terms of his recognizance, he went off to meet his paramour, joining her the following day at a disreputable lodging house on Cedar Lane, near the western end of Beacon Hill.

Less than a week later, at nine o'clock on the morning of Monday, October 27. the second edition of the Daily Mail reported the initial details of a gruesome case of murder and attempted arson. It seemed that a woman named Bickford had been killed several hours earlier at a house on Cedar Lane: the victim's throat had been "cut nearly from ear to ear." and her bed had been set on fire. Later that same day, at two o'clock in the afternoon, the Mail produced an "extra" edition providing more sensational details on the fast-breaking case. The disreputable dwelling where the mutilated body was discovered had long been occupied by one Joel Lawrence and his wife, who had used it in recent years as a "house of assignation." The victim was identi­fied as Maria A. Bickford, a young married woman from Maine. separated from her husband for some time. According to the Mail, she had been a woman of "slight, graceful figure, and very beautiful.

At about five o'clock that morning, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence and another young woman living in the house had heard a shriek upstairs, followed by a heavy thud; immediately afterward, someone had stumbled down the stairs and rushed out the door of the building. Bickford's body was discovered in an upstairs room shortly thereafter. The dead woman's jugular vein and wind­pipe had been completely severed, her hair had been partly consumed by fire, and her face bad been "charred and blackened" by flames. A number of fires had been set in the room where the body was discovered, the walls of the room were splattered with blood, a nearby washbowl contained a quantity of bloody water, and a bloodstained razor was found at the foot of her bed. Some articles of mews clothing were found in the room. along with a letter initialed A. J. T to M. A. B. According to the Mail reporter, the murder had almost certainly been committed by Albert J. Tirrell.

Additional details provided by the Boston press over the following several days only strengthened that inference; a number of particularly damaging facts emerged at the official inquest, held the day after Bickford's death. The proceedings were closely covered by local newspapers, a few of which pro­vided nearly verbatim transcripts. Nine witnesses testified before the coroner's jury, including Joel Lawrence, his wife, his teenage son and Priscilla Blood a young woman living with the family. According to those members of the Lawrence household. Maria Bickford had come to stay with them nine or ten days before and had frequently been visited there by Tirrell, who stayed overnight on at least one or two occasions. On the afternoon before the murder, Priscilla Blood heard the couple exchange angry words shortly afterward. Bickford explained to Blood that she liked to quarrel with Tirrell be­cause "they. had such a good time making up.”

Tirrell left the house early that evening but was back in his paramour's bedroom within a couple of hours: at about nine o'clock, as the Lawrence family was preparing to retire for the night, Bickford came to Priscilla Blood's room and asked her for some water for Albert. That was the last anyone saw or heard of the couple until early the next morning, when the Lawrence household was roused by a commotion upstairs, followed by billows of smoke and fire. At about five-thirty that morning, a young man matching Tirrell's description came to a nearby stable and requested a horse to carry him 10 Weymouth. Tirrell's hometown, explaining that "he had got into a little diffi­culty and wanted to go to his wife's father." During the course of the inquest, a number of witnesses identified a vest and a cane subsequently found at the scene of the crime as belonging to Tirrell. On the basis of that web of purely circumstantial evidence, the coroner's jury concluded that Bickford had been murdered by her paramour, Albert J. Tirrell.

As the newspapers printed a succession of false rumors concerning Tirrell's whereabouts over the following weeks, they also began examining the life and character of his alleged victim. While all seemed to agree that Maria Bickford had been young, beautiful, and fallen, competing accounts offered very different versions of tier life and suggested widely varying degrees of sympathy. One early and largely inaccurate account in the Daily Mail of October 31 claimed that Maria was an "unsophisticated girl" who had been lured into adultery shortly after her marriage by a depraved companion. Although her conduct and character had deteriorated thereafter, she had managed to pause before the brink of "utter degradation and ruin" and was about to be reclaimed by an old lover--who planned to elope with her to western New York--at the time of her death. Bickford had allegedly told an acquaintance that "she was tired of the way she had been living, and was resolved that her future life should atone for her past follies."

The narrative continued with a poignant description of various article found in the dead woman s room, including several rings and trinkets worn by her on the day before her death, a collection of perfumes and cosmetics neatly arranged on the mantelpiece, a bundle of letters containing an endearing epistle from her mother, a number of gilt-framed prints, and a daguerreotype of Bickford herself in which she appeared "uncommonly lovely and inno­cent.'' That inventory, of genteel feminine possessions was clearly designed to arouse sympathy for the fallen woman. The reporter finally speculated on Maria's thoughts during the hours before her sudden death· "Who knows the joys, the promised hope, that revealed itself for future life'?" he asked rhetori­cally. "She was the victim of jealousy and revenge, and he who committed the bloody act, cannot go unpunished."

An anonymous poem that appeared on November 10 in the Boston Post · offered a similarly sympathetic view of Maria Bickford as a "sentimental victim·" It began by describing the fallen woman asleep in bed dreaming of her long lost days of childhood innocence, as a sexual predator prepared t0 cut her throat with "cold, cold hands and ruthless steel." While acknowledg­ing Maria's faults, the poet attributed far greater depravity to her killer.

Early on the morning of October 27, Albert Tirrell had fled from the burning house on Cedar Lane and gone to a nearby stable to hire a horse and wagon. He drove to the house of some relatives in Weymouth who concealed him from pursuing officers for the next day or so and provided him with money to escape from Massachusetts. The following day be headed west with his brother-in-law and then continued north on his own probably through the state of Vermont into Canada. On November 8, he wrote his family from Montreal, announcing that he was to sail that day for Liverpool. But the vessel was forced to turn back by bad weather, and later that month he boarded a ship in New York City bound for New Orleans. After receiving a tip that the fugitive was headed their way, authorities in Louisiana arrested Tirrell on board a vessel in the Gulf on December 5.

Meanwhile. Bostonians were outraged by the seemingly successful flight of a suspected murderer. Although Samuel Parker, the prosecuting attorney for Suffolk County, had quickly engaged a number of officers to pursue the suspect, other branches of the local government responded more slowly. The mayor, near death from illness, apparently did nothing, and the city council waited several days before offering a reward of one thousand dollars for the apprehension of Tirrell. The Daily Times noted widespread public complaints over the sluggish official response and blasted the city government as "essen­tially and thoroughly imbecile. During November and early December. Boston newspapers occasionally reported rumored sightings or arrests of Tirrell; some of those stories seemed to presuppose the guilt--and even the eventual execution--of the absconded suspect.

On December 20 news of Tirrell's arrest in New Orleans reached Massa­chusetts and was widely reported in the Boston press. On December 24 the Daily Times indicated that the governor had dispatched two officers to Louisi­ana to retrieve the suspect. Less than a week later, it reported that the wit­nesses against Tirrell had been called by the Supreme Judicial Court to ar­range for their appearance at a future trial. In mid-January Boston papers reprinted a letter from Tirrell to the New Orleans Picayune in which he asserted his innocence, complained Of his unfair treatment in the press, and denied earlier reports that he had attempted suicide. On February 5 the Times announced that Tirrell had safely arrived in Boston and been placed in the Leverett Street jail. The following day hundreds of Bostonians flocked to the Police Court--mistakenly believing that Tirrell was to be examined there--in hopes of catching a glimpse of the suspected murderer, who had already become something of a celebrity.

On February 7 the Daily Times cited unconfirmed reports that Daniel Beginning on the Monday following the verdict--and for weeks afterward--the trial of Albert Tirrell was the subject of intense editorial scrutiny both in Boston and throughout the country. Responses ranged from forthright endorsements of the acquittal to outright condemnations. When the respectable Evening Transcript, edited by Cornelia W. Walter, launched an editorial campaign against the verdict, the boisterous Daily Times countered with its own sustained defense of the outcome, assailing the Transcript's crusade as "NEWSPAPER TWATTLE AND OLD WOMANISM." Although sexual issues were not at all prominent in the substance of the post trial debate, that choice of epithets--along with Waiter's status as the only female newspaper editor in the city--suggests that at least some of the men and women of Boston may have been responding to the case along gender lines. Several of Boston's other newspa­pers seem to have adopted a conciliatory middle course, expressing some dis­comfort with aspects of the trial--especially the outcome--without actually condemning the local tribunal. Although newspapers throughout the coun­try also adopted various views on the case, most seem to have ridiculed the defense of somnambulism and deplored the verdict. While editors fussed and fulminated in print, other Americans responded to the verdict in a variety of ways, with somnambulism suddenly emerging as the defense of choice for petty criminals from Boston to Baltimore.

Meanwhile, as the public furor swirled around him, Albert J. Tirrell re­mained in a Boston jail, awaiting trial on the pending charges of adultery and arson. On Monday, May 18, Tirrell was arraigned in Boston Municipal Court on the morals charges, pleading nolo contendere to two counts against him and not guilty to three others. Sentencing was delayed until the next court term, and Samuel Parker agreed not to prosecute Tirrell on the three addi­tional counts. In failing to contest the two counts of adultery and lascivious habitation, Tirrell made himself liable to a term of six years in the state prison. About a month after his arraignment on the adultery charges, on June 16, Tirrell was brought before the Supreme Judicial Court on the capital charge of arson. However, the proceedings were delayed until a subsequent term be­cause of the illness of a key defense witness.

Although the judicial proceedings had been delayed, the case of Maria Bickford and Albert Tirrell continued to be addressed in print. On April 12. 1846, just a couple of weeks after the conclusion of Tirrell's first trial. James Bickford handed his late wife's correspondence over to a friend who would arrange its publication. He also provided the friend with biographical informa­tion about Mrs. Bickford, explaining that he wanted the material made public in order to refute other fictitious accounts, probably the pamphlets of Silas Estabrook.

(Note: The murder and trial elicited a large following by the citizens and newspapers of Boston and Massachusetts. It was so popular that some individuals wrote their own dramatized storyline in booklet format for sale to the general populace. …. LD)

Choate's (Tirrell’s attorney) closing speech, delivered on the seventh day of the trial, largely recapitulated his argument in the either case; if anything, it was even more melodramatic. Once again he conveyed sympathetic images of his client, disparaged the characters' of opposing witnesses, and offered hypothetical reconstructions of disputed events. His characterization of Bickford and his description of Tirrell's feelings for her were particularly powerful and evocative. The deceased was a Iow prostitute. Choate insisted. "a woman of dirks and knives, like a Spanish girl, coarse, strong and masculine," who had repeat­edly attempted suicide; and vet the prisoner had "loved her with the love of forty thousand brothers." To Choate, it all seemed so obvious! "How much more likely that she should have taken her own life," he explained. "than that he should have deliberately murdered her."

After resurrecting the old suicide defense--which was not strictly rele­vant, since the current charge was arson, not murder--Choate went on to savage the credibility of the new witness for the prosecution. Caroline L. Warren. He contended that her testimony should be completely disregarded by the jury. "A more base and more lying wretch never existed" he insisted; a more coarse and reckless prostitute never lived." How did he know? Surely it was proved by her "flippI7922ant and saucy expression, by her brazen counte­nance and every shade of her prostitute manner." Choate was hardly more gentle in his treatment of the Lawrence’s, conceding only that they probably had not murdered Bickford themselves. In addition to exhibiting his undiminished talent for character assassination, the romantic advocate demon­strated his masterful ability to sketch an imaginative scene:

We will thus state the case: Albert J. Tirrell, if he was there [in Bickford's room], was awakened from the insanity of sleep by the warm blood of the desperate suicide: half-awaking he sees the object of his licentious affection or love gasping by his side--he springs from the bed--takes the body in his arms and lays a upon the floor--stoops over her and presses upon her lips the last kiss of love and affection and then crazed, half-sleeping and half-waking, seizes his clothes, rushes out into the yard and cried.

The lawyer's scene was dramatic, compelling, and essentially irrelevant to the charge of arson: as for the last kiss. It was a touch of pure genius, worthy of the pen of Ormond Bradbury. After entering "heart and soul into the case" and haranguing the jurors for five and a half or six hours. Choate finally subsided, leaving the floor to his older opponent.

When Samuel Parker rose to offer his own closing speech, he could hardly contain his frustration. He pleaded with the jurors to "take a calm and com­mon sense view of the cause" and begged them to be "guided and governed by the plain truth, divested of all metaphor or rhetorical flourish." He also "trusted that they would estimate the arguments by their weight, and not by the vehemence with which they were urged." In trying to disenthrall the jurors, his scorn for Choate's theatrical tactics was obvious. "And may I not beg you to consider carefully what I say," he asked the jurors, "Although I resort to no violence of gesture or tone, and do not advance up to you and scream in your faces what I consider important parts of the case?'' After ridiculing Choate's courtroom manner, Parker proceeded to build his usual methodical argument on a series of numbered questions:

  • 1st. Was the house mentioned in the indictment, on fire on the 27th of October 1845?
  • 2d. Was it Joel Lawrence's house, and was his family in it at the time?
  • 3d. Was the fire accidental or designed?
  • 4th. Did the prisoner maliciously and willfully set it on fire?
  • 5th. Was it in the night time or day time?
  • 6th. If the prisoner did it, was he then and there an accountable and moral agent'?
  • It was all quite logical and all completely futile. The following day, after a balanced three-hour charge by Chief Justice Shaw, the jurors deliberated for another few hours and returned with a verdict of not guilty. As after the first trial, upon hearing the decision the usually cool prisoner reportedly burst into tears.

    Just two days after his acquittal on the capital charge of arson. Albert Tirrell was brought into Boston's Municipal Court for sentencing on the charges of adultery and lascivious cohabitation to which he had earlier pleaded nolo contendere. At the hearing Amos B. Merrill, Tirrell's lawyer, asked for a postponement of sentencing and a reductioI7922n in bail to allow his client an Opportunity to visit friends and put his business affairs in order. In making that request, he adopted tactics similar to those used in the capital trials: "The eloquent counsel was going on to paint the arts and witchery by which his Unfortunate client had been seduced into adulterous connection with Mrs. Bickford." But the judge abruptly interrupted Merrill's argument, refused the motion for a postponement, and announced that sentencing would take place at two o'clock that afternoon.

    When the hearing reconvened, Merrill tried to retract Tirrell’s earlier plea and obtain a full trial on the adultery charges, but the magistrate again re­jected his motion. Merrill then attempted to have the sentence reduced to a fine. Although the judge rejected that idea as well, he did suggest that the two counts be merged into one, so as to effectively halve the prison sentence. The county attorney, Samuel D. Parker, who had vigorously opposed the earlier attempts at mitigation, agreed to the judge's suggestion. And so Tirrell was sentenced to three years at hard labor in the state prison. Although appar­ently disappointed by the outcome, he received his sentence calmly. As he was taken out to the carriage, he was followed by a "general rush oft' the specta­tors'' eager for a last took at the guilty man. Near the end of the following month, the Daily Times completed its coverage of the affair with a brief and anticlimactic squib: "It is said that Tirrell is put to work in the copper plate engraving in prison--a very good and pleasant business. That same day, the traveling wax museum on Washington Street finally closed its doors.

    Despite two appeals for pardons to the governor. Albert Tirrell was forced to serve out the full three years of his sentence for adultery'. His release, at the end of January 1850, sparked a renewed flurry of notices in the Boston press. Albert promptly returned by train to his hometown of Weymouth, where he took up what must initially have been an uncomfortable residence with his wife Orient and two young daughters in his father-in-law's house. Despite past infidelity, Tirrell wasted little time in reasserting his conjugal rights: Orient became pregnant within a few weeks of his return. In November 1850 she gave birth to their third daughter. Perhaps in a symbolic attempt to patch up their frayed marriage, the little girl was named after both parents: Orient Albertine Tirrell.

    Aside from a stint in the Union army during the Civil War, Albert seems to have stayed in Weymouth for the rest of his life, as did his wife and three daughters. One somehow doubts that they were a happy family: they certainly were not a prosperous one. In the census of 1850, taken shortly after his release from prison, Albert was listed as a "shoe manufacturer." Shoemaking was the dominant industry in Weymouth, introduced to the town early in the nineteenth century by a member of the large Tirrell family. Albert's own father had also prospered in that line of business, as would his older brother. Yet unlike his father, brother, and many other Weymouth Tirrell’s, Albert did not manage to secure great wealth through shoes or even maintain a foothold in that thriving and rapidly expanding industry'. His employment listings in the state and federal censuses suggest a record of gradual decline. In 1850 Tirrell was described as a "shoe manufacturer," in 1855 as a "speculator," in 1865 as a "trader," in 1870 as a "huckster," and finally in 1880, just a few months before his death of a brain hemorrhage, as "unemployed."

    As it turned out, Albert was much less efficient in accumulating money than he had been in squandering it. According to the federal censuses of 1860 and I870. Tirrell owned no real estate and only one hundred dollars in per­sonal wealth. It was the same amount of money that he had once lavished on a single gaudy dress for Maria Bickford, the sort of estate one might have expected of a factory worker just starting out in life, not of the middle-aged son of a wealthy manufacturer. At times economic distress must have even forced the family apart. In 1860 Albert's three daughters, aged nine, fifteen, and seventeen, were all living in the home of a neighbor, while two boys of similar ages and an elderly woman were living with Albert and Orient. That was a curious arrangement, possibly designed to generate family income by putting the daughters out as household servants and taking in paying boarders. But perhaps it also reflected some underlying tension or discomfort within the family circle. In any case, none of Tirrell's daughters were sufficiently impressed by the delights of matrimony ever to try it for themselves. Or maybe nobody was willing to marry the daughter of an impecunious huck­ster and presumed murderer.

    For whatever reason, the three daughters of Albert Tirrell remained single and largely dependent, living out their years in Weymouth, shuttling occasion­ally between the homes of parents, neighbors, and relatives. The eldest, Catherine Augusta, was the last to die. The Weymouth Gazette reported her passing in August 1917 with a brief notice: "Miss Kate Tirrell died at the Town Home on Monday. She was 74 years old a daughter of the late Albert J. Tirrell. She was born and always lived in this town. There is no way of knowing whether, during her last years of obscure poverty, Miss Tirrell had any recollection of her experience in a crowded Boston courtroom more than seventy years earlier· Did she remember how "a beautiful little girl, just three years old, had caused such a stir simply by walking into the chamber clasping her mother's hand'? Did she recall standing bareheaded on her mamma's lap, flitting her gaze over the assembled multitude, and beaming at her handsome father in the dock? And did she retain any memory whatsoever of the uncouth and flamboyant man who had saved her father's life? Any hope of answering those questions died with Albert's eldest daughter.

    If you need more detailed events on the actions and trial of Albert Tirrell, please contact Lee Drew or Marjorie and Chet Oberlander. The Oberlanders do not have e-mail access at the time of this writing but I can forward their address to you if you want to correspond with them.