Albert Tirrell Trial: 1846

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Albert Tirrell Trial: 1846

Defendant: Albert J. Tirrell
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Rufus Choate
Chief Prosecutor: Samuel D. Parker
Judges: Dewey, Hubbard, and Wilde (No record of first names)
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Dates of Trial: March 26-30, 1846
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: Albert Tirrell's trial was the first time in American history that sleepwalking was successfully used as a defense to a murder prosecution.

Not much is known about Albert Tirrell's life prior to his sensational murder trial. He came from a moderately prosperous family and had a wife and two children in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Tirrell had a reputation for wild and reckless behavior; he left his family in 1845 for a young prostitute named Maria Ann Bickford.

Bickford was very beautiful and lived in a Boston brothel, where she catered only to the richest customers. Tirrell had met her and fallen in love. He moved to Boston to be near her, and apparently she returned his affections but did not give up her profession. Bickford's patrons enabled her to live well; she had a maid and an expensive wardrobe.

The details are sketchy, but apparently on October 27, 1845, Tirrell came into Bickford's bedroom after she had spent an evening with a customer. Tirrell cut her throat from ear to ear with a razor and set three fires in the brothel before leaving. Brothel owner Joel Lawrence lived in the building and woke up in time to put out the fires. He discovered Bickford's body and alerted the police. Several people had seen Tirrell enter and leave the brothel, and the police began a search for him.

Tirrell fled Boston in the early hours of October 28. He took a carriage back to Weymouth, then went on to New York and finally New Orleans, Louisiana. The authorities caught up with Tirrell December 6, arrested him, and returned him to Boston for trial.

Rufus Choate Defends Tirrell

The state prosecutor was Samuel D. Parker and the judges assigned to oversee the trial were Justices Dewey, Hubbard, and Wilde (no record survives of the judges' first names). Tirrell's parents hired a famous lawyer, Rufus Choate, to defend him. Choate had a reputation for successfully using unusual legal defenses to acquit his clients. Tirrell's trial opened March 26, 1846.

Although Parker had plenty of witnesses as to Tirrell's affair with Bickford and his presence in the brothel on the night of Bickford's murder, no one had actually seen Tirrell kill her. No matter how overwhelming, the evidence was circumstantial. Choate argued to the jury that Tirrell had no motive to kill the woman he loved:

[Tirrell] was fascinated by the wiles of the unhappy female whose death was so awful; he loved her with the love of forty thousand brothers, though alas, it was not as pure as it was passionate.

Choate laid two possible alternatives before the jury. First, Bickford could have committed suicide:

What proof is there that she did not rise from her bed, set fire to the house, and in the frenzy of the moment, with giant strength, let out the stream of life. Suicide is the natural death of the prostitute.

This was not a strong argument, however, for Choate knew that it was very hard to imagine Bickford cutting her own throat so savagely that her head was nearly severed from her body. Therefore, Choate relied more on his second alternative, namely that Tirrell was a habitual sleepwalker and thus must have murdered Bickford while in an unconscious trance or under the influence of a nightmare. In the 1840s, doctors could only guess at the causes of sleepwalking, and they differed over whether it was caused by disease, mental disorders, or insanity. Whatever the cause, however, Tirrell's sleepwalking gave Choate a means to influence the jury. Choate read descriptions of violence attributed to sleepwalking from popular treatises:

This I mention as a proof that nothing hinders us, even from being assassins of others or murderers of ourselves, amid the mad follies of sleep, only the protecting care of our Heavenly Father!

Having thus introduced some doubt to the jury as to the prosecutions case against Tirrell, Choate cleverly reminded them that their guilty verdict meant certain execution for Tirrell. If Tirrell was executed while there was even the remotest chance that the crime had been committed by someone else, the jurors would be responsible:

Every juror when he puts into the urn the verdict of Guilty, writes upon it also, "Let him die!" Under the iron law of Rome, it was the custom to bestow a civic wreath upon him who should save the life of a citizen. Do your duty this day, gentlemen, and you too may deserve the civic crown.

Choates oratory was impressive, but it was far from certain that he would win. Not only had the Boston papers turned Bickford's murder into a popular sensation with the public being firmly convinced of Tirrell's guilt, but Choate had been criticized before for actions on behalf of clients that bordered on the unethical. Choate himself had admitted that the murder was particularly horrible"murder and arson committed in a low brothel." While there was widespread respect for Choate's legal ability, there were also critics who said:

[T]he lightnings of his genius were brandished with little regard to consequences, and that it was comparatively a matter of indifference to the great actor of the scene whether they purified the moral atmosphere by vindicating the cause of truth and justice, or struck down the fair fabrics of public virtue and public integrity.

The Jury Acquits Tirrell

On March 30, 1846, the jury announced its verdict after less than two hours of deliberation. The jurors pronounced Albert Tirrell innocent. Despite the questions about his conduct and the evidence against his client, Rufus Choate had successfully defended Tirrell on the grounds that Tirrell could have killed Bickford while sleepwalking and was thus not responsible for his behavior. Tirrell left the courtroom a free man, but it was not long before he was in trouble again.

In January 1847, the prosecution initiated new charges against Tirrell, this time charging him with arson relating to the fires he set in Bickford's brothel on the night of her murder. Choate represented Tirrell again. This time, the trial was presided over by Massachusetts Chief Justice and distinguished jurist Lemuel Shaw. The prosecution presented essentially the same witnesses as in the first trial concerning Tirrell's presence in the brothel on the night the fires were set. Once again, Choate was able to attack the prosecution's case for its reliance on solely circumstantial evidence.

The jury found Tirrell not guilty, and for the second and final time, he left the courtroom a free man. In addition to Choate's expertise, Tirrell was assisted by Judge Shaw's instructions to the jury. Shaw's instructions criticized the prosecution's witnesses, saying that they were of "disreputable character" and pointing out discrepancies in their testimony.

Tirrell had little gratitude for Choate's extraordinary accomplishments. In fact, Tirrell even demanded that Choate refund half his legal fees since Tirrell's innocence had been so "obvious" in two trials. Of course, Choate refused. Tirrell spent the rest of his life in obscurity, but his trials became famous for Choate's successful use of a sleepwalking defense to charges of murder and arson.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bickford, James. The Authentic Life of Mrs. Mary Ann Bickford. Boston: The Compiler, 1846.

Brown, Samuel Gilman. The Life of Rufus Choate. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1898.

Fuess, Claude Moore. Rufus Choate, the Wizard of the Law. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970.

"A Lady of Weymouth." Eccentricities & Anecdotes of Albert John Tirrell. Boston: Unknown publisher, 1846.

Matthews, Jean V. Rufus Choate, the Law and Civic Virtue. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Neilson, Joseph. Memories of Rufus Choate. Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman, 1985.

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Albert Tirrell Trial: 1846

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