“Suicide is the natural death of the prostitute”
Albert Jackson Tirrell, 21, the son of a respectable family in Weymouth, Massachusetts, left his wife and two children in 1845 for Maria Ann Bickford, a stunningly beautiful woman who worked and lived in a Boston brothel where her customers were among the richest in the commonwealth.
Bickford didn’t give up her life of vice, much to Tirrell’s consternation. It became too much for him and late on October 1845, after her last client had left, Tirrell visited Bickford’s room and, using a razor, slit her throat from ear to ear, so brutally that her head was nearly severed from her body. He also started three fires in the brothel, which woke Joel Lawrence, the owner, who discovered the body of Bickford and informed the police. A bloody razor lay near her body and remnants of Tirrell’s clothing and his cane were left at the crime scene.
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Monday 27 October 1845
Tirrell went on the run on 28 October. He had been seen entering the brothel by a number of witnesses and was regarded as the prime suspect. He was arrested on 6 December in New Orleans, Louisiana, and sent back to Boston for trial.
His parents hired Rufus Choate, a celebrated Boston lawyer. At the trial, which began on 26 March 1846, Choate said that witnesses had observed Tirrell enter but no one had actually seen him commit the murder. Choate added that Tirrell had no motive to kill Bickford and offered the jury two explanations for what happened.
His first supposition was that Bickford had 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”. When the ferocity of the attack rendered this explanation impossible, Choate turned to his second line of defence.
Tirrell had a habit of sleepwalking and Choate claimed that Tirrell could have murdered Bickford while sleepwalking in a trance. At the time sleepwalking was a little understood condition. After less than two hours of deliberation, on 30 March 1846, the jury returned its verdict of not guilty. In January 1847 Choate used the same defence to have Tirrell acquitted of the charges of arson for setting fire to the brothel. These acquittals were the first in American history where sleepwalking was successfully used as a defence.
Tirrell demanded that Choate refund half his legal fees since Tirrell’s innocence had been so “obvious” in two trials. Choate refused.