August 30, 2012
On March 16, 1925, in the muted morning light of a hotel room in Hammond, Indiana, 29-year-old Madge Oberholtzer reached into the pocket of the man sleeping next to her. She found the grip of his revolver and slid it out, inch by inch, praying he wouldn’t stir. The man was D.C. Stephenson, political power broker and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 Northern states. With shaking hands she aimed the gun between his closed eyes. What passed for a lucid thought came to mind: She would disgrace her family if she were to commit murder; instead, she would kill herself.
She crept into an adjoining room and faced a full-length mirror. Beneath her dress chunks of her were missing. Bite marks covered her face, neck, breasts, back, legs and ankles, a macabre pattern of polka dots etched along her skin. She was bleeding from the mouth; he had even chewed her tongue. Her hand was steadier this time, lifting the gun to her temple, when she heard a step outside the door and the squeak of a turning knob. It was one of Stephenson’s associates. She buried the gun into the fold of her dress and slipped it back into the sleeping man’s pocket. She would find another way to kill herself, if he didn’t kill her first.
It was the beginning of the end, in different ways, for both Madge Oberholtzer and D.C. Stephenson, although the politician had long believed himself infallible. “I am the law in Indiana,” he famously declared, and with reason. At age 33, Stephenson was one of the most powerful men in the state, having controlled the governor’s election and the movements of several state legislators, influencing bills on nutrition, steam pollution, fire insurance, highways and even oleomargarine, all of which would line his pockets with graft. His hand-picked candidate for mayor of Indianapolis seemed certain to win election, and Stephenson himself dreamed of running for the U.S. Senate, even president.
Stephenson’s political success was directly tied to his leadership within the Klan, which by 1925 had a quarter-million members in Indiana alone, accounting for more than 30 percent of the state’s white male population. At the height of its popularity, the Klan was a mainstream organization whose roster included lawyers, doctors, college professors, ministers and politicians at every level, most of them middle- and upper-middle-class white Protestants who performed community service and supported Prohibition. The Klan exploited nativist fears of foreign ethnic groups and religions, Catholicism in particular. (Prejudice against African-Americans was not as much of a motivating factor to join the Klan in Indiana as it was in the South.) “Out in Indiana everybody seems to belong,” reported the New York Times in 1923. “Easterners have been surprised at the ready conquest by the Klan of a state which seemed of all our forty-eight the least imperiled by any kind of menace.”
The rise of Davis Curtis Stephenson seemed equally perplexing, especially since no one—not even those who professed to be his closest friends—knew much about him. “I’m a nobody from nowhere, really—but I’ve got the biggest brains,” he boasted. “I’m going to be the biggest man in the United States!” Stephenson told them his father was a wealthy businessman from South Bend who had sent him to college, but he quit to work in the coal business in Evansville, in the southwest tip of the state. When America entered World War I war in 1917, Stephenson said, he volunteered for the Army and was decorated for fighting the Germans in France. Upon his return, he learned that he was a millionaire; stocks he had purchased before the war had skyrocketed in value. He did well wholesaling coal and running an automobile-accessory business, and joined the Klan in 1921. Knights in Atlanta were impressed with his leadership ability and appointed him to head the organization in the Hoosier State.
In reality, Stephenson was born in 1891 in Houston, Texas, the son of a sharecropper. The family moved to Maysville, Oklahoma, where he attended school in a Methodist Church. He was an avid reader, especially interested in politics and history, and graduated from the eighth grade at age 16. That was the end of his formal education. He got a job with a Socialist newspaper and studied the party’s leaders, particularly Oscar Ameringer, who would go on to advocate for African-American enfranchisement and help elect an anti-Klan governor. Stephenson admired Ameringer’s style, the way he sold his politics as if he were a vaudeville pitchman, and he would later implement the Socialist’s techniques at rallies for the Klan.
In 1915, the blond, blue-eyed Stephenson courted a local girl named Nettie Hamilton, placing her picture in the newspaper under the headline: “THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN OKLAHOMA.” They married and moved to Madill, where he worked at the local newspaper. But Stephenson, in what would become a pattern, got into a fight with his publisher after a bout of drinking and lost his job. He abandoned his pregnant wife and drifted to Cushing. In 1917, Nettie tracked him down and filed for a divorce, after which Stephenson volunteered for the Army. Instead of fighting bravely on the battlefields of Europe, as he liked to boast, he was sent to Boone, Iowa, to work as a recruiter. After the war he took a job as a traveling salesman, and in Akron, Ohio, met his next wife, Violet Carroll. The couple moved to Evansville, Indiana, where Stephenson worked as a stock salesman for the Citizens Coal Company, and where a newly revitalized Ku Klux Klan was taking root.
Despite his intensely private nature—“It’s no one’s business where I was born or who my folks were,” he once snapped—Stephenson made friends easily, developing a gregarious, slap-shoulder bonhomie, careful to never patronize or condescend. Despite his limited education, his speech was fluent and polished. When a local Klan organizer asked him to get involved, Stephenson initially demurred. “They kept after me,” he told the New York World, “and explained to me than the Klan was not an organization which took Negroes out, cut off their noses, and threw them into the fire.… I was told that the Klan was a strictly patriotic organization.… They finally convinced me the Klan was a good thing and I joined.”
As Stephenson’s career took off his marriage began to flounder. He drank heavily and succumbed to wild rages, once blackening his wife’s eye and another time scratching her face and kicking her. After their divorce in 1922, Stephenson began dating his 22-year-old secretary, frequently bringing her on work trips to Ohio, where he was establishing new offices for the Klan. During one such excursion the couple was parked in Stephenson’s Cadillac, lights off, on a country road in the outskirts of Columbus. Deputy Sheriff Charles M. Hoff stopped to investigate. “What are you doing there with your pants unbuttoned?” he asked.
Stephenson grabbed the girl’s left hand and thrust it toward the window.
“My God, would you insult this girl?” he said. “Did you see that ring, that diamond ring? I am going to marry this girl; we are engaged.” He added that he was “an official” and “couldn’t afford to have all this notoriety and publicity.” He pleaded guilty to a parking citation and indecent exposure.
Stephenson soon had another brush with notoriety. Joseph Cleary, a security officer for the Deschler Hotel in Columbus, was called to check on a report of a disturbance in Stephenson’s room on the upper floor. Cleary found a shattered mirror, smashed chairs, empty bottles of booze strewn about the floor. The hotel’s manicurist reported that when she arrived for Stephenson’s appointment, “there were three full quarts of whiskey and when I told him that I didn’t want any, he came over and grabbed me. He said that he would give me a hundred dollars if I would allow him to have intercourse with me. Of course, he was more rude than I care to be in expressing it… I told him that I was not in the habit of being insulted by anyone like that, and he said… ‘You will or I’ll kill you.’” She fled and ran into two of his associates outside, who tried to console her. “Don’t pay any attention to him,” one said. “He is a good fellow; he is drunk; he is all right when he is sober. You go downstairs and don’t bother about it.”
Stephenson met Madge Oberholtzer on January 12, 1925, at the inauguration gala for Governor Ed Jackson, who, with Stephenson’s help, had earned a reputation as the candidate most loathed by the “papists.” She was there at the invitation of a member of the inaugural committee, and busied herself making name tags and running errands. During dinner she sat across from Stephenson, who inquired about her background with flattering persistence.
She grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked as a postal clerk and her family belonged to the Irvington Methodist Church. She was, a friend would later say, “an independent soul, yet timid. I don’t think anybody disliked Madge, but she didn’t make a great effort to make people like her, either.” She studied English, mathematics, zoology and logic at Butler College in Irvington, but dropped out, without explanation, at the end of her junior year. Currently she was the manager of the Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle, a special section of the Indiana Department of Public Instruction. She’d heard the rumors, though, that the Reading Circle program—and her job—were about to be eliminated due to budget cuts. She was 28 years old and still living with her parents. Stephenson asked her to dance.
The two began seeing each other frequently. She acted as his aide during the 1925 session of the General Assembly, carrying messages from his office down to his friends, and helped him write a nutrition book, One Hundred Years of Health. Using her Reading Circle connections, she planned to help sell the books to schools throughout the state.
Around 10 p.m. on March 15, 1925, Oberholtzer returned home from an evening with a friend. Her mother told her that Stephenson’s secretary had called and said he was leaving for Chicago and needed to see her at once. Oberholtzer changed into a black velvet dress and was met at her front door by one of Stephenson’s bodyguards. Eight hours later, her mother was on the phone with lawyer Ada J. Smith, frantic that Madge had never come home.
Two days later, while her parents were conferring with Smith at his office, a car pulled up outside the Oberholtzer home. Eunice Schultz, a boarder, heard someone groaning and saw Oberholzer being carried upstairs by a large man, who said the girl had been hurt in a car accident. Schultz called the family doctor, John Kingsbury, who hurried to Oberholzer’s bedside. “She was in a state of shock,” Kingsbury later recalled. “Her body was cold.” She told him that she didn’t expect, or want, to get well—that she wanted to die. He pressed her until she told him the whole story.
When she’d arrived at Stephenson’s, she said, she realized that he was drunker than she’d ever seen him. He forced her to start drinking and ordered her to accompany him to Chicago. Someone shoved her into a car, drove her to Union Station, and dragged her onto a train, where she was pushed into a lower berth in a private compartment with Stephenson. She was “bitten, chewed and pummeled,” she said. They never reached Chicago, stopping at Hammond, Indiana, where they checked into a hotel. She was lowered onto a bed next to Stephenson, who soon fell asleep.
Later that morning, she asked him for money to buy a hat and some makeup. Instead, she went to a drugstore and bought a box of mercury bichloride tablets. Back at the hotel, she intended to take the entire box but could choke down only three. When Stephenson discovered what she had done, he panicked and ordered his driver to take them back to Indianapolis. He forced her to drink ginger ale and milk, which she vomited all over the inside of the car. He worried she might die in the back seat. All the while she cried and screamed and begged to be thrown from the car and left on the side of the road. “You will stay right here until you marry me,” she recalled him saying. “You must forget this, what is done has been done, I am the law and the power.”
She died on April 14, nearly a month later, with her parents and nurse by her bedside. The official cause was mercury poisoning. Marion County prosecutor William Remy—one of the few officials Stephenson could not control—had him charged with rape, kidnapping, conspiracy and second-degree murder. His former political cronies, including Governor Jackson, swiftly abandoned him, and the Indiana Kourier called him an “enemy of the order.” Stephenson’s lawyers argued that Klan forces loyal to a political rival had set him up and questioned whether he could be held responsible for what was ultimately a suicide. “If this so-called dying declaration declares anything, it is a dying declaration of suicide, not homicide,” defense attorney Ephraim Inman said. “… Has everybody lost his head? Pray, are we all insane?”
The citizens of Indiana also expressed some skepticism about Oberholzer’s deathbed statement. “That was a gruesome trial,” one woman recalled. “This girl might have been a party girl, I supposed she was or she wouldn’t have been on that train, but even back in those days you know, murder wasn’t very pretty.” On November 14, 1925, Stephenson was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. By 1928, the Indiana Klan, once the strongest in the Invisible Empire, had collapsed, with membership totaling only 4,000, down from a high of half a million. Stephenson was paroled in 1950 on the condition that he take a job in Illinois and settle in that state. Instead he went to Minnesota, where he was arrested and sent back to prison in Indiana. Six years later he was discharged by Governor George Craig, who reasoned, “I don’t see why Stephenson won’t be able to cope with life. He’s mentally all right.”
Stephenson moved to Seymour, Indiana, where he married his third wife, Martha Dickinson. They separated in 1962, after Stephenson was arrested and accused of trying to force a 16-year-old girl into his car. The judge issued a $300 fine, which Stephenson paid out of pocket. Next he wandered to Jonesboro, Tennessee, where he met a widowed Sunday school teacher named Martha Murray Sutton. She was 55; he was 74. They wed, although he had never officially divorced the previous Martha. He suffered a heart attack on June 28, 1966, while bringing her a basket of fruit. She held him as he died. ”I knew nothing of his background,” his widow said. “Except that I loved him very much and we were married. He was a very wonderful person.”
M. William Lutholtz, Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1991; Richard K. Tucker, The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America. Hamden, CT: The Shoe String Press, 1991; David H. Bennett: The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
“Stephenson Fights Murder Testimony.” New York Times, November 6, 1925; “Indiana Swayed Entirely By Klan.” New York Times, November 7, 1923; “Holds Ex-Klansman on Assault Charge.” New York Times, April 4, 1925; “Stephenson Held for Death of Girl.” New York Times, April 21, 1925; “Finds Ex-Klan Head Murdered Woman.” New York Times, November 15, 1925.
August 7, 2012
America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least its most bizarre. Held in 1904 in St. Louis, the games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase while advancing, as did all such turn-of-the-century expositions, the notion of American imperialism. Although there were moments of surprising and genuine triumph (gymnast George Eyser earned six medals, including three gold, despite his wooden leg), the games were largely overshadowed by the fair, which offered its own roster of sporting events, including the controversial Anthropology Days, in which a group of “savages” recruited from the fair’s international villages competed in a variety of athletic feats—among them a greased-pole climb, “ethnic” dancing, and mud slinging—for the amusement of Caucasian spectators. Pierre de Coubertin, a French historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee, took disapproving note of the spectacle and made a prescient observation: “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”
The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. But from the start the 1904 marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good.
A few of the runners were recognized marathoners who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or had placed in previous Olympic marathons, but the majority of the field was composed of middle-distance runners and assorted “oddities.” Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, all experienced marathoners, were among the favorites. Another American, Fred Lorz, did all his training at night because he had a day job as a bricklayer, and earned his spot in the Olympics by placing in a “special five-mile race” sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. Among the leading oddities were ten Greeks who had never run a marathon, two men of the Tsuana tribe of South Africa who were in St. Louis as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit and who arrived at the starting line barefoot, and a Cuban national and former mailman named Félix Carbajal, who raised money to come to the States by demonstrating his running prowess throughout Cuba, once trekking the length of the island. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, he lost all his money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis. At five feet tall, he presented a slight but striking figure at the starting line, attired in a white, long-sleeved shirt, long, dark pants, a beret and a pair of street shoes. One fellow Olympian took pity, found a pair of scissors and cut Carbajal’s trousers at the knee.
On August 30, at precisely 3:03 p.m., David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, fired the starting pistol, and the men were off. Heat and humidity soared into the 90s, and the 24.85-mile course—which one fair official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”—wound across roads inches deep in dust. There were seven hills, varying from 100-to-300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents. In many places cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, creating perilous footing, and the men had to constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only two places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at six miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.
Fred Lorz led the 32 starters from the gun, but by the first mile Thomas Hicks edged ahead. William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs. Félix Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time even though he paused to chat with spectators in broken English. On one occasion he stopped at a car, saw that its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. Being refused, he playfully snatched two and ate them as he ran. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he lay down and took a nap. Sam Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping. He slowed to a walk and eventually stopped. At the nine-mile mark cramps also plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.
Hicks, one of the early American favorites, came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites—the first recorded instance of drug use in the modern Olympics. Strychnine, in small doses, was commonly used a stimulant, and at the time there were no rules about performance-enhancing drugs. Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy but decided to withhold it until they could gauge the runner’s condition.
Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”
Hicks, the strychnine coursing through his blood, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified he perked up and forced his legs into a trot. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head. After the bathing he appeared to revive and quickened his pace. “Over the last two miles of the road,” wrote race official Charles Lucas, “Hicks was running mechanically, like a well-oiled piece of machinery. His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff.”
He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea. He swallowed two more egg whites. He walked up the first of the last two hills, and then jogged down on the incline. Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.
It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the course of the race, and declared, “Never in my life have I run such a touch course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.” Hicks and Lorz would meet again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won without the aid of anything but his legs.
Books: Susan Brownell, The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008; David E. Martin, The Olympic Marathon. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000. George R. Matthews, America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005; Pamela Cooper, The American Marathon. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998; Daniel M. Rosen, Dope: A history of Performance Enhancement in Sports From the Nineteenth Century to Today. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2008; Charles J. P. Lucas, The Olympic Games, 1904. St. Louis, Mo: Woodward & Tieran Printing Co., 1905.
Articles: “The Olympics of 1904: Comedic, Disgraceful, and ‘Best Forgotten.” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2004; “Marathon Captivated Crowd at 1904 Olympics.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 2003; “New York Athlete Wins Marathon Race.” New York Times, April 20, 1905; “1904 Set Record for the Unusual.” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1984; “The 1904 Marathon Was Pure Torture.” Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 3, 2008; “Marathon Madness,” New Scientist 183 (August 7-13, 2004); “St. Louis Games Were Extremely Primitive By Today’s Standards.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 2004; “One Man’s Poison In a Brazen and Forgotten Incident of Doping.” Boston Globe, February 22, 2009.
June 27, 2012
In the spring of 1902 a woman calling herself Cassie L. Chadwick—there was never any mention as to what the L stood for—took a train from Cleveland to New York City and a hansom cab to the Holland House, a hotel at the corner of 30th Street and Fifth Avenue internationally renowned for its gilded banquet room and $350,000 wine cellar. She waited in the lobby, tapping her high-button shoes on the Sienna marble floor, watching men glide by in their bowler hats and frock coats, searching for one man in particular. There he was—James Dillon, a lawyer and friend of her husband’s, standing alone.
She walked toward him, grazing his arm as she passed, and waited for him to pardon himself. As he said the words she spun around and exclaimed what a delightful coincidence it was to see him here, so far from home. She was in town briefly on some private business. In fact, she was on her way to her father’s house—would Mr. Dillon be so kind as to escort her there?
Dillon, happy to oblige, hailed an open carriage. Cassie gave the driver an address: 2 East 91st Street, at Fifth Avenue, and kept up a cheery patter until they arrived there—at a four-story mansion belonging to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She tried not to laugh at Dillon’s sudden inability to speak and told him she’d be back shortly. The butler opened the door to find a refined, well-dressed lady who politely asked to speak to the head housekeeper.
When the woman presented herself, Cassie explained that she was thinking of hiring a maid, Hilda Schmidt, who had supposedly worked for the Carnegie family. She wished to check the woman’s references. The housekeeper was puzzled, and said no one by that name had ever worked for the Carnegie family. Cassie protested: Was she absolutely certain? She gave a detailed physical description, rattled off details of the woman’s background. No, the housekeeper insisted; there must be some misunderstanding. Cassie thanked her profusely, complimented the spotlessness of the front parlor, and let herself out, slipping a large brown envelope out of her coat as she turned back to the street. She had managed to stretch the encounter into just under a half hour.
As she climbed into the carriage, Dillon apologized for what he was about to ask: Who was her father, exactly? Please, Cassie said, raising a gloved finger to her lips, he mustn’t disclose her secret to anyone: She was Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter. She handed over the envelope, which contained a pair of promissory notes, for $250,000 and $500,000, signed by Carnegie himself, and securities valued at a total of $5 million. Out of guilt and a sense of responsibility, “Daddy” gave her large sums of money, she said; she had numerous other notes stashed in a dresser drawer at home. Furthermore, she stood to inherit millions when he died. She reminded Dillon not to speak of her parentage, knowing it was a promise he wouldn’t keep; the story was too fantastic to withhold, and too brazen to be untrue. But she had never met Andrew Carnegie. Cassie Chadwick was just one of many names she went by.
May 25, 2012
On December 22, 1940, a former Manhattan housewife named Etta Kahn Shiber found herself in Hotel Matignon, headquarters of the Gestapo in Paris, sitting across from a “mousy” man in civilian clothes who said his name was Dr. Hager. Shiber, a 62-year-old widow, planned to follow the advice that had replayed in her head for the past six months—deny everything—but something about the doctor’s smile, smug and imperious, suggested that he didn’t need a confession.
“Well, the comedy is over,” he began. “We now have the last two members of the gang.… And I have just received word that Mme. Beaurepos was arrested in Bordeaux two hours ago. So there really wasn’t any reason to allow you to wander around the streets any longer, was there?”
A clerk appeared to transcribe everything she said. Dr. Hager asked hundreds of questions over the next 15 hours. She answered each one obliquely, being careful to say nothing that could be used against her friends and accomplices, and was escorted to a cell at the Cherche-Midi prison.
As he turned to leave, Dr. Hager smiled and reminded her that the punishment for her crime carried a mandatory sentence of death.
April 30, 2012
Rufus Choate approached his client just before the bang of the gavel, when Albert J. Tirrell was sitting in the dock, 22 years old and on trial for his life. It was March 24, 1846, three months after his arrest in the gruesome murder of his mistress. The defendant wore an olive coat with gilt buttons and a placid expression, looking indifferent to the gaze of the spectators. Choate leaned over the rail, raked long, skinny fingers through his thicket of black curls, and asked, “Well, sir, are you ready to make a strong push with me today?”
“Yes,” Tirrell replied.
“Very well,” Choate said. “We will make it.”
Within the week, the pair also made legal history.
By then all of Boston knew the facts of the case, reported in breathlessly lurid detail by the penny press. Around 4:30 a.m. on October 27, 1845, the body of Mrs. Mary Ann Bickford (also called Maria Bickford), age 21, was found in a “disreputable” boardinghouse on Cedar Lane in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. She lay on her back in her nightgown, nearly decapitated, her neck wound measuring six inches long and three inches deep. The room was clogged with smoke; someone had set fire to the bed. A bloodstained razor was found at its foot. The victim’s hair was singed, her skin charred. Part of one ear was split open and missing an earring. A man’s vest and a cane were spattered with blood. Albert Tirrell, who had been seen with the victim earlier that night, was nowhere to be found. One witness spotted him bargaining with a livery stable keeper. He was “in a scrape,” he reportedly said, and had to get away.
He drove south to the house of some relatives in the town of Weymouth, who hid him from police and gave him money to flee the state. The following day he headed north into Canada and wrote to his family from Montreal, announcing his plans to sail to Liverpool. Bad weather forced the crew to turn back, and instead 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 December 5, while he was aboard a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Boston newspapers identified the captured man as “Albert J. Tirrell, gentleman, of Weymouth.”
Albert Tirrell and Mary Bickford had scandalized Boston for years, both individually and as a couple, registering, as one observer noted, “a rather high percentage of moral turpitude.” Mary, the story went, married James Bickford at 16 and settled with him in Bangor, Maine. They had one child, who died in infancy. Some family friends came to console her and invited her to travel with them to Boston. Like Theodore Dreiser’s protagonist Carrie Meeber, fifty years hence, Mary found herself seduced by the big city and the sophisticated living it seemed to promise. “While in the city she appeared delighted with everything she saw,” James Bickford said, “and on her return home expressed a desire to reside permanently in Boston.” She became, he added, “dissatisfied with her humble condition” and she fled to the city again, this time for good.
Mary Bickford sent her husband a terse note:
I cannot let you know where I am, for the people where I board do not know that I have got a husband. James, I feel very unsteady, and will consent to live with you and keep house; but you must consent for me to have my liberty.”
James came to Boston at once, found Mary working in a house of ill repute on North Margin Street and returned home without her. She moved from brothel to brothel and eventually met Tirrell, a wealthy and married father of two. He and Mary traveled together as man and wife, changing their names whenever they moved, and conducted a relationship as volatile as it was passionate; Mary once confided to a fellow boarder that she enjoyed quarreling with Tirrell because they had “such a good time making up.”
On September 29, 1845, he was indicted on charges of adultery, an offense the press described as “some indelicacies with a young woman,” and eluded arrest for weeks. After his capture and arraignment, numerous friends and relatives, including his young wife, besieged the prosecutor with letters requesting a stay of proceedings in the hope that he might be reformed. His trial was postponed for six months. Tirrell came to court, posted bond and rushed back to Mary at the boardinghouse on Cedar Lane, where the owners charged exorbitant rents to cohabitating unmarried couples, and where Mary would soon be found dead.
Tirrell retained the services of Rufus Choate, legal wunderkind and erstwhile United States senator from Massachusetts, an antebellum Johnnie Cochran renowned for his velocity of speech. He once spoke “the longest sentence known to man” (1,219 words) and made his mentor, Daniel Webster, weep during a talk titled “The Age of the Pilgrims, the Heroic Period of Our History.” Choate derived much of his courtroom strategy from Webster, drawing particular inspiration from his performance at the criminal trial of a client charged with robbery. Webster’s defense was based on offense; he impugned the character of the alleged victim, suggesting that he’d staged an elaborate sham robbery in order to avoid paying debts. Webster’s alternative narrative persuaded the jurors, who found his client not guilty.
Choate kept that case in mind while plotting his defense of Tirrell, and considered an even more daring tactic: contending that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker. If he killed Mary Bickford, he did so in a somnambulistic trance and could not be held responsible. Choate never divulged the genesis of this strategy, but one anecdote suggests a possibility. Henry Shute, who would later become a judge and well-known writer for The Saturday Evening Post, was a clerk in the law office of Charles Davis and William Whitman, two of Choate’s close friends. Choate stopped by often to play chess, and visited one afternoon shortly after agreeing to defend Tirrell. The famous lawyer noticed Shute reading Sylvester Sound, the Somnambulist, by the British novelist Henry Cockton. He asked to have a look. “Choate became interested, then absorbed,” Shute recalled. “After reading intently a long time he excused himself, saying, ‘Davis, my mind is not on chess today,’ and rising, left the office.” It was an unprecedented approach to a murder defense, but one that Choate believed he could sell.
On the first day of the trial, prosecutor Samuel D. Parker called numerous witnesses who helped establish a strong circumstantial case against Tirrell, but certain facets of testimony left room for doubt. The coroner’s physician conceded that Mary Bickford’s neck wound could have been self-inflicted. A woman named Mary Head, who lived near the boardinghouse, testified that on the morning of the murder Tirrell came to her home and rung the bell. When she answered he made a strange noise, a sort of gargle captured in his throat, and asked, “Are there some things here for me?” Mary was frightened by his “strange state, as if asleep or crazy.” The oddest recollection came from Tirrell’s brother-in-law, Nathaniel Bayley, who said that when Tirrell arrived in Weymouth he claimed to be fleeing from the adultery indictment. When Bayley informed him of the murder, Tirrell seemed genuinely shocked.
Rufus Choate allowed one of his junior counsel, Anniss Merrill, to deliver the opening argument for the defense. Merrill began, in homage to Daniel Webster, by maligning Mary’s character, repeating the possibility that she cut her own throat and positing that suicide was “almost the natural death of persons of her character.” Furthermore, Tirrell had been an honorable and upstanding gentleman until he met the deceased. “She had succeeded, in a wonderful manner, in ensnaring the prisoner,” Merrill insisted. “His love for her was passing the love ordinarily borne by men for women. She for a long time had held him spellbound by her depraved and lascivious arts.” It was an argument that resonated with the moralistic culture of early Victorian America, playing into fears about the growing commercialization of urban prostitution. City dwellers who witnessed a proliferation of dance halls and “fallen women” distributing calling cards on street corners could easily be persuaded that Mary was as villainous as the man who had killed her.
Merrill next introduced the issue of somnambulism, what he acknowledged was a “peculiar” and “novel” line of defense. “Alexander the Great penned a battle in his sleep,” he said. “La Fontaine wrote some of his best verses while in the same unconscious state; Condillac made calculations. Even Franklin was known to have arose and finished, in his sleep, a work that he had projected before going to bed.… Evidence will be produced to show that it had pleased Almighty God to afflict the prisoner with this species of mental derangement.”
One by one Tirrell’s family and friends recounted strange ways he’d behaved. He began sleepwalking at the age of six, and the spells had increased in frequency and severity with each passing year. He forcibly grabbed his brother, pulled down curtains and smashed windows, yanked a cousin out of bed and threatened him with a knife. While in this state he always spoke in a shrill, trembling voice. Their testimony was corroborated by Walter Channing, dean of Harvard Medical School, who testified that a person in a somnambulistic state could conceivably rise in the night, dress himself, commit a murder, set a fire and make an impromptu escape.
On the morning of the trial’s fourth day, spectators swarmed the courtroom eager to hear Rufus Choate—that “great galvanic battery of human oratory,” as the Boston Daily Mail called him. He began by ridiculing the prosecution’s case, pausing for dramatic effect after each resounding no:
How far does the testimony lead you? Did any human being see the prisoner strike the blow? No. Did any human being see him in that house after nine o’clock the previous evening? No. Did any human being see him run from the house? No. Did any human being see him with a drop of blood upon his hands? No. Can anyone say that on that night he was not laboring under a disease to which he was subject from his youth? No. Has he ever made a confession of the deed? To friend or thief taker, not one word.”
One stenographer later expressed the difficulty in capturing Choate’s thoughts: “Who can report chain lighting?”
During the last hour of his six-hour speech, Choate focused on the issue of somnambulism, stressing that 12 witnesses had testified to his client’s strange condition without challenge or disproof. “Somnambulism explains… the killing without a motive,” he argued. “Premeditated murder does not.” Here he approached the jury and lowered his voice. The courtroom hushed. “In old Rome,” he concluded, “it was always practice to bestow a civic wreath on him who saved a citizen’s life; a wreath to which all the laurels of Caesar were but weeds. Do your duty today, and you may earn that wreath.”
The jury deliberated for two hours and returned a verdict of not guilty. Spectators leapt to their feet and applauded while Albert Tirrell began to sob, his first display of emotion throughout the ordeal. Afterward he sent a letter to Rufus Choate asking the lawyer to refund half his legal fees, on the ground that it had been too easy to persuade the jury of his innocence.
Books: Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; Silas Estabrook, The Life and Death of Mrs. Maria Bickford. Boston, 1846; Silas Estabrook, Eccentricities and Anecdotes of Albert John Tirrell. Boston, 1846; Edward Griffin Parker, Reminiscences of Rufus Choate: the Great American Advocate. New York: Mason Brothers, 1860; Barbara Meil Hobson, Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Articles: “Parker’s Reminiscences of Rufus Choate.” The Albany Law Journal, July 2, 1870; “Trial of Albert John Tirrell.” Prisoner’s Friend, April 1, 1846; ‘Somnambulism.” Prisoner’s Friend, September 9, 1846; “Continuation of Tirrell’s Trial.” The New York Herald, March 27, 1846; “Eminent Legal Rights.” Boston Daily Globe, August 27, 1888; “In the Courtroom with Rufus Choate.” Californian, December 1880; Vol. II, No. 12; “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Mary A. Bickford.” Prisoner’s Friend, December 17, 1845; “Arrest of Albert J. Tirrell.” Boston Cultivator, December 27, 1845; “Rufus Choate and His Long Sentences.” New York Times, September 15, 1900.