October 31, 2013
She moved amid the bland perfume
That breathes of heaven’s balmiest isle;
Her eyes had starlight’s azure gloom
And a glimpse of heaven–her smile.
New York Herald, 1838
John Anderson’s Liberty Street cigar shop was no different from the dozens of other tobacco emporiums frequented by the newspapermen of New York City. There only reason it was so crowded was Mary Rogers.
Mary was the teenage daughter of a widowed boarding-house keeper, and her beauty was the stuff of legend. A poem dedicated to her visage appeared in the New York Herald, and during her time clerking at John Anderson’s shop she bestowed her heavenly smile upon writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, who would visit to smoke and flirt during breaks from their offices nearby.
In 1838, the cigar girl with ”the dainty figure and pretty face” went out and failed to return. Her mother discovered what appeared to be a suicide note; the New York Sun reported that the coroner had examined the letter and concluded the author had a “fixed and unalterable determination to destroy herself.” But a few days later Mary returned home, alive and well. She had been, it turned out, visiting a friend in Brooklyn. The Sun, which three years earlier had been responsible for the Great Moon Hoax, was accused of manufacturing Mary’s disappearance to sell newspapers. Her boss, John Anderson, was suspected of being in on the scheme, for after Mary returned his shop was busier than ever.
Still, the affair blew over, and Mary settled back into her role as an object of admiration for New York’s literary set. By 1841 she was engaged to Daniel Payne, a cork-cutter and boarder in her mother’s house. On Sunday, July 25, Mary announced plans to visit relatives in New Jersey and told Payne and her mother she’d be back the next day. The night Mary ventured out, a severe storm hit New York, and when Mary failed to return the next morning, her mother assumed she’d gotten caught in bad weather and delayed her trip home.
By Monday night, Mary still hadn’t come back, and her mother was concerned enough to place an advertisement in the following day’s Sun asking for anyone who might have seen Mary to have the girl contact her, as “it is supposed some accident has befallen her.” Foul play was not suspected.
On July 28, some men were out for a stroll near Sybil’s Cave, a bucolic Hudson riverside spot in Hoboken, New Jersey, when a bobbing figure caught their attention. Rowing out in a small boat, they dragged what turned out to be the body of a young woman back to shore. Crowds gathered, and within hours, a former fiancee of Mary’s identified the body as hers.
According to the coroner, her dress and hat were torn and her body looked as though it had taken a beating. She was also, the coroner took care to note, not pregnant, and “had evidently been a person of chastity and correct habits.”
Questions abounded: Had Mary been killed by someone she knew? Had she been a victim of a random crime of opportunity, something New Yorkers increasingly worried about as the city grew and young women strayed farther and farther from the family parlor? Why hadn’t the police of New York or Hoboken spotted Mary and her attacker? The Herald, the Sun and the Tribune all put Mary on their front pages, and no detail was too lurid—graphic descriptions of Mary’s body appeared in each paper, along with vivid theories about what her killer or killers might have done to her. More than anything, they demanded answers.
Suspicion fell immediately upon Daniel Payne, Mary’s fiancee; perhaps one or the other had threatened to leave, and Payne killed her, either to get rid of her or to prevent her from breaking their engagement. He produced an airtight alibi for his whereabouts during Mary’s disappearance, but that didn’t stop the New-Yorker (a publication unrelated to the current magazine of that name) from suggesting, in August of 1841, that he’d had a hand in Mary’s death:
There is one point in Mr. Payne’s testimony which is worthy of remark. It seems he had been searching for Miss Rogers—his betrothed—two or three days; yet when he was informed on Wednesday evening that her body had been found at Hoboken, he did not go to see it or inquire into the matter—in fact, it appears that he never went at all, though he had been there inquiring for her before. This is odd, and should be explained.
If Payne hadn’t killed Mary, it was theorized, she’d been caught by a gang of criminals. This idea was given further credence later that August, when two Hoboken boys who were out in the woods collecting sassafras for their mother, tavern owner Frederica Loss, happened upon several items of women’s clothing. The Herald reported that “the clothes had all evidently been there at least three or four weeks. They were all mildewed down hard…the grass had grown around and over some of them. The scarf and the petticoat were crumpled up as if in a struggle.” The most suggestive item was a handkerchief embroidered with the initials M.R.
The discovery of the clothes catapulted Loss into minor celebrity. She spoke with reporters at length about Mary, whom she claimed to have seen in the company of a tall, dark stranger on the evening of July 25. The two had ordered lemonade and then taken their leave from Loss’ tavern. Later that night, she said, she heard a scream coming from the woods. At the time, she’d thought it was one of her sons, but after going out to investigate and finding her boy safely inside, she’d decided it must have been an animal. In light of the clothing discovery so close to her tavern, though, she now felt certain it had come from Mary.
The Herald and other papers took this as evidence that strangers had indeed absconded with Mary, but despite weeks of breathless speculation, no further clues were found and no suspects identified. The city moved on, and Mary’s story became yesterday’s news—only to return to the headlines.
In October 1841, Daniel Payne went on a drinking binge that carried him to Hoboken. After spending October 7 going from tavern to tavern to tavern, he entered a pharmacy and bought a vial of laudanum. He stumbled down to where Mary’s body had been brought to shore, collapsed onto a bench, and died, leaving behind a note: “To the World—Here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.” The consensus was that his heart had been broken.
While the newspapers had their way with Mary’s life and death, Edgar Allen Poe turned to fact-based fiction to make sense of the case.
Working in the spring of 1842, Edgar Allan Poe transported Mary’s tale to Paris and, in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” gave her a slightly more Francophone name (and a job in a perfume shop), but the details otherwise match exactly. The opening of Poe’s story makes his intent clear:
The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of MARY CECILIA ROGERS, at New York.
A sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” widely considered the first detective story ever set to print, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” would see the detective Dupin solve the young woman’s murder. In shopping the story to editors, Poe suggested he’d gone beyond mere storytelling: “Under the pretense of showing how Dupin unraveled the mystery of Marie’s assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York.”
Though he appropriated the details of Mary’s story, Poe still faced the very real challenge of actually solving the murder when the police were no closer than they’d been in July 1841.
Like many other stories of the mid-19th century, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” was serialized, appearing in November issues of Snowden’s Ladies Companion. The third part, in which Dupin put together the details of the crime but left the identity of the criminal up in the air, was to appear at the end of the month, but a shocking piece of news delayed the final installment.
In October 1842, Frederica Loss was accidentally shot by one of her sons and made a deathbed confession regarding Mary Rogers. The “tall, dark” man she’d seen the girl with in July 1841 had not been a stranger; she knew him. The Tribune reported: “On the Sunday of Miss Rogers’s disappearance she came to her house from this city in company with a young physician, who undertook to produce for her a premature delivery.” (“Premature delivery” being a euphemism for abortion.)
The procedure had gone wrong, Loss said, and Mary had died. After disposing of her body in the river, one of Loss’ sons had thrown her clothes in a neighbor’s pond and then, after having second thoughts, scattered them in the woods.
While Loss’ confession did not entirely match the evidence (there was still the matter of Mary’s body, which bore signs of some kind of struggle), the Tribune seemed satisfied: “Thus has this fearful mystery, which has struck fear and terror to so many hearts, been at last explained by circumstances in which no one can fail to perceive a Providential agency.”
To some, the attribution of Mary’s death to a botched abortion made perfect sense—it had been suggested that she and Payne quarreled over an unwanted pregnancy, and in the early 1840s New York City was fervently debating the activities of the abortionist Madame Restell. Several penny presses had linked Rogers to Restell (and suggested that her 1838 disappearance lasted precisely as long as it would take a woman to terminate a pregnancy in secret and return undiscovered), and while that connection was ultimately unsubstantiated, Mary was on the minds of New Yorkers when, in 1845, they officially criminalized the procedure.
Poe’s story was considered a sorry follow up to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but he did manage to work Loss’ story into his narrative. His Marie Rogêt had indeed kept company with a “swarthy naval officer” who may very well have killed her, though by what means we are not sure—did he murder her outright or lead her into a “fatal accident,” a plan of “concealment”?
Officially, the death of Mary Rogers remains unsolved. Poe’s account remains the most widely read, and his hints at abortion (made even clearer in an 1845 reprinting of the story, though the word “abortion” never appears) have, for most, closed the case. Still, those looking for Poe to put the Mary Rogers case to rest are left to their own devices. In a letter to a friend, Poe wrote: “Nothing was omitted in Marie Rogêt but what I omitted myself—all that is mystification.”
Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”; “The Mary Rogers Mystery Explained”, New-York Daily Tribune, Nov. 18, 1842; “The Case of Mary C. Rogers”, The New-Yorker; Aug. 14, 1841; Stashower, Daniel, The Beautiful Cigar Girl (PenguinBooks, 2006); Srebnick, Amy Gilman, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth Century New York (Oxford University Press, 1995); Meyers, Jeffrey, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (Cooper Square Press, 1992)
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.
May 9, 2012
The Chicago Bulls and their fans watched in horror as their star guard, Derrick Rose collapsed on the floor toward the end of a recent playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Just days later, the New York Yankees and their fans watched Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, fall to the ground while shagging fly balls before the start of a game in Kansas City. Both athletes suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments in their knees, putting their futures and their teams’ prospects in doubt. Sportswriters called the injuries “tragic.”
Of course, both injuries were shocking, but “tragic” might be better reserved for matters of life and death and athletic contests gone awry—such as a confrontation that took place more than 90 years ago in New York, in the heat of a pennant race, when a scrappy Cleveland Indians shortstop stepped into the batter’s box against a no-nonsense Yankees pitcher.
The Indians were in first place, a half-game ahead of the Yankees on August 16, 1920, when they arrived at the Polo Grounds, the home the Yankees shared with the New York Giants until Yankee Stadium was built three years later. It was the start of a three-game series on a dark and drizzly Monday afternoon in Harlem. On the mound for the Yankees was right-hander Carl Mays, the ace of the staff, hoping to notch his 100th career win. Mays, a spitballer (legal at the time), threw with an awkward submarine motion, bending his torso to the right and releasing the ball close to the ground—he sometimes scraped his knuckles in the dirt. Right-handed submariners tend to give right-handed batters the most trouble because their pitches will curve in toward the batter, jamming him at the last moment. Mays, one baseball magazine noted, looked “like a cross between an octopus and a bowler” on the mound. “He shoots the ball in at the batter at such unexpected angles that his delivery is hard to find, generally until along about 5 o’clock, when the hitters get accustomed to it—and when the game is about over.”
Mays had good control for a submariner, but he also was known as a “headhunter” who was not shy about brushing batters, especially right-handers, off the plate; he was consistently among the American League leaders in hit batsmen. His feud with Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb was particularly intense: In one game, he threw at the cantankerous “Georgia Peach” every time he came to bat, prompting Cobb to throw his bat at Mays, Mays to call Cobb a “yellow dog,” the umpires to separate the two as they tried to trade blows, and Mays to hit Cobb on the wrist with his next pitch. In another game, Cobb laid a bunt down the first-base line so he could spike Mays when the pitcher covered the base.
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.
February 29, 2012
John Doyle Lee was born in Illinois Territory in 1812. By the time he was 3, his mother was dead. Relatives took him in from his alcoholic father and put him to work on their farm at a young age. At 20, Lee began courting Agatha Ann Woolsey in Vandalia, Illinois, and in the summer of 1833, she became Lee’s wife—the first of 19 for John D. Lee, who would soon commit himself to the nascent Latter-day Saints movement. He professed his commitment till the day he was executed for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The massacre, in 1857, was one of the most explosive episodes in the history of the American West—not only were 120 men, women and children killed, but the United States and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost went to war. The denouement of the so-called Utah War set Utah on the path to statehood and the Mormons on a long and fitful accommodation to secular authority, but the Mountain Meadows Massacre remained a focus of suspicion and resentment for decades. The church issued a statement on the role its members played in the killings in 2007, and opened its archives to three scholars—Richard E. Turley Jr., a Latter-day Saint historian, and Brigham Young University professors Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard—for their book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, published in 2008. But in the aftermath of the massacre, only one participant was brought to trial, and that was John D. Lee.
Lee and his wife joined the Mormon settlement in Far West, Missouri, in 1837. That was only seven years after Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but already the Mormons had been pushed out of Smith’s home state of New York and Ohio. Conflicts arose on grounds both religious and secular—Smith preached that other Christian churches had strayed; Mormons tended to vote as a bloc and to outwork others, concentrating both political and economic power—and the antagonism intensified to the point that the Mormons would be evicted from Missouri and Illinois, where Smith was lynched in 1844. To break a cycle of mutual suspicion, recrimination and violence, Brigham Young, who would succeed Smith, made plans to lead the remaining LDS members on an exodus to Utah, which was then part of Mexico—beyond the reach of U.S. law.
As a recent convert John D. Lee joined a secret church order called the Danites, which was charged with protecting and defending Mormons. When some Missourians opposed to Mormons’ voting started a riot at a Daviess County polling center in 1838, Lee and his fellow Danites stormed into the crowd with clubs flying. “I felt the power of God nerve my arm for the fray,” he later said. Buildings were burned, and Lee later admitted that he had participated in looting.
Lee was in Kentucky when Smith was killed in 1844, but when he returned to Illinois he learned of Young’s plan to head for Utah. Lee joined the migration through hostile and foreboding territory (which led to Young’s nickname of “the Mormon Moses”), and Young appointed him a Captain of Fifty—a ranking based on number of people under one’s command. Lee served as a clerk and purchasing agent.
In July of 1847, a contingent of Mormons arrived in the Great Salt Lake valley and began a settlement that would grow to thousands in the coming years. Just six months later, Mexico ceded that land, and so much more of the West, to the United States. The old conflicts between religious and secular power arose again. President Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young governor of the Utah Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs, but the Mormons kept their distance from outsiders—including officials sent from Washington, D.C.
Non-Mormon locals immediately resented the appointment of Mormon surveyors and Indian agents, one of whom was John D. Lee. The agents’ relationship with the Native Americans, to whom they supplied tools, seed and proselytizing, aroused suspicion, especially among federal soldiers in the area. Mormon men, meanwhile, took offense when soldiers tried to socialize with Mormon women. Once the Army departed, “as many as one hundred Mormon women went with them,” according to Turley, Walker and Leonard. “Everybody has got one except the Colonel and Major,” one soldier said. “The Doctor has got three—mother and two daughters. The mother cooks for him and the daughters sleep with him.” The familiar cycle of suspicion and resentment built toward violence into the mid-1850s. Rumors that the LDS church was sanctioning polygamy—which turned out to be true—only made matters worse.
In April 1857, a Mormon apostle named Parley P. Pratt was murdered in Arkansas by the legal husband of one of Pratt’s plural wives. Mormons in Utah took the news as another example of religious persecution and considered Pratt a martyr. They began stockpiling grain, anticipating a violent and apocalyptic encounter with the people they called “Americans.” The Army, they believed, was about to invade the Utah Territory, (an invasion that did not come until the following year in the Utah War) and Young tried to enlist Paiute Indians from nearby Mountain Meadows in the fight. He also warned “mobocrats” to steer clear of Mormon territory or they’d be met by the Danites, who would form a line of defense in villages near Mountain Meadows. Then he declared martial law, making it illegal to travel through the territory without a permit.
At the same time, several groups of emigrants from northwest Arkansas, mostly families that in total numbered between 100-200 people, were making their way to California by wagon trains. Joining up in Salt Lake City, the Baker-Fancher party restocked their supplies, but for the rest of their trip, Mormons were prohibited from selling any goods to wagon trains. Lee and another Mormon man, apostle George A. Smith, met with the Paiutes, a a tribe of Native Americans in the region, and warned them that the encroaching Americans threatened both them and the Mormons; rumors circulated that members of the Baker-Fancher train might poison water and cattle along their way.
The Baker-Fincher party was most likely unaware of the new requirement for a permit to cross Utah. They grazed their cattle on Mormons’ land as they passed through, stoking anger. Lee later said that members of the train “swore and boasted openly…that Buchan[a]n’s whole army was coming right behind them, and would kill every… Mormon in Utah.” Others reported that the men of the Baker-Fancher party were respectful.
Throughout the summer of 1857, the Mormons’ sense of impending invasion only deepened. Parades through Cedar City included young men bearing banners reading, “A terror to evil doers,” according to Turley, Walker, and Leonard. Along the southern settlements, Mormons were urged to “shore up alliances with local Indians.” When Lee came into the vicinity of the Baker-Fancher train, he said, he saw a large group of Paiutes “in their war paint, and fully equipped for battle.” Lee claimed that he had orders from Isaac C. Haight, a leader of several Mormon congregations that formed the Iron County Militia, “to send other Indians on the war-path to help them kill the emigrants.” Haight and Lee gave weapons to the Paiutes.
The Baker-Fancher party was camped at Mountain Meadows on September 7 when Paiutes (and some Mormons dressed as Paiutes to conceal their Mormon affiliation) attacked. The emigrants circled the wagons, dug trenches and fought back—but as the siege continued for five days, they began to run out of ammunition, water and provisions. The Mormon attackers concluded that the emigrants had figured out their ruse—and feared that word of their participation would hasten an assault by the Army. It was then that militia commander William H. Dame ordered his men to leave no witnesses. The emigrants were to be “decoyed out and destroyed with the exception of the small children,” who were “too young to tell tales,” according to another militia commander, Major John H. Higbee, who relayed the orders to Lee.
On September 11, John D. Lee and a group of militiamen approached the camp under a white flag and offered a truce, with assurances that Lee and his men would escort the emigrants to safety in Cedar City. All they’d have to do is leave their livestock and possessions to the Paiutes. Having no good options, the emigrants, about 120 men, women and children, laid down their weapons and followed Lee and the militia away from the camp in three groups—the last comprising adult males. It was over quickly. The Arkansas men were shot at point-blank range; the women and children ahead were slaughtered by bullets and arrows in an ambush party. No one over the age of seven survived. The victims were hastily buried. Locals auctioned off or distributed their possessions and took in the surviving 17 young children.
The Army did arrive in Utah, in 1858, but no war ensued—Young and the Buchanan administration negotiated an agreement in which Young would give way to a new governor. The following year, troops led by Major James H. Carleton went to Mountain Meadows to investigate the killings and found the bones of “very small children.” The soldiers gathered skulls and bones and erected a cairn with the words, “Here 120 men, women, and children were massacred in cold blood early in September, 1857. They were from Arkansas.” They marked the site with a cross inscribed, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Lee and the other leaders swore that they would never reveal their parts in the massacre, and Lee himself told Brigham Young that the Paiutes had been responsible for it—an explanation that became the official position of the LDS church for generations. In a report to Congress, Major Carleton blamed Mormon militiamen and church leaders for the massacre. Young excommunicated both Lee and Haight for their roles, but only Lee faced charges. After a first trial ended in a mistrial, Lee was convicted in 1877 and sentenced to death by firing squad.
Lee claimed that he was a scapegoat, and that other Mormons were more directly involved in the planning and in the killing. And although he maintained at first that Young was unaware of the massacre until after it took place, Lee would later state, in his Life and Confessions of John D. Lee, that the massacre occurred “by the direct command of Brigham Young.” And on the morning of his execution, Lee would write that Young was “leading the people astray” and that he was being sacrificed “in a cowardly, dastardly manner.”
“I did everything in my power to save that people, but I am the one that must suffer,” Lee wrote. He closed by asking the Lord to receive his spirit, and then he was taken to the massacre site. As many as 300 onlookers had gathered. On March 28, 1877, John Doyle Lee, wearing a coat and scarf, took a seat atop the coffin where his body would lie. A photographer was nearby. Lee asked that whatever photograph was made be copied for his last three wives. The photographer agreed. Lee posed. And then an hour before noon, he shook hands with the men around him, removed his coat and hat and faced the five men of the firing party.
“Let them shoot the balls through my heart!” Lee shouted. “Don’t let them mangle my body!”
On U.S. Marshal William Nelson’s command, shots rang out in the ravine where so many shots had rung out twenty years before, and Lee fell back onto his coffin, dead.
On April 20, 1961, a joint council was held with the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “After considering all the facts available,” the Church authorized “reinstatement to membership and former blessings [temple marriages] to John D. Lee.” The reinstatement puzzled many. But four decades later, the church claimed full responsibility for the incident that led to Lee’s execution. At a memorial ceremony on September 11, 2007, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, LDS Apostle Henry B. Eyring read the church’s official statement to gatherers:
“We express profound regret for the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today, and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time. A separate expression of regret is owed the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre. Although the extent of their involvement is disputed, it is believed they would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local church leaders and members.”
Books: Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Oxford University Press, 2008. Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Doubleday, 2003. Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, Alfred A. Knopf., 2003.
Articles: “The Brink of War,” by David Roberts, Smithsonian magazine, June, 2008. “Books: A Blot on the Mormon Faith, Church’s History Fraught with Violence, Bloodshed,” by John Freeman, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 13, 2003. “New Perspectives on The West: John Doyle Lee, (1812-1877) PBS—The West—John Doyle Lee, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/i_r/lee.htm. “John D. Lee,” Utah History Encyclopedia, http://www.media.utah.edu/UHE/l/LEE,JOHN.html. “Shining New Light on the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Transcription of 2003 FAIR Conference presentation by Gene Sessions, FAIR: Defending Mormonism, http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2003-fair-conference/2003-shining-new-light-on-the-mountain-meadows-massacre. “Last Words and the Execution of John D. Lee, March 28, 1877,” As reported by his attorney, William W. Bishop in Mormonism Unveiled; Or the Life and Confession of John D. Lee (1877). Mountain Meadows Massacre Trial Homepage: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mountainmeadows/leeexecution.html