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Albert Tirrell Trial: 1846 - Rufus Choate Defends Tirrell

bickford jury murder sleepwalking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Tirrell Trial: 1846 - The Jury Acquits Tirrell [next]

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