Boston's history is checkered with violence and heinous crimes. In 1845, a woman lured into prostitution was murdered at the hands of her jealous lover who used sleepwalking as his defense at trial. A leg was found floating along the Boston Harbor, wrapped in a burlap bag that would later be connected to a woman who was brutally murdered and dismembered by her handyman. In the 1970s, a string of seemingly unconnected murders led to a killer who became known as the Giggler. Christopher Daley explores the tragic events that turned peaceful Boston neighborhoods into disturbing crime scenes.
About the Author
Christopher Daley has been lecturing all over New England for over twenty years on historical topics of interest at libraries, historical societies, schools, clubs and organizations. He is the author of several articles dealing with historical events in Massachusetts's history. He holds a BA in political science and an MAT in history from Bridgewater State University. He is currently a history teacher in the Silver Lake Regional School System in Kingston Massachusetts and lives in Wareham.
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THE PROSTITUTE AND THE SOMNAMBULIST
THE MARIA BICKFORD CASE
The October 27, 1845 headline of the Boston Daily Mail shouted, "Horrible Murder and Attempted Arson in Boston." Beneath the headline, the news article read, "A woman was murdered this morning about 4 o'clock at a house in Cedar Lane, near Cambridge Bridge, recently occupied as a house of prostitution by the notorious Julia King." Thus was Boston's first exposure to the plight of Maria Bickford and the beginning of a story that would enthrall New England and the nation with the lurid details of her life and the trial and acquittal of her former lover Albert Tirrell through the use of the novel defense of somnambulism.
Maria Bickford was born on June 19, 1824, as Mary Ann Dunn in Bath, Maine. She was described as having "great personal beauty and fascinating manners." She later moved to Bangor, Maine, where she met James Bickford from the town across the river — Brewer, Maine. They were married there in March 1840 and had a beautiful daughter on January 7, 1841, who they named Mary Elizabeth, but tragically, sixteen months later, the baby lay dead. In The Authentic Life of Mrs. Mary Ann Bickford, originally written as a newspaper serial in 1846, an unnamed chronicler tells us, "This domestic affliction had a powerful influence on the mind of the mother, bordering on insanity." When one reads the sad account of her life in its entirety, the question arises as to whether the loss of a child was the causal effect of her downfall and entry into a life of dissipation and degradation. One can only guess.
Shortly after the death of her daughter, Maria (as she would later be called) was invited by a group of female friends to make a trip to Boston. Coming to Boston, the "Hub of the Universe," seems to have been a life-altering event and a turning point for the young grieving mother. When she arrived, she was "highly delighted with everything she saw. The gorgeous jewelry, the splendid goods for sale in the various stores on Washington Street, she would often refer to and as often express a strong desire to remain there permanently." But when she returned home, she took on an accentuated despondent tone. She gave the impression that she was deeply unhappy with her situation and appeared to have come to a more acute realization of her husband's limited means; she no longer wanted anything to do with backward provincial Bangor but wanted to enjoy the fashion, gaiety and bustle of what she might have seen as the cosmopolitan city of Boston.
Probably due to financial constraints, in July 1842, the Bickfords had to move. They chose a cheap boardinghouse owned by a Bangor widow. It was here that Maria would meet a man known to history only as "Johnson." The author of her serial biography would describe how Johnson "seduced" her: "His prepossessing appearance and bland manners, with the assistance of a female friend, soon biased the judgment of Mrs. B., whose mind was already ill at ease, and she received his addresses favorably; he soon won her confidence, and consequently had her completely in his power." He told her everything she wanted to hear. She would have all that she desired — the finest clothes and jewelry — and, most important of all, he would take her to Boston. In October 1842, Johnson was able to spirit young Mary Ann Bickford away from her husband to Newburyport, Massachusetts, where her journey into vice would begin.
The couple spent a few months going from hotel to hotel, but when Johnson tired of the young girl and ran out of money, he finally did bring her to Boston but left her in a "house of ill-fame" and vanished. From a perusal of Maria's letters to her ever-forgiving husband during this period, it is quite clear that she was in Boston and led him to believe that she was still in Newburyport. Her letters play on his pity, explaining that she tried to work in a factory but fell ill and that she owed her landlady rent and the doctor money for treatment. She begged him to send money and even said that she might return to him. However, she admonished him not to seek her out in Newburyport because he wouldn't be able to find her there, and she closed her letter by instructing her husband to "let no one see this when you direct your letter send it to Boston and I will get it." It appears that James sent no money and did not seek her out. One may wonder if he knew she was trying to deceive him.
In a subsequent letter, she informed James that she had "moved" to Boston but was still in poor condition and needed money. She further explained that she lived at 16 Margin Street under the name Maria Welch, touting it as a "genteel house." In another letter, she would state that she was in a "respectable boarding house; I would not have you think to the contrary." She made several overtures for James to come to Boston and set up "housekeeping" with him again, however, not at North Margin Street but at some rooms over on Endicott Street. He decided he would reunite with her and made plans to go to Boston. Then he received the following letter:
Sir — I feel it is my duty to inform you that your wife is living a life of prostitution in this city. She has been living for some time in a house of ill-fame in North Margin Street. I hope it may be in your power, either by admonition or other-wise to reclaim her from the disorders and vices to which her present course of life will inevitably bring her.
Very Respectfully,Emeline Hovey — A friend of virtue
If James had any suspicions about his wife's doings, now they were confirmed. Surprisingly, he decided to go to Boston anyway. James did not give up on his Mary Ann, a pattern that he would consistently show throughout her tragic short life. He would always be there for her no matter what she did, but he did have his boundaries, as we shall see.
North Margin Street was located in Boston's "North End." By the 1820s, the North End had become a magnet for gamblers, criminals, prostitutes and sailors on leave from their ships docked on the North End's wharfs. Specifically, the area around Ann Street, just up the street from the wharfs, was the most notorious. It came to be called "Black Sea" due to the utter depravity, debauchery and licentiousness that occurred there nightly. In 1883, author Edwin Bacon noted, in his book The King's Dictionary of Boston, "A few years ago, comparatively, these streets, particularly North (more anciently Ann Street), were almost wholly devoted to sailors' boarding and dance houses, and other dens of iniquity. Every ground-floor, and many a cellar, was a barroom and dancing-floor combined."
Although North Margin Street was not in the "Black Sea" but just a few blocks away, it was an area where there were several "houses of ill-fame." Interestingly enough, during recent excavations for Boston's "Big Dig" (the creation of the "Tip O'Neil" Tunnel), the remnants of one such house were uncovered on what was the end of Endicott Street, the street right next to North Margin and in a location that was probably within feet of number 16 North Margin Street. Over three thousand artifacts were recovered from the site, and they give us quite an insight as to what the life of a nineteenth-century prostitute was like. In an interview done for Bostonia, archaeologist Mary Beaudry told of her findings at Endicott Street: "The archaeologists have deduced, unsurprisingly, that personal hygiene was of great importance to these women. In addition to medicines and syringes, they found toothbrushes, hair combs, and tooth powder, a rare and luxurious commodity given that people seldom brushed their teeth."
She further related:
The madam managed to create an atmosphere that mimicked the middleclass home. This kind of brothel was referred to as a parlor house, because there were furnishings that sort of looked like a middle-class parlor. The brothel apparently offered gambling, meals, and "special services," which would take place in a private room for an extra cost. Because the team found many different dinner and tea sets, they believe the home was able to serve several different clients at once.
However, also found at the site were many syringes and medicine bottles. The archaeologists concluded that these were used for the various reasons of prevention of pregnancy, treatment of venereal disease and abortion.
James arrived in Boston on February 24, 1843, and proceeded to 16 North Margin Street to find his wife and try to pluck her from the life she had fallen into. When he called at number 16, he was told by those at the residence that Maria had been gone some three weeks. At that, James searched the city for his wife and sent several letters to her hoping that they would find her through the service of the post office. Finally, after calling at North Margin Street once more, a meeting was set up between the two. Promises and plans were made, Maria said that she would come back to James, an address was found and all that needed to be done was to move in together. But before the promises could be kept and the plans carried out, Maria met yet another "fancy man."
In a letter to a friend she related:
Oh I ride with the handsomest man Boston affords; and we have three of the most magnificent robes that you ever saw he has got me a splendid foot muff, and, oh such a splendid sleigh! And two of the most splendid horses you ever saw — he has run three races with me in the sleigh and that is considered considerable for a woman up here.
She closed the letter to her friend by speculating that the folks back home would probably "talk about me like the devil."
Soon after, James would receive a missive that read:
James — I've deceived you. I couldn't bear the idea of living so retired, after seeing such genteel company. The people where I board do not know that I have got a husband, and that is the reason I cannot let you know where I am.
James I feel very unsteady now; but will consent to live with you and keep house, if you will let me have my liberty. If you will consent to do so, I will live with you.
Yours, Maria Bickford
Essentially, what Maria was asking her husband to do was allow her to continue as a prostitute while living as man and wife. This was one boundary he would not cross, and he quickly answered her letter expressing his shock and dismay that she would even suggest such a thing. However, he stayed in Boston, remained in contact with Maria and continued to try to persuade her to leave the life was leading.
Soon, she was set adrift by her "fancy man" and found herself in poverty once again. In her letters to James, she petitioned once again for funds and continued to allude to returning to marital monogamy. He came to her assistance, but as before, she did not return to him and arrived back at North Margin Street. As the chronicler of the newspaper serial states, she "became more generally known in the city as wanton."
Finally, in June 1843, Maria moved in with James, but it only lasted a few months. Before long, as James would find, she was plying her trade from their apartment while he was away or at work. Upon the discovery of her conduct, he left her. For the next year or so, she went from one wealthy man to the next and always would find herself left behind and in poverty after a short stint in luxury and grandeur. It appears that by July she had hit a new low. She decided to remove to the city of New Bedford and take up residence in its notorious "Hard Dig" neighborhood.
Maria's words describe the "Hard Dig" better than any chronicler could. She wrote to James: "I live in the 'Hard Dig,' the vilest place that was ever made. Here are five bad houses altogether. The inmates are getting drunk and fighting all the time. They drink and fight all day, and dance and — all night."
Once again, she was imploring him to send money, and once again, he did. In his response to her, he stated, "I will not forsake you, for I believe I can yet, by assistance of providence, work out your redemption — at least, I shall endeavor. Do reflect on your downward course!"
In November 1844, James Bickford did go to New Bedford's "Hard Dig" to make another attempt at redemption and reconciliation only to find that Maria was no longer there but at the fashionable Railroad House Hotel and that she was living with a wealthy businessman by the name of Albert Tirrell. James found that, although Tirrell was married, he and Maria were living as man and wife and that, once more, she was living in opulence and had no need for James. Upon seeing that there wasn't the remotest possibility of changing his wife's mind, James slunk back to Boston.
At first, it looked like Maria had finally found her man. Albert Tirrell was a traveling businessman. He and Maria traveled all over — Philadelphia, Albany, Saratoga Springs and so forth — staying in the finest hotels, drinking vintage wines and wearing the best clothes. Maria was in heaven! They normally would register as Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, stay out of public view and take their meals in their room. But soon, they began to quarrel, and Maria found that her dream man wanted total and utter control of her. On one occasion, Tirrell literally cut and tore from her one of the beautiful dresses that he bought for her — what he gave he could just as quickly take away. The fights got so noisy that they were kicked out of several establishments. One hotelier, suspecting something wasn't right, found that Tirrell had a wife and children in the town of Weymouth and asked them to leave. Before long, a warrant was issued for Tirrell's arrest for the crime of adultery. Learning of this, Tirrell decided that he would set Maria up in her own house and "furnish it elegantly." The house was located on London Street in East Boston. It was there that he was approached by two men claiming to be police with a warrant; they frightened him a bit but agreed to forego serving the warrant for the price of $100. Shortly thereafter, Tirrell sold the house at a loss. Whether this was due to the heat of the law coming down on him or the fact that Maria had left him and gone back to Maine is unknown, but what we do know is that he followed her to Maine thereafter. He went to her mother's house and, finding that she wasn't there, left a note enjoining her to come back to him in Boston and that he would "furnish her with plenty of money etc, etc." It was observed by the newspaper chronicler, "It is manifest, by his singular conduct, that he had become completely infatuated with Mrs. B."
Maria was no longer in Maine but made a short stop in Boston and then headed back to the "Hard Dig" to hide out. It was here in June 1845 that she composed a letter to her husband expressing that she knew Albert was looking for her and that when he did find her, she "expected to be killed." Albert did find her, and at this point, they began traveling from hotel to hotel. Whether Maria was willing is hard to ascertain. Several letters were exchanged between Maria and James, generally in order to arrange to have some of her possessions shipped to where she was living with Tirrell.
When examining the letters from Maria to James at this time, one can almost imagine Albert Tirrell standing over her as she wrote them. They have a different tone, seemingly stilted and unfeeling. Some evidence of how she was being treated comes down to us from a friend who happened to bump into Maria in Boston and was able to talk to her free of Albert Tirrell's gaze. The friend related a story about how Tirrell was becoming short of cash (probably as the result of squandering his inheritance) and how he brought Maria on a carriage ride to ask her for some of the expensive dresses he had given her so he could sell them. Maria refused. At this, said the friend, Tirrell had knocked Maria down and threatened to kill her as she begged for her life and promised to do anything he wanted.
In early October 1845, the pair was separated not by choice but due to the fact that Albert was arrested on adultery charges and jailed. This was Maria's chance to escape, and that she did. She took up residence in a known house of prostitution run by a Mr. Joel Lawrence and his wife on Cedar Lane (also known as Mount Vernon Avenue) off Charles Street near the Cambridge Bridge, now called the Longfellow Bridge. When bailed, Albert desperately searched for Maria, even going as far as writing to her husband to find her whereabouts.
Eventually, Tirrell did find Maria. Witnesses said that he visited her frequently in the waning days of October. On October 26, a fellow "boarder" named Priscilla Blood said that she overheard the couple quarrelling between three and four o'clock in the afternoon. Mrs. Lawrence, wife of the landlord, Joel Lawrence, said that she had seen them together that day and the last she saw the both of them was at ten past nine o'clock that night. Mr. Lawrence would later testify that he shut the house up at nine o'clock and that Tirrell was still in the room with Bickford for the night.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem In Boston"
Copyright © 2015 Christopher Daley.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Prostitute and the Somnambulist: The Maria Bickford Case,
2. Monster in the Woods: The Bussey Woods Case,
3. The Boston Barrel Butchery: The Leavitt Alley Case,
4. The Boston Skull Cracker: The Thomas Piper Case,
5. Sadistic Youth: The Jesse Pomeroy Case,
6. The Unrelenting Cop: The Price-Corey Case,
7. Death Comes to Prince Street: The Joseph Fantasia Case,
8. Dismembered: The Grayce Asquith Case,
9. The Giggler: The Kenneth Harrison Case,
About the Authors,