A Bad Night

In October 1845, the owner of a Boston brothel awoke to find that one of his prostitutes, Maria Bickford, had been nearly decapitated with a razor. Bickford’s companion, Albert Tirrell, was nowhere to be found but had been seen recently on the premises, and his cane and bits of his clothing were found near the body.

Tirrell was discovered in New Orleans and brought back for trial. His lawyer argued that Bickford might have been killed by her own hand or by a third party — or that Tirrell might have done it while sleepwalking. The defendant had a noted history of walking in his sleep, one that was confirmed by doctors. As recently as September, a cousin testified, Tirrell had pulled him out of bed and brandished a knife. “Somnambulism explain[s] … the killing without a motive,” the lawyer argued. “Premeditated murder does not.”

After less than two hours’ deliberation, the jury declared Tirrell not guilty — the first successful such murder defense in American legal history.

A Novel Defense

In 1867, a Boston family paid its servant Bridget McDonald $38 in bank bills. A Martin O’Malley “asked her to let him take the money and count it, she not being able to read or write.” When she obliged, he refused to return the bills and threatened to burn them unless she opened the door. She did, and he went off with the money.

O’Malley was prosecuted for larceny, but the trial court seemed to feel that he was actually guilty of embezzlement, since he hadn’t taken the money from Bridget but merely kept it against her will. So it acquitted him.

A jury then convicted O’Malley of embezzlement, but he appealed — claiming that the act amounted to larceny. And apparently he went free.

(To prevent such injustices, many legislatures eventually combined larceny, embezzlement, and false pretenses into a single offense called theft.)

Dog Days

On Aug. 24, 1867, solicitor’s clerk Frederick Baker took a tea break and strolled into the meadows near the hop fields of Alton in Hampshire. There he found three little girls. He played with them, running races and picking blackberries, then dismissed two of them with three halfpence. They watched him carry 9-year-old Fanny Adams up the hollow, telling her, “Come with me, and I will give you twopence more.”

Searchers found Fanny’s head on a hop pole. Both eyes had been gouged out and one ear torn off. Her arms were found in two locations, one hand still holding two halfpennies. Her heart had been scooped out of the upper torso, one foot was found in a field of clover, and her legs were assumed to have been taken by River Wey. There was no evidence of sexual assault because her lower torso was never found.

Baker couldn’t explain the bloodstains on his cuffs and argued only that his knife was too small to have done the work. He was found guilty of wilful murder and hanged on Christmas Eve.

His diary entry for Aug. 24 read, “Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.”

The Blackmail Paradox

It’s legal for me to expose your infidelity.

And it’s legal for me to seek $10,000 from you in a business transaction.

So why is it illegal for me to blackmail you for $10,000?

“Most crimes do not need theories to explain why the behavior is criminal,” writes Northwestern law professor James Lindgren. “The wrongdoing is self-evident. But blackmail is unique among major crimes: no one has yet figured out why it ought to be illegal.”

A Blind Aye

Rep. Tom Moore was dismayed at how often his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives passed bills without understanding them. So in April 1971 he sponsored a resolution honoring Albert de Salvo:

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

That’s true as far as it goes — Albert de Salvo is the Boston Strangler.

The measure passed unanimously.

Lost and Found


Charles Dickens, during one of his visits to Paris, had his watch stolen from him at the theatre. This watch had been given to him by the Queen, and was, therefore, very much prized by him. On returning to his hotel, Dickens found a small parcel waiting him, to which was pinned the following note:–

Sir,–I hope you will excuse me, but I assure you I thought I was dealing with a Frenchman and not a countryman. Finding out my mistake, I hasten to repair it as much as lies in my power, by returning you herewith the watch I stole from you. I beg you to accept the homage of my respect, and to believe me, my dear countryman, your humble and obedient servant,


The Dickensian, September 1906

A Capture En Passant


He does look evil, doesn’t he?

Hawley Harvey Crippen had fled for America by the time Scotland Yard discovered his wife’s torso under the brick floor of his London house.

But they sent out a warning, and the captain of the SS Montrose thought he recognized the fugitive aboard his ship. He asked his wireless telegraphist to send a message to the British authorities: “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”

Chief Inspector Walter Dew overtook the Montrose in a faster liner and boarded her in the St. Lawrence River disguised as a pilot. When introduced to Crippen, he said (resoundingly, one hopes), “Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard.”

Crippen hesitated, then said, “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”

Crippen’s mistress was acquitted, but he was hanged in 1910, the first criminal in history captured by the aid of wireless.


“Apparatus for Obtaining Criminal Confessions”


This one leaves me speechless. Helene Adelaide Shelby was unhappy with the low rate of criminal confessions, so in 1927 she invented a solution. The police put their suspect into the darkened chamber on the left, and he finds himself facing a floodlit human skeleton with glowing red eyes. The skeleton asks questions (via a megaphone in the mouth), and the suspect’s reactions are recorded by a camera and a microphone in the skull.

The effect produces “a state of mind calculated to cause him, if guilty, to make confession.” I’ll bet. What if he’s innocent?

A Dedicated Reader

Image: Flickr

Between August 2000 and May 2002, more than 1,100 ancient books disappeared from the French monastery of Mont Saint-Odile. There was no sign of forced entry; the monks changed the locks and reinforced the library door with steel, but the books continued to vanish. The thief even left a rose, taunting them.

Finally police installed a video camera and caught Stanislas Gosse, a Strasbourg engineering teacher, entering the darkened library through a cupboard. He confessed that he had discovered a lost map in public archives that revealed the secret entrance — he climbed the exterior walls of the monastery, entered the attic, descended a narrow stairway, and operated a hidden mechanism to open the back of the cupboard. He then browsed the library by candlelight. Apparently the passage had been used to spy on monks in medieval times, when the library had served as the monastery’s common room.

Gosse was convicted of “burglary by ruse and escalade,” fined, and given a suspended sentence. “I’m afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience,” he said. “It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings, and I felt no one consulted them anymore.”

“There was also the thrill of adventure–I was very scared of being found out.”

Sublime, Ridiculous


Amazingly, Cyrano de Bergerac was banned from the United States for 15 years because a federal judge decided that Edmond Rostand had plagiarized it from a Chicago real estate developer.

The developer, Samuel Gross, had written The Merchant Prince of Cornville in 1896 and had 250 copies printed privately. In 1900 he brought suit in U.S. district court, and Judge C.C. Kohlsaat ruled that Rostand was “a plagiarist and by inference a perjurer” for “obviously” borrowing from Cornville and then denying he’d ever heard of it. The judge issued a perpetual injunction against the production of Cyrano in the United States.

So was Rostand guilty? Decide for yourself — here’s a sample of the work he “stole”:

Violet: I thought I heard some one speak, but not from underground, for he’s not a goblin; nor yet from the sky, for he’s not an angel; nor yet from the earth, for no dreadful man is near. Why, what is that in the sky? ‘Tis last eve’s moon, that will not to her couch by day. To rest! pale planet. Oh gentle moon, where is thy blush? Thou art dismantled by the roseate sun. Alack! what divine dramas are there in the skies!

The ban was eventually overturned: In 1915 Gross failed to stop an operatic production of Cyrano, and in 1923 the original play was revived successfully. I’m not really sure what happened to The Merchant Prince of Cornville.