13. A Scandal That Titillated Mid-Nineteenth Century America
A bloody razor was found near Maria Bickford’s corpse, along with pieces of Tirrell’s clothes and broken-off sections of a distinctive cane known to belong to him. Police immediately began a search for the young man, but he had fled. He had last been spotted as he bargained with a livery stable keeper, reportedly saying that he was “in a scrape” and needed to get away. Tirrell was eventually tracked down to New Orleans, where he was arrested on December 6th, 1845, and extradited to Massachusetts to face trial for murder. The story quickly became a local and national sensation.
It combined the salacious details of adultery, and the class divide briefly bridged between a scion of a rich and respectable family who abandoned his wife and children for a prostitute. All capped off with a gruesome murder, nationwide manhunt, arrest, and trial. Tirrell’s parents hired Rufus Choate, a former US Senator and respected Boston lawyer known for his creative defense strategies. At the trial, prosecutors called in numerous witnesses who established strong circumstantial evidence that Tirrell was the culprit. The defendant’s lawyer, Choate, emphasized that the evidence was circumstantial and that nobody had seen Tirrell actually murder the victim. He then built his defense on the then-innovative sleepwalking defense.
Rufus Choate argued that Albert Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker, and if he did kill Mrs. Bickford, he must have done so while in a somnambulistic state. As such, he would have been unaware of his actions and so could not legally be held responsible for them. Defense witnesses testified that they had spoken with Tirrell on the morning of the murder and that he seemed to be in a trance, sounded weird, and appeared “in a strange state, as if asleep, or crazy“. Another witness testified that he had spoken with Tirrell upon his arrival in his hometown of Weymouth, when he claimed to be on the lam from an adultery indictment. When the witness informed Tirrell of Mrs. Bickford’s murder, he seemed genuinely shocked.
Choate also attacked the victim and her character. He argued that after she had ensnared the hitherto innocent Tirrell with her charms and seduced him away from his wife and children, she might have committed suicide. As Choate pointed out, it was not uncommon for prostitutes to kill themselves in disgust and despair over their lifestyle and profession. It was an argument that resonated with the jurors’ cultural mores in early Victorian America. It was a time of disquiet over the recent proliferation of “fallen women” handing their cards to passersby on city streets. So it was not difficult to convince them that the victim was as morally culpable as her killer.
After Choate delivered a six-hour closing argument, the jury retired to deliberate, and returned two hours later with a not guilty verdict on grounds that Tirrell was unaware of his actions at the time, and was thus not legally responsible. Other defendants in subsequent years were acquitted based on a sleepwalking defense. Ironically, America’s first successful sleepwalking defense was probably a sham. People in a somnambulistic state are capable of complex actions. However, Tirrell’s failed attempts to torch the brothel after the murder demonstrate that he sought to destroy evidence of his crime and cover his tracks.
Such behavior indicates that Tirrell was well aware of his actions and their consequences. Sleepwalkers though do not try to destroy evidence of their crimes while sleepwalking. The rich scion was probably guilty of the murder of Maria Bickford. He was certainly guilty of the attempted arson of the brothel and the consequent attempted murder of its occupants, or at least the reckless endangerment of their lives. Today, it is highly unlikely that a defendant in similar circumstances would be acquitted on a sleepwalking defense.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a rich French aristocrat from Brittany. He was a respected knight, and a national hero who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc‘s chief captain and right-hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was an outright monster. De Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families in France. From an early age, he seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan.
By age fifteen, he had distinguished himself militarily in a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself further in Anjou, where he fought for its duchess against the English in 1427. By the time Joan of Arc emerged on the scene in 1429 to challenge the English, de Rais was already one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to The Maid of Orleans as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly stood out in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
9. Great at the Management of Men in Combat, Not So Great at Money Management
Gilles de Rais had inherited significant landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which match brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but it soon emerged that he was not as good at money management as he was at the management of men in battle. It did not take him long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king. Within a year of de Rais’ retirement, he lost most of his lands, and his family secured from the king a decree that forbade him from mortgaging what was left.
To raise more cash, de Rais turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out how to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil. Another thing he turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic de Rais got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he eventually kidnapped a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation that unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once-celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.
Giles de Rais’ modus operandi was to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothes. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, then lead them to a bedroom where he and his accomplices would seize their victims. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching their fear when he explained what was in store. What was in store was none too good.
Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothes would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After de Rais confessed, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. The rich aristocrat and discredited hero was executed on October 26th, 1440, when he was burned and hanged, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial-wife killer.
7. The Rich Brothers Who Came Up With a Batty Scheme to Get Even Richer
American oil tycoon H. L. Hunt (1889 – 1974) was one the world’s wealthiest men, with a lock on much of the East Texas Oil Field, one of the world’s biggest oil deposits. His sons Nelson, William, and Lamar – the last a founder of the American Football League and Major League Soccer – were also super-rich. Especially Nelson, who made a bundle from Libyan oil. However, Nelson Hunt became a crackpot, and feared US government conspiracy to steal his wealth. So to protect his fortune, he decided to buy a whole lot of silver, and hoard it in Switzerland.
Then he decided to buy all the silver, and persuaded his brothers to join him in a bid to corner the global market on it. By 1979, the Hunt brothers owned about half the world’s transportable supply of silver. The Hunt brothers went on a silver buying spree in the 1970s. When they ran out of money, they borrowed heavily to buy more silver. By 1979, they had accumulated about 100 million troy ounces – almost 7 million pounds – of the stuff. That was almost half the world’s transportable supply. Then they discovered that they had made a catastrophic miscalculation.
The Hunt brothers’ speculation caused the price of silver to spike by over 800%, from $6 an ounce in early 1979, to over $50 by early 1980. The rich siblings grew even richer, and made about $4 billion in paper profits. In reality, however, they had simply created a huge asset bubble that was bound to burst sooner or later. The Hunts’ speculation created a global silver craze. As silver prices doubled, trebled, quadrupled, and continued to rise, people around the world began melting silverware.
Thieves went on a silver stealing spree. Tiffany’s ran ads that attacked the brothers’ speculation for making silver unaffordable to consumers. The Hunts created a bubble market for silver. It was a bubble in which they themselves, as the world’s biggest silver hoarders, were most at risk. The Federal Reserve, whose mission includes averting such bubbles, stepped in and issued a rule specifically targeted against the Hunts. It banned banks from lending to precious metal speculators. As a result, the bubble swiftly burst.
The Hunt brothers’ bubble market burst on March 27th, 1980, which came to be known as “Silver Thursday”. Prices collapsed, and the Hunts almost immediately lost over a billion dollars. Their family fortune survived, however, and the brothers pledged most of it as collateral for a rescue loan package. Unfortunately for them, the value of their family assets declined steadily throughout the 1980s. By 1985, their net wealth had dipped from over $5 billion just before Silver Thursday, to less than a billion. Still rich, but things were not headed in the right direction for them.
Then things got worse, especially for the genius behind the silver hoarding plan, Nelson Hunt. The brothers hung on throughout much of the 1980s, but their luck ran out in 1988. That year, they lost a lawsuit that accused them of conspiracy related to their silver speculation, and were hit with hundreds of millions in liability and fines. Nelson Hunt was hardest hit, and he broke the record for the biggest personal bankruptcy in America’s history. His assets were seized and sold to satisfy creditors, including his oil fields, house, bowling alley, and a $12 million coin collection.
In the ancient and classical Greco-Roman world, when people wanted to say that somebody was really wealthy they would say he was “as rich as Croesus“, after the sixth-century BC Lydian king who had been the first to mint coins. In the late Roman Republic, one man, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) had grown so wealthy that people began to change the phrase, and pun that somebody was “as rich as Crassus” to denote that somebody was quite prosperous.
Whether he had ever grown as rich as Croesus – and it is quite possible that he might have become even richer than the Lydian monarch – Crassus was the late Roman Republic’s wealthiest man and one of its leading figures. He used his deep pockets to amass power, and sponsored politicians. Their numbers included Julius Caesar, whose political rise Crassus financed. With him and Pompey the Great, Crassus entered into a power-sharing agreement known as “The First Triumvirate”, which effectively made the trio the masters of the Roman Republic.
Crassus became fabulously rich because he was a shrewd businessman, and a notoriously avaricious one. He got started on the road to fabulous wealth through an alliance with the dictator Sulla. Crassus bought the confiscated properties of executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value. He even arranged to have the names of those whose properties he coveted added to the lists of the proscribed, slated for execution and confiscation of property. He made even more money through other unscrupulous methods.
Rome in his day was full of fire-prone buildings, and fires were a common occurrence. However, the city had no public firefighters, so Crassus formed a private firefighting company manned by his slaves. When a fire broke out, he would rush to the scene with his firefighters, and on the spot, offer to buy the burning building or those nearby that were threatened by the flames at literally fire-sale knock-down prices. To get at least something for their property was preferable to nothing if it was reduced to ashes, so the distressed owners often agreed. Through such shady methods, Crassus became Rome’s greatest property owner.
By the 70s BC, Crassus had established himself as Rome’s richest man. H leveraged his wealth into power and entered into the First Triumvirate, with Caesar and Pompey, to divvy up the Roman Republic. However, Crassus wanted to be more than just a rich man. He also craved military glory such as that enjoyed by his partners. Unlike them, Crassus’ main military accomplishment had been to defeat Spartacus’ slave rebellion. In Roman eyes, defeating slaves paled in comparison to Pompey’s and Caesar’s deeds. To win the glory of his own, Crassus decided to invade Parthia, a newly established wealthy kingdom that ruled Persia and Mesopotamia.
Parthia did not seem a difficult nut to crack. A decade earlier, Pompey had easily defeated other eastern kingdoms, and there was little reason to assume the Parthians would be any tougher. With an army of 50,000, Crassus went to war against Parthia in 53 BC. Things went wrong from the start. His guide, secretly in Parthian pay, took Crassus on an arid route that left his army parched and exhausted by the time they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey. There, they encountered a Parthian army of 1000 armored heavy cavalry and 9000 horse archers. It did not go well for Crassus.
Although they greatly outnumbered the Parthians, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ poor leadership. Parthian archers whittled the Romans with arrows from a safe standoff distance, and used the superior mobility afforded them by their horses to retreat to safety whenever the Romans advanced on foot. Morale plummeted as casualties mounted. Crassus finally ordered his son to drive off the horse archers with the Roman cavalry and an infantry detachment. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued and was slaughtered with all his men.
The Parthians returned, and taunted the Roman army and Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear. Crassus retreated, abandoning thousands of his wounded. The Parthians invited him to parley, and offered safe retreat in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his army threatened to mutiny if he did not negotiate. The parley went badly, violence broke out, and Crassus was killed. To mock his greed, the Parthians poured molten gold down the rich Roman’s throat. Out of his 50,000 man army, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading