7. America’s First Sleepwalking Defense
Rufus Choate argued at the trial of Albert Tirrell that his client was a chronic sleepwalker, and that 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 Tirrell had seemed to be in a trance on the morning of the murder, and that he sounded weird and appeared “in a strange state, as if asleep, or crazy“. Another witness testified that he spoke with Tirrell when he arrived in his hometown of Weymouth, and that the defendant claimed that sought to flee 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 as professional practiced in the arts of romance, she had ensnared the hitherto innocent Tirrell with her charms and seduced him away from his wife and children. Then, probably guilt stricken at what she had done, she committed suicide. As Choate pointed out, courtesans often killed 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 a recent proliferation of “fallen women” who handed 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.