Albert Tirrell Was The First Person In History To Get Off With A Sleepwalking Defense

Sometimes death is so horrific it changes history. For example, when Jane Mansfield died, car safety came under increased scrutiny and legal mandates were made to keep it from happening again. In contrast, when a woman named Maria Bickford was horrifically murdered and dismembered, her accused killer's defense opened a new kind of legality that would, in the future, change the way the accused presented their defense.

Albert Tirrell, the Sleepwalking Killer, upended the criminal process by successfully using the first sleepwalking defense. Although the jury was fairly convinced he murdered Bickford, they couldn't convict him because his lawyer successfully argued that Tirrell hadn't been conscious when he did it. Whether or not Tirrell knew what he was doing when he killed his girlfriend Maria Bickford, walking in one's sleep as a defense would soon be legal precedent for the ages. Tirrell and Bickford had a past that raised a lot of questions, however, so the truth of what happened in 1845 remains unclear.   

  • Tirrell's Lover Was Found Murdered With Her Head Almost Completely Severed

    It's unclear exactly what happened on the night of October 27, 1845, but in the still-dark early morning, the owner of a brothel, Joel Lawrence, woke up to multiple fires ablaze throughout the establishment. He fortunately had time put out the fires, but then discovered one worker's body, that of Maria Bickford. Her neck was slit from ear to ear and she was nearly decapitated. Her throat had been cut with a razor, which was found near her body, and her hair was singed by the fires. Eyewitnesses said that earlier in the evening, they had seen Bickford's lover, the 22-year-old Albert Tirrell, enter and leave the brothel where his lover lived. He became an instant suspect, particularly when it turned out he'd disappeared.


  • Tirrell Had Left His Wife And Children For A Tumultuous Affair With A Prostitute

    22-year-old Albert Tirrell was the son of a Weymouth, Massachusetts shoemaker who had also worked in state politics. Tirrell was married and had two children already but was known for his reckless behavior. When his father died in 1844, Tirrell inherited $8,000, most of which he spent on the girlfriend with whom he was having an affair behind his family's back.

    Tirrell had a left his wife and children for Maria Bickford in 1845. Bickford was a sex worker in Boston, catering to high class clients and living in a brothel. She did quite well for herself and was able to live with a maid and expensive wardrobe. Tirrell was madly in love with her and moved to Boston to be close to her. Soon the two were living together and acting as a married couple. However, once Tirrell and Bickford were living together, they began fighting, notably because Bickford didn't want to give up her profession. At one point, Bickford wrote to James in Maine and told him that Tirrell was beating her but she also told a fellow boarder that she like fighting with Tirrell because they had "such a good time making up."

  • Tirrell Had Been Arrested For Adultery Before His Lover Was Found Murdered
    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Tirrell Had Been Arrested For Adultery Before His Lover Was Found Murdered

    In 1845, Tirrell was arrested for adultery and "lascivious cohabitation," and the two split up. Tirrell's wife had brought the charges against him and the penalty could have been up to six months in prison but he talked her into dropping them, begging her in public and promising to "observe propriety in his behavior." When he got out on bail, he reportedly may have returned home briefly but then went back to the brothel to see Bickford. This was the same day that her body was later found.

  • Tirrell Fled And Tried To Escape The Country

    Tirrell, who had been seen at the brothel earlier in the day, was nowhere to be found. The evidence indicated that he had been the one to commit the crimes - there was a man's vest and cane at the scene. A witness later said that he saw Tirrell at the stable bargaining because he was "in a scrap" and needed to get away. 

    On October 28, Tirrell returned to Massachusetts before heading to Vermont on his way to Canada. Once he got to Montreal, he wrote to tell his family that he was going to Liverpool. He boarded a ship but rough weather forced it to return to New York City. From New York, he took another ship to New Orleans. Tirrell never made it to New Orleans because he was arrested on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico on or around December 5 or 6, 1845. 

  • Tirrell Was Put On Trial For Bickford's Murder In 1846

    Tirrell was sent back to Boston for trial. By the time Tirrell got back to Massachusetts, the case was receiving local and national attention. Public opinion had turned against Tirrell, in large part because he'd fled. Rufus Choate, a supporter and disciple of Daniel Webster, took interest in the sensationalized case and agreed to take Tirrell on as a client. Choate had built himself a reputation as a former politician and a popular orator as well as a successful lawyer.

    The prosecution opened up the case against Tirrell on March 26, 1846 in front of a three-judge panel. Witnesses testified that Tirrell had been at the brothel to see Bickford on the 27 of October.

  • Although The Evidence Was Stacked Against Tirrell, His Lawyer Was Clever And Relentless

    The defense began their case by attacking Bickford's reputation, insisting that Tirrell had been a reputable man before meeting her. Choate and his co-council Anniss Merrill argued that no one had seen Tirrell kill Bickford and that he had no motive.

    The defense went on to offer three different possibilities for what really happened. According to Choate and Merrill, Bickford may have killed herself...but this was highly unlikely given the extent of her wounds. Choates then suggested that someone else could have killed Bickford...plausible since no one saw the actual murder. He then offered a third potential scenario in which Tirrell did kill Bickford...but did so in his sleep, therefore he could not be held accountable for actions that occurred while unconscious.