It didn’t take long for the community to guess the likely identity of the body found in the woods on that fall day in 1873 when a headless skeleton turned up in the woods north of Lewiston.

An advertisement for the Great Australian Circus that appeared in the Lewiston Evening Journal in June 1870. Steve Collins

Many recalled that a 28-year-old married woman had disappeared the night of June 12, 1870. Her friends hadn’t heard from her since and most had given her up for dead.

When the Lewiston Evening Journal reported the skeleton of a woman had been found near the Switzerland Road, women in town “said with one accord: ‘I think that’s Mrs. Lowell’s remains,’” the Journal noted.

Former City Marshal Oscar Douglass had “made every effort in his power to find some trace of her, but without success,” the paper said.

Now, though, it appeared Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lowell, minus her head, had been found.

As it happened, most everyone in Lewiston remembered the day Lowell vanished, despite the 1,220 days that had passed since anyone had seen her.


On Saturday night on June 11, 1870, The Great Australian Circus, one of many traveling shows that crisscrossed the country in those days, came to town. Under a waterproof pavilion, it promised “never-failing amusement and entertainment,” with new costumes, beautiful horses and educated mules.

Its advertising bragged that it was “free from all the objectionable characters which mark exhibitions of a promiscuous nature” and insisted its performances were “patronized by the elite” and “countenanced by ladies.”

For a mere 50 cents — half that for children under 10 — patrons could watch La Petite Katie, a child rider; Hiram Day, a clown famed for his quizzical wit; the “Celebrated Kincaide Family,” renowned as riders, acrobats and vaulters; and more. The circus insisted it was “a show worth your money.”

Since the circus will crop up again, it’s worth noting that it disbanded a month later in Brooklyn when several of its key performers were tossed in debtors’ prison. The circus treasurer simultaneously ran off with $4,000 and its animals were shipped to Canada, according to a story in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in July 1870.

Most of the creatures it had displayed had come from the menagerie collected by Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, a younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. Deposed in 1867, Mexico sentenced the unfortunate leader to death. He gave every member of the firing squad a gold coin not to shoot him in the head, so his mother could see his corpse.

In those days, the existence of both circuses and emperors was precarious.


Whether the circus in Lewiston lived up to its hype is hard to say, but its presence was inextricably tied in public memory to a shocking event that occurred early the next day.

At 4 a.m. that Sunday morning, just hours after the last circus performance, a blaze broke out in George W. Garcelon’s drug store in the Central Hall building at the corner of Lisbon and Main streets, right in the heart of downtown. The big brick building had eight stores on the ground floor, a huge hall upstairs and the offices of the city’s municipal government.

In short, it was a thriving centerpiece of a growing community.

The old City Block before the 1870 fire, with Garcelon’s pharmacy on the street level at the corner of Lisbon and Main streets. Androscoggin Historical Society

The fire spread through the structure with marvelous efficiency, the Journal said. It consumed a book store and began melting window glass, which dripped onto the sidewalk.

Though the hoses of firefighters gushed water onto the flames, the inferno won out, eventually breaking through the roof and turning walls to ash. Soon enough, floor timbers gave way and the interior collapsed with a thundering crash. Unsupported, the stone and brick walls followed, tumbling into the street below as a giant crowd watched in horror and awe.

The Lewiston Evening Journal, whose brick building stood next door, just 15 feet away, barely survived.


“The heat was so great as to melt the rollers on the Journal’s presses,” the paper said the next day. Firefighters stood on its roof and directed water on the smoldering debris next door.

By 10 a.m., the only thing left were damp ashes, fiery flare-ups, smashed masonry and piles of debris.

The ruins of the Central Block, which burned on June 12, 1870, the same day that Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lowell vanished. Lewiston Public Library

The pride of the city was utterly destroyed, a perfect picture of desolation, as the Journal put it.

Most everyone in town went by to look at the scene and marvel at the melancholy mess.

Among the gawkers? Lizzie.

Lydia Blethen, a friend of Lizzie for a few years, recalled going to see Central Hall in the middle of the afternoon. “There were smoke and ruins,” she said, but the flames had died down.


She said she saw Lizzie there, too, on the sidewalk across the street in front of a woolen mill’s boarding house on Main Street. The two chatted for 15 or 20 minutes.

Sophronia Blood, who ran another boarding house, knew Lizzie quite well and also recalled seeing her friend that day.

Blood told a reporter that the day of the big fire, Lizzie came to see the ruins after she’d finished her work.

“She was on the opposite side from the burning ruins,” Blood said.

This is the third chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

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