The man suspected of committing Lewiston’s first known murder in 1870, James M. “Jim” Lowell, led a pretty ordinary existence until he suddenly became infamous, according to census and military records.

Lowell entered the world in 1841 in or near the little western Maine town of Rangeley, the only son in a farming family. He had five sisters.

His parents, William and Harriet Lowell, must have scratched out a living in a region chock full of lovely lakes and mountains, an area that in later years became a haven for outdoor recreation.

But when Lowell lived there, opportunities were scant and getting by a challenge. There were only 39 families in Rangeley in 1840, farming, fishing and lumbering in a community far from the main roads. Lowell clearly learned to read and write, almost certainly in a small schoolhouse.

Sometime during his childhood, Lowell’s family moved to Greene, where they continued to farm.

An 1891 “History of Androscoggin County, Maine” noted only that Greene’s annals “are marked by few conspicuous happenings,” but credited the “good character of solidity, sobriety, intelligence and industry” of its inhabitants for the creation of “the beautiful farms which dot its surface.”


As a youngster, Lowell once went swimming with a pal named F.E. Sleeper, who later became a doctor. Sleeper said that he sank to the bottom and would have drowned except that Lowell dove in and dragged him out of the water.

By 1860, Lowell was on his own, living in Greene and making a living as a farm laborer.

The outbreak of the Civil War the following year snatched him up in the same whirlwind that landed most of the men of his generation in uniform.

In September 1862, he enlisted in Portland as a private in the U.S. Army, destined to serve in the 23rd Maine Infantry Regiment. The unit consisted of about a thousand volunteers from Oxford and Androscoggin counties.

From his military records, it’s possible to know he was 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with blue eyes and a sandy complexion.

A record of James Lowell’s discharge paperwork from Civil War service in the 23rd Maine Infantry Regiment. National Archives

Records show the 23rd Maine Infantry left for Washington, D.C., on Oct. 18, 1862, and wound up doing guard duty in the nation’s capital, with its initial camp on Capitol Hill. After that, the unit was stationed in Maryland and ultimately at Harper’s Ferry, site of John Brown’s famous raid that helped spur the rush to war.


Lowell served in Company G, which never saw active fighting, but didn’t have it easy. Among the places its men guarded were the Seneca Quarries in western Maryland, where the stone for the original Smithsonian building came from.

William Berry Lapham’s “My Recollections of the War of the Rebellion” included a brief passage that mentioned seeing G Company nearby in “a low, sunken, malarious place” where Vermonters had been earlier.

Dotted on a little hill nearby were the white headboards making the graves of dead Vermonters, Lapham said.

“It was an important place and needed to be strictly guarded, though at great sacrifice of precious lives,” he wrote.

A fellow soldier in the 23rd Infantry, John Jackson, who lived near Auburn before he enrolled, recorded a typical schedule for the troops.

“We go on guard once in nine days and on picket about once a month,” he wrote, in a letter kept by the Notre Dame Rare Books and Special Collections.


Days began at 5:30 a.m. with reveille and roll call, then a bugle call to breakfast at 6. Guard would take positions by 7:30 a.m. and drilling would occur off and on all day, with dinner at noon and supper at 5 p.m. after a dress parade. Taps ended the day at 8:30 p.m.

“Beside this, we are required to wash every morn, wash our feet three times per week and our bodies once per week,” Jackson wrote. They had to sweep their tents daily, hang blankets out before 8 a.m. to air all day and endure inspections of their quarters daily and weapons each evening.

Saturdays were “set apart for us to wash our clothes and do our mending,” he said, explaining that it was no wonder he scarcely had time to write home.

The unit, created for only a nine-month period, disbanded on July 15, 1863, back in Portland after losing 56 men in service, all of them because of disease.

Lowell mustered out in Portland with an honorable discharge.

He married Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” (Burton) Nichol in 1867, probably in October, about two months after he’d “first picked her up on the street.”


Lowell’s cousin, Cyrus Lowell of Lewiston, said Lizzie wasn’t his cousin’s first wife. He testified that Lowell had been married before. But no details of that initial marriage ever turned up.

Lowell seems to have had a way with women that perhaps Lizzie didn’t appreciate. A friend described Lowell telling him of a time he’d met twins who worked at a mill and that he’d wound up with each of them.

In any case, Lowell and Lizzie lived in Greene off and on, once for a time with Lowell’s father on a farm, but mostly they lived in Lewiston, sometimes together.

Lowell also worked on at least a couple of occasions doing work on railroad lines in the region. He said he bought a switchblade to protect himself from a mean-spirited fellow worker on one of them.

Lizzie and Lowell never had any children with each other.

Lizzie was 28 in June 1870 when she vanished.


Sophronia Blood, Lizzie’s former employer, said Lowell showed up a couple weeks later asking for his wife’s clothes.

She refused to hand them over, though he eventually got some of Lizzie’s dresses — and promptly sold them.

By July 1870, the census listed Lowell as a boarder living alone in Lewiston, again calling him a farm laborer.

Lydia Murray, an older woman who was a friend of Lizzie’s family, told the Journal that Lowell had been “tried for stealing Mrs. McDonald’s hay,” but she did not know the outcome of the case.

Charged in the fall of 1872 with swiping seven tons of hay from Michael McDonald of Greene, Lowell pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a $50 fine. It’s not clear if he ever did.

It appears that he moved out of Maine in the wake of the case, landing in Lawrence, Massachusetts, with his new wife, with whom he had a son. He secured a job there delivering goods for a mill, the task he was doing when a Lewiston police officer rounded him up in October 1873.

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

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