Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn. Steve Collins/ Sun Journal

The Androscoggin County Courthouse, constructed in 1857, is a magnificent Renaissance Revival structure with red brick walls, a steep roof and an octagonal clock tower. It was perhaps the most impressive building in the county, located in the growing town of Auburn, just across the river from Lewiston.

Though people in each municipality clung to their separate identities, they also thought of Lewiston and Auburn as something akin to non-identical twins, joined forever with a special bond but always different from one another.

Harris Plaisted, Maine’s attorney general, led the prosecution of James Lowell for the murder of his wife. Maine State Museum

But on Jan. 24, 1874, the crowd gathered in the courtroom focused its attention on James Lowell, who “appeared well and composed, though naturally somewhat bleached by his three months’ imprisonment” as he awaited a report from the grand jury.

Lowell had a heavy moustache, dark coat and vest, light pants. He held a black Kossuth hat.

Maine’s attorney general, Harris Plaisted, had ventured from Bangor to Lewiston at New Year’s to work on the case. He intended, as everyone expected, to prosecute the case himself. He didn’t have teams of lawyers at his disposal like the state’s chief lawyers later came to enjoy. It was just Plaisted, a lawyer with a stellar Civil War record and a penchant for politics.

He anticipated the trial would kick off on the third Tuesday of January and last until about the beginning of February. But things got a bit delayed.


On the 24th, though, Plaisted and the county attorney, George Wing, sat in the courtroom as counsel for the state. Lowell had two lawyers as well, Eben Pillsbury, a Democratic politician from western Maine, and Mandeville Ludden. Only Ludden was in the courtroom that day, however.

Judge Charles Walton presided as the grand jury presented its indictment of Lowell for the murder of Mary Elizabeth Lowell. Plaisted wasted no time asking for the arraignment of the prisoner.

The clerk, David Atwood, addressed the accused.

“James M. Lowell, stand up,” Atwood said, “Harken to an indictment found against you by the Grand Inquest for the body of this county.”

Atwood proceeded to read: “As the Supreme Judicial Court begun and holden at Auburn within the County of Androscoggin, on the third Tuesday of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy four — The Jurors for said State upon their oath present that James M. Lowell of Lewiston, in the County of Androscoggin and State of Maine, on the twelfth day of June in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy, at Lewiston aforesaid, in the County of Androscoggin aforesaid, in and upon the body of one Mary Elizabeth Lowell, feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault, and her, the said Mary Elizabeth Lowell, then and there feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder, against the peace of said State, and contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided.”

“A true bill,” the clerk added, by “Josiah G. Coburn, foreman.”


The formality of the reading out of the way, Atwood eyed Lowell standing before him.

“What say you to this indictment: are you guilty thereof? Or not guilty?”

Lowell answered simply, “Not guilty.”

The Journal said he spoke in “a firm and self-possessed manner with a voice audible through the courtroom.”

Lowell was told that counsel would be assigned to assist him. He answered that he had already been advised by Pillsbury, an Augusta attorney, and Ludden, of Lewiston. He asked that they continue to represent him. The court agreed.

Plaisted asked for a start date for the trial. The judge said it would begin Tuesday, Feb. 10, at 10 a.m.


D.D. Coombs drew this picture of J.D. Pulsifer, whose firm recorded most of the details of the legal proceedings involving James Lowell for lengthy accounts in the Lewiston Evening Journal. John W. May’s Inside the Bar, 1890

Ludden asked, and the judge ordered, that Lowell be given a copy of the indictment and a list of witnesses who had appeared before the grand jury.

Passing on the day’s events to its readers, the Lewiston Evening Journal opined that “the peculiar nature of the evidence promises to render the case of special interest.”

The Journal got ready for the challenge ahead, determined to produce the sort of wall-to-wall coverage that would make its daily issues invaluable, and cement its hold as the place to find out what was going on.

It hired Edward Page Mitchell as a reporter to help cope with the gap created by owner Nelson Dingley Jr.’s election as governor, which clearly posed some logistical issues for his continued day-to-day involvement in the paper he purchased in 1857.

The hoopla surrounding the Lowell case would be Mitchell’s first, and biggest, challenge.

Before the trial got underway, the Journal told readers to get their orders in early for extra copies. It also promised to have J.D. Pulsifer’s stenographers at the trial to provide a complete report each evening of what transpired in the courtroom.

This is the 14th chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: