One of the oddities of the murder case brought against James M. “Jim” Lowell in 1873 is that, despite an astonishing swirl of coverage from newspapers across the land, nobody ever gave much attention to the woman Lowell was accused of killing.

Mary Elizabeth (Burton) Lowell remained little more than a whisper in the wind, her skeleton in the woods the most solid fact that anyone mentioned about her.

Through the legal proceedings, she emerged as the buyer of a dress and a woman with fast friends and perhaps loose morals, at least by the standards of the time.

Five and half feet tall and vivacious enough to attract attention, Lizzie may have been flirtatious.

What is more certain is that she was almost certainly abused both verbally and physically by Lowell and probably others.

But nobody seems to have bothered to find out much of anything about her, as if the 28 years of her existence could be fairly summed up with a few stray factoids and the hard glare of the courtroom focused on her obviously difficult relationship with Lowell.


It isn’t even clear where Lizzie was born, though it appears virtually certain she grew up in the little rural farming communities on the east bank of the Penobscot River across from Bangor.

Her mother, Sarah Elizabeth Burton, lived in East Holden in the 1870s, a widow whose husband had died on Dec. 7, 1867. Sarah Burton appears to have been from Bucksport originally.

Burton had at least five children, including Lizzie and Georgia, born in 1856. Lizzie was born on Feb. 28, 1842, according to testimony by her mother at Lowell’s inquest.

Nothing solid is known of Lizzie’s early life.

Welcome sign in Eddington, Maine. Steve Collins/ Sun Journal

The first fact to emerge about her is that she married a trapper named John Nichols at her mother’s house in Eddington in October 1858, when Lizzie was 16 years old.

Nichols is another uncertainty in this tale. All we know of him is that “his business was hunting in the winter and working on the river in the summer,” Burton said. He also “kept dogs and guns,” she added, which lends credence to the notion that he was Maine-bred himself.


It appears that Lizzie and her new husband lived happily in Eddington after their marriage.

Burton said the couple had two children. Lowell said Lizzie told him once that she had twins and another child, all of whom died young.

Burton said her daughter and Nichols were content with each other, but things went awry for them when the Civil War broke out.

Burton said Nichols “went off” to California about 1863 without her daughter because he “was afraid of the draft.”

She said she loaned him the money to take off.

Many young men across the North were at the time conscripted to serve in the Union armies fighting mercilessly to prevent the slaveholding South from seceding from the United States. Nichols was far from the only fellow to take off for the West to avoid the prospect of battle.


Burton said Nichols never did anything to support his wife back home in Maine, but he eventually did pay off her loan to him.

Lizzie apparently moved to Lewiston after the Civil War ended in 1865. She likely had a son with her at the time, who would have been at least 4 years old.

Lizzie returned to her mother’s home for a time, though. Burton said she “sent for her when her child died.”

Lowell said he married Lizzie in October 1867, two months after he met her. Burton knew nothing about it until the following year.

At the time of their wedding, Lizzie was almost certainly still legally married to Nichols, who returned to Maine about a year later but never made any known effort to find Lizzie. Burton said he knew she was in Lewiston.

“There was never any divorce between these parties that I know of,” Burton testified at Lowell’s trial.


During her few years in Lewiston, Lizzie worked at least a few different jobs, including washing clothing for “ladies at the college” when she lived near Bates College, cleaning and housekeeping at a boarding house, and doing something at the Continental mills, one of the city’s big employers.

The troubles that later arose between Lizzie and Lowell are, clearly, a key part of this story, dealt with elsewhere.

But they weren’t always unhappy.

Lowell once mentioned that the two “often went to ride together, seeking some unfrequented road by mutual wish and desire, as better suited for our purposes, which were of the most friendly character.”

If only they had always been that way.

This is the 15th chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

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