Prosecutors faced a tough legal challenge in their quest to convict James M. “Jim” Lowell for the murder of his wife.

To begin with, they faced the necessity of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the headless skeleton found in the woods along the Switzerland Road was all that remained of Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lowell, the 28-year-old woman who vanished in June 1870.

If it wasn’t her, after all, then Lowell could hardly be held responsible for the murder.

Since this was long before experts could test DNA or turn to a host of other scientific measures to provide help, proving the bones belonged to Lizzie was inherently going to have to rely on two things: that she was gone and that the clothing found with the skeleton was hers.

Criminal Law Magazine said that to hang Lowell, the prosecution would necessarily have to rely on a host of women who both noticed her clothing while she still walked the streets of Lewiston and could recall enough about it to build a case.

But the all-male jury, judge and lawyers were not necessarily going to be an easy sell on that point.


“In such a flood of volunteer feminine testimony,” the magazine said, “it behooved state and jury to be cautious.”

Beyond proving the identity of the remains, prosecutors needed to do two more things: establish that Lowell could well have killed her and that he had the opportunity to do so.

To pull that off, the prosecution would have to pile up enough evidence of earlier, serious and violent problems between husband and wife. They would have to show that Lowell, who generally appeared mild-mannered, had another side.

They would rely on testimony from friends, relatives and neighbors to try to establish that Lowell had acted violently toward Lizzie in the past and that he had threatened her life as well.

Finally, they had to show that on the day Lizzie disappeared in Lewiston, Lowell had likely played a role. They had to prove, in short, that he’d been on or near the murder site on the Sunday evening in June when many witnesses indicated she had gone missing.

The Criminal Law Magazine pointed out that the case was “exclusively cumulative,” that each piece depended on proving the one that came before.


In the final picture, the whole case was inherently circumstantial.

Authorities never found anyone who saw Lowell kill his wife. They had no one ready to testify that he’d admitted guilt in the months and years that followed.

What they had was a bunch of bones, evidence of fights and threats, and people who were ready to say they’d seen Lowell and Lizzie out riding on the night in question, heading in the direction of the place where the body turned up three and half years later.

For Lowell’s defense lawyers, the case was in many ways simpler.

They had to find a way to yank the foundation out of a carefully constructed case that could be toppled by casting enough doubt on any piece of it.

Everything about it left room for questions and debate, one reason it resonated so deeply with the public.


Lewiston Evening Journal reporter Edward Page Mitchell, a recent Bowdoin College graduate, began a long, storied career in journalism by covering the Lowell trial in Auburn in the late 1800s, writing up his accounts in longhand each day. ‘Memoirs of an Editor: Fifty Years of American Journalism’

Long before the trial’s beginning, the Lewiston Evening Journal reported, “every entry way and staircase in the courthouse was packed with a struggling crowd. Large, strong and audacious individuals had the evident advantage in the contest for admission, and more than one timorous excitement seeker became disgusted with rush and melee, and retired to his more comfortable yet less sensational fireside.”

The sheriff, Thomas Littlefield, kept busy trying to keep order and “sending out small boys who had smuggled themselves into seats advantageously located, while good citizens and taxpayers were perspiring on foot,” the Journal said.

The paper noted that opening days of trials rarely attract a crowd “for people know that there is much tedium and little excitement in the preliminary formalities of arraignment and empaneling” a jury.

By 10:15 a.m., though, “the floor of the courtroom was packed with men as thick as sardines in a box. None the less eager and expectant were the ladies who filled the gallery, and who looked down upon the unhappy crowd below with the consciousness of unquestioned vantage of position,” the paper’s Edward Page Mitchell reported.

The jostling for space calmed when the Rev. E. Martin of Auburn rose to speak. He offered a prayer for a just and impartial proceeding.

From the bench, Judge Charles Walton, a former congressman, asked the sheriff to bring in the prisoner, which he proceeded to do.


Lowell took a seat and looked around “with easy independence,” the Journal said. “He did not appear the worse for his long confinement, was neatly attired and clean shaven, except for his heavy black moustache.”

After a hearty breakfast, Lowell had asked the sheriff if he would send a barber to spruce him up, the paper said, and the man provided “some artistic touches,” including coloring the moustache, to make Lowell presentable.

“The prisoner continues to express himself as confident of acquittal,” the Journal added.

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

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