Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn as it looked about the time of the Lowell trial in the late 1800s.

The trial of James M. “Jim” Lowell took 10 days.

Though Lowell initially gave an appearance of indifference to the proceedings, by the second day he began “with eager and almost nervous attention: watching and listening to everything, the Lewiston Evening Journal said.

“He follows every word of the testimony and hears the points which tell against him with an expression of mirthful incredulity,” the paper reported.

The crowds coming to watch grew each day, the Journal said, leaving “very short men and very timid women” at a disadvantage, the men for “obvious physical reasons” while the women were “snubbed, crowded and squelched by more assured representatives of their own sex.”

Though the judge, lawyers and jury were all men, the first seven witnesses called were all women who came across as “clear, distinct and unhesitating” as they told the court what they remembered of the missing Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lowell, her wardrobe and her husband, the accused killer.

Much time was consumed building a case that the body found in the woods in 1873 was all that remained of Lowell, who had vanished on June 12, 1870.


After the women, experts with dubious qualifications testified about everything from Lowell’s handwriting to the age of the bones that John Small discovered in the Switzerland Road woodlot four months earlier.

Lots of people took the stand to discuss Lizzie’s wardrobe.

It was, for the most, dull stuff, seemingly to the surprise of both the audience that flocked to the Auburn courthouse and the community that had been transfixed for months by the case.

The 12 men on the jury likely heard more about plaits, buttonholes, fringe, sewing techniques and women’s fashion during the trial than they had ever listened to it in all the years preceding their service at the courthouse.

Much of it was probably unnecessary.

When seamstress Delia Clark detailed how she’d made a dress for Lizzie that matched the one found with the headless skeleton, which included several unique features, nobody in the courtroom could possibly have doubted whose black silk “trail dress” lay in the brush beside the bones.


Clark examined the cloth closely and pronounced the found remnants must have come from the dress she made.

The high point of the trial, without a doubt, occurred just before Maine Attorney General Harris Plaisted called Thomas Dwight, an anatomy professor at Bowdoin College who became the father of forensic anthropology, to take the stand.

Androscoggin County attorney George Wing said that after Richardson delivered to him a skeleton, one show and a corset spring, he “carried them to Boston” and delivered them directly to Dwight, who had studied them for several months.

Just before Dwight took the stand, a great commotion stirred the courtroom.

Under Dwight’s supervision, four men lugged the skeleton at the heart of the case.

It came in sections, with the handlers carefully arranging the bones on a large table set in the middle of the courtroom. The spine and bones from the hands had been embedded in putty and displayed on boards.


Lowell “gazed intently” on the remains, the Journal said, breathed hard and compressed his lips.

Thomas Dwight Harvard University

When Dwight testified, one of the first times an expert on the subject had been allowed to present his finding in court, he told the jury the skeleton was “unquestionably female, as demonstrated by the general lightness of the bones, and particularly by the size and shape of the pelvis, not to speak of the character of the garments in which we found it encased.”

Dwight guessed they belonged to a woman about Lizzie’s height and age and had been in the woods between two and 10 years. He said she was between 25 and 35 years old.

His experience led him to write “The Identification of the Human Skeleton,” a pathbreaking work that included his observation that “it is for the jury, not the expert, to decide on the identity of the skeleton; it is for the expert to show if the identity is possible or probable” and no more.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle put aside the dry, technical language from Dwight to focus on the bigger picture of what had transpired.

The paper called “the skeleton of the unfortunate victim, which had been for more than three years moldering in the dim forest, the most extraordinary piece of evidence ever presented to a court of justice, and one which sent a thrill of superstitious terror through the throng of men and women present.”


“What must have been the feelings of the wretched man — whether innocent or guilty — when these dumb, and yet eloquent relics of one he had once vowed to cherish, and whose loving smile and sympathetic voice must yet linger among his remembrances of a joysome past were produced, is left for the imagination to picture,” the Brooklyn paper said.

“For in spite of the dreadful concatenation of circumstances, which little by little seemed to lift the veil of mystery from that darksome death scene in the shadowy woods, in spite of the evidence of licentiousness, which might have brought a blush to the cheek of the most hardened libertine, Lowell sat careless and indifferent in manner, and apparently the least interested spectator in that crowded room, giving no sign of remorse, regret, or other human feeling.

“That this indifference is simulated there can be no doubt; but that it is indicative of guilt, or innocence, can only be determined now by the inscrutable wisdom of the jury on which the prosecution and defense alike rely,” the Brooklyn paper concluded.

This is the 19th chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

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