On Saturday afternoon of the first week of the trial, the prosecution, relying on 50 witnesses, finished presenting its carefully constructed case accusing James M. “Jim” Lowell of murdering his wife in 1870.

The government introduced as evidence a headless skeleton, a Farmer’s Almanac, buttons, remnants of a dress, cinnamon-colored pants that it alleged Lowell had dripped blood on and a number of letters written by Lowell.

The courthouse in Auburn, as depicted in an 1875 map. The jail is attached on the right. Maine Historic Preservation Commission

Just when it seemed the case had been fully made, Maine Attorney General Harris Plaisted handed Judge Charles Walton a few obscene letters that Lowell had written to Nellie Garland, a female prisoner at the jail in Auburn.

A jailer apparently discovered them in Garland’s dress pocket on Christmas Day.

The letters proved nothing about the case at hand, but they did show that Lowell had a way with the fairer sex, at least when he wasn’t whipping, hitting or shoving them.

The judge ended the day with a suggestion to the jury that its members attend church the next day. He said they should try to settle on one place to go so that its minister could be told ahead of time and refrain from mentioning anything of the case.


That Sunday, the entire jury walked in a line, with deputies in front and behind them, to the High Street Universalist Church to listen to a sermon on “The Love and Retribution of God” and then, surprisingly, headed off as a group to catch a second service at the Hampshire Street Methodist Church, where they heard about the consequences of evil.

On Monday, the defense made its case that Lowell had not killed his wife, Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie’ Lowell. Faced with the typical problem of trying to prove a negative, Lowell’s attorneys sought to raise doubts about the identity of the skeleton and Lowell’s actions.

They found one man, a DeWitt House employee, Wilmot Nelson, who swore he’d seen Lizzie in the company of circus people at the hotel before her disappearance and on the train platform leaving with them.

He seemed honest enough, but was he mistaken? That would be up to the jury to decide.

Plaisted, though, had no doubt. Outside the notice of the jury, he had the man locked up at the Auburn jail for perjury, though he freed Nelson the next day without bringing a formal charge.

The only other notable moment came when Dr. Alonzo Garcelon, the man responsible for starting the Lewiston Falls Journal in 1847, testified on the difficulties of learning anything useful from a pile of bones, at one point holding a skull as if he were on the stage of “Hamlet.”


He said it was impossible to tell if anyone had severed the missing head from the rest of the body, but on cross-examination he readily admitted, as the Journal put it, “that he never saw a grown-up skeleton that had not, at some time, possessed a head.”

Another eagerly awaited moment came Monday, Feb. 16, 1874, when Lowell rose from his chair, walked to the witness stand beside Judge Charles Walton and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

His testimony came as no surprise to anyone. It matched the tale he’d told Journal Editor Frank Dingley months earlier.

The Journal’s reporter on the scene, Edward Page Mitchell, said, “There can be no question but that he made a favorable impression,” speaking “in a quiet, gentlemanly manner, and with every appearance of sincerity and truthfulness.”

It probably helped him at least a little that his wife in Lawrence, Mary Lowell, recovered from an illness and could sit at his side on the final day of the trial.

“She wept frequently,” the Journal said, “and her modest and devoted demeanor” attracted much sympathy.


Eben Pillsbury, a prominent politician and among Maine’s best-known lawyers, helped defend James Lowell against charges he had murdered his wife in 1870. The Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee)

Both Plaisted and Lowell’s attorney, Eben Pillsbury, delivered lengthy closing statements before Judge Walton addressed the jury about its responsibility to determine whether Lowell should be found guilty of murder or allowed to walk out of the courtroom a free man.

Walton said the government’s case relied “entirely upon what is denominated circumstantial evidence,” which can be “as satisfactory in many cases as direct evidence.”

But, he said, “it undoubtedly requires greater care, and a higher degree of intelligence to weigh circumstantial evidence correctly.”

Judge Walton said the jury did not have to be entirely convinced of Lowell’s guilt, for that standard would leave justice paralyzed, but must be sure “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he murdered his wife in order to find him guilty.

The judge also told jurors they should not consider what fate their verdict might entail for Lowell. That, he said, would ultimately fall to the hands of the governor.

“You may now retire, gentlemen, and consider your verdict,” Judge Walton said. “Sift the evidence carefully, weigh it conscientiously, and return such a verdict as you believe to be right.”


As the jury prepared to convene, someone handed its foreman a leather pouch with the letters Lowell had written. The court thoughtfully included a magnifying glass to help anyone wishing to study details.

The judge asked jury members if they wanted the bones brought into the jury room. None expressed a desire.

“Let the bones remain here,” Judge Walton then proclaimed, where they had apparently been on display for several days.

The Journal noted that every word from the attorney general and every sentence uttered by the judge “were regarded as a sheer waste of time by many of the impatient hangers-on at the trial.”

“They wanted a verdict,” it said, “and they wanted it right away.”

This is the 20th chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

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