Short Reads

America’s First Known Sleepwalking Killer

Was the man a victim of circumstance or a clever killer?

Ben Kageyama
4 min readOct 20, 2020

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“The Boston Tragedy” (1846), By The National Police Gazette, Wikimedia Commons

They say that “sleep is the cousin of death.” And I suppose as relatives; they have reunions from time to time.

The first-ever case of that union, at least according to American legal history, was in “The Boston Tragedy” of 1846. This was the first of many future cases of sleepwalking-murders.

The Incident

Albert Tirrell was born into a wealthy family from Weymouth, Massachusetts. In his early twenties, he was already married with two kids under his care. But Albert was no family man.

He was a known adulterer and eventually left his family in 1845 for a certain Maria Bickford.

Maria was a sex worker, living in a Boston brothel. She and Albert had a whirlwind romance and became constant companions, living together as husband and wife. Although happy, reports state that the wealthy man and sex worker had quite an unhealthy relationship. Maria even once disclosed to a friend that she relished their quarrels because they had “such a good time making up.”

And most of their arguments stemmed from Maria’s decision to continue her profession, much to Albert’s dislike.

One night, loud noises came from her room, and fellow boarders found Maria brutally murdered on her bed. Albert was the last person with her before the incident, so the authorities charged him with murder.

The Evidence

Prosecutors claimed that on October 27, 1845, Albert visited Maria’s bedroom after her last customer for the evening. He then took a razor and slit her throat from one side to the other. When Maria’s body was found, her head was nearly decapitated.

After murdering Maria, Albert allegedly tried to set fire to the brothel, starting with his lover’s bed. The smell of something burning is what alerted fellow boarders to the scene.

Investigators also found several people who testified seeing Albert enter and exit the brothel during the period of the incident. When officers tried to arrest him, they discovered that he had already fled.

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