Chapter 17: The murder trial begins

It took only two hours on a cold winter’s day in Auburn to pick the 12 men who would serve on the jury that would decide the fate of accused killer James M. “Jim” Lowell.

Eben Pillsbury, the defendant’s well-known lawyer, knocked a few potential jurors off the panel when they seemed to have read a bit too much of the extensive coverage the murder case had garnered, perhaps not trusting assurances that they carried no bias toward Lowell.

Each man who passed muster swore an oath “to well and truly try and true deliverance make” a decision based on the evidence presented.

The court clerk also told Lowell and each juror in turn, “Prisoner, look upon the juror; juror, look upon the prisoner,” cementing the personal choices at the heart of the legal proceeding.

The chosen jury had three men from Lewiston, including its foreman, Cyrus Greeley, a well-known contractor and builder; two from both Lisbon and Minot; and one apiece from Leeds, Durham, Turner, Poland and Auburn. Most were farmers.

The Elm House, the best hotel in Auburn in the 19th century, was where the jurors were sequestered during the murder trial of James M. “Jim” Lowell. City of Auburn

Judge Charles Walton told the men they would be sequestered through the trial, “kept together, under charge of officers,” until discharged after they reached a verdict. They were put up each night at The Elm House, Auburn’s main hotel, sleeping two to a room along a hallway with a guard outside. Every morning, the court sent over a barber to give any juror who wanted one a shave.

The judge told the 12 men to keep their thoughts on the case to themselves until they began deliberating at its conclusion.

All the while, Journal reporter Edward Page Mitchell noted, Lowell appeared “the most disinterested spectator in the room. He showed no emotion. Only once did he even speak briefly with Pillsbury.

“He sat there, the two hours, noticing nobody and hardly noticed,” the Journal said in its account later that day on Feb. 10, 1874.

With the jury picked, the court took a lunch break, ready to begin in earnest in the afternoon, when Androscoggin County attorney George Wing would outline how prosecutors intended to prove that Lowell had murdered his wife, Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lowell, on June 12, 1870, in Lewiston.

Shortly before 2 p.m., with the courtroom in the Auburn courthouse packed, mostly with women, a clerk read the indictment against Lowell and told the jurors he had pleaded not guilty.

The clerk told the jurors that Lowell “has put himself upon the country, which country you are. You are now sworn to try the issue. If he is guilty, you will say so. If he is not guilty, you will say so and no more.”

“Gentlemen of the jury, ye good men and true, stand together and hearken to your evidence!” the clerk concluded.

Androscoggin County attorney George Wing built the strong, circumstantial case against James M. “Jim” Lowell that convinced a jury to find the accused man guilty in 1874. Wing later became a judge. Lewiston Evening Journal

With that, Wing stood and faced the jury.

“The twelfth of June 1870 was some time ago,” Wing declared, “but there are events the dates of which are never forgotten. Who forgets the date of the birth of a dear child, the death of a friend or that of his own marriage?”

“A circumstance occurred on this twelfth of June which bridges over the lapse of years and fixes it for a generation,” Wing said. “That was the night on which Central Hall, the pride of Lewiston, was burned. It was an event of importance and made an impression on all persons interested in it,” Wing said.

Then he shifted gears.

“It is unnecessary to define the word murder,” Wing said. “Mothers tell their children of the first murder, and that serves for life as a type of such cases. Everybody knows what a murder is.”

Then he pulled together the two points: that prosecutors would prove that Lowell murdered his wife, Lizzie, on June 12, 1870.

Wing, who had gathered all the evidence for the trial, ran through the familiar story of what the government suspected occurred that day, including the observation that “Lowell came with a team” of horses “and took his wife away. From that day to this, as far as can be learned, she has never been seen alive.”

Wing told the jury about a woodcutter finding a skeleton in a spot “more than a mile from any human habitation, in either direction.”

“The dreariness of the spot is beyond description,” Wing added, some 200 feet from the bank of the Androscoggin River and almost as far from the Switzerland Road nearby.

Wing said he would prove the clothing found with the bones belonged to Lizzie, that the skeleton was about her height and that it had been in the woods between two and 10 years.

“The woman was murdered,” he declared. “The body was found in a position of repose, but one thing was absent. Her head was gone. And never, with all the search which has been made, has it been found.”

“Acres of ground have been scoured by parties interested and parties in hopes of a reward,” Wing said, yet the skull had never turned up.

Wing said he would prove, too, that Lowell and Lizzie’s marriage “had been unpleasant all along,” with “frequent and open disturbances” and cruelty openly displayed by Lowell against his wife.

“He had every opportunity for the murder. He had her in the carriage, in the night, and away from her place of abode,” the county attorney said. “She was seen by three different persons to start out to ride with him — and she has never been seen alive since.”

Wing admitted he had no direct proof that Lowell killed Lizzie but the prosecution would show there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to satisfy the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Lowell should be held responsible.

This is the 17th chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.


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