Rufus Choate first used the sleepwalking defense successfully in a sensational 19th-century trial for a man accused of murdering a prostitute. A brilliant trial lawyer, Choate had a reputation for never losing a case.
He was born in Ipswich, Mass., on Oct. 1, 1799 to an old New England family. His birthplace, Choate House, still sits on Hog Island (sometimes called Choate Island) in Ipswich virtually unchanged.
He graduated as class valedictorian from Dartmouth College and spent a year at Harvard Law School. He was an orator, lawyer, U.S. senator from Massachusetts and a strong ally of fellow Dartmouth graduate Daniel Webster.
Biographers have made note of his defining characteristic: He threw himself into whatever task lay before him.
While he matriculated at Dartmouth, the state of New Hampshire tried to annul the school’s charter and make it a public university. In the midst of the controversy, Choate took the 2,000 books of Dartmouth’s library from a state-owned building and stored them in his room. That led to his arrest and further inflamed the dispute. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Dartmouth, which didn’t want to lose its charter as a private institution. Daniel Webster argued the case, which convinced Choate to pursue a career in law.
He followed his mentor, Daniel Webster, to the U.S. Senate, first serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Massachusetts Legislature.
Perhaps nothing he did earned him as much celebrity as his defense of 22-year-old Albert Tirrell. Tirrell came from a respectable family in Weymouth, Mass. He was married with two children, but in 1845 he left his family for Maria Bickford, 21, a Boston prostitute. They lived together in her Mount Vernon Street brothel as man and wife. However, she never abandoned her profession.
Tirrell wasn’t happy about Maria’s choice not to retire. On Oct. 27, 1845, she was found murdered in her room, her throat slashed so savagely her head was nearly separated from her body. Tirrell fled to New Orleans. Ten days later he was arrested and brought to Boston for trial.
The evidence against him was strong. Not only had he been seen entering and leaving the brothel, bits of his clothes and his cane were found at the crime scene. The Boston newspapers sensationalized the trial, concluding Tirrell was guilty.
The Sleepwalking Defense
His parents hired Rufus Choate to defend him. Choate argued no one had witnessed the crime, and all the evidence was circumstantial. Further, he argued Tirrell had no motive to kill Mary Bickford, but if he did, he would have done it while sleepwalking. Little was known about sleepwalking then, and Choate read to the jury accounts of violent actions by sleepwalkers. He concluded his closing argument with a rhetorical flourish:
Every juror, when he puts into the urn the verdict of guilty, writes upon it also, — Let him die… Under the iron law of old Rome, it was the custom to bestow a civic wreath on him who should save the life of a citizen. Do your duty this day, gentlemen, and you too, may deserve the civic crown.
The jury took two hours to deliver a not guilty verdict on March 30, 1846. Tirrell then tried to get a refund of half of Choate’s legal fees because his innocence was so obvious.
Rufus Choate died at age 59 on July 13, 1859.
Images: Photo of Rufus Choate by Southworth & Hawes, Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Gift of Sam Pratt. Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Choate House By Cody Carlson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9511587. This story was updated in 2023.