Chapter 17: The Murder Trial Begins

Sept. 11 — It took only two hours on a cold winter’s day in Auburn to select the 12 men who would serve on the jury that would decide the fate of accused murderer James M. “Jim” Lowell.

Eben Pillsbury, the defendant’s well-known attorney, threw some potential jurors off the panel when they appeared to have read a little too much into the extensive coverage the murder case had garnered, perhaps distrusting assurances that they had no bias against Lowell.

Each man who passed through the gathering vowed to “try well and truly and get true liberation” a decision based on the evidence presented.

The bailiff also told Lowell and each juror in turn, “Prisoner, look at the jury; Juror, look at the prisoner,” cementing personal choices at the heart of the legal process.

The committee selected had three men from Lewiston, including its foreman, Cyrus Greeley, a well known contractor and builder. two from Lisbon and Minot. and one each from Leeds, Durham, Turner, Poland and Auburn. Most were farmers.

Judge Charles Walton told the men they would be bound over during the trial, “to be kept together, under the charge of the officers” until they were released after reaching a verdict. They were put up every night at The Elm House, Auburn’s main hotel, sleeping two to a room along a corridor with a guard outside. Every morning, the court sent a barber to shave any juror he wanted.

The judge told the 12 men to keep their thoughts about the case to themselves until they begin discussing its conclusion.

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

“He sat there, the two hours, noticing no one, and hardly noticed,” the newspaper reported in its account later that day, on February 10, 1874.

With the jury selected, the court adjourned for lunch, ready to begin the afternoon in earnest, when Androscoggin County District Attorney George Wing would outline how prosecutors intended to prove that Lowell had murdered his wife, Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie.” Lowell, in June. 12, 1870, in Lewiston.

Just before 2 p.m., with the Auburn courtroom packed, mostly women, an official read the indictment against Lowell and told jurors he had pleaded not guilty.

The clerk told jurors that Lowell “has put himself in the country, what country are you. You are now sworn to try the matter. If he is guilty, you will say so. If he is not guilty, you will say it, and NO more.”

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

With that, Wing stood and faced the jury.

“June twelfth, 1870, was a long time ago,” said Wing, “but there are events whose dates are never forgotten. Who forgets the date of the birth of a beloved child, the death of a friend or his own wedding?”

“A circumstance occurred this twelfth of June which bridges the passing of years and sets it right for a generation,” said Wing. “That was the night that Central Hall, the pride of Lewiston, burned down. It was a momentous event and made an impression on all concerned,” Wing said.

Then he switched gears.

“It is not necessary to define the word murder,” Wing said. “Mothers tell their children the first murder, and it serves for a lifetime as a kind of such cases. Everyone knows what murder is.”

He then brought the two points together: 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 the familiar story of what the government suspected happened 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 we can learn, she has never been seen alive.”

Wing told the jury of a logger who found a skeleton in a spot “more than a mile from any human habitation, in any direction.”

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

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

“The woman was murdered,” he declared. “The body was found in a resting position, but one thing was missing. Her head was gone. And never, with all the searching that was done, was it found.”

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

Wing said it would also establish that Lowell and Lizzie’s marriage “was unhappy throughout,” with “frequent and open turmoil” and cruelty Lowell openly displayed toward his wife.

“He had every opportunity for the murder. He had her in the carriage, in the middle of the night and away from her place of residence,” said the county attorney. “She was seen by three different people to start riding with him — and she hasn’t been seen alive since.”

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

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