Parasomnias are classified as sleep disorders, and sleepwalking is one of the most common. In most instances, it is harmless, but in very rare cases, parasomnias can lead to dangerous and even murderous actions. This was the case with Albert Tirrell who was accused of murdering a prostitute in Boston in 1846. It was a particularly gruesome murder, and Tirrell fled to the state of New Orleans. It seemed certain that he would be found guilty until his lawyer, Rufus Choate, saved his client with what became known as the ‘sleepwalking defense.’
Since then, there have been over 60 cases of ‘homicidal sleepwalking’ including the famous case of Kenneth Parks who murdered his mother-in-law in 1987. In each case, the accused claimed to have no record of the attack. While Parks, Tirrell and a few others escaped; others such as Michael Ricksgers were found guilty. In many ways, it extremely difficult for the defense to prove a defendant was sleepwalking but it is also a defense that can be hard for a prosecution to counter. In the case of Tirrell, his lawyer knew how to ensure his client walked free.
Albert Tirrell was certainly no angel. In fact, his relationship with his victim, Mary Bickford, caused a scandal in the Boston area. He was known as a womanizer and left his wife and children to be with Bickford, who was also married. She had married her husband, James, in Maine when she was just 16 years of age. After losing a child in infancy, she was invited to Boston by family friends.
It didn’t take her long to become enamored with life in the big city. When she returned to Maine, she didn’t stay long and returned to Boston. James went to the city to find his wife and discovered that she worked as a prostitute, so he returned to Maine without her. Meanwhile, Bickford worked in several brothels and eventually met Tirrell. They traveled together as a married couple and were known to have a number of passionate quarrels.
During their torrid relationship, Tirrell inherited $8,000 when his father died in 1844, a huge sum of money at the time. He squandered the cash, most of it on Bickford. Although they stayed at the best hotels and enjoyed the good life, Bickford refused to end her life as a prostitute, a fact that enraged Tirrell. He was indicted on charges of adultery on September 29, 1845, and was eventually arrested a little while later.
Meanwhile, Bickford wrote to her husband James and complained about the way Tirrell was treating her. A major fight between Bickford and Tirrell resulted in the breakup of their relationship in June 1845. Even so, the two couldn’t stay apart, and on October 26, Tirrell visited Bickford in a sleazy boarding house owned by Joel Lawrence. At around 5 am on the morning of October 27, Lawrence and his wife heard a shriek and a thud from upstairs followed by the sound of someone running down the stairs and out the door. They entered Bickford’s room and were horrified by what they saw.