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ONE hundred years ago there was committed in Dedham, Massachusetts, one of the most famous murders of this country, a crime, some description of which falls naturally enough into these chapters, inasmuch as the person punished as the criminal belonged to the illustrious Fairbanks family, whose picturesque homestead is widely known as one of the oldest houses in New England.
In the Massachusetts Federalist of Saturday, September 12, 1801, we find an editorial paragraph which, apart from its intrinsic interest, is valuable as an example of the great difference between ancient and modern journalistic treatment of murder matter. This paragraph reads, in the quaint old type of the time: "On Thursday last Jason Fairbanks was executed at Dedham for the murder of Miss Elizabeth Fales. He was taken from the gaol in this town at eight o'clock, by the sheriff of this county, and delivered to the sheriff of Norfolk County at the boundary line between the, two counties.
"He was in an open coach, and was attended therein by the Reverend Doctor Thatcher and two peace officers. From the county line in Norfolk he was conducted to the Dedham gaol by Sheriff Cutler, his deputies, and a score of cavalry under Captain Davis; and from the gaol in Dedham to the place of execution was guarded by two companies of cavalry and a detachment of volunteer infantry.
"He mounted the scaffold about a quarter before three with his usual steadiness, and soon after making a signal with his handkerchief, was swung off. After hanging about twenty-five minutes, his body was cut down and buried near the gallows. His deportment during his journey to and at the place of execution was marked with the same apathy and indifference which he discovered before and since his trial. We do not learn he has made any confession of his guilt."
As a matter of fact, far from making a confession of his guilt, Jason Fairbanks denied even to the moment of his execution that he killed Elizabeth Fales, and his family and many other worthy citizens of Dedham believed, and kept believing to the end of their lives, that the girl committed suicide, and that an innocent man was punished for a crime he could never have perpetrated.
In the trial it was shown that this beautiful girl of eighteen had been for many years extremely fond of the young man, Fairbanks, and that her love was ardently reciprocated. Jason Fairbanks had not been allowed, however, to visit the girl at the home of her father, though the Fales place was only a little more than a mile from his own dwelling, the venerable Fairbanks house. None the less, they had been in the habit of meeting frequently, in company with others, en route to the weekly singing school, the husking bees and the choir practice. Both the young people were extremely fond of music, and this mutual interest seems to have been one of the several ties which bound them together.
In spite, therefore, of the stern decree that young Fairbanks should not visit Miss Fales at her home, there was considerable well-improved opportunity for intercourse, and, as was afterward shown, the two often had long walks together, apart from the others of their acquaintance. One of their appointments was made for the day of the murder, May 18, 1801. Fairbanks was to meet his sweetheart, he told a friend, in the pasture near her home, and it was his intention at that time to persuade her to run away with him and be married. Unfortunately for Fairbanks's case at the trial, it was shown that he told this same friend that if Elizabeth Fales would not run away with him he would do her harm. And one other thing which militated against the acquittal of the accused youth was the fact that, as an inducement to the girl to elope with him, Fairbanks showed her a forged paper, upon which she appeared to have declared legally her intention to marry him.
One tragic element of the whole affair was the fact that Fairbanks had no definite work and no assured means of support. Young people of good family did not marry a hundred years ago without thinking, and thinking to some purpose, of what cares and expense the future might bring them. The man, if he was an honourable man, expected always to have a home for his wife, and since Fairbanks was an invalid, "debilitated in his right arm," as the phrasing of the time put it, and had never been able to do his part of the farm work, he had lived what his stern forebears would have called an idle life, and consequently utterly lacked the means to marry. That he was something of a spoiled child also developed at the trial, which from the first went against the young man because of the testimony of the chums to whom he had confided his intention to do Elizabeth Fales an injury if she would not go to Wrentham and marry him.
The prisoner's counsel were two very clever young lawyers who afterward came to be men of great distinction in Massachusetts – no others, in fact, than Harrison Gray Otis and John Lowell. These men advanced very clever arguments to show that Elizabeth Fales, maddened by a love which seemed unlikely ever to end in marriage, had seized from Jason the large knife which he was using to mend a quill pen as he walked to meet her, and with this knife had inflicted upon herself the terrible wounds from the effect of which she died almost instantaneously. The fact that Jason was himself wounded m the struggle was ingeniously utilised by the defence to show that he had received murderous blows from her hand, for the very reason that he had attempted (unsuccessfully, inasmuch as his right arm was impaired) to wrest the mad girl's murderous weapon from her.
The counsel also made much of the fact that, though it was at midday and many people were not far off, no screams were heard. A vigorous girl like Elizabeth Fales would not have submitted easily, they held, to any such assault as was charged. In the course of the trial a very moving description of the sufferings such a high-strung, ardent nature as this girl's must have undergone, because of her hopeless love, was used to show the reasons for suicide. And following the habit of the times, the lawyers turned their work to moral ends by beseeching the parents in the crowded court-room to exercise a greater vigilance over the social life of their young people, and so prevent the possibility of their forming any such attachment as had moved Elizabeth Fales to take her own life.
Yet all this eloquent pleading was in vain, for the court found Jason Fairbanks guilty of murder and sentenced him to be hanged. From the court-room he was taken to the Dedham gaol, but on the night of the seventeenth of August he was enabled to make his escape through the offices a of a number of men who believed him innocent, and for some days he was at liberty. At length, however, upon a reward of one thousand dollars being offered for his apprehension, he was captured near Northampton, Massachusetts, which town he had reached on his journey to Canada. The gallows upon which "justice" ultimately asserted itself is said to have been constructed of a tree cut from the old Fairbanks place.
The Fairbanks house is still standing, having been occupied for almost two hundred and seventy-five years by the same family, which is now in the eighth generation of the name. The house is surrounded by magnificent old elms, and was built by Jonathan Fairbanks, who came, from Sowerby, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, in 1633. The cupboards are filled with choice china, and even the Fairbanks cats, it is said, drink their milk out of ancient blue saucers that would drive a collector wild with envy.
The house is now (1902) the home of Miss Rebecca Fairbanks, an old lady of seventy-five years, who will occupy it throughout her lifetime, although the place is controlled by the Fairbanks Chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution, who hold their monthly meetings there.
The way in which this property acquired by the organisation named is interesting recent history. Miss Rebecca Fairbanks was obliged in 1895 to sell the house to John Crowley, a real estate dealer in Dedham. On April 3, 1897, Mrs. Nelson V. Titus, asked through the medium of the press for four thousand, five hundred dollars, necessary to purchase the house and keep it as a historical relic. Almost immediately Mrs. J. Amory Codman and Miss Martha Codman sent a check for the sum desired, and thus performed a double act of beneficence. For it was now possible to ensure to Miss Fairbanks a life tenancy of the home of her fathers as well as to keep for all time this picturesque place as an example of early American architecture.
FAIRBANKS HOUSE, DEDHAM, MASS.
Hundreds of visitors now go every summer to see the interesting old house, which stands nestling cosily in a grassy dell just at the corner of East Street and the short "Willow Road" across the meadows that lie between East Street and Dedham. This road is a "modern convenience," and its construction was severely frowned upon by the three old ladies who twenty years ago lived together in the family homestead. And though it made the road to the village shorter by half than the old way, this had no weight with the inflexible women who had inherited from their long line of ancestors marked decision and firmness of character. They protested against the building of the road, and when it was built in spite of their protests they declared they would not use it, and kept their word. Constant attendants of the old Congregational church in Dedham, they went persistently by the longest way round rather than tolerate the road to which they had objected.
That their neighbours called them "set in their ways" goes, of course, without saying, but the women of the Fairbanks family have ever been rigidly conscientious, and the men a bit obstinate. For, much as one would like to think the contrary true, one seems forced to believe that it was obstinacy rather than innocency which made Jason Fairbanks protest till the hour of his death that he was being unjustly punished.
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