The Sleepwalking Defense: How I Incorporated True Crime into my Historical Novel

A sleepwalking defense could never hold up in court today, but in 1846 Boston, it worked for Albert Tirrell...

For a writer, obsessions are more useful than ideas. One of mine is true crime. I’m a sucker for it. As a teen, my copy of Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s account of prosecuting the Manson murderers, was thumbed to the point of disintegration, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara’s exploration of her own obsession with uncovering the identity of the Golden State Killer, was one of my favorite reads of 2018. True crime plumbs the best and worst of what it means to be alive, the ways in which we fail to tell each other the truth. Like the best fiction, it is steeped in themes that chart human nature, the greatest of these being love—with all its dark undercurrents of mania, jealousy, and rage. Excellent novels have grown from seeds planted by it, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace being a prime example. Many of the best books, like In Cold Blood, do away with the distinction between true crime and novel entirely.

Read our review of The Confessions of Frannie Langton!

So it made sense when crafting my own novel, a fictional account of a Jamaican woman in 19th century London accused of murdering her employer and his wife, for me to mine accounts of real crimes in search of raw material. One case, in particular, runs right through the backbone of my protagonist’s defense: the murder trial of Albert Tirrell. Tirrell was arrested in Boston in the spring of 1846, charged with murdering Mary Ann Bickford, a prostitute with whom he’d been conducting a long and scandalous affair. She’d been found at her boarding house, throat slashed,  a bloodied razor lying next to her on the bed. The circumstantial evidence weighed heavily against Tirrell: he had been intercepted trying to flee the U.S;  witnesses recounted seeing him with Bickford earlier that night, and then attempting to bargain with a stable-hand for a horse and carriage.

But it was Tirrell’s defense that was fascinating to me: an example of something that might have been swallowed in the 19th century but which no jury would stomach now. His counsel, Rufus Choate, argued that Tirrell must have been sleepwalking at the time he committed the crime, that a person in a somnambulistic trance could have committed murder without the requisite degree of consciousness of his actions: “Alexander the Great penned a battle in his sleep… Even Franklin was known to have arose and finished, in his sleep, a work that he had projected before going to bed… Evidence will be produced to show that it had pleased Almighty God to afflict the prisoner with this species of mental derangement.” He went on to introduce evidence that Tirrell had been a sleepwalker all his life, even going so far at one point as to draw a knife on one of his cousins, as well as medical evidence about the effects of somnambulism. The jury deliberated for two hours before finding Tirrell not guilty.

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Much like a lawyer’s closing argument, a novel is nothing more than an exercise in persuasion. Novelists and lawyers know that truth is the most persuasive tool, so they’ll take it where they find it. When I came across the account of Tirrell’s trial, I knew I’d found a cornerstone for the trial chapters of my own novel, one that might add a degree of verisimilitude to something that would no doubt appear fanciful to 21st-century eyes. It was precisely the kind of thing you can’t make up, and you often find only when searching for something else.

Research should work its way into a novel by burrowing deep, coming to the fore only on those rare occasions when it connects directly with character or plot, moving both forward. The Tirrell case drove mine forward. During the course of my novel, my protagonist slips into laudanum addiction, claiming not to remember either of the murders of which she’s accused, due to having taken “an excess of opium.” She’s sure she was asleep, that it was “all black.” I decided that her lawyer could easily enough find a medical man in Georgian London willing to make the link between intoxication and somnambulism, putting forward a similar defense: “The person affected can still have the will to act but the moral nature is entirely wanting, because they have lost the regulating power of their own minds.”

As is often the case, when I looked fresh at later drafts I saw that the material I’d gleaned from Tirrell’s case had settled right into the substrata of my novel, making serendipitous connections elsewhere, like water through sand. My protagonist had been enslaved in Jamaica before coming to London, and she argues against the idea which held sway during the period, that slaves were automata; that, as Charlevoix said, one could “wind them up and make them move.” In the end, she describes her own defense as closer to magic than science: “…a black shade drawn down by sleep or intoxication then a kind of dreaming madness in its wake. That was your own spell, to make them think me an automaton, a zombi.” The thing I’d found by accident proved to be the perfect metaphorical fit.

About The Confessions of Frannie Langton:

All of London is abuzz with the scandalous case of Frannie Langton, accused of the brutal double murder of her employers, renowned scientist George Benham and his eccentric French wife, Marguerite. Crowds pack the courtroom, eagerly following every twist, while the newspapers print lurid theories about the killings and the mysterious woman being tried at the Old Bailey.

The testimonies against Frannie are damning. She is a seductress, a witch, a master manipulator, a whore.

But Frannie claims she cannot recall what happened that fateful evening, even if remembering could save her life. She doesn’t know how she came to be covered in the victims’ blood. But she does have a tale to tell: a story of her childhood on a Jamaican plantation, her apprenticeship under a debauched scientist who stretched all bounds of ethics, and the events that brought her into the Benhams’ London home—and into a passionate and forbidden relationship.

Though her testimony may seal her conviction, the truth will unmask the perpetrators of crimes far beyond murder and indict the whole of English society itself.


Comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins!

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/the-sleepwalking-defense/ beginning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 22, 2019. Sweepstakes ends at 9:59 a.m. ET June 5, 2019. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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Comments

  1. Doug G

    This sounds fascinating…definitely want to read it! 🙂

  2. Carol

    Looks like a great read

  3. Kathryn A Defranc

    Sounds like a fascinating read!! I really am excited about reading this book!!

  4. Susan T.

    This is like Alias Grace meets Washington Black! I’m all in! 🙂

  5. MM

    Sounds thrilling! Adding it to my TBR pile! Thanks.

  6. Rebecca Mensinga

    This sound interesting! I love a good mystery! I am going to add it to my TBR.

  7. Mary Woods

    Amazing that Frannie could write out her own story given that she was raised on a sugar plantation.

  8. lostinastack

    I am definitely adding this to my list!

  9. Debi K

    I remember reading Helter Skelter when I was living on an island in an empty hotel save my husband and myself and having it scare the bejesus outta me. I couldn’t even go to the dining area alone. Took me years before I could read true crime again or even thrillers. That said, I now love well researched stories.

  10. MichelleL

    This book is already on my TBR list…would love to win a copy!

  11. Leeza

    This sounds riveting and remarkable. I look forward to reading it.

  12. Darlene Slocum

    Sounds fascinating!

  13. Alice Hollinbeck

    This sounds like a fascinating read. I look forward to this one. Thanks for the heads up.

  14. Techeditor

    Sarah has loved the same true crime books that I have loved.

  15. Geraldine

    Intriguing. I love a good somnambulism plotline.

  16. Susan J.

    I like the storyline. Thanks/

  17. Michele L

    I’m a true crime reader, too, and I love fiction based on facts. I’m looking forward to this!

  18. Michael Carter

    Sounds good!
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  19. Daniel Cuthbert

    This seems like it is going to be a fascinating read! The research I imagine involved in this will likely make this seem more like a true crime book than a novel!

  20. Barbara Rogan

    It sounds like a book I would love to read! Thank you for the opportunity.

  21. Anne

    Intriguing and captivating book. Thanks.

  22. Pearl

    A novel that definitely would be riveting and suspenseful.

  23. susan beamon

    Why not sleepwalking? Twinkie eating served as a defense.

  24. Alisha Danko

    Yes please. This sounds like a perfect fit my my reading tastes.

  25. Roxana Garcia

    I can’t wait to read this!

  26. Linda McCutcheon

    I love that the story is more about what brought Frannie to this point in her life rather than just a who done it. I can’t wait to read and review this book.

  27. Christine Bellizzi

    Looks like a great book!

  28. Rose Jones

    This sounds extremely interesting.

  29. Lana Maskus

    Love period mysteries. This sounds excellent.

  30. Rachael Aubin

    This sounds very interesting. I don’t think I’ve read a story about sleepwalking.

  31. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great! Would love to win.

  32. Gina Hernandez

    Looks like a great read!

  33. Le. P

    can’t wait to read this one. thanks

  34. Jana

    This story sounds fascinating. Thanks for the giveaway!

  35. Shirley Evans

    I would love to read this, it sounds so interesting.

  36. Deb Philippon

    Definitely looks interesting. I find fictionalized history fascinating – a fleshed out look into another world.

  37. Linda Block

    Our book club loves historical fiction, this sounds like an outstanding discussion.

  38. Margie Hunter

    I love everything about this. I look forward to reading it.

  39. michael babb

    Can’t wait to read this!

  40. Esther Whatley

    Sounds like a great read.

  41. Beth Talmage

    Understanding what was accepted as a defense at the time gives a real insight into the period–both the people and the popular understanding of “science” or “psychology”. An author who can incorporate those details into a historical novel has brought a richness that will truly benefit her readers. I’m really looking forward to reading this book, both for the storyline and for the historical background.

  42. Sarah K

    Sounds like a great read!

  43. LINDA COSBY

    I like true crime stories.

  44. Jen

    This sounds like a great read!!

  45. Michelle

    Adding to my “must read” list!

  46. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  47. Jackie Basnight

    With all the DNAs & scientific work used in solving modern day murder cases, it would be interesting to read about this unusual case of criminal defence back then.

  48. Earl Messer

    There is a book that was published last year that might offer some inspiration for this type of historical fiction. The Burglar Caught By a Skeleton by Jeremy Clay. These are tales from the Victorian Press and highlights some of the changes in how we think and perceive things as well as what passes for rational explanation.

  49. Kristin Duncan

    Looks like a great book!

  50. Janet Gould

    Great article, fascinating

  51. Carole Knoles

    Believe this will be a great story.

  52. Birgitta Handford

    This is a MUST READ!
    Intrigued and excited!

  53. L

    Sounds like a very interesting read. I like the sleepwalking defense!

  54. Deborah M.

    Intriguing. Hope to read.

  55. Tina Matthews

    This book is going to be a great read! Cozy up and take a journey to London can’t wait!!

  56. Amanda B.

    This has been on my “must read” list since I first heard about it!

  57. Tiffany

    This looks amazing.

  58. Vicki Hancock

    Sounds like a great book. Would love to read!

  59. Stephanie Griffin

    Love the historical aspect of this story!

  60. Christine Smiga

    I’ve been wanting to read this. Thanks for the giveaway!

  61. Tawney Mazek

    Scientists, slavery, sensationalism — what’s not to like. (And thanks for the insight about research settling in to your writing. We readers would likely never glimpse that – at least this reader wouldn’t.)

  62. Karen Terry

    Sounds like an interesting read.

  63. Martha DeMarco

    what an interesting concept! If this can really happen, wow! Cant wait to read the book!

  64. Nicole Seabolt

    Can’t wait to read

  65. Sue Seabolt

    Looks amazing

  66. Susanne Troop

    Sounds great!

  67. Kimberly

    This sounds like it would be a wonderfully engrossing summer read. I’m adding it to my TBR list now.

  68. Marisa Young

    new author – great

  69. Susan Marshall

    Susan

  70. Carolyn

    True crime and a historical mystery, sounds great!

  71. Daniel M

    sounds like a fun one

  72. Leela

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  73. Wilifred Alire

    Would like to discover this new author and her new mystery.

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