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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The victim would not consent to marry him
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: May 18, 1801
Date of birth: September 25, 1780
Victim profile: Elizabeth Fales, 19
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Dedham, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in Massachusetts on September 10, 1801

Jason Fairbanks (September 25, 1780 – September 10, 1801) was an early American murderer. Fairbanks came from a prominent family in Dedham, Massachusetts. He was the son of Ebenezer and Prudence Farrington Fairbanks and lived in the Fairbanks House, today the oldest house in the country. He was born with a lame arm. His sixth cousin, once removed, was Vice President Charles Fairbanks.


Fairbanks had been courting Elizabeth Fales, the daughter of Nehemiah Fales, for a long while but she would not consent to marry him. Finally on May 18, 1801, Fairbanks was determined to force her to make up her mind and met with Fales in a birch grove next to "Mason's pasture" in Dedham, though the exact location today is not known.

Later, Fairbanks appeared at her parents' house covered with blood and holding a knife. He told them that their daughter had committed suicide and he had tried to do the same but was unable to. She had been stabbed 11 times, including once in the back.

Fairbanks' wounds were serious; he was in no shape to be taken directly to jail. He was therefore taken into the Fales household, where he received medical treatment. On August 8, 1801, after a three day trial and Elizabeth's funeral on May 20, a jury indicted Fairbanks as an accessory to Elizabeth's death and was jailed. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

In August, James Sullivan, the Republican Attorney General of Massachusetts, handled the prosecution. Harrison Gray Otis and John Lowell, Jr., two prominent Federalist lawyers, defended Fairbanks. He was found guilty of Elizabeth's murder and was sentenced to death by hanging.


Before the execution could take place Fairbanks escaped with the help of his brother, a cousin, a friend, and his nephew Nathaniel Davis. A $1,000 bounty was placed on his head, and a newspaper headline screamed "Stop the Murderer!" This party tried to make their way to Canada, but stopped to eat in Skenesboro(ugh), now known as Whitehall, New York, just south of the Canadian border where Fairbanks was recaptured.

Fairbanks was returned to the Boston jail, for authorities no longer trusted the Dedham jail, and, on September 10, 1801 Fairbanks was hanged.

It was a massive event. Two Army cavalry companies and a volunteer militia unit made sure he didn’t escape again, and the 10,000 people who showed up at the Town Common to witness the execution were five times the town’s population at the time.

Within two days of his execution the Report of the Trial of Jason Fairbanks was published then the entire story was written up in a pamphlet entitled A Deed of Horror! Trial of Jason Fairbanks for the Murder of His Sweetheart in 1801, and became the basis for a novel called The Life of Jason Fairbanks: A Novel Founded on Fact which is believed to no longer exist.


  • Freeman, Dale H. Melancholy Catastrophe! The story of Jason Fairbanks and Elizabeth Fales, Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 1998


Legal Studies Forum
Volume 17, Number 2 (1993)
reprinted by permission Legal Studies Forum

The Story of Jason Fairbanks:
Trial Reports and the Rise of Sentimental Fiction

Florida International University

The story of the rise of American sentimental fiction at the end of the eighteenth century has often been told. The first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, appeared in Boston in 1789. America's first great sentimental best-seller, Susanna Rawson's Charlotte Temple, was originally published in England in 1791 and first reprinted in the United States in 1794.

In all, more than thirty novels by American authors were published in the United States between 1789 and 1800, with hundreds more during the decades that followed. That early blossoming of American sentimental fiction has been ably chronicled by such prominent literary historians as Alexander Cowie, James Hart, Herbert Brown, and, more recently, Cathy Davidson. All of those scholars have emphasized the controversial character of early sentimental novels, describing how conservative moralists of the day condemned such fiction as tending to overstimulate the imaginations and corrupt the morals of their predominantly young and female readers. Cathy Davidson has further argued that early sentimental novels were a subversive genre that empowered women and young people in a still patriarchal and age-stratified society.1

In contrast to the considerable scholarly attention that has been paid to the rise of sentimental fiction, cultural historians have virtually ignored the nearly contemporaneous rise of criminal trial reports as a popular genre, both as features in newspapers and as separate pamphlets or larger volumes. Most early trial reports closely followed the actual order of trial proceedings, including the indictment, opening arguments, testimony of witnesses, closing arguments, judge's charge, verdict, and sentence. They ranged in thoroughness from relatively brief synopses of courtroom proceedings to complete transcriptions of entire trials, sometimes running to two hundred or more pages in length.

A few may have been published primarily for the use of judges and lawyers but most were clearly designed for a popular lay audience. Although only occasionally produced during the colonial period, trial reports began appearing with greater frequency in New York and Philadelphia during the 1790s and in New England during the following decade. Thus trial reports had already become a popular American genre several decades before the rise of cheap, urban mass-circulation newspapers - the so-called "penny press" - during the 1830s and 1840s.2

Both sentimental novels and trial reports of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries often dealt with the interrelated themes of illicit sexuality, sexual violence, and violent death. In fact, by the early nineteenth century, the public discourse of crime - both in newspapers and in courtrooms - sometimes drew heavily upon the language and motifs of sentimental fiction as a way of framing and explaining social violence, especially violence directed by men against women.

This essay will examine that intermingling of law, journalism, and sentimentality by exploring the highly-publicized case of Jason Fairbanks, a young man from Dedham, Massachusetts, who was convicted of murdering his sweetheart in 1801.3 Through a close look at a report of Fairbanks's trial and at other published responses to the case, I will suggest how the authoritative discourses of law and journalism helped legitimize the birth of a sentimental culture.

At the outset, it might be helpful to identify the trial report that provides the basis for much of what follows. The Boston publishing firm of Russell and Cutler issued their Report of the Trial of Jason Fairbanks in September 1801, within a day or two of Fairbanks's execution. It runs to eighty-seven pages, consisting of verbatim transcripts of trial testimony; third-person synopses of lawyers' arguments; detailed summaries of the charge, verdict, and sentence; and supplementary accounts of the prisoner's escape, recapture, and execution.

The compilation appeared in at least four editions within a period of several months, making it the first demonstrably popular trial report published in early national New England. Readers interested in a more detailed discussion of Russell and Cutler's Report and of the various other pamphlets and broadsides on the Fairbanks case can consult my new book on New England crime literature, from which this essay is largely drawn.4

One afternoon in the spring of 1801, at about the time that Thomas Jefferson was taking over the presidency from John Adams, Herman Mann, the editor of a weekly newspaper issued in Dedham Massachusetts, was called to the scene of a local tragedy. He would describe the affair at length in the next issue of his paper, under the headline: "MELANCHOLY CATASTROPHE!"

According to Mann's account, Jason Fairbanks and Elizabeth Fales, two young Dedham residents of respectable families, had been engaged in a long but frustrated courtship. On the afternoon of Monday, May 18, 1801, the couple met by agreement at a thicket of birch trees not far from the Fales residence in order to reach some resolution.

Sometime later, at about three o'clock, Fairbanks appeared at the Fales house, covered with blood, holding a knife, announcing that Elizabeth had killed herself and that he had tried to do the same. When the girl's relatives rushed to the grove of birches, they found Elizabeth lying on the ground with her throat cut and her body lacerated by multiple stab wounds; the young woman died after "a few struggles and gasps." As for Jason, he was not much better off, with a cut throat and various other knife wounds. The following morning, Mann reported that Fairbanks was "still alive, but in a most deplorable situation."5

In covering the untimely death of Elizabeth Fales, Herman Mann did not simply provide an objective statement of the facts in the case. Rather, he laced his account with language suggestive of the sentimental fiction that had begun to flood the United States during the previous ten or twenty years. The editor described the murder scene as "tragic," "melancholy," and "heart rending"; referred to his own report on the matter as a "sympathetic effusion"; and suggested that the event would evoke the "'sympathizing grief of every one susceptible of the passions of humanity." He concluded by inviting readers to join in sentimental lamentation: "Ye who have experienced, or learned from your natural sympathy - come, and with me, drop a tear." Mann himself was clearly attuned to the emerging "cult of sensibility" and assumed that at least some of his readers were as well.6

Although Jason Fairbanks barely survived his own multiple stab wounds, he was brought to trial in August before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts on the charge of murdering Elizabeth Fales. So many spectators of both sexes flocked to the trial at Dedham that the judges were forced to move the proceedings from the usual courthouse chamber to a nearby meetinghouse.

James Sullivan, the Republican attorney general of Massachusetts, handled the  prosecution; Harrison Gray Otis and John Lowell, Jr., two prominent Federalist lawyers, stood for the defense. Otis was one of the most famous of the so-called Young Federalists. In other words, he was part of a younger generation of Federalist politicians who were willing to copy the popular political tactics of the Jeffersonian Republicans. As we shall now see, Otis was also quite willing to copy the popular literary tactics of sentimental authors.7

During the trial, witnesses provided the jury with a detailed picture of the background and immediate circumstances of the tragedy. The two principals were Jason Fairbanks, a sickly young man of about twenty-one years of age with a crippled arm, and Elizabeth (or Betsey) Fales, a healthy young woman of about eighteen. The pair had been courting, at least sporadically, over a period of several years, despite Jason's poor health and the opposition of Betsey's family and friends.

At times Fairbanks became frustrated by the situation; witnesses testified that he had made threats against both Betsey and her mother. Still, the couple often met together at the Fairbanks's residence, at the houses of friends, and out-of-doors, occasionally spending the night together alone. Although members of the Fales family denied it under oath, other witnesses, particularly young acquaintances, testified that Jason and a Betsey's attachment seemed strong and mutual.8

On Sunday, May 17, the day before the tragedy, Jason's niece playfully forged a marriage certificate for Fairbanks and Fales. That same day Jason told a friend, Reuben Farrington, that he "planned to meet Betsey, in order to have the matter settled," explaining that he "either intended to violate her chastity, or carry her to Wrentham [a nearby town], to be married, for he had waited long enough."

Farrington saw Fairbanks twice the next morning; Jason seemed "cheerful, and merry as usual," but claimed to be too weak to help him with some gardening. At one-thirty that afternoon, Fairbanks told Farrington that he would let him know in about an hour what he had decided to do about his courtship.9

In the meantime, Betsey Fales had spent Monday morning helping with household chores. Both her mother and sister claimed that she too had appeared "cheerful and merry as usual." After drinking some milk for lunch, she went between twelve and one o'clock to a neighbor's house to retrieve a novel, entitled Julia Mandeville. She stayed there for a bit more than an hour, amusing herself by reading the book, a melodramatic piece of British fiction that climaxed with the sudden and tragic deaths of two young lovers who had been engaged to be married. After laying the novel aside, Betsey played for a few minutes with a little child and left. At about three o'clock, two of her friends repeatedly heard Betsey Fales's voice coming from some nearby woods; at first, one thought she was laughing, but later both thought they heard cries of distress. Fifteen minutes later, they learned that Betsey was dead.10

All of the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Betsey Fales in the birch grove confirmed that Jason Fairbanks had been with her at the time she received her mortal wounds. Fairbanks himself directed her relatives to the spot where she lay. In his hand was the bloody jack-knife with which both of them had been wounded. Witnesses found Jason's overcoat and wallet near Betsey's body, along with fragments of the marriage certificate that Jason's niece had given him the previous day. Although Jason's claim that Betsey had committed suicide was excluded from trial testimony, it seemed clear that she had either taken her own life or been murdered by Fairbanks.11

Lawyers on both sides sought to resolve the issue in their favor by marshalling evidence concerning Betsey's wounds and Jason's physical condition. The prosecutor, Sullivan, insisted that Betsey could not possibly have inflicted the more than a dozen knife wounds on her throat, arms, breasts, side, and even back - the one on the back was a particular problem for the defense.

On the other hand, the defense lawyers insisted that the crippled and sickly Fairbanks, with a shrunken right arm that was completely stiff at the elbow - and who reportedly needed his mother's help simply to put on his clothes every morning - could not possibly have subdued the healthy and athletic Betsey Fales.12

Because much of the testimony and evidence was actually contradictory and inconclusive, both the prosecutor and the defense lawyers chose to present imaginative reconstructions of what might have happened in the grove of birches in order to try to sway the jury. It is noteworthy that those reconstructions sounded a great deal like scenes from contemporary fiction.

The  scenario sketched by Harrison Gray Otis, one of the defense lawyers, centered on his portrait of Betsey Fales as a passionate young woman whose head was "filled with melancholy romances and legendary tales." She was, in short, very much like those misguided and corrupted female readers described by conservative critics of sentimental fiction. Otis further suggested that Betsey had been driven to despair by her love for Jason, a young man whose courtship was opposed by her parents and whose health was too fragile to allow him to support her himself against her parents wishes.

Finally, amid the grove of birches, realizing the hopelessness of their courtship, Betsey had frantically seized Jason's knife and taken her own life.13 Significantly, Otis sought to bolster the credibility of his version of events by invoking the authority not of law but of literature:

This is his simple tale - Is it impossible? Is it improbable? Has disappointed love never produced despair? Has despair never induced Suicide? Has the softer sex been peculiarly exempt from these feelings and these results?
No - Every annal, and every novel writer will establish the assertion, that no passion has so often terminated fatally as love, and no circumstances have so frequently given it a fatal direction as injudicious restraint.

Otis then tried to clinch his case by sketching a vignette that might easily have been extracted from a contemporary romance; the key prop in his little melodrama was the forged marriage certificate, itself a "fiction" of sorts, whose fragments had been found at the scene of the crime:

When their conversation turned upon their future prospects, and the small hopes which they entertained of a happy union, Jason produced this certificate, and after relating the history of its origin, with a desperate and melancholy look, correspondent to their feelings, he observed, "I fear we shall never be nearer to the gratification of our fond expectations; I fear that this little fiction is the highest consummation of our bliss, which we shall ever realize;" and tearing in pieces the scroll on which their names were united, "thus, said he, our tenderest hopes are scattered to the winds." Perhaps this little incident, more than all  others, contributed to rouse that phrenzy and despair, which induced her rashly to terminate, by her own hand, her own existence.15

Notice that even as Otis invoked the epistemological authority of novels and adopted their narrative strategies, his reconstruction tended to confirm the contemporary critique of fiction as corrupting immature minds and stimulating unhealthy passions. Like many authors of early sentimental tales and novels, Otis shrewdly hedged his bets by implicitly condemning fictive modes even as he employed them.

On the other side, Sullivan, the prosecutor, presented a competing image of the relationship between Fairbanks and Fales and of the tragedy in the grove, one almost as melodramatic as his opponent's. According to Sullivan's account, Fairbanks was a lazy, pampered, and lustful degenerate, while Fales was a virtuous young woman. Sullivan implied that Fairbanks first tried to hoodwink or seduce Fales by presenting her with the forged marriage certificate; when she refused his advances, he may have then tried to rape her; he then finally killed her when he proved unable to consummate his sexual assault. This is the dramatic scene that Sullivan sketched for the jury; note, at the outset, the laviryer's explicit appeal to the imaginations of the jurors:

I now again call your imaginations to an image from whence the eye turns with horror, and of which language refuses a description.

When he [Fairbanks] had produced the false certificate, and she had with a virtuous indignation torn the imposition in pieces, he became enraged: - Perhaps the knife was first exhibited to obtain by terror, what he feared he could not obtain by force. She turned on her face, the stab on her back altered her position; her shoes and shawl were thrown off in the struggle. When her arms defended her throat the wounds were given in her bosom to remove the obstruction, and her arms and hands mangled to gain access to the neck. Thus far led on, he found no retreat; but gave the ghastly wound, which more immediately produced her death. - But I quit the horrid and distressing scene.16

Significantly, Sullivan did not reject Otis's invocation of fiction as an epistemological authority but resorted to it as well in order to strengthen his case. To his opponent's observation that novelists often described frustrated love as leading to female suicide, Sullivan replied that even fictional authors confirmed that when women decided to kill themselves, they did so by drowning or poisoning or strangling, rather than by stabbing.17

Surely it is significant that both lawyers, at a trial in which a man's life was at stake, chose to employ fiction as their standard of what was possible or probable in real life. Whatever their own views, the lawyers must have assumed that the jurors in the case - who they were, of course, trying to influence - were already predisposed to view the real world through the lens of sentimental culture.

If the jury had any doubts as to which imaginative reconstruction of the crime to believe, they were probably resolved by the closing charge of the judges, which was extremely hostile to Fairbanks. The obedient jurors came in with a verdict of guilty, and Jason was publicly hanged on Dedham's town common before an enormous crowd of spectators, estimated at 10,000.18 But the public's fascination with the Fairbanks case did not die with Jason. Rather, publishers continued to produce a series of broadsides and pamphlets on the controversial case, some hostile toward Fairbanks, others sympathetic.19

One of the more interesting of those publications was entitled The SOLEMN DECLARATI0N of tbe Late Unfortunate Jason Fairbanks. It featured both an autobiographical statement by Jason himself, supposedly made in prison while awaiting execution, and a longer sentimental and very sympathetic biography of Fairbanks, probably written by Sarah Wentworth Morton, a well-known Boston socialite and sentimental poet.20

According to his own statement, Jason had been acquainted with Betsey Fales from "a very early age" and had eventually become her "favored lover." Although he was initially treated by her family with "respect and affection," Betsey's sister and mother turned against Fairbanks, forcing the young lovers to separate. When a chance meeting led to a renewal of the courtship a year later, the couple arranged a series of rendezvous in the grove of birches, in one of her father's outbuildings, and at the homes of neighbors. As Jason's health deteriorated, Betsey began visiting him at his father's house, commonly staying until one in the morning and once even remaining the entire night. On at least one of those occasions the couple had sexual intercourse. Then in May 1801, with Jason's health much improved, the couple arranged a meeting in the thicket of birches in order to discuss their situation.21

Here Jason provided yet another account of the fatal meeting in the grove, one similar to the version offered by Harrison Gray Otis at the trial, but differing from it in a few crucial details. According to Jason, the couple was engaged in a "long conversation upon the subject of marriage," when he recalled the fictitious marriage certificate prepared for him by his niece the previous day. He showed Betsey the spurious document, commented that it was as close to marriage as they would ever get, and tore the certificate to pieces. While assuring Fales of his willingness to marry her instantly, Fairbanks acknowledged that she would even then have to continue living at her father's house, since he, Jason, had "no means, nor any place of ... [his] own to carry her to." Betsey thereupon began to "weep bitterly," saying that such an arrangement would be impossible since her mother would immediately "turn her out" of the house. She then questioned Jason's sincerity, noting that her sisters had told her that Fairbanks did not really love her. Jason's statement then reached a crucial juncture, recounting an exchange that had not been included in his lawyer's version of events:

And now with all sorrow, and blame to myself, do I pursue the remainder of this melancholy history; for I replied angrily and roughly, that if she were capable, and willing to believe all that her sisters . . . said upon the subject, she might go to the devil with them, since she  so well knew that I had already possessed her person, and received  the pledge of her most tender attachment!

She then, with great quickness, demanded of me - "if I had ever told any one of our connection?' I rashly, but sincerely, answered,  that I had indeed entrusted our secret to my intimate friends, Reuben  Farrington and Isaac Whiting. - Upon which she violently  exclaimed, Oh! you are a monster!" - and looking on me, as I sat  whittling a smallpiece of wood with a pen-knife, she cried out,  "give me that knife, I will put an end to my existence,  you  false-bearted man! - for I had rather die than live!"

At the same time, stretching out her hand, she took the knife, and began, as if in a state of distraction, to stab her breast and body - screaming out, and walking violently from me - . . ; while I, struck with astonishment, remained without power, and in a cold state of insensibility; but was too - too soon awakened from this dreadful stupefaction, by her coming, and either falling or sitting down by me.

- Her throat was cut - which seeing, I immediately seized that cruel knife which had robbed me of all my fond heart held dear! and while it yet remained wet with her blood, stabbed myself in many and  repeated places; only leaving off when I had finished cutting my  own throat,and when I believed all was over with me!22

After Jason's own dramatic statement, the pamphlet continued with a sympathetic biography that portrayed Fairbanks as a gifted, industrious, and sensitive young man. As for Betsey Fales, she was described as a sentimental and impressionable young woman who spent much of her spare time reading works of fiction and moral amusement, in which the passion of love was generally transcendant." According to the account, her reading of sentimental fiction helped shape and arouse her love for Fairbanks and, by implication, may have finally led her to take her own life.23

What really happened in the grove of birches on May 18, 1801? Did Betsey Fales cut her own throat in romantic despair over Jason's inability to marry and support her, as suggested by the defense lawyer, Harrison Gray Otis? Did Jason Fairbanks stab Fales to death while trying unsuccessfully to rape her, as postulated by the prosecutor, James Sullivan? Or did Betsey slay herself in a fit of rage over Jason's indiscretion in revealing their sexual relationship to his male friends, as Fairbanks himself claimed in his last statement in prison? We will almost certainly never know for sure, but for the purposes of this essay it really does not matter. What does matter is the way that sentimental fiction pervaded the tragedy of Jason Fairbanks and Betsey Fales from beginning to end. To better understand the significance of that pattern, it may be helpful to set fictive aspects of the Fairbanks case into historiographic perspective.

The classic account of fiction's stunning rise to literary predominance during the last decades of the eighteenth century was formulated by the American jurist and author, Royall Tyler, in The Algerine Captive, first published at Walpole, New Hampshire, in 1797. The picaresque hero of the novel, Updike Underhill, was imprisoned abroad during a seven-year period stretching from 1788 through 1795.

In the preface to his tale, Tyler described the transformation in literary culture that had occurred in New England during his protag- onist's absence. When Underhill left his home region in 1788, several modern types of literature, including "books of Biography, Travels, Novels, and modern Romances," were still confined to the inhabitants of coastal towns or to ministers, doctors, and lawyers in rural districts. On the other hand, Tyler explained, the typical "farmer's library" was largely restricted to religious and didactic publications. But by the time of the captive's return in 1795, that traditional regime had been demolished by an influx of new literary forms and the establishment of circulating libraries in inland towns. "No sooner was a taste for amusing literature diffused," Tyler explained, "than all orders of country life with one accord forsook the sober sermons and Practical Pieties of their fathers for the gay stories and splendid impieties of the Traveller and the Novelist.24 Although not the view of a disinterested observer, Tyler's assessment was still being echoed and endorsed by literary historians 150 years later.25

However, two recent studies of book production and diffusion in rural Massachusetts have challenged the notion that fiction rapidly conquered the New England countryside. In a perceptive survey of the printing and bookselling business of the Merriam family of Brookfield, Jack Larkin notes the relative scarcity of fiction in the output and sales of that firm. "Fiction could be found on the country bookstore's shelves, but up to the early 1830s it seems to have played no transforming role in the cultural lives of ordinary rural people," Larkin generalizes. "Fiction moved slowly, in minuscule numbers, against the predominantly orthodox cultural grain of central Massachusetts, where Puritan-bred suspicions of novels remained powerful.26 

That view has been reinforced by the skillful reconstruction of two early social libraries in Concord by Robert A. Gross, who finds that fewer than seven percent of the volumes in a collection assembled between 1795 and 1820 were works of fiction. After explicitly challenging one of Tyler's extravagant claims, Gross notes that "only a handful of novels, and all of those highly moral, made it onto the shelves.27

Although Larkin and Gross make a strong case against the Tyler thesis, many of the circumstances surrounding the Dedham tragedy of 1801 tend to support the idea that a revolution in literary culture had already been accomplished in eastern Massachusetts by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Trial testimony indicated that Betsey Fales had shared at least one melodramatic novel with her neighbors during the spring of 1801.28 Supporters of Jason Fairbanks argued that romantic fiction played a crucial role in shaping Betsey's love for Jason and in precipitating her violent demise.29 Herman Mann's initial newspaper report of the tragedy was interspersed with evocative phrases drawn from sentimental discourse, which suggests that he expected local readers to be attuned to the language of literary sensibility.30

Various other published treatments of the affair were also infused with sentimental motifs.31 Lawyers on both sides of the case not only adopted narrative strategies suggestive of fiction in their reconstructions of events but also invoked the epistemological authority of imaginative literature in their arguments.32 In short, fictive themes pervaded cultural responses to two of the most serious events that could ever confront a community: a murder (or suicide) and a capital trial. The readers of Dedham and vicinity had not simply found a new literary diversion; sentimental fiction offered them a new language, a new sensibility, and a new way of perceiving the world around them.

There are several ways to reconcile the striking cultural pattern exposed by the Fairbanks case with the findings of Larkin and Gross. First, sentimental values and motifs could be widely diffused through the culture by vehicles other than fiction. As suggested by the Fairbanks case, even readers who scrupulously avoided novels might still be exposed to the new discourse in newspapers, trial reports, and other publications.33 Second, there may have been a significant time lag in the diffusion of the "fiction revolution" across the
state of Massachusetts. Sentimental novels may have reached Dedham, a community within the cultural orbit of Boston long before they arrived in substantial numbers at inland Brookfield. Third, the relatively genteel social libraries of Concord were probably not representative of popular reading habits throughout eastern Massachusetts. As Jesse H. Shera has demonstrated, the commercial circulating libraries that flourished in the region during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries actually specialized in novels and other works of fiction.
34 Fourth, Larkin and Gross provide evidence suggesting that some young people in both Brookfield and Concord ignored literary proscriptions and embraced novel reading despite the disapproval of their elders.

According to Larkin, purchases by apprentices in the Merriam printing office accounted for more than half of the firm's total sales of fiction.35 It is only reasonable to assume that the literary tastes of those young men were shared (along with the actual novels) by at least some of their local friends.

Similarly, Gross reports that one Mary Wilder Van Schalkwyck, a well-conneced young widow in her early twenties, read fiction with enthusiasm in Concord during the 1790s and early 1800s. Van Schalkwyck not only owned novels herself but also lent them to and borrowed them from her friends and regaled her companions with vivid renditions of fictional plots.36

In short, the reading habits of young working men in Brookfield and young women of leisure in Concord, along with the reported literary interests of the social circle of Fairbanks and Fales in Dedham, all suggest that locally flourishing "youth cultures" in early national Massachusetts were committed to the consumption of novels, whether their elders approved or not.37

But there was more to the fiction revolution than that. Herman Mann highlighted sentimental motifs in his newspaper account (presumably directed for the most part at adult male readers) and lawyers on both sides of the Fairbanks case incorporated fictional themes into their arguments (certainly directed at adult male judges and jurors), suggesting that young people were not the only ones being seduced by the new literary forms. Editors and lawyers not only used sentimental language themselves but seemed to assume that their mature neighbors were attuned to fictive discourse as well. As they struggled to retain power and influence in an increasingly egalitarian public culture, young Federalists like Harrison Gray Otis were at least as willing to employ fashionable literary motifs as they were to embrace innovative political tactics.38

Literary sentimentalism was not merely a resource for the socially powerless - as emphasized by scholars like Cathy Davidson - but was becoming an effective tool of established elites.39 In fact, some of those elites may have themselves been seduced by the new ethos. Chief Justice Dana of the Massachusetts Supreme Court reportedly sobbed while imposing the death penalty on Jason Fairbanks.40 And John Lowell, Jr., Otis's high-strung co-counsel, was supposedly so distraught by the outcome of the Fairbanks case that he suffered a nervus breakdown and never again resumed the practice of law. Surely those are signs of true sensibility.41

Whether manipulative cynics or sincere proselytes, the authors of sentimentalized crime coverage and commentary were active agents of cultural change, carrying new values to those outside the still limited circle of commited fiction readers. The presence of sentimental themes in courtroom proceedings was particularly significant. As Lawrence M. Friedman has observed, arguments presented in trials are often important clues to what stories count  as good, or true, or compelling stories, within a particular culture."42

Indeed, the arguments of Otis and Sullivan suggest that sentimentalism had successfully filtrated the "spontaneous philosophy" of early nineteenth-century popular culture.43 While old-fashioned moralists, who feared and despised novels, may have taken grim satisfaction in the tragic ending to the Fairbanks story, they could only have been alarmed by the many fictive versions of the tale that were told and retold by the cultural arbiters of Dedham.44 Their trepidation was entirely justified: By integrating the motifs of imaginative literature into the authoritative discourses of law and journalism, published responses to the deaths of Betsey Fales and Jason Fairbanks legitimized, even as they critiqued, the birth of a sentimental culture.



* A somewhat shorter version of this essay was delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association held at Washington, D.C., December 27-30, 1992. Both versions are largely abstracted from my book, Pillars of Salt,  Monuments of Grace. New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). I am grateful to Oxford University Press for permission to reprint material here that has already appeared in that publication. I would also like to thank Morris L. Cohen, Patricia Cline Cohen, David R. Papke, and Amy Gilman Srebnick for their comments, criticism, and encouragement. 

1. See Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word. The Rise of the Novel in America (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 38-150; Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (New York: Pageant Books, 1959); James D. Hart, The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 51-57; Alexander Cowie, The Rise of the American Novel (New York:  American Book, 1948), pp. 9-28; Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes. The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. 35-40.

2. See Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace, pp. 14-15, 26-31, and 167-246, passim; Cohen, "Pillars of Salt: The Transformation of New England Crime Literature, 1674-1860" (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1989), pp. 19-20, 31-37, 319-529, passim. For two other scholars who have discussed trial reports, see David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance. The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), pp. 171-18 1; David Ray Papke, Framing the Criminal: Crime, Cultural Work, and the Loss of Critical Perspective, 1830-1900 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1987), pp. 19-32. On the rise of the "penny press," see Papke, Framing the Criminal, pp. 33-74; Dan Schiller, Objectivity and the News:  The Public and the Rise of Commercial Journalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), pp. 12-75; Michael Schudson, Discovering The New: A Social History of American Newspapers  (New York: Basic Books, 1978), pp 12-60; Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of  Newspapers in the United States Through 260 Years: 1690 to 1950, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1950), pp. 215-52; Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, Main Currents in the History of American Journalism (Boston: Houghton Mifflinv 1927), pp. 47-51; Frederic Hudson, Journalism in the United States, From 1690 to 1872 (New York- Harper & Brothers, 1873), pp. 155-84.

3. For other modern accounts of the Fairbanks/Fales case, see Robert Brand Hanson,  Dedham, Massachusetts 1635-1890 (Dedham: Dedham Historical Societyv 1976), pp. 176-89; Edward Rowe Snow, Piracy, Mutiny and Murder (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1959), pp. 80-94; Ferris Greenslet, The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946), pp. 95-111; Charles Warren, Jacobin and Junto or Early American Politics as Viewed in the Diary of Dr Nathaniel Ames 1758-1822 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931), pp- 127-45. In regard to my own treatment of the case, I would like to thank Robert B. Hanson of the Dedham Historical Society for kindly sharing his wealth of knowledge on the subject.

4. See Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace, pp. 167-94.

5. Columbian Minerva (cited hereafter as Minerva], May 19, 1801, p. 3.

6. Ibid.

7. Report of the Trial of Jason Fairbanks, on an Indictment for the Murder of Miss Elizabeth Fales, 4th ed. (Boston: Russell and Cutler, 1801) [cited hereafter as Fairbanks Report], p. [5). For biographical information on Sullivan, see DAB, vol. 18, pp. 190-91; Thomas C. Amory, Life of James Sullivan: With Selections from his Writings, 2 vols. (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1859); on Otis, see Samuel Eliot Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, 1765-1848. The Urbane Federalist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969); DAB, vol. 14, 98-100; on Lowell, see Greenslet, Lowells, pp. 88-111 and passim; DAB, vol. 11, pp. 465-66. On the Young Federalists, see David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York. Harper & Row, 1965); on Otis and Lowell in particular, see Fischer, Revolution, pp. 38-41 and 268.

8. Fairbanks Report, pp. 15-36, passim.

9. Ibid., pp. 18 and 25.

10. Ibid., pp. 16-17 and 20-22; on the plot of Julia Mandeville, see Greenslet, Lowells, pp. 101-2.

11. See Fairbanks Report, pp. 12-18.

12. See ibid., pp. 15, 19, 21, 25-27, 30-31, and 33-36.

13. See ibid., pp. 43-47. Although Otis is not identified by name as having given the closing argument for the defense recorded in the published report, both Greenslet and Morison agree that it was delivered by Otis rather than Lowell; see Greenslet, Lowells, p. 105; Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, pp. 54 and 528.

14. Fairbanks Report, pp. 47-48.

15. Ibid., p. 56.

16. See Fairbanks Report, pp. 7-8 and 65-80, quoted at 73-74.

17. Ibid., p. 66.

18. See Fairbanks Report, pp. 81-83 and 85; on the execution, also see Indendent Chronicle, Sept. 10, 1801, p. 3; Sept. 14, 1801, p. 2; Mercury and New-England Palladium, Sept. 11, 1801, p. 2; Columbian Centinel, Sept. 12, 1801, p. 2; Boston Gazette, Sept. 14, 1801, p. 2; Minerva, Sept. 15, 1801, p. 3; Warren, Jacobin and Junto, p. 134; Hanson, Dedham, pp. 186-87.

19. See Cohen, Pillars of Salt, pp. 178-92, pp. 408-29.

20. For a more complete discussion of this pamphlet and its probable authorship, see Cohen, "Pillars of Salt", pp. 184-90,  pp. 420-29. Jason was almost certainly "assisted" in drafting his own statement, very likely by Sarah Wentworth Morton.

21. Ebenezer Fairbanks, Jr., comp., The Solemn Declaration of the Late Unfortunate Jason Fairbanks, 2nd Edition (Dedham: H. Mann, 1801), pp. 3-6.

22. Ibid., pp. 6-8.

23. See ibid., pp. 10-37, quoted at 19.

24. Royall Tyler, The Algerine Captive, excerpted in Robert E. Spiller, ed., The American Literary Revolution 1783-1837, pp. [21-23]; also quoted in Brown, Sentimental Novel, pp. 15-16. For the timing of Underhill's absence and captivity, see Royall Tyler, The Algerine Captive, 2 vols. (Walpole, N.H.: D Carlisle, Jr., 1797), vol. 1, pp. 186 and 205; vol. 2, p. 239.

25. See Hart, The Popular Book, pp. 3-21; Jesse H. Shera, Foundations of the Public Library. The Origins of the Public Library Movement in New England 1629-1855 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 119-121 and 148-153; Brown, Sentimental Novel, pp. 3-27; Lillie Deming Loshe, The Early American Novel, 1789-1830 (1907; rpt. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958), pp. 2-3; 1 am grateful to David D. Hall for pointing out to me that Tyler was not a disinterested observer. For some recent findings that also tend to support Tyler's account, see William J. Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life. Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1780-1835 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), pp. 26, 172, 208, and 220.

26. See Jack Larkin, "The Merriams of Brookfield: Printing in the Economy and Culture of Rural Massachusetts in the Early Nineteenth Century," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 96 (April 1986): 39-73, quoted at 68.

27. See Robert A. Gross, "Much Instruction from Little Reading: Books and Libraries in Thoreau's Concord," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 97 (April 1987): 129-88, quoted at 152.

28. See discussion in text above and Fairbanks Report, pp. 16-17 and 20; on the plot of the novel, see Greenslet, Lowells, pp. 101-102.

29. See discussion in text above and Fairbanks Report, pp. 43 and 47-48; Fairbanks, Solemn Declaration, p. 19.

30. See discussion in text above and Minerva, May 19, 1801, p. 3.

31. In addition to Solemn Declaration, discussed above, see other works discussed in Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace, chapter 8.

32. See discussion in text above and Fairbanks Report, pp. 47-48, 56, 66, and 71-74.

33. Along similar lines, Kenneth Silverman has described the earlier infiltration of sentimentalism into revolutionary political discourse; see Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976), pp. 82-87.

34. See Shera, Foundations, pp. 127-55.

35. See Larkin, "Merriams of  Brookfield," pp. 68-69. Larkin notes that "one of the novel-buying apprentices later lamented his fiction reading, believing that it had permanently injured his powers of factual retention and concentration."

36. See Gross, "Much Instruction," pp. 148-49.

37. On the similar appeal of novels to the youth of the Upper Connecticut River Valley of
northern New England, see Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity, p. 220.

38. On the adoption of new political tactics by young Federalists like Harrison Gray Otis, see David H. Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).

39. See Davidson, Revolution and the Word, pp. 38-54.

40. See Warren, Jacobin and Junto, p. 128.

41. See Greenslet, Lowells, p. 111.

42. Lawrence M. Friedman, "Law, Lawyers, and Popular Culture,"  98 Yale Law Journal 1595

43. On Gramsci's concept of "spontaneous philosophy," see T. J. Jackson Lears, "The Concept Of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities," American Historical Review 90 June 1985): 570.

44. For evidence of some such alarm on the part of a social conservative of Dedham, see Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace, p. 191.



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