Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Melancholy Catastrophe!" the Story of Jason Fairbanks and Elizabeth Fales

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Melancholy Catastrophe!" the Story of Jason Fairbanks and Elizabeth Fales

Article excerpt

In May of 1801, in the small farming town of Dedham, Massachusetts, the life of eighteen year old Elizabeth Fales came to a violently abrupt end. She had died among birch trees in a small pasture not far from her family's home, from eleven stab wounds and a slashed throat. The mysterious circumstances of her death and the involvement of her long time acquaintance and local Dedham man, twenty year old Jason Fairbanks, would be a subject well written about over the next five months, both publicly and privately.

On May 21, 1801, the newspaper coverage of Jason Fairbanks and Elizabeth Fales began with the Independent Chronicle and the Boston Gazette both running the same story entitled, "Melancholy Catastrophe!" It describes Jason Fairbanks, about twenty-one years old, and Elizabeth Fales, eighteen years old, as being from respectable families and living near the center of Dedham and that they had an attachment for each other, but that there had been some sort of obstacle in their way either to marriage or "to a tranquil enjoyment of their courtship."1 The column continues that on May 18, Fairbanks and Fales decided to meet less than half a mile from the Fales' house in a thicket of birches, where they had met before. Also written in the newspaper are the uncertainties of what was said and what happened between Fales and Fairbanks, but around three o'clock in the afternoon Fairbanks, "to the horror and consternation of her parents and to the sympathizing grief of everyone susceptible to the passions of humanity,"2 arrived at the Fales' house covered in blood and holding a knife in his hand telling someone of the family that, "Eliza had killed herself and that she then lay dead in the birches (pointing to the spot) and that he attempted to do the same thing with himself but was unable!"3 Jason had stabbed himself several times with the same knife in the stomach and chest and cut his own throat before he staggered to the Fales' place.

Leaving Jason behind, Elizabeth's father Nehemiah and her uncle Samuel ran to Mason's Pasture, as the thicket of birches was named, and found her with her head resting on a stone, face down, with her arms over her head. She was still conscious when they arrived and when her father asked her if she wanted some water, she motioned that she did. Her uncle placed her shawl around her throat and Jason's greatcoat, lying nearby, over her, while Nehemiah filled his hat with water from a stream close by. Shortly after her mother arrived, Elizabeth died. The description of her injuries in the Boston Gazette was reported thus, "Her body was cruelly mangled--having been stabbed in sundry places, cuts on her arm and hand, and throat cut in a most shocking manner!"4 A medical examination was carried out by Dedham doctor Nathaniel Ames. Ames' entry in his diary records the date, "May 18, 1801. Betsy Fales found horribly wounded in 11 places, lived half an hour."5 Later, during the trial of Fairbanks, Ames would testify that in his judgment she could not have survived with such wounds. After an examination by Ames, Elizabeth's body was brought back to the Fales' house and a formal Coroner's Inquisition was held the following day, on May 19. Eleven stab wounds were found and described later in gruesome detail in the Columbian Centinel:

Her throat was cut into the wind-pipe, and nearly to the back part of it; she had a wound, made with a small knife by a stab in her back, between her shoulder blades, beside the back bone and not far below the neck; one stab in her side, six deep wounds in her left arm, some of which severed the tendons, two slight wounds in her right arm, and a deep one in her left thumb, which severed the ball from the bone.6

Fairbanks, whose own health was in a "most deplorable condition,"7 lay in the Fales' upstairs bedroom. The Fairbanks' family doctor, Charles Kitteridge, examined Jason and found, "in addition to the wide gash across his throat, three in his breast around and over his heart, three in his right side, three in his thigh, one in his right arm, and three, one of them three inches deep, in his belly. …

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