Crime and Scandal

The Somnambulism Defense: The Sleepwalking Murderer of Pembroke, N.H.

Doubtless many people are murdered in their sleep. But it’s not often the would-be murderer is asleep, too, suffering from somnambulism. But that was the case in 1833 in Pembroke, N.H., or at least that’s what everyone believed.

In January of 1833, 18-year-old Abraham Prescott, a farmhand living with Sally and Chauncey Cochran, entered their bedroom and bashed them both over the head with an ax. Sally survived with an injury to the cheek. Abraham walloped Chauncey on the side of the head, knocking him unconscious. He lived, however.

Only after striking Chauncey did Abraham come to and realize what he had done, he later told the sheriff. Abraham quickly roused Chauncey’s mother, who lived with the family, and they summoned help.

Somnambulist Murder

In the aftermath, Sally told her neighbor, Lucy Robinson, that she did not blame Abraham for his actions. Abraham had lived with the Cochrans for three years as an apprentice farmhand. “Mrs. Cochran used to say that Abraham ought not to be blamed,” Lucy said. “If he had been awake he’d have hurt himself as quick as them.”

Abraham’s explanation satisfied the sheriff and life continued as usual at the Cochran farm until June 23, a Sunday morning. Sally took Abraham with her to her brother-in-law’s field to pick strawberries. Chauncey stayed home reading until he heard strange noises from the barn. Upon investigation he found Abraham crying.

somnambulism

Colony Farm in West Keene, New Hampshire, James A. French

At Chauncey’s urging Abraham led him to a spot in the field to Sally’s battered body, strawberries strewn around her. Abraham had struck her twice on the head with a wooden stake. She died at just 28.

Abraham could only remember that he had laid down in the field, suffering from a toothache. But blood covered his clothes. No one doubted who killed Sally Cochran.

Somnambulism Defense

Shortly after Sally’s death, two pictures began to emerge of Abraham Prescott. Both Chauncey and Abraham’s family agreed the young man had limited intellect. He had also seemed moodier than usual in the time before the murder.

Abraham’s family said mental illness ran in their family. Abraham’s grandfather had been deranged, everyone agreed, and an uncle was a drunkard who was given a state guardian. Abraham, they said, had suffered fits as a child. A doctor told them his head was too large and they described a long history of treating his mental condition. It included a mix of medications and bizarre physical treatments such as regular cold baths. At one point, they said, they took Abraham to the ocean and dipped him in, believing the cold would somehow improve his condition.

Abraham was a regular sleepwalker as a child, his mother said, and she often had to watch out for him at night to prevent him hurting himself during one of his attacks of somnambulism.

Testimony

An array of doctors gave testimony, including George Parkman of Boston, whose own murder several years later would shock Boston society. Insanity, these doctors said, would include symptoms of somnambulism, and it was definitely inheritable.

Abraham’s own doctor said he had no recollection of any insanity involving Abraham. Chauncey, meanwhile, said he knew nothing of Abraham’s claims of somnambulism. The young man, he said, was a happy, content farmhand, but he had been moodier than normal. He had to scold him for beating the cows too hard.

“I believe the devil got full possession of him,” Chauncey said.

The jailer testified that he had quizzed Abraham about the murder and that Abraham confessed he had made an improper advance toward Sally. She had rebuked him and said she intended to tell Chauncey about it. Abraham figured he was headed to jail for this, and so he killed Sally. He would rather be hanged then locked up in jail.

Abraham later said he just made up his confession to get the jailer to stop interrogating him.

Two Juries, Two Trials

Late in 1834, Abraham came to trial. The jury heard the story and, without much debate, did not buy the somnambulism defense. They found Abraham guilty.

Abraham’s lawyers, however, were able to win him a second trial. The jurors had discussed the case in public while drinking at the bar at Concord’s Eagle Hotel and at a barber shop.

In 1835, Abraham’s case was repeated, and the result was the same. The second jury concluded he was responsible for his actions and was not insane.

By now public opinion was running high both for and against Abraham. The governor was under pressure to commute his sentence to prison rather than hanging. With the execution scheduled for December 23, Governor William Badger was pressed to at least delay the sentence until the state’s executive council could convene to take up the matter.

Badger was an opponent of the death penalty, but he said he didn’t like the idea of overturning the decisions of two juries. He agreed to delay the hanging, however, until the executive council could meet in January of 1836.

Mob Scene

Not knowing of the delay, a crowd of thousands came to Hopkinton, N.H., on December 23rd expecting to witness an execution. When they learned of the delay, they went wild. Members of the crowd first tried to pressure the jailer into handing Abraham over to them. When he refused, they hanged Abraham in effigy from a limb in front of the Perkins Hotel.

When January 6 arrived, there would be no second delay. The executive council had declined to intervene and Abraham Prescott was hanged in front of a large crowd. He had feared, he said, that his body would be given over to a college for medical research since he was poor and had no money to arrange for a burial. Townspeople ponied up the necessary funds, however, and Abraham was buried in Rumney, N.H.

Abraham Prescott never denied killing Sally Cochran. His motives, however, were unclear. The best explanation that could be found was that he mistakenly assumed if he killed the Cochrans he would own their farm.

After the execution, Chauncey Cochran moved to East Corinth, Maine, where he became a storekeeper and legislator.

Thanks to Report of the trial of Abraham Prescott, for the murder of Mrs. Sally Cochran and Life and Times in Hopkinton, N.H. By Charles Chase Lord. This story was updated in 2021.

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