The issue is settled: Jason Fairbanks murdered Eliza Fales in 1801, but the story of exactly what happened has never been completely clear.
Two distinctly different views of 21-year-old Jason Fairbanks’ life still hold.
People most commonly view him as little more than a spoiled brat.
Others said he suffered a disability worsened by medical treatment, and that he tried hard to overcome it.
Jason Fairbanks was born during the American Revolution in 1780 to a prominent Puritan family in Dedham, Mass.
He did so poorly in school his parents suggested he should find a trade rather than attempting college.
“His proud spirit, indignant at the imaginary disgrace of using his hands in this way to gain a living, would not stoop so low,” recorded one newspaper.
Rather, he carried on “aping the manners of a gentleman, at the expense of his virtuous parents’ labor — who used persuasion to no effect on their obdurate son to dissuade him from a liberal education.”
Failing at school, the Fairbanks sent their son to Wrentham Academy to prepare him for college.
Newspapers reported he was ‘frequently guilty of excess’ during his studies, which at the time were ‘imputed to juvenile indiscretions.’
On top of his generally poor attitude, Fairbanks had fallen in love with Eliza Fales. He insisted Eliza she should marry him. The more obsessed he got, the less he could focus on anything else.
“His attention was now chiefly devoted in writing love sonnets to his Dulcinea, and to conversing personally with her,” reported one newspaper.
Another Side of Jason Fairbanks
Love-struck, lazy, haughty and entitled. Was this Jason Fairbanks, or was his true nature very different?
Jason’s brother Ebenezer, in describing his brother, painted another portrait. At age 12, Jason had been vaccinated against smallpox and contracted the disease. Doctors subsequently treated him (probably with mercury), and he couldn’t use his frozen and withered right arm from the shoulder down.
Far from malingering, Ebenezer describes Jason working hard and exerting himself. He reached the point several times that his lungs began bleeding, and he suffered headaches, fatigue and fevers. He was weak and his health poor.
Jason Fairbanks pursued schooling despite his deficiencies, wrote Ebenezer, because it seemed the best way for him to find a job that would allow him to earn a living.
When it came to Eliza Fales, everyone agreed. Pretty, engaging and vivacious, people sometimes called her Betsy.
According to one news account, “Luxuriant auburn hair flowed in graceful ringlets around her well-turned shoulders, and neck and bosom might with alabaster vie.
“Her tapered waist, her glowing cheek, tinged with the crimson blush of virgin modesty, displayed the most happy assemblage of the carnation and lily that ever graced mortal form,” reported the newspaper in the overblown prose of the day.
Modest, unassuming, a smiling delight. No wonder if Jason fell in love with her. The two struck up a friendship, and they spent hours together. And whether they were more than friends or not is an open question.
On May 18, 1801 around noon Eliza went to a neighbor’s house hoping to recover a book the Faleses had loaned, The History of Lady Julia Mandeville. When her neighbor explained she hadn’t finished it, Eliza stayed awhile playing with a small child. Around 1 p.m., she left and went walking in a pasture.
It’s not clear whether Eliza and Jason planned to meet or not. Eliza’s friends did not care for Jason, and some said her father had banned him from their home. Her father, though, denied it.
Jason had told a friend he intended to marry Eliza, and if she refused he would ‘attempt her chastity.’
In the pasture, Jason produced a document his niece had drawn up for him: a phony marriage certificate. It showed Eliza and Jason as husband and wife. The cousin said Jason asked her to draw it up as a flirtatious jest.
As to what happened next, we can only conjecture. At about 3 p.m., Jason turned up at the Fales’ home covered in blood. Eliza had killed herself and he had tried to do the same, but failed, he said.
In the pasture, Eliza’s father found her dying with numerous stab wounds and a slashed throat. Jason, too, had stab wounds and a slashed throat.
He said she had slashed and stabbed herself when he told her they would never be married, and tore up the phony marriage certificate to drive home the point. The ripped document was, indeed, found next to Eliza’s body.
Eliza died. Jason did not. His story quickly came under suspicion, not least because the wounds to Eliza seemed defensive. She had several wounds on her back. It seemed unlikely she would have stabbed herself that way.
Eliza’s family said the girl had no romantic interest in Jason, so far as they knew.
Authorities arrested Jason Fairbanks.
Newspapers from near and far covered the sensational trial. Massachusetts Attorney General John Sullivan, Revolutionary War hero and later governor, led the prosecution. Harrison Gray Otis and John Lowell, the patriarch of the Boston Lowells, represented Jason Fairbanks.
In the end, the court concluded that Fairbanks had committed the murder, and he was sent to the Dedham jail to await execution.
Fairbanks had friends, however, and a group of young men in August went to the Dedham jail, overpowered the jailer and released Fairbanks. Together with a friend, Henry Dukeham, Fairbanks headed west through Massachusetts and into New York. They made their way to upstate New York and arranged passage on a boat to take them north to Canada.
Just hours from freedom, the two young men decided to have breakfast, unconcerned about any danger.
Moses Holt found the two men as they were eating breakfast. Holt, from Hadley, Mass., had joined a three-man posse to track down Fairbanks. Holt, with a faster horse, had ridden ahead, and when he found Fairbanks and Dukeham he delayed them until the other men arrived.
End of the Story
Authorities hauled Jason Fairbanks back, not to the Dedham jail, but to a more secure jail in Boston. On the day ordered, Sept. 10, 1801, they took him to Dedham and hanged him. Thousands of people attended the gruesome event.
Afterwards, his family buried him in the same cemetery as Eliza.
The story, however, never died, inspiring books, such as The Report of the Trial of Jason Fairbanks, The Solemn Declaration of the Late Unfortunate Jason Fairbanks (written by Jason’s brother Ebenezer), and numerous newspaper broadsides from which this account is drawn.
Today, the Fairbanks house still stands in Dedham, the oldest house in Massachusetts and the oldest timber-framed house in North America. The Fairbanks family still owns the house, and frequently holds reunions in it.
Charles Fairbanks, Jason’s sixth cousin once removed, served as U.S. vice president under Teddy Roosevelt.
This story about Jason Fairbanks was updated in 2019.