When Martha Pearson’s husband slipped into her bed on the night of April 10, 1849, she had no idea he was a murderer.
She had returned to the Pearson home on Andover Street with her two daughters 10 days earlier. She had been living in Boston, away from her husband, Daniel, working as a domestic. He had also been in Boston, working in a stable, though the couple had been apart for some time. Martha Pearson had filed papers to end their stormy marriage.
Daniel Pearson arrived at the Wilmington depot on Tuesday afternoon, April 10. He made his way to their home, some four miles away, a half mile from the Andover line. And then he waited.
His father was in the house, visiting with Martha and the girls, four-year-old twins. After his father left, about 9 p.m., he waited until Martha had gone to bed. The door was locked, so he opened a window and slipped in. As he climbed into bed, he put a knife under the pillow.
On the morning of April 11, 1849, neighbors knew there was something wrong. It was 10 a.m. and the curtains were still drawn. The girls had not come outside to play, and nobody had seen their mother. Several people gathered outside the house, fearing the worst. However, nobody dared enter.
That is, until Jimmy Hale came up the road. He opened a back window and stepped inside. There in the bedroom, he found the bodies of Martha Pearson and her twin daughters, Lydia Jane and Sarah Ann, four years old, their throats cut. There was a shoe knife in Mrs. Pearson’s hand, placed there as if to make the killing appear as a suicide.
Abiel Carter, local constable, found footprints in the sand nearby, with a peculiar cut in the sole of one shoe. The tracks led to the Wilmington railroad depot. At the time, there was no depot in North Wilmington.
Selectman Lemuel Cobb Eames learned Daniel Pearson had been employed at a livery stable in Boston. He took the train to Boston, found Pearson, and implored him to accompany him to Wilmington to help with the investigation of the murders. Pearson consented.
When he and Eames alighted from the train, Eames had a constable waiting for them, and Pearson was put in handcuffs.
He said to Eames, Lem, if I’d known what you were doing, you’d have never left Boston.
Capt. Larz Neilson had written that Pearson’s arrest took place some time after the murders, but that was probably based on Pearson’s alibi claim that he’d been in Providence. Newspaper reports, though, show that he was arrested on Thursday, the second day after the murders.
The Boston Transcript on Saturday, Apr. 14, 1849 reported that Pearson was arraigned in Reading on Friday before Justice Alfred A. Prescott. He was indicted and held for trial. The article also had a clue to Pearson’s identity, saying that his father, Nathan, testified that he had been at the house on Tuesday night, and that all was well up to 9 p.m.
Abiel Holden, the station master, testified he had seen Pearson with scratches on his face and blood on his shirt sleeves.
Capt. Larz Neilson wrote that Pearson’s birth was not in the Wilmington records. It is there, but only giving the father’s name, Nathan. His mother is not listed, nor is the date of birth. However, Lydia Pearson, wife of Nathan, died on Oct. 20, 1847, at age 57, six months and 11 days. That information provides strong clues to her identity.
The only birth in Wilmington for anyone named Lydia about 1790 was Lydia Buck. The year doesn’t quite match, but a 4 could have been read incorrectly as a 7. The month and day are exact, April 10, 1793.
Martha Pearson’s maiden name was Martha B. Foster, formerly of Townsend, according to the Boston Daily Mail of April 16, 1849. There was also a daughter, Melissa, 13.
Daniel Pearson was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1850. The execution was carried out on July 26, 1850 in the East Cambridge jail. The Boston Post had a lengthy story about Pearson’s last few days. At first, he seemed confused, but then confessed to the murders, though he refused to say why he did it. He was visited by his daughter, accompanied by her maternal grandfather.
As he approached the gallows, he held a Bible and was encouraging people to go to church.
Pearson was buried in Wilmington in an unmarked grave at the entrance to Wildwood Cemetery.
Four months before his execution, he had transferred ownership of the house to his attorneys, Benjamin F. Butler and Josiah G. Abbott. Butler then conveyed his half to Abbott, who then sold it. The property transferred again and again in the next decade, but was usually vacant.
In 1885, Butler wrote a letter to the Boston Globe revealing that Pearson, while awaiting his execution, had confessed to a murder in Manchester, N.H. four years earlier.
Jonas L. Parker was a tavern owner and tax collector. He had gone to Saco, Maine with a large sum of money, to see about buying a hotel from Horace Wentworth. There was no deal.
However, after Parker was found with his throat slit, Wentworth was charged with complicity in the murder. Butler represented him. Franklin Pierce, later the President, defended other members of the Wentworth family. They were acquitted.
Butler wrote that he had never felt a need to talk about this as he believed there was nobody so foolish now as to believe that the Wentworths had anything to do with the murder. He wrote the letter at the request of Dr. Horace Wentworth.