Oregon’s Lizzie Borden | Unfaithful, axe-wielding killer, or mentally unstable and abused wife?

By Mike Mata ::

The Lone Fir Cemetery, Charity Lamb’s final resting place. Credit: Mike Mata

For more than a century and a half, Oregonians have debated the legacy of the state’s first convicted female murderer, Charity Lamb.

Charity murdered her husband, Nathaniel, on May 13, 1854. After being arrested for the murder along with her eldest daughter, Mary Ann, Charity stood trial on September 11th of the same year, was charged with second degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in the territorial penitentiary before being moved to the Oregon Hospital for the Insane in 1862. She died there in 1879.

Going back to the trials of the two women charged in the murder of Nathaniel Lamb, Mary Ann, his daughter, stood trial as an accomplice to the murder on July 11, 1854 and received an acquittal for any involvement in the murder of her father.

Charity had her initial trial two days after Mary Ann’s trial and instead of an acquittal, her lawyers would petition the judge for a postponement of the indictment against her due to a technical issue involving the grand jury. The judge granted the motion and Charity was back to jail until the court reconvened in September. She served four months in jail from the time she was arrested to the time of her trial on September.

In the meantime, the local newspapers took to their presses demonstrating their disapproval of Charity and Mary Ann. The Oregon Weekly Times claimed that Charity and Mary Ann had concocted a plan for Mary Ann to elope with a drifter named Collins. The paper alleged that there was a letter written by the mother and daughter to Collins telling him they were ready to leave Nathaniel and the rest of the family at his notice. This letter was intercepted by Nathaniel and its contents may have been a contributing factor in his murder, though the physical letter was never seen at the trial or any time afterwards.

Charity’s trial did not start off well as the grand jury was assembled from 18 men, of which only 6 were eligible jurors. This led Sheriff William Livingstone Holmes to select another 20 men from the spectators present as possible jurors. Holmes pared this group down to the 12 men required for a full jury. The prosecution made a point of questioning each prospective jury member about whether they thought that there needed to be more evidence to convict a woman than was needed to convict a man as well as asking whether each man was biased towards “the fairer sex.” At the time, women were not allowed to sit on a jury, which would prove to be a hindrance for Charity’s story of a battered and abused wife driven to kill her husband out of self-preservation.

The prosecution opened its case with testimonies from the two physicians involved in the case as well as two of Lamb sons, Abram and Thomas. These testimonies painted a picture that cemented the reputation of Charity as the cold-blooded killer in the newspaper stories.

The defense struck back with the story of Charity’s weakened mental state and a home life fraught with constant fights and physical abuse by her husband. These physical fights included Nathaniel hitting Charity as well as an incident where Nathaniel shot a gun from outside the house towards Charity, though he claimed it was an accident.

The defense added to their claims of insanity that Charity had acted out of self-defense against threats from her husband. The children’s’ testimonies revealed their parents fought frequently and included stories of Nathaniel hitting Charity with a hammer and aiming a gun at her. In Presley Welch’s testimony, he said that she (Charity) had only meant to stun her husband enough for her to run away while in Barclay’s testimony, he said that the force used by Charity on her husband was enough to cause serious damage to the skull.

Dr. James C. Hawthorne’s asylum,  in Portland as it appeared in 1872.  Located just off Hawthorne Boulevard, (then called Asylum Street), near the 12th street intersection, where Charity Lamb spent the last 17 years of her life. Credit: oregonencyclopedia.org

Welch said Charity alluded to the murder when he spoke with her after examining her husband, in which she said the worst they could do was hang her, which she would take so long as Nathaniel died. Welch testified that Charity seemed normal to him and lacked any signs of insanity. The other physician, Forbes Barclay offered a mixed testimonial, claiming that she at times exhibited signs of mental instability and at other times that she seemed normal.

This trial was sensational at the time and raised questions about how the state should handle female prisoners in an all-male penitentiary, as Charity was the first woman incarcerated for a serious crime. While she was convicted and served her time, she didn’t receive the death penalty, which was still common during that time period. Charity was also able to use her mental state as a defense, albeit with the result coming much later in her sentencing.

Charity earned the respect of her male counterparts in the state penitentiary and even received a commendation for her hardiness in the prison newspaper. Her latter days spent in Dr. James C. Hawthorne’s asylum were reported to have been at least more comforting, with visitors to the asylum noting that she maintained a half smile and seemed generally happy. After her death in 1879, Charity was buried at Lone Fir Cemetery.

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Music used
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”
Nirvana, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Mike Mata, Project Manager
Taylor Bailey, fact checker and editor
Jeannette Butts, fact checker and editor