“I Have Struck Mrs. Cochran with a Stake: Sleepwalking, insanity, and the trial of Abraham Prescott” may have readers at the title. The book, due out in October, tells the story of a sensational 19th century murder and trial that took place in New Hampshire.

Cover courtesy of Kent State University Press

Sally Cochran, a young married mother of two from a good family, was brutally murdered by the family farmhand, 18-year-old Abraham Prescott. Making the case even more infamous, Prescott had badly wounded Sally and her husband, Chauncey, in an axe attack just a few months earlier, yet the couple had kept him on. At the time, Sally told a neighbor that “Prescott was a good boy … and did not intentionally hurt them.”

In relaying this centuries-old true-crime story, Leslie Lambert Rounds, executive director of the Dyer Library/Saco Museum, also delves deep into the history of sleep walking and the insanity defense, both of which came into play in Prescott’s trial. We spoke with her about the book, a compelling read that blends fascinating historical detail with vivid storytelling.

ORIGIN STORY: As part of her effort to persuade skeptical colleagues at the museum to mount an exhibit of schoolgirl samplers, Rounds researched the name stitched into an 19th-century sampler that a Saco family had donated to the museum in 1963. “My feeling was so many of these samplers were made by girls that we don’t even know they existed other than the samplers that exist. The census in those days didn’t even record these girls’ names. Only men’s names. Sad. Tragic.

“I figured I could find something out about the girl. So I scampered over to the library to look her up. There was no record of her in Saco. Thinking that was strange, I Googled her. The first thing that came up was that there was a Sally Cochran who had been murdered in 1833 by her husband’s hired hand. Yikes.”

SIMMERING: Rounds’ efforts succeeded. The exhibit, “I My Needle Ply with Skill: Maine Schoolgirl Needlework of the Federal Era,” was mounted in 2013 and was a big success. “But that couldn’t put Sally’s story to rest for me. It stayed with me. People needed to hear this story. Not just because of the tragedy of Sally, a young mother who died picking strawberries, but because of the equally compelling story of the boy who killed her. His attorneys and the justices (from two trials) were so convinced he shouldn’t be executed that they put a letter in newspaper. They felt that executing Abraham was just a complete miscarriage of justice. For the justices to publicly question the wisdom of the jury after the trial ended was surely a very unusual outcome.

Leslie Lambert Rounds Photo courtesy of Leslie Lambert Rounds

“I am a mother. It was very hard for me to come to a place where I forgave Abraham. I don’t think forgiveness was the right word. I began to think that maybe he did not have good control over what he did. I think today he would be considered mentally disabled. He seems very pathetic. He did a very non-pathetic thing, but I do think that executing him was a heartbreaking thing to do.”

FAMILY HISTORY: Rounds sought out the family that had donated the sampler to ask about the brutal murder – after Sally’s death, her husband moved the family to East Corinth, Maine, and descendants still live locally. “That story was no longer in their family. There wasn’t even the tiniest memory of Sally and that it had happened. True, stories get lost – but this is such a story.”

JOB QUALIFICATIONS: “I would like to say I am a historian, but I am not trained as a historian. My bachelor’s degree is in nursing and my master’s degree is in library science. But I think my parents brought me up to be a historian. They were always taking us to forts and antique houses and old cemeteries. I think it sticks.”

RESEARCH HABITS: Rounds wrote the book in her spare time over several years. “It’s kind of a hobby. It mattered to me. In the beginning, the research was just because I wanted to know. Eventually, it became I was going to write a book and I had to know.”

STORYTELLING: Kent State University Press, an academic press, is publishing the book. That meant no embellishing. In the opening chapter, for instance, which describes the murder in theatrical detail, Rounds writes that Sally “followed Prescott out the back door, through the barn and down the rutted farm lane, carefully stepping around the piles of cow manure, which would have ruined her hand-sewn slippers.” How did she know that Sally stepped around the cow manure, a pre-publication reader checking for historical accuracy demanded.

All the dialogue comes from trial records (and it crackles). Although Rounds’ knowledge and research skills are displayed throughout the 264-page book, she says she wasn’t writing for an academic audience. She wanted to bring ordinary readers there. “The best nonfiction should be in that place and that time. It should kind of be like a bystander watching.”

ETERNAL MYSTERIES: The events described in “I Have Struck Mrs. Cochran with a Stake” happened nearly 200 years ago. Because the murder was considered salacious, the record – in newspapers and court documents – is extensive. Still, “the gold standard when you are doing this kind of work is to find diaries. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Chauncey had kept a diary? But if he did, I never did find out. She had two little children when she died. Her younger one was just about 2, and the older one maybe about 4. I knew they died in young adulthood. I would have liked to know why. It must have been a terrible thing for them. They were so little when she died. It must have felt for them that she abandoned them. She went to pick strawberries, and she never came home. When I wrote the book, I was trying to honor Sally. And that seemed like an important thing to know, what happened to her children. I could never find out.”

MODERN RELEVANCE: “I didn’t go into this wanting you to think about capital punishment in modern times. But the idea of diminished capabilities, of not being fully responsible? An alarming number of people incarcerated now, especially on death row, are not of normal intellect. Because lives were so different then, in so many ways, it’s easy to believe people were different. But people weren’t different. You could take these people and plunk them down today, and they would be your neighbors. You can walk around their farms. You can see their stone walls.

“A lot of what happens in this book, we’re still dealing with now. One of the big issues in the trial was whether or not Sally and Abraham had struggled. Really the issue was: Did he try to sexually assault her? And if he did, people were going to try to attach some blame to Sally. Does this sound familiar? Abraham wasn’t really regarded as being as worthy of mercy because he’d come from a poor family. Those kinds of things are still hanging around.”

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Rounds brings Abraham, Sally and the other real-life people in this tale to life, writing about their family histories, education and daily lives. Prescott was kind to the Cochran children but mercilessly beat the cows. Sally was, Rounds writes, “a good neighbor” and “both respectable and respected.” As a girl, Sally attended the private Pinkerton Academy, where she stitched a sampler with, it turned out, this sadly prescient sentiment. “Each moment has its sickle and cuts down/The fairest bloom of sublunary bliss.”

Said Rounds, “You spend so much time with them. After a while, you feel like you must know them. I hope people that read the book will know them, too. Now I am working on a 19th century female serial killer. I came to value Sally as a person. It’s really hard to value this lady. I am having a hard time being sympathetic. She was not a nice person.”

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