Twin Tragedy

Arthur and Luther Foster were born on Halloween night in 1859. Their birth and survival was something of a miracle, because their mother, Dorcas, was 41 and had not had a baby for 14 years when they were born.

But the Foster family was plagued by tragedy. The twins’ oldest brother and sister passed away from tuberculosis when they were two. Dorcas succumbed to the same disease just prior to Arthur and Luther’s fifth birthday. Their father, Charles, remarried soon after his first wife died, but his new wife died giving birth to twins in 1867. Another wife and son followed, but that wife died in 1877.

By the time they reached the age of 11, the twins no longer lived with their father and his new family. Instead they were on their own, working for and boarding with various farmers near their hometown of North Andover, Massachusetts.

North Andover in 1880 (North Andover Historical Society)

The boys were hard workers and saved their wages. When they turned 20, they had enough money saved to enroll at Phillips Academy, a prep school a few miles south, in Andover. But without family support, money was tight and their funds ran out after a year of paying for tuition and board.

Abiel Wilson was a middle-aged farmer who lived in Andover. An eccentric bachelor, he resided alone in a small Greek Revival farmhouse and was reputed to keep a substantial amount of cash in his home. Arthur had worked for Wilson before he enrolled at the academy. He knew his way around the house and the property.

The twins were very close, as identical twins often are. They tended to answer questions with “we” instead of “I,” but Arthur had the stronger personality. Their sister Lucy said that of the brothers, Arthur was “the leader in sports and in mischief.” He told Luther that he planned to burglarize Wilson’s home and asked Luther to come along. At first Luther thought he was joking and tried to talk him out of it, but he soon realized Arthur was serious. When he wasn’t able to talk Arthur out of the plan, he reluctantly agreed to go with him.

On a Saturday night in late March, the twins went to Wilson’s farmhouse. They removed a loose pane of glass from the first floor pantry window and pulled out the nail holding the window shut. Arthur entered while Luther stood watch outside. When Arthur returned he told his brother that Wilson was not at home and they left. Luther hoped that would be the end of it. “I will never give it up,” Arthur told his brother.

On the night of April 12, 1881, the twins broke into Wilson’s home again. Arthur had a pistol in his pocket and carried a fireplace poker. Luther had a box of red pepper flakes in his pocket, given to him by Arthur, to throw in Wilson’s face and temporarily blind him. He would later say, “I can’t say anything about the pistol because I didn’t know anything about it.”

Quietly they crept up the stairs to the room where Wilson slept.

Wilson had noticed the signs of the previous break-in, which put him on the alert. At night he barricaded his bedroom door with a washstand and slept with a rifle in his bed.

The boys pushed on the door and the washstand slid aside. The door creaked open. Wilson sat up in bed and grabbed his gun. He fired at the doorway. The twins turned and fled down the stairs, jumping out the pantry window.

Arthur fell to the ground under the window, unable to go any farther. He had been hit in the chest with a bullet from Wilson’s rifle. Luther pulled his brother to shelter behind a stonewall surrounding the property and ran for help. But by the time he returned with his brother-in-law, Arthur was dead.

The police were summoned and Luther was arrested. Two months later, he confessed in court to accompanying his twin in the break-in, but claimed he’d been coerced. Various witnesses testified that Luther had a good reputation and that Arthur tended to dominate him. Nonetheless he received a heavy sentence: seven years hard labor in the state prison.

Massachusetts recognizes the “castle doctrine,” which removes a homeowner’s legal obligation to retreat when threatened by an intruder inside the home. Wilson was not charged with any crime.

Luther claimed their intention had only been to rob Wilson. But if robbery was the sole motive, why not do it during the first break-in, when Wilson wasn’t at home? Why go back when he was there and risk of being discovered? Unfortunately no one asked these questions at the hearing.

One plausible scenario is that Wilson had done Arthur some great harm—something so terrible and humiliating that he could not go public with it, but felt compelled to seek revenge on his own. One possibility is that Wilson attacked or even sexually assaulted the younger man when Arthur worked for him. It seems clear that Arthur’s primary motive was to harm or kill Wilson, who was described as a powerfully built man. The twins, though young and strong, were slender, and Arthur needed his brother’s help to overpower the larger man.

After serving his full sentence, Luther returned to North Andover. He tried to begin his life again, but he was shunned and ignored by the townsfolk. After a few years, the rejection became too much for him and he moved west, to St. Paul, Minnesota. He died in there in September 1893.

Abiel Wilson may have been haunted by the memory of killing Arthur Foster, because he sold his farmhouse just three years later. He died of a skin infection in 1899. The house stood until 1990, when it was torn down and replaced by condominiums.

Featured photo: Luther Foster’s mugshot from “New England Criminals tintype album.” (University of Michigan Clements Library)

11 thoughts on “Twin Tragedy

    1. I’m really struck by how challenging life was back then when I look at a state that kept good death records, like Massachusetts. It helps me put our current problems in perspective. Thanks for reading and posting, Liz!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It definitely helps put current problems in perspective. When I was looking into my family history a couple of years ago, there were regular waves of smallpox and other diseases that swept through the communities in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Clyde Barrow wasn’t so hard bitten until he was raped in prison. He was never the same person afterwards. I’d imagine men being abused and turning bitter, without ever revealing the source, was quite common. I certainly was approached, and propositioned, and once, I now recognize, groomed, in my younger days. Fortunately, I was never cornered.

    I don’t believe that everybody has a story, or at least, one worth hearing. Many people live out a dull existence, and many of those people are better off for it. Sadly, there are many stories we never hear, and quite often, those are the ones we should hear, and sympathize with.

    Cleanly told. Well done.

    Liked by 2 people

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