An American Tragedy Chapter 17

The struggle and excitement of a great murder trial! Belknap and Jephson, after consulting with Brookhart and Catchuman, learning that they considered Jephson’s plan “perhaps the only way,” but with as little reference to the Griffiths as possible.

And then at once, Messrs. Belknap and Jephson issuing preliminary statements framed in such a manner as to show their faith in Clyde, presenting him as being, in reality, a much maligned and entirely misunderstood youth, whose intentions and actions toward Miss Alden were as different from those set forth by Mason as white from black. And intimating that the undue haste of the district attorney in seeking a special term of the Supreme Court might possibly have a political rather than a purely legal meaning. Else why the hurry, especially in the face of an approaching county election? Could there be any plan to use the results of such a trial as this to further any particular person’s, or group of persons’, political ambitions? Messrs. Belknap and Jephson begged to hope not.

But regardless of such plans or the prejudices or the political aspirations of any particular person or group, the defense in this instance did not propose to permit a boy as innocent as Clyde, trapped by circumstances—as counsel for the defense would be prepared to show—to be railroaded to the electric chair merely to achieve a victory for the Republican party in November. Furthermore, to combat these strange and yet false circumstances, the defense would require a considerable period of time to prepare its case. Therefore, it would be necessary for them to file a formal protest at Albany against the district attorney’s request to the governor for a special term of the Supreme Court. There was no need for the same, since the regular term for the trial of such cases would fall in January, and the preparation of their case would require that much time.

But while this strong, if rather belated, reply was listened to with proper gravity by the representatives of the various newspapers, Mason vigorously pooh-poohed this “windy” assertion of political plotting, as well as the talk of Clyde’s innocence. “What reason have I, a representative of all the people of this county, to railroad this man anywhere or make one single charge against him unless the charges make themselves? Doesn’t the evidence itself show that he did kill this girl? And has he ever said or done one thing to clear up any of the suspicious circumstances? No! Silence or lies. And until these circumstances are disproved by these very able gentlemen, I am going right ahead. I have all the evidence necessary to convict this young criminal now. And to delay it until January, when I shall be out of office, as they know, and when a new man will have to go over all this evidence with which I have familiarized myself, is to entail great expense to the county. For all the witnesses I have gotten together are right here now, easy to bring into Bridgeburg without any great expense to the county. But where will they be next January or February, especially after the defense has done its best to scatter them? No, sir! I will not agree to it. But, if within ten days or two weeks from now even, they can bring me something that will so much as make it look as though even some of the charges I have made are not true, I’ll be perfectly willing to go before the presiding judge with them, and if they can show him any evidence they have or hope to have, or that there are any distant known witnesses to be secured who can help prove this fellow’s innocence, why, then, well and good. I’ll be willing to ask the judge to grant them as much time as he may see fit, even if it throws the trial over until I am out of office. But if the trial comes up while I’m here, as I honestly hope it will, I’ll prosecute it to the best of my ability, not because I’m looking for an office of any kind but because I am now the district attorney and it is my duty to do so. And as for my being in politics, well, Mr. Belknap is in politics, isn’t he? He ran against me the last time, and I hear he desires to run again.”

Accordingly he proceeded to Albany further to impress upon the Governor the very great need of an immediate special term of the Court so that Clyde might be indicted. And the Governor, hearing the personal arguments of both Mason and Belknap, decided in favor of Mason, on the ground that the granting of a special term did not militate against any necessary delay of the trial of the case, since nothing which the defense as yet had to offer seemed to indicate that the calling of a special term was likely in any way to prevent it from obtaining as much time wherein to try the case as needed. Besides, it would be the business of the Supreme Court justice appointed to consider such arguments—not himself. And accordingly, a special term of the Supreme Court was ordered, with one Justice Frederick Oberwaltzer of the eleventh judicial district designated to preside. And when Mason appeared before him with the request that he fix the date of the Special Grand Jury by which Clyde might be indicted, this was set for August fifth.

And then that body sitting, it was no least trouble for Mason to have Clyde indicted.

And thereafter the best that Belknap and Jephson could do was to appear before Oberwaltzer, a Democrat, who owed his appointment to a previous governor, to argue for a change of venue, on the ground that by no possible stretch of the imagination could any twelve men residing in Cataraqui County be found who, owing to the public and private statements of Mason, were not already vitally opposed to Clyde and so convinced of his guilt that before ever such a jury could be addressed by a defense, he would be convicted.

“But where are you going then?” inquired Justice Oberwaltzer, who was impartial enough. “The same material has been published everywhere.”

“But, your Honor, this crime which the district attorney here has been so busy in magnifying—” (a long and heated objection on the part of Mason).

“But we contend just the same,” continued Belknap, “that the public has been unduly stirred and deluded. You can’t get twelve men now who will try this man fairly.”

“What nonsense!” exclaimed Mason, angrily. “Mere twaddle! Why, the newspapers themselves have gathered and published more evidence than I have. It’s the publicly discovered facts in this case that have aroused prejudice, if any has been aroused. But no more than would be aroused anywhere, I maintain. Besides, if this case is to be transferred to a distant county when the majority of the witnesses are right here, this county is going to be saddled with an enormous expense, which it cannot afford and which the facts do not warrant.”

Justice Oberwaltzer, who was of a sober and moral turn, a slow and meticulous man inclined to favor conservative procedure in all things, was inclined to agree. And after five days, in which he did not more than muse idly upon the matter, he decided to deny the motion. If he were wrong, there was the Appellate Division to which the defense could resort. As for stays, having fixed the date of the trial for October fifteenth (ample time, as he judged, for the defense to prepare its case), he adjourned for the remainder of the summer to his cottage on Blue Mountain Lake, where both the prosecution and the defense, should any knotty or locally insoluble legal complication arise, would be able to find him and have his personal attention.

But with the entry of the Messrs. Belknap and Jephson into the case, Mason found it advisable to redouble his efforts to make positive, in so far as it were possible, the conviction of Clyde. He feared the young Jephson as much as he did Belknap. And for that reason, taking with him Burton Burleigh and Earl Newcomb, he now revisited Lycurgus, where among other things he was able to discover (1) where Clyde had purchased the camera; (2) that three days before his departure for Big Bittern he had said to Mrs. Peyton that he was thinking of taking his camera with him and that he must get some films for it; (3) that there was a haberdasher by the name of Orrin Short who had known Clyde well and that but four months before Clyde had applied to him for advice in connection with a factory hand’s pregnant wife—also (and this in great confidence to Burton Burleigh, who had unearthed him) that he had recommended to Clyde a certain Dr. Glenn, near Gloversville; (4) Dr. Glenn himself being sought and pictures of Clyde and Roberta being submitted, he was able to identify Roberta, although not Clyde, and to describe the state of mind in which she had approached him, as well as the story she had told—a story which in no way incriminated Clyde or herself, and which, therefore, Mason decided might best be ignored, for the present, anyhow.

And (5), via these same enthusiastic efforts, there rose to the surface the particular hat salesman in Utica who had sold Clyde the hat. For Burton Burleigh being interviewed while in Utica, and his picture published along with one of Clyde, this salesman chanced to see it and recalling him at once made haste to communicate with Mason, with the result that his testimony, properly typewritten and sworn to, was carried away by Mason.

And, in addition, the country girl who had been on the steamer “Cygnus” and who had noticed Clyde, wrote Mason that she remembered him wearing a straw hat, also his leaving the boat at Sharon, a bit of evidence which most fully confirmed that of the captain of the boat and caused Mason to feel that Providence or Fate was working with him. And last, but most important of all to him, there came a communication from a woman residing in Bedford, Pennsylvania, who announced that during the week of July third to tenth, she and her husband had been camping on the east shore of Big Bittern, near the southern end of the lake. And while rowing on the lake on the afternoon of July eighth, at about six o’clock, she had heard a cry which sounded like that of a woman or girl in distress—a plaintive, mournful cry. It was very faint and had seemed to come from beyond the island which was to the south and west of the bay in which they were fishing.

Mason now proposed to remain absolutely silent regarding this information, and that about the camera and films and the data regarding Clyde’s offense in Kansas City, until nearer the day of trial, or during the trial itself, when it would be impossible for the defense to attempt either to refute or ameliorate it in any way.

As for Belknap and Jephson, apart from drilling Clyde in the matter of his general denial based on his change of heart once he had arrived at Grass Lake, and the explanation of the two hats and the bag, they could not see that there was much to do. True, there was the suit thrown in Fourth Lake near the Cranstons’, but after much trolling on the part of a seemingly casual fisherman, that was brought up, cleaned and pressed, and now hung in a locked closet in the Belknap and Jephson office. Also, there was the camera at Big Bittern, dived for but never found by them—a circumstance which led Jephson to conclude that Mason must have it, and so caused him to decide that he would refer to it at the earliest possible opportunity at the trial. But as for Clyde striking her with it, even accidentally, well, it was decided at that time at least, to contend that he had not—although after exhuming Roberta’s body at Biltz it had been found that the marks on her face, even at this date, did correspond in some degree to the size and shape of the camera.

For, in the first place, they were exceedingly dubious of Clyde as a witness. Would he or would he not, in telling of how it all happened, be sufficiently direct or forceful and sincere to convince any jury that he had so struck her without intending to strike her? For on that, marks or no marks, would depend whether the jury was going to believe him. And if it did not believe that he struck her accidentally, then a verdict of guilty, of course.

And so they prepared to await the coming of the trial, only working betimes and in so far as they dared, to obtain testimony or evidence as to Clyde’s previous good character, but being blocked to a degree by the fact that in Lycurgus, while pretending to be a model youth outwardly, he had privately been conducting himself otherwise, and that in Kansas City his first commercial efforts had resulted in such a scandal.

However, one of the most difficult matters in connection with Clyde and his incarceration here, as Belknap and Jephson as well as the prosecution saw it, was the fact that thus far not one single member of his own or his uncle’s family had come forward to champion him. And to no one save Belknap and Jephson had he admitted where his parents were. Yet would it not be necessary, as both Belknap and Jephson argued from time to time, if any case at all were to be made out for him, to have his mother or father, or at least a sister or a brother, come forward to say a good word for him? Otherwise, Clyde might appear to be a pariah, one who had been from the first a drifter and a waster and was now purposely being avoided by all who knew him.

For this reason, at their conference with Darrah Brook-hart they had inquired after Clyde’s parents and had learned that in so far as the Griffiths of Lycurgus were concerned, there lay a deep objection to bringing on any member of this western branch of the family. There was, as he explained, a great social gap between them, which it would not please the Lycurgus Griffiths to have exploited here. Besides, who could say but that once Clyde’s parents were notified or discovered by the yellow press, they might not lend themselves to exploitation. Both Samuel and Gilbert Griffiths, as Brookhart now informed Belknap, had suggested that it was best, if Clyde did not object, to keeping his immediate relatives in the background. In fact, on this, in some measure at least, was likely to depend the extent of their financial aid to Clyde.

Clyde was in accord with this wish of the Griffiths, although no one who talked with him sufficiently or heard him express how sorry he was on his mother’s account that all this had happened, could doubt the quality of the blood and emotional tie that held him and his mother together. The complete truth was that his present attitude toward her was a mixture of fear and shame because of the manner in which she was likely to view his predicament—his moral if not his social failure. Would she be willing to believe the story prepared by Belknap and Jephson as to his change of heart? But even apart from that, to have her come here now and look at him through these bars when he was so disgraced—to be compelled to face her and talk to her day after day! Her clear, inquiring, tortured eyes! Her doubt as to his innocence, since he could feel that even Belknap and Jephson, in spite of all their plans for him, were still a little dubious as to that unintentional blow of his. They did not really believe it, and they might tell her that. And would his religious, God-fearing, crime-abhorring mother be more credulous than they?

Being asked again what he thought ought to be done about his parents, he replied that he did not believe he could face his mother yet—it would do no good and would only torture both.

And fortunately, as he saw it, apparently no word of all that had befallen him had yet reached his parents in Denver. Because of their peculiar religious and moral beliefs, all copies of worldly and degenerate daily papers were consistently excluded from their home and Mission. And the Lycurgus Griffiths had had no desire to inform them.

Yet one night, at about the time that Belknap and Jephson were most seriously debating the absence of his parents and what, if anything, should be done about it, Esta, who some time after Clyde had arrived in Lycurgus had married and was living in the southeast portion of Denver, chanced to read in The Rocky Mountain News—and this just subsequent to Clyde’s indictment by the Grand Jury at Bridgeburg:



“Bridgeburg, N. Y., Aug. 6: A special Grand Jury appointed by Governor Stouderback, of this state, to sit in the case of Clyde Griffiths, the nephew of the wealthy collar manufacturer of the same name, of Lycurgus, New York, recently charged with the killing of Miss Roberta Alden, of Biltz, New York, at Big Bittern Lake in the Adirondacks on July 8th last, to-day returned an indictment charging murder in the first degree.

“Subsequent to the indictment, Griffiths, who in spite of almost overwhelming evidence, has persisted in asserting that the alleged crime was an accident, and who, accompanied by his counsel, Alvin Belknap, and Reuben Jephson, of this city, was arraigned before Supreme Court Justice Oberwaltzer, pleaded not guilty. He was remanded for trial, which was set for October 15th.

“Young Griffiths, who is only twenty-two years of age, and up to the day of his arrest a respected member of Lycurgus smart society, is alleged to have stunned and then drowned his working-girl sweetheart, whom he had wronged and then planned to desert in favor of a richer girl. The lawyers in this case have been retained by his wealthy uncle of Lycurgus, who has hitherto remained aloof. But apart from this, it is locally asserted, no relative has come forward to aid in his defense.”

Esta forthwith made a hurried departure for her mother’s home. Despite the directness and clarity of this she was not willing to believe it was Clyde. Still there was the damning force of geography and names—the rich Lycurgus Griffiths, the absence of his own relatives.

As quickly as the local street car would carry her, she now presented herself at the combined lodging house and mission known as the “Star of Hope,” in Bildwell Street, which was scarcely better than that formerly maintained in Kansas City. For while it provided a number of rooms for wayfarers at twenty-five cents a night, and was supposed to be self-supporting, it entailed much work with hardly any more profit. Besides, by now, both Frank and Julia, who long before this had become irked by the drab world in which they found themselves, had earnestly sought to free themselves of it, leaving the burden of the mission work on their father and mother. Julia, now nineteen, was cashiering for a local downtown restaurant, and Frank, nearing seventeen, had but recently found work in a fruit and vegetable commission house. In fact, the only child about the place by day was little Russell, the illegitimate son of Esta—now between three and four years of age, and most reservedly fictionalized by his grandparents as an orphan whom they had adopted in Kansas City. He was a dark-haired child, in some ways resembling Clyde, who, even at this early age, as Clyde had been before him, was being instructed in those fundamental verities which had irritated Clyde in his own childhood.

At the time that Esta, now a decidedly subdued and reserved wife, entered, Mrs. Griffiths was busy sweeping and dusting and making up beds. But on sight of her daughter at this unusual hour approaching, and with blanched cheeks signaling her to come inside the door of a vacant room, Mrs. Griffiths, who, because of years of difficulties of various kinds, was more or less accustomed to scenes such as this, now paused in wonder, the swiftly beclouding mist of apprehension shining in her eyes. What new misery or ill was this? For decidedly Esta’s weak gray eyes and manner indicated distress. And in her hand was folded a paper, which she opened and after giving her mother a most solicitous look, pointed to the item, toward which Mrs. Griffiths now directed her look. But what was this?










It was thus that her eye and her mind automatically selected the most essential lines. And then as swiftly going over them again.


Clyde—her son! And only recently—but no, over a month ago—(and they had been worrying a little as to that, she and Asa, because he had not—) July 8th! And it was now August 11th! Then—yes! But not her son! Impossible! Clyde the murderer of a girl who was his sweetheart! But he was not like that! He had written to her how he was getting along—the head of a large department, with a future. But of no girl. But now! And yet that other little girl there in Kansas City. Merciful God! And the Griffiths, of Lycurgus, her husband’s brother, knowing of this and not writing! Ashamed, disgusted, no doubt. Indifferent. But no, he had hired two lawyers. Yet the horror! Asa! Her other children! What the papers would say! This mission! They would have to give it up and go somewhere else again. Yet was he guilty or not guilty? She must know that before judging or thinking. This paper said he had pleaded not guilty. Oh, that wretched, worldly, showy hotel in Kansas City! Those other bad boys! Those two years in which he wandered here and there, not writing, passing as Harry Tenet. Doing what? Learning what?

She paused, full of that intense misery and terror which no faith in the revealed and comforting verities of God and mercy and salvation which she was always proclaiming, could for the moment fend against. Her boy! Her Clyde! In jail, accused of murder! She must wire! She must write! She must go, maybe. But how to get the money! What to do when she got there. How to get the courage—the faith—to endure it. Yet again, neither Asa nor Frank nor Julia must know. Asa, with his protesting and yet somehow careworn faith, his weak eyes and weakening body. And must Frank and Julia, now just starting out in life, be saddled with this? Marked thus?

Merciful God! Would her troubles never end?

She turned, her big, work-worn hands trembling slightly, shaking the paper she held, while Esta, who sympathized greatly with her mother these days because of all she had been compelled to endure, stood by. She looked so tired at times, and now to be racked by this! Yet, as she knew, her mother was the strongest in the family—so erect, so square-shouldered, defiant—a veritable soul pilot in her cross-grained, uniformed way.

“Mamma, I just can’t believe it can be Clyde,” was all Esta could say now. “It just can’t be, can it?”

But Mrs. Griffiths merely continued to stare at that ominous headline, then swiftly ran her gray-blue eyes over the room. Her broad face was blanched and dignified by an enormous strain and an enormous pain. Her erring, misguided, no doubt unfortunate, son, with all his wild dreams of getting on and up, was in danger of death, of being electrocuted for a crime—for murder! He had killed some one—a poor working-girl, the paper said.

“Ssh!” she whispered, putting one finger to her own lips as a sign. “He” (indicating Asa) “must not know yet, anyhow. We must wire first, or write. You can have the answers come to you, maybe. I will give you the money. But I must sit down somewhere now for a minute. I feel a little weak. I’ll sit here. Let me have the Bible.”

On the small dresser was a Gideon Bible, which, sitting on the edge of the commonplace iron bed, she now opened instinctively at Psalms 3 and 4.

“Lord, how are they increased that trouble.”

“Hear me, when I call, O God of my righteousness.”

And then reading on silently, even placidly apparently, through 6, 8, 10, 13, 23, 91, while Esta stood by in silent amazement and misery.

“Oh, Mamma, I just can’t believe it. Oh, this is too terrible!”

But Mrs. Griffiths read on. It was as if, and in spite of all this, she had been able to retreat into some still, silent place, where, for the time being at least, no evil human ill could reach her. Then at last, quite calmly closing the book, and rising, she went on:

“Now, we must think out what to say and who to send that telegram to—I mean to Clyde, of course—at that place, wherever it is—Bridgeburg,” she added, looking at the paper, and then interpolating from the Bible—“By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us, O God!” “Or, maybe, those two lawyers—their names are there. I’m afraid to wire Asa’s brother for fear he’ll wire back to him.” (Then: ‘Thou art my bulwark and my strength. In Thee will I trust.’) “But I suppose they would give it to him if we sent it care of that judge or those lawyers, don’t you think? But it would be better if we could send it to him direct, I suppose. (‘He leadeth me by the still waters.’) Just say that I have read about him and still have faith and love for him, but he is to tell me the truth and what to do. If he needs money we will have to see what we can do, I suppose. (‘He restoreth my soul.’)”

And then, despite her sudden peace of the moment, she once more began wringing her large, rough hands. “Oh, it can’t be true. Oh, dear, no! After all, he is my son. We all love him and have faith. We must say that. God will deliver him. Watch and pray. Have faith. Under his wings shalt thou trust.”

She was so beside herself that she scarcely knew what she was saying. And Esta, at her side, was saying: “Yes, Mamma! Oh, of course! Yes, I will! I know he’ll get it all right.” But she, too, was saying to herself: “My God! My God! What could be worse than this—to be accused of murder! But, of course, it can’t be true. It can’t be true. If he should hear!” (She was thinking of her husband.) “And after Russell, too. And Clyde’s trouble there in Kansas City. Poor Mamma. She has so much trouble.”

Together, after a time, and avoiding Asa who was in an adjoining room helping with the cleaning, the two made their way to the general mission room below, where was silence and many placards which proclaimed the charity, the wisdom, and the sustaining righteousness of God.