An American Tragedy Chapter 2

The information obtained by Coroner Heit and his assistant was of a singular and disturbing character. In the first instance, because of the disappearance of a boat and an apparently happy and attractive couple bent on sight-seeing, an early morning search, instigated by the inn-keeper of this region, had revealed, in Moon Cove, the presence of the overturned canoe, also the hat and veil. And immediately such available employees, as well as guides and guests of the Inn, as could be impressed, had begun diving into the waters or by means of long poles equipped with hooks attempting to bring one or both bodies to the surface. The fact, as reported by Sim Shoop, the guide, as well as the innkeeper and the boat-house lessee, that the lost girl was both young and attractive and her companion seemingly a youth of some means, was sufficient to whet the interest of this lake group of woodsmen and inn employees to a point which verged on sorrow. And in addition, there was intense curiosity as to how, on so fair and windless a day, so strange an accident could have occurred.

But what created, far more excitement after a very little time was the fact that at high noon one of the men who trolled—John Pole—a woodsman, was at last successful in bringing to the surface Roberta herself, drawn upward by the skirt of her dress, obviously bruised about the face—the lips and nose and above and below the right eye—a fact which to those who were assisting at once seemed to be suspicious. Indeed, John Pole, who with Joe Rainer at the oars was the one who had succeeded in bringing her to the surface, had exclaimed at once on seeing her: “Why, the pore little thing! She don’t seem to weigh more’n nothin’ at all. It’s a wonder tuh me she coulda sunk.” And then reaching over and gathering her in his strong arms, he drew her in, dripping and lifeless, while his companions signaled to the other searchers, who came swiftly. And putting back from her face the long, brown, thick hair which the action of the water had swirled concealingly across it, he had added: “I do declare, Joe! Looka here. It does look like the child mighta been hit by somethin’! Looka here, Joe!” And soon the group of woodsmen and inn guests in their boats alongside were looking at the brownish-blue marks on Roberta’s face.

And forthwith, even while the body of Roberta was being taken north to the boat-house, and the dragging for the body of the lost man was resumed, suspicions were being voiced in such phrases as: “Well, it looks kinda queer—them marks—an’ all,—don’t it? It’s curious a boat like that coulda upset on a day like yesterday.” “We’ll soon know if he’s down there or not!”; the feeling, following failure after hours of fruitless search for him, definitely coalescing at last into the conclusion that more than likely he was not down there at all—a hard and stirring thought to all.

Subsequent to this, the guide who had brought Clyde and Roberta from Gun Lodge conferring with the inn-keepers at Big Bittern and Grass Lake, it was factually determined: (1) that the drowned girl had left her bag at Gun Lodge whereas Clifford Golden had taken his with him; (2) that there was a disturbing discrepancy between the registration at Grass Lake and that at Big Bittern, the names Carl Graham and Clifford Golden being carefully discussed by the two inn-keepers and the identity of the bearer as to looks established; and (3) that the said Clifford Golden or Carl Graham had asked of the guide who had driven him over to Big Bittern whether there were many people on the lake that day. And thereafter the suspicions thus far engendered further coalescing into the certainty that there had been foul play. There was scarcely any doubt of it.

Immediately upon his arrival Coroner Heit was made to understand that these men of the north woods were deeply moved and in addition determined in their suspicions. They did not believe that the body of Clifford Golden or Carl Graham had ever sunk to the bottom of the lake. With the result that Heit on viewing the body of the unknown girl laid carefully on a cot in the boat-house, and finding her young and attractive, was strangely affected, not only by her looks but this circumambient atmosphere of suspicion. Worse yet, on retiring to the office of the manager of the inn, and being handed the letter found in the pocket of Roberta’s coat, he was definitely swayed in the direction of a somber and unshakable suspicion. For he read:

Grass Lake, N. Y., July 8th.


We’re up here and we’re going to be married, but this is for your eyes alone. Please don’t show it to papa or any one, for it mustn’t become known yet. I told you why at Christmas. And you’re not to worry or ask any questions or tell any one except just that you’ve heard from me and know where I am—not anybody. And you mustn’t think I won’t be getting along all right because I will be. Here’s a big hug and kiss for each cheek, mamma. Be sure and make father understand that it’s all right without telling him anything, or Emily or Tom or Gifford, either, do you hear? I’m sending you nice, big kisses.

Lovingly, BERT.


P.S. This must be your secret and mine until I write you different a little later on.

And in the upper right-hand corner of the paper, as well as on the envelope, were printed the words: “Grass Lake Inn, Grass Lake, N. Y., Jack Evans, Prop.” And the letter had evidently been written the morning after the night they had spent at Grass Lake as Mr. and Mrs. Carl Graham.

The waywardness of young girls!

For plainly, as this letter indicated, these two had stayed together as man and wife at that inn when they were not as yet married. He winced as he read, for he had daughters of his own of whom he was exceedingly fond. But at this point he had a thought. A quadrennial county election was impending, the voting to take place the following November, at which were to be chosen for three years more the entire roster of county offices, his own included, and in addition this year a county judge whose term was for six years. In August, some six weeks further on, were to be held the county Republican and Democratic conventions at which were to be chosen the regular party nominees for these respective offices. Yet for no one of these places, thus far, other than that of the county judgeship, could the present incumbent of the office of district attorney possibly look forward with any hope, since already he had held the position of district attorney for two consecutive terms, a length of office due to the fact that not only was he a good orator of the inland political stripe but also, as the chief legal official of the county, he was in a position to do one and another of his friends a favor. But now, unless he were so fortunate as to be nominated and subsequently elected to this county judgeship, defeat and political doldrums loomed ahead. For during all his term of office thus far, there had been no really important case in connection with which he had been able to distinguish himself and so rightfully and hopefully demand further recognition from the people. But this…

But now, as the Coroner shrewdly foresaw, might not this case prove the very thing to fix the attention and favor of the people upon one man—the incumbent district attorney—a close and helpful friend of his, thus far—and so sufficiently redound to his credit and strength, and through him to the party ticket itself, so that at the coming election all might be elected—the reigning district attorney thus winning for himself not only the nomination for but his election to the six-year term judgeship. Stranger things than this had happened in the political world.

Immediately he decided not to answer any questions in regard to this letter, since it promised a quick solution of the mystery of the perpetrator of the crime, if there had been one, plus exceptional credit in the present political situation to whosoever should appear to be instrumental in the same. At the same time he at once ordered Earl Newcomb, as well as the guide who had brought Roberta and Clyde to Big Bittern, to return to Gun Lodge station from where the couple had come and say that under no circumstances was the bag held there to be surrendered to any one save himself or a representative of the district attorney. Then, when he was about to telephone to Biltz to ascertain whether there was such a family as Alden possessing a daughter by the name of Bert, or possibly Alberta, he was most providentially, as it seemed to him, interrupted by two men and a boy, trappers and hunters of this region, who, accompanied by a crowd of those now familiar with the tragedy, were almost tumultuously ushered into his presence. For they had news—news of the utmost importance! As they now related, with many interruptions and corrections, at about five o’clock of the afternoon of the day on which Roberta was drowned, they were setting out from Three Mile Bay, some twelve miles south of Big Bittern, to hunt and fish in and near this lake. And, as they now unanimously testified, on the night in question, at about nine o’clock, as they were nearing the south shore of Big Bittern—perhaps three miles to the south of it—they had encountered a young man, whom they took to be some stranger making his way from the inn at Big Bittern south to the village at Three Mile Bay. He was a smartishly and decidedly well dressed youth for these parts, as they now said—wearing a straw hat and carrying a bag, and at the time they wondered why such a trip on foot and at such an hour since there was a train south early next morning which reached Three Mile Bay in an hour’s time. And why, too, should he have been so startled at meeting them? For as they described it, on his encountering them in the woods thus, he had jumped back as though startled and worse—terrified—as though about to run. To be sure, the lantern one of them was carrying was turned exceedingly low, the moon being still bright, and they had walked quietly, as became men who were listening for wild life of any kind. At the same time, surely this was a perfectly safe part of the country, traversed for the most part by honest citizens such as themselves, and there was no need for a young man to jump as though he were seeking to hide in the brush. However, when the youth, Bud Brunig, who carried the light, turned it up the stranger seemed to recover his poise and after a moment in response to their “Howdy” had replied: “How do you do? How far is it to Three Mile Bay?” and they had replied, “About seven mile.” And then he had gone on and they also, discussing the encounter.

And now, since the description of this youth tallied almost exactly with that given by the guide who had driven Clyde over from Gun Lodge, as well as that furnished by the inn-keepers at Big Bittern and Grass Lake, it seemed all too plain that he must be the same youth who had been in that boat with the mysterious dead girl.

At once Earl Newcomb suggested to his chief that he be permitted to telephone to the one inn-keeper at Three Mile Bay to see if by any chance this mysterious stranger had been seen or had registered there. He had not. Nor apparently at that time had he been seen by any other than the three men. In fact, he had vanished as though into air, although by nightfall of this same day it was established that on the morning following the chance meeting of the men with the stranger, a youth of somewhat the same description and carrying a bag, but wearing a cap—not a straw hat—had taken passage for Sharon on the small lake steamer “Cygnus” plying between that place and Three Mile Bay. But again, beyond that point, the trail appeared to be lost. No one at Sharon, at least up to this time, seemed to recall either the arrival or departure of any such person. Even the captain himself, as he later testified, had not particularly noted his debarkation—there were some fourteen others going down the lake that day and he could not be sure of any one person.

But in so far as the group at Big Bittern was concerned, the conclusion slowly but definitely impressed itself upon all those present that whoever this individual was, he was an unmitigated villain—a reptilian villain! And forthwith there was doubled and trebled in the minds of all a most urgent desire that he be overtaken and captured. The scoundrel! The murderer! And at once there was broadcast throughout this region by word of mouth, telephone, telegraph, to such papers as The Argus and Times-Union of Albany, and The Star of Lycurgus, the news of this pathetic tragedy with the added hint that it might conceal a crime of the gravest character.