An American Tragedy Chapter 11

In connection with the autopsy and its results there was a decided set-back. For while the joint report of the five doctors showed: “An injury to the mouth and nose; the tip of the nose appears to have been slightly flattened, the lips swollen, one front tooth slightly loosened, and an abrasion of the mucous membrane within the lips”—all agreed that these injuries were by no means fatal. The chief injury was to the skull (the very thing which Clyde in his first confession had maintained), which appeared to have been severely bruised by a blow of “some sharp instrument,” unfortunately in this instance, because of the heaviness of the blow of the boat, “signs of fracture and internal hæmorrhage which might have produced death.”

But—the lungs when placed in water, sinking—an absolute proof that Roberta could not have been dead when thrown into the water, but alive and drowning, as Clyde had maintained. And no other signs of violence or struggle, although her arms and fingers appeared to be set in such a way as to indicate that she might have been reaching or seeking to grasp something. The wale of the boat? Could that be? Might Clyde’s story, after all, conceal a trace of truth? Certainly these circumstances seemed to favor him a little. Yet as Mason and the others agreed, all these circumstances most distinctly seemed to prove that although he might not have slain her outright before throwing her into the water, none the less he had struck her and then had thrown her, perhaps unconscious, into the water.

But with what? If he could but make Clyde say that!

And then an inspiration! He would take Clyde and, although the law specifically guaranteed accused persons against compulsions, compel him to retrace the scenes of his crime. And although he might not be able to make him commit himself in any way, still, once on the ground and facing the exact scene of his crime, his actions might reveal something of the whereabouts of the suit, perhaps, or possibly some instrument with which he had struck her.

And in consequence, on the third day following Clyde’s incarceration, a second visit to Big Bittern, with Kraut, Heit, Mason, Burton, Burleigh, Earl Newcomb and Sheriff Slack as his companions, and a slow re-canvassing of all the ground he had first traveled on that dreadful day. And with Kraut, following instructions from Mason, “playing up” to him, in order to ingratiate himself into his good graces, and possibly cause him to make a clean breast of it. For Kraut was to argue that the evidence, so far was so convincing that you “never would get a jury to believe that you didn’t do it,” but that, “if you would talk right out to Mason, he could do more for you with the judge and the governor than any one could—get you off, maybe, with life or twenty years, while this way you’re likely to get the chair, sure.”

Yet Clyde, because of that same fear that had guided him at Bear Lake, maintaining a profound silence. For why should he say that he had struck her, when he had not—intentionally at least? Or with what, since no thought of the camera had come up as yet.

At the lake, after definite measurements by the county surveyor as to the distance from the spot where Roberta had drowned to the spot where Clyde had landed, Earl New-comb suddenly returning to Mason with an important discovery. For under a log not so far from the spot at which Clyde had stood to remove his wet clothes, the tripod he had hidden, a little rusty and damp, but of sufficient weight, as Mason and all these others were now ready to believe, to have delivered the blow upon Roberta’s skull which had felled her and so make it possible for him to carry her to the boat and later drown her. Yet, confronted with this and turning paler than before, Clyde denying that he had a camera or a tripod with him, although Mason was instantly deciding that he would re-question all witnesses to find out whether any recalled seeing a tripod or camera in Clyde’s possession.

And before the close of this same day learning from the guide who had driven Clyde and Roberta over, as well as the boatman who had seen Clyde drop his bag into the boat, and a young waitress at Grass Lake who had seen Clyde and Roberta going out from the inn to the station on the morning of their departure from Grass Lake, that all now recalled a “yellow bundle of sticks,” fastened to his bag which must have been the very tripod.

And then Burton Burleigh deciding that it might not really have been the tripod, after all with which he had struck her but possibly and even probably the somewhat heavier body of the camera itself, since an edge of it would explain the wound on the top of the head and the flat surface would explain the general wounds on her face. And because of this conclusion, without any knowledge on the part of Clyde, however, Mason securing divers from among the woodsmen of the region and setting them to diving in the immediate vicinity of the spot where Roberta’s body had been found, with the result that after an entire day’s diving on the part of six—and because of a promised and substantial reward, one Jack Bogart arose with the very camera which Clyde, as the boat had turned over, had let fall. Worse, after examination it proved to contain a roll of films, which upon being submitted to an expert chemist for development, showed finally to be a series of pictures of Roberta, made on shore—one sitting on a log, a second posed by the side of the boat on shore, a third reaching up toward the branches of a tree—all very dim and water-soaked but still decipherable. And the exact measurements of the broadest side of the camera corresponding in a general way to the length and breadth of the wounds upon Roberta’s face, which caused it now to seem positive that they had discovered the implement wherewith Clyde had delivered the blows.

Yet no trace of blood upon the camera itself. And none upon the side or bottom of the boat, which had been brought to Bridgeburg for examination. And none upon the rug which had lain in the bottom of the boat.

In Burton Burleigh there existed as sly a person as might have been found in a score of such backwoods counties as this, and soon he found himself meditating on how easy it would be, supposing irrefragable evidence were necessary, for him or any one to cut a finger and let it bleed on the rug or the side of the boat or the edge of the camera. Also, how easy to take from the head of Roberta two or three hairs and thread them between the sides of the camera, or about the rowlock to which her veil had been attached. And after due and secret meditation, he actually deciding to visit the Lutz Brothers morgue and secure a few threads of Roberta’s hair. For he himself was convinced that Clyde had murdered the girl in cold blood. And for want of a bit of incriminating proof, was such a young, silent, vain crook as this to be allowed to escape? Not if he himself had to twine the hairs about the rowlock or inside the lid of the camera, and then call Mason’s attention to them as something overlooked!

And in consequence, upon the same day that Heit and Mason were personally re-measuring the wounds upon Roberta’s face and head, Burleigh slyly threading two of Roberta’s hairs in between the door and the lens of the camera, so that Mason and Heit a little while later unexpectedly coming upon them, and wondering why they had not seen them before—nevertheless accepting them immediately as conclusive evidence of Clyde’s guilt. Indeed, Mason thereupon announcing that in so far as he was concerned, his case was complete. He had truly traced out every step in this crime and if need be was prepared to go to trial on the morrow.

Yet, because of the very completeness of the testimony, deciding for the present, at least, not to say anything in connection with the camera—to seal, if possible, the mouth of every one who knew. For, assuming that Clyde persisted in denying that he had carried a camera, or that his own lawyer should be unaware of the existence of such evidence, then how damning in court, and out of a clear sky, to produce this camera, these photographs of Roberta made by him, and the proof that the very measurements of one side of the camera coincided with the size of the wounds upon her face! How complete! How incriminating!

Also since he personally having gathered the testimony was the one best fitted to present it, he decided to communicate with the governor of the state for the purpose of obtaining a special term of the Supreme Court for this district, with its accompanying special session of the local grand jury, which would then be subject to his call at any time. For with this granted, he would be able to impanel a grand jury and in the event of a true bill being returned against Clyde, then within a month or six weeks, proceed to trial. Strictly to himself, however, he kept the fact that in view of his own approaching nomination in the ensuing November election this should all prove most opportune, since in the absence of any such special term the case could not possibly be tried before the succeeding regular January term of the Supreme Court, by which time he would be out of office and although possibly elected to the local judgeship still not able to try the case in person. And in view of the state of public opinion, which was most bitterly and vigorously anti-Clyde, a quick trial would seem fair and logical to every one in this local world. For why delay? Why permit such a criminal to sit about and speculate on some plan of escape? And especially when his trial by him, Mason, was certain to rebound to his legal and political and social fame the country over.