An American Tragedy Chapter 20

And then five entire days consumed by Mason and Belknap in selecting a jury. But at last the twelve men who were to try Clyde, sworn and seated. And such men—odd and grizzled, or tanned and wrinkled, farmers and country storekeepers, with here and there a Ford agent, a keeper of an inn at Tom Dixon’s Lake, a salesman in Hamburger’s dry goods store at Bridgeburg, and a peripatetic insurance agent residing in Purday just north of Grass Lake. And with but one exception, all married. And with but one exception, all religious, if not moral, and all convinced of Clyde’s guilt before ever they sat down, but still because of their almost unanimous conception of themselves as fair and open-minded men, and because they were so interested to sit as jurors in this exciting case, convinced that they could pass fairly and impartially on the facts presented to them.

And so, all rising and being sworn in.

And at once Mason rising and beginning: “Gentlemen of the jury.”

And Clyde, as well as Belknap and Jephson, now gazing at them and wondering what the impression of Mason’s opening charge was likely to be. For a more dynamic and electric prosecutor under these particular circumstances was not to be found. This was his opportunity. Were not the eyes of all the citizens of the United States upon him? He believed so. It was as if some one had suddenly exclaimed: “Lights! Camera!”

“No doubt many of you have been wearied, as well as puzzled, at times during the past week,” he began, “by the exceeding care with which the lawyers in this case have passed upon the panels from which you twelve men have been chosen. It has been no light matter to find twelve men to whom all the marshaled facts in this astonishing cause could be submitted and by them weighed with all the fairness and understanding which the law commands. For my part, the care which I have exercised, gentlemen, has been directed by but one motive—that the state shall have justice done. No malice, no pre-conceived notions of any kind. So late as July 9th last I personally was not even aware of the existence of this defendant, nor of his victim, nor of the crime with which he is now charged. But, gentlemen, as shocked and unbelieving as I was at first upon hearing that a man of the age, training and connections of the defendant here could have placed himself in a position to be accused of such an offense, step by step I was compelled to alter and then dismiss forever from my mind my original doubts and to conclude from the mass of evidence that was literally thrust upon me, that it was my duty to prosecute this action in behalf of the people.

“But, however that may be, let us proceed to the facts. There are two women in this action. One is dead. The other” (and he now turned toward where Clyde sat, and here he pointed a finger in the direction of Belknap and Jephson), “by agreement between the prosecution and the defense is to be nameless here, since no good can come from inflicting unnecessary injury. In fact, the sole purpose which I now announce to you to be behind every word and every fact as it will be presented by the prosecution is that exact justice, according to the laws of this state and the crime with which this defendant is charged, shall be done. Exact justice, gentlemen, exact and fair. But if you do not act honestly and render a true verdict according to the evidence, the people of the state of New York and the people of the county of Cataraqui will have a grievance and a serious one. For it is they who are looking to you for a true accounting for your reasoning and your final decision in this case.”

And here Mason paused, and then turning dramatically toward Clyde, and with his right index finger pointing toward him at times, continued: “The people of the state of New York charge,” (and he hung upon this one word as though he desired to give it the value of rolling thunder), “that the crime of murder in the first degree has been committed by the prisoner at the bar—Clyde Griffiths. They charge that he willfully, and with malice and cruelty and deception, murdered and then sought to conceal forever from the knowledge and the justice of the world, the body of Roberta Alden, the daughter of a farmer who has for years resided near the village of Biltz, in Mimico County. They charge” (and here Clyde, because of whispered advice from Jephson, was leaning back as comfortably as possible and gazing as imperturbably as possible upon the face of Mason, who was looking directly at him) “that this same Clyde Griffiths, before ever this crime was committed by him, plotted for weeks the plan and commission of it, and then, with malice aforethought and in cold blood, executed it.

“And in charging these things, the people of the State of New York expect to, and will, produce before you substantiations of every one of them. You will be given facts, and of these facts you, not I, are to be the sole judge.”

And here he paused once more, and shifting to a different physical position while the eager audience crowded and leaned forward, hungry and thirsty for every word he should utter, he now lifted one arm and dramatically pushing back his curly hair, resumed:

“Gentlemen, it will not take me long to picture, nor will you fail to perceive for yourselves as this case proceeds, the type of girl this was whose life was so cruelly blotted out beneath the waters of Big Bittern. All the twenty years of her life” (and Mason knew well that she was twenty-three and two years older than Clyde) “no person who ever knew her ever said one word in criticism of her character. And no evidence to that effect, I am positive, will be introduced in this trial. Somewhat over a year ago—on July 19—she went to the city of Lycurgus, in order that by working with her own hands she might help her family.” (And here the sobs of her parents and sisters and brothers were heard throughout the courtroom.)

“Gentlemen,” went on Mason, and from this point carrying on the picture of Roberta’s life from the time she first left home to join Grace Marr until, having met Clyde on Crum Lake and fallen out with her friend and patrons, the Newtons, because of him, she accepted his dictum that she live alone, amid strange people, concealing the suspicious truth of this from her parents, and then finally succumbing to his wiles—the letters she had written him from Biltz detailing every single progressive step in this story. And from there, by the same meticulous process, he proceeded to Clyde—his interest in the affairs of Lycurgus society and the rich and beautiful Miss X, who because of a purely innocent and kindly, if infatuated, indication on her part that he might hope to aspire to her hand—had unwittingly evoked in him a passion which had been the cause of the sudden change in his attitude and emotions toward Roberta, resulting, as Mason insisted he would show, in the plot that had resulted in Roberta’s death.

“But who is the individual,” he suddenly and most dramatically exclaimed at this point, “against whom I charge all these things? There he sits! Is he the son of wastrel parents—a product of the slums—one who had been denied every opportunity for a proper or honorable conception of the values and duties of a decent and respectable life? Is he? On the contrary. His father is of the same strain that has given Lycurgus one of its largest and most constructive industries—the Griffiths Collar & Shirt Company. He was poor—yes—no doubt of that. But not more so than Roberta Alden—and her character appears not to have been affected by her poverty. His parents in Kansas City, Denver, and before that Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan, appear to have been unordained ministers of the proselytizing and mission-conducting type—people who, from all I can gather, are really, sincerely religious and right-principled in every sense. But this, their oldest son, and the one who might have been expected to be deeply influenced by them, early turned from their world and took to a more garish life. He became a bell-boy in a celebrated Kansas City hotel, the Green-Davidson.”

And now he proceeded to explain that Clyde had ever been a rolling stone—one who, by reason of some quirk of temperament, perhaps, preferred to wander here and there. Later, as he now explained, he had been given an important position as head of a department in the well-known factory of his uncle at Lycurgus. And then gradually he was introduced into the circles in which his uncle and his children were familiar. And his salary was such that he could afford to keep a room in one of the better residences of the city, while the girl he had slain lived in a mean room in a back street.

“And yet,” he continued, “how much has been made here of the alleged youth of this defendant?” (Here he permitted himself a scornful smile.) “He has been called by his counsel and others in the newspapers a boy, over and over again. He is not a boy. He is a bearded man. He has had more social and educational advantages than any one of you in the jury box. He has traveled. In hotels and clubs and the society with which he was so intimately connected in Lycurgus, he has been in contact with decent, respectable, and even able and distinguished people. Why, as a matter of fact, at the time of his arrest two months ago, he was part of as smart a society and summer resort group as this region boasts. Remember that! His mind is a mature, not an immature one. It is fully developed and balanced perfectly.

“Gentlemen, as the state will soon proceed to prove,” he went on, “it was no more than four months after his arrival in Lycurgus that this dead girl came to work for the defendant in the department of which he was the head. And it was not more than two months after that before he had induced her to move from the respectable and religious home which she had chosen in Lycurgus, to one concerning which she knew nothing and the principal advantage of which, as he saw it, was that it offered secrecy and seclusion and freedom from observation for that vile purpose which already he entertained in regard to her.

“There was a rule of the Griffiths Company, as we will later show in this trial, which explains much—and that was that no superior officer or head of any department was permitted to have anything to do with any girls working under him, or for the factory, in or out of the factory. It was not conducive to either the morals or the honor of those working for this great company, and they would not allow it. And shortly after coming there, this man had been instructed as to that rule. But did that deter him? Did the so recent and favorable consideration of his uncle in any way deter him? Not in the least. Secrecy! Secrecy! From the very beginning! Seduction! Seduction! The secret and intended and immoral and illegal and socially unwarranted and condemned use of her body outside the regenerative and ennobling pale of matrimony!

“That was his purpose, gentlemen! But was it generally known by any one in Lycurgus or elsewhere that such a relationship as this existed between him and Roberta Alden? Not a soul! Not a soul!, as far as I have been able to ascertain, was ever so much as partially aware of this relationship until after this girl was dead. Not a soul! Think of that!

“Gentlemen of the jury,” and here his voice took on an almost reverential tone, “Roberta Alden loved this defendant with all the strength of her soul. She loved him with that love which is the crowning mystery of the human brain and the human heart, that transcends in its strength and its weakness all fear of shame or punishment from even the immortal throne above. She was a true and human and decent and kindly girl—a passionate and loving girl. And she loved as only a generous and trusting and self-sacrificing soul can love. And loving so, in the end she gave to him all that any woman can give the man she loves.

“Friends, this thing has happened millions of times in this world of ours, and it will happen millions and millions of times in the days to come. It is not new and it will never be old.

“But in January or February last, this girl, who is now dead in her grave, was compelled to come to this defendant, Clyde Griffiths, and tell him that she was about to become a mother. We shall prove to you that then and later she begged him to go away with her and make her his wife.

“But did he? Would he? Oh, no! For by that time a change had come over the dreams and the affections of Clyde Griffiths. He had had time to discover that the name of Griffiths in Lycurgus was one that would open the doors of Lycurgus exclusive circles—that the man who was no one in Kansas City or Chicago—was very much of a person here, and that it would bring him in contact with girls of education and means, girls who moved far from the sphere to which Roberta Alden belonged. Not only that, but he had found one girl to whom, because of her beauty, wealth, position, he had become enormously attached and beside her the little farm and factory girl in the pathetically shabby and secret room to which he had assigned her, looked poor indeed—good enough to betray but not good enough to marry. And he would not.” Here he paused, but only for a moment, then went on:

“But at no point have I been able to find the least modification or cessation of any of these social activities on his part which so entranced him. On the contrary, from January to July fifth last, and after—yes, even after she was finally compelled to say to him that unless he could take her away and marry her, she would have to appeal to the sense of justice in the community in which they moved, and after she was cold and dead under the waters of Big Bittern—dances, lawn fĂȘtes, automobile parties, dinners, gay trips to Twelfth Lake and Bear Lake, and without a thought, seemingly, that her great moral and social need should modify his conduct in any way.”

And here he paused and gazed in the direction of Belknap and Jephson, who in turn, were not sufficiently disturbed or concerned to do more than smile, first at him and then at each other, although Clyde, terrorized by the force and the vehemence of it all, was chiefly concerned to note how much of exaggeration and unfairness was in all this.

But even as he was thinking so, Mason was continuing with: “But by this time, gentlemen, as I have indicated, Roberta Alden had become insistent that Griffiths make her his wife. And this he promised to do. Yet, as all the evidence here will show, he never intended to do anything of the kind. On the contrary, when her condition became such that he could no longer endure her pleas or the danger which her presence in Lycurgus unquestionably spelled for him, he induced her to go home to her father’s house, with the suggestion, apparently, that she prepare herself by making some necessary clothes, against the day when he would come for her and remove her to some distant city where they would not be known, yet where as his wife she could honorably bring their child into the world. And according to her letters to him, as I will show, that was to have been in three weeks from the time she departed for her home in Biltz. But did he come for her as he had promised? No, he never did.

“Eventually, and solely because there was no other way out, he permitted her to come to him—on July sixth last—exactly two days before her death. But not before—but wait!——In the meantime, or from June fifth to July sixth, he allowed her to brood in that little, lonely farm-house on the outskirts of Biltz in Mimico County, with the neighbors coming in to watch and help her make some clothes, which even then she did not dare announce as her bridal trousseau. And she suspected and feared that this defendant would fail her. For daily, and sometimes twice daily, she wrote him, telling him of her fears and asking him to assure her by letter or word in some form that he would come and take her away.

“But did he even do that? Never by letter! Never! Oh, no, gentlemen, oh, no! On the contrary some telephone messages—things that could not be so easily traced or understood. And these so few and brief that she herself complained bitterly of his lack of interest and consideration for her at this time. So much so that at the end of five weeks, growing desperate, she wrote” (and here Mason picked from a collection of letters on the table behind him a particular letter, and read): “‘This is to tell you that unless I hear from you either by telephone or letter before noon Friday, I will come to Lycurgus and the world will know how you have treated me.’ Those are the words, gentlemen, that this poor girl was at last compelled to write.

“But did Clyde Griffiths want the world to know how he had treated her? Of course not! And there and then began to form in his mind a plan by which he could escape exposure and seal Roberta Alden’s lips forever. And, gentlemen, the state will prove that he did so close her mouth.”

At this point Mason produced a map of the Adirondacks which he had had made for the purpose, and on which in red ink were traced the movements of Clyde up to and after her death—up to the time of his arrest at Big Bear. Also, in doing this, he paused to tell the jury of Clyde’s well-conceived plan of hiding his identity, the various false registrations, the two hats. Here also he explained that on the train between Fonda and Utica, as again between Utica and Grass Lake, he had not ridden in the same car with Roberta. And then he announced:

“Don’t forget, gentlemen, that although he had previously indicated to Roberta that this was to be their wedding journey, he did not want anybody to know that he was with his prospective bride—no, not even after they had reached Big Bittern. For he was seeking, not to marry but to find a wilderness in which to snuff out the life of this girl of whom he had tired. But did that prevent him, twenty-four and forty-eight hours before that time, from holding her in his arms and repeating the promises he had no intention of keeping? Did it? I will show you the registers of the two hotels in which they stayed, and where, because of their assumed approaching marriage, they occupied a single room together. Yet the only reason it was forty-eight instead of twenty-four hours was that he had made a mistake in regard to the solitude of Grass Lake. Finding it brisk with life, the center of a summer religious colony, he decided to leave and go to Big Bittern, which was more lonely. And so you have the astounding and bitter spectacle, gentlemen, of a supposedly innocent and highly misunderstood young man dragging this weary and heart-sick girl from place to place, in order to find a lake deserted enough in which to drown her. And with her but four months from motherhood!

“And then, having arrived at last at one lake lonely enough, putting her in a boat and taking her out from the inn where he had again falsely registered as Mr. Clifford Golden and wife, to her death. The poor little thing imagined that she was going for a brief outing before that marriage of which he talked and which was to seal and sanctify it. To seal and sanctify it! To seal and sanctify, as closing waters seal and sanctify, but in no other way—no other way. And with him walking, whole and sly—as a wolf from its kill—to freedom, to marriage, to social and material and affectionate bliss and superiority and ease, while she slept still and nameless in her watery grave.

“But, oh, gentlemen, the ways of nature, or of God, and the Providence that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may! It is man who proposes, but God—God—who disposes!

“The defendant is still wondering, I am sure, as to how I know that she thought she was still going to be married after leaving the inn at Big Bittern. And I have no doubt that he still has some comforting thoughts to the effect that I cannot really and truly know it. But how shrewd and deep must be that mind that would foresee and forestall all the accidents and chances of life. For, as he sits there now, secure in the faith that his counsel may be able to extract him safely from this” (and at this Clyde sat bolt upright, his hair tingling, and his hands concealed beneath the table, trembling slightly), “he does not know that that girl, while in her room in the Grass Lake Inn, had written her mother a letter, which she had not had time to mail, and which was in the pocket of her coat left behind because of the heat of the day, and because she imagined she was coming back, of course. And which is here now upon this table.”

At this Clyde’s teeth fairly chattered. He shook as with a chill. To be sure, she had left her coat behind! And Belknap and Jephson also sat up, wondering what this could be. How fatally, if at all, could it mar or make impossible the plan of defense which they had evolved? They could only wait and see.

“But in that letter,” went on Mason, “she tells why she was up there—to be married, no less” (and at this point Jephson and Belknap, as well as Clyde, heaved an enormous sigh of relief—it was directly in the field of their plan) “and within a day or two,” continued Mason, thinking still that he was literally riddling Clyde with fear. “But Griffiths, or Graham, of Albany, or Syracuse, or anywhere, knew better. He knew he was not coming back. And he took all of his belongings with him in that boat. And all afternoon long, from noon until evening, he searched for a spot on that lonely lake—a spot not easily observed from any point of the shore, as we will show. And as evening fell, he found it. And walking south through the woods afterwards, with a new straw hat upon his head, a clean, dry bag in his hand, he imagined himself to be secure. Clifford Golden was no more—Carl Graham was no more—drowned—at the bottom of Big Bittern, along with Roberta Alden. But Clyde Griffiths was alive and free, and on his way to Twelfth Lake, to the society he so loved.

“Gentlemen, Clyde Griffiths killed Roberta Alden before he put her in that lake. He beat her on the head and face, and he believed no eye saw him. But, as her last death cry rang out over the water of Big Bittern, there was a witness, and before the prosecution has closed its case, that witness will be here to tell you the story.”

Mason had no eye witness, but he could not resist this opportunity to throw so disrupting a thought into the opposition camp.

And decidedly, the result was all that he expected, and more. For Clyde, who up to this time and particularly since the thunderbolt of the letter, had been seeking to face it all with an imperturbable look of patient innocence, now stiffened and then wilted. A witness! And here to testify! God! Then he, whoever he was, lurking on the lone shore of the lake, had seen the unintended blow, had heard her cries—had seen that he had not sought to aid her! Had seen him swim to shore and steal away—maybe had watched him in the woods as he changed his clothes. God! His hands now gripped the sides of the chair, and his head went back with a jerk as if from a powerful blow, for that meant death—his sure execution. God! No hope now! His head dropped and he looked as though he might lapse into a state of coma.

As to Belknap, Mason’s revelation at first caused him to drop the pencil with which he was making notes, then next to stare in a puzzled and dumbfounded way, since they had no evidence wherewith to forefend against such a smash as this— But as instantly recalling how completely off his guard he must look, recovering. Could it be that Clyde might have been lying to them, after all—that he had killed her intentionally, and before this unseen witness? If so it might be necessary for them to withdraw from such a hopeless and unpopular case, after all.

As for Jephson, he was for the moment stunned and flattened. And through his stern and not easily shakable brain raced such thoughts as—was there really a witness?—has Clyde lied?—then the die was cast, for had he not already admitted to them that he had struck Roberta, and the witness must have seen that? And so the end of any plea of a change of heart. Who would believe that, after such testimony as this?

But because of the sheer contentiousness and determination of his nature, he would not permit himself to be completely baffled by this smashing announcement. Instead he turned, and after surveying the flustered and yet self-chastising Belknap and Clyde, commented: “I don’t believe it. He’s lying, I think, or bluffing. At any rate, we’ll wait and see. It’s a long time between now and our side of the story. Look at all those witnesses there. And we can cross-question them by the week, if we want to—until he’s out of office. Plenty of time to do a lot of things—find out about this witness in the meantime. And besides, there’s suicide, or there’s the actual thing that happened. We can let Clyde swear to what did happen—a cataleptic trance—no courage to do it. It’s not likely anybody can see that at five hundred feet.” And he smiled grimly. At almost the same time he added, but not for Clyde’s ears: “We might be able to get him off with twenty years at the worst, don’t you think?”