An American Tragedy Chapter 22

And then, on the eleventh day, Frank W. Schaefer, clerk of the Renfrew House in Utica, recalling the actual arrival of Clyde and Roberta and their actions; also Clyde’s registration for both as Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Golden, of Syracuse. And then Wallace Vanderhoff, one of the clerks of the Star Haberdashery in Utica, with a story of Clyde’s actions and general appearance at the time of his buying a straw hat. And then the conductor of the train running between Utica and Grass Lake. And the proprietor of the Grass Lake House. And Blanche Pettingill, a waitress, who swore that at dinner she overheard Clyde arguing with Roberta as to the impossibility of getting a marriage license there—that it would be better to wait until they reached some other place the next day—a bit of particularly damaging testimony, since it pre-dated by a day the proposed confession which Clyde was supposed to have made to Roberta, but which Jephson and Belknap afterward agreed between themselves might easily have had some preliminary phases. And after her the conductor of the train that carried them to Gun Lodge. And after him the guide and the driver of the bus, with his story of Clyde’s queer talk about many people being over there and leaving Roberta’s bag while he took his own, and saying they would be back.

And then, the proprietor of the Inn at Big Bittern; the boatkeeper; the three men in the woods—their testimony very damaging to Clyde’s case, since they pictured his terror on encountering them. And then the story of the finding of the boat and Roberta’s body, and the eventual arrival of Heit and his finding of the letter in Roberta’s coat. A score of witnesses testifying as to all this. And next the boat captain, the farm girl, the Cranston chauffeur, the arrival of Clyde at the Cranstons’, and at last (every step accounted for and sworn to) his arrival at Bear Lake, the pursuit and his capture—to say nothing of the various phases of his arrest—what he said—this being most damaging indeed, since it painted Clyde as false, evasive, and terrified.

But unquestionably, the severest and most damaging testimony related to the camera and the tripod—the circumstances surrounding the finding of them—and on the weight of this Mason was counting for a conviction. His one aim first was to convict Clyde of lying as to his possession of either a tripod or a camera. And in order to do that he first introduced Earl Newcomb, who swore that on a certain day, when he, Mason and Heit and all the others connected with the case were taking Clyde over the area in which the crime had been committed, he and a certain native, one Bill Swartz, who was afterwards put on the stand, while poking about under some fallen logs and bushes, had come across the tripod, hidden under a log. Also (under the leadership of Mason, although over the objections of both Belknap and Jephson, which were invariably overruled), he proceeded to add that Clyde, on being asked whether he had a camera or this tripod, had denied any knowledge of it, on hearing which Belknap and Jephson actually shouted their disapproval.

Immediately following, though eventually ordered stricken from the records by Justice Oberwaltzer, there was introduced a paper signed by Heit, Burleigh, Slack, Kraut, Swenk, Sissel, Bill Swartz, Rufus Forster, county surveyor, and Newcomb, which set forth that Clyde, on being shown the tripod and asked whether he had one, “vehemently and repeatedly denied that he had.” But in order to drive the import of this home, Mason immediately adding: “Very well, your Honor, but I have other witnesses who will swear to everything that is in that paper and more,” and at once calling “Joseph Frazer! Joseph Frazer!” and then placing on the stand a dealer in sporting goods, cameras, etc., who proceeded to swear that some time between May fifteenth and June first, the defendant, Clyde Griffiths, whom he knew by sight and name, had applied to him for a camera of a certain size, with tripod attached, and that the defendant had finally selected a Sank, 3 1/2 by 5 1/2, for which he had made arrangements to pay in installments. And after due examination and consulting certain stock numbers with which the camera and the tripod and his own book were marked, Mr. Frazer identifying first the camera now shown him, and immediately after that the yellow tripod as the one he had sold Clyde.

And Clyde sitting up aghast. Then they had found the camera, as well as the tripod, after all. And after he had protested so that he had no camera with him. What would that jury and the judge and this audience think of his lying about that? Would they be likely to believe his story of a change of heart after this proof that he had lied about a meaningless camera? Better to have confessed in the first place.

But even as he was so thinking Mason calling Simeon Dodge, a young woodsman and driver, who testified that on Saturday, the sixteenth of July, accompanied by John Pole, who had lifted Roberta’s body out of the water, he had at the request of the district attorney, repeatedly dived into the exact spot where her body was found, and finally succeeded in bringing up a camera. And then the camera itself identified by Dodge.

Immediately after this all the testimony in regard to the hitherto as yet unmentioned films found in the camera at the time of its recovery, since developed, and now received in evidence, four views which showed a person looking more like Roberta than any one else, together with two, which clearly enough represented Clyde. Belknap was not able to refute or exclude them.

Then Floyd Thurston, one of the guests at the Cranston lodge at Sharon on June eighteenth—the occasion of Clyde’s first visit there—placed on the stand to testify that on that occasion Clyde had made a number of pictures with a camera about the size and description of the one shown him, but failing to identify it as the particular one, his testimony being stricken out.

After him again, Edna Patterson, a chambermaid in the Grass Lake Inn, who, as she swore, on entering the room which Clyde and Roberta occupied on the night of July seventh, had seen Clyde with a camera in his hand, which was of the size and color, as far as she could recall, of the one then and there before her. She had also at the same time seen a tripod. And Clyde, in his curious and meditative and half-hypnotized state, recalling well enough the entrance of this girl into that room and marveling and suffering because of the unbreakable chain of facts that could thus be built up by witnesses from such varying and unconnected and unexpected places, and so long after, too.

After her, but on different days, and with Belknap and Jephson contending every inch of the way as to the admissibility of all this, the testimony of the five doctors whom Mason had called in at the time Roberta’s body was first brought to Bridgeburg, and who in turn swore that the wounds, both on the face and head, were sufficient, considering Roberta’s physical condition, to stun her. And because of the condition of the dead girl’s lungs, which had been tested by attempting to float them in water, averring that at the time her body had first entered the water, she must have been still alive, although not necessarily conscious. But as to the nature of the instrument used to make these wounds, they would not venture to guess, other than to say it must have been blunt. And no grilling on the part of either Belknap or Jephson could bring them to admit that the blows could have been of such a light character as not to stun or render unconscious. The chief injury appeared to be on the top of the skull, deep enough to have caused a blood clot, photographs of all of which were put in evidence.

At this psychological point, when both audience and jury were most painfully and effectively stirred, a number of photographs of Roberta’s face, made at the time that Heit, the doctors and the Lutz Brothers had her in charge, were introduced. Then the dimensions of the bruises on the right side of her face were shown to correspond exactly in size with two sides of the camera. Immediately after that, Burton Burleigh, placed on the stand to swear how he had discovered the two strands of hair which corresponded with the hair on Roberta’s head—or so Mason tried to show—caught between the lens and the lid. And then, after hours and hours, Belknap, infuriated and yet made nervous by this type of evidence and seeking to riddle it with sarcasm, finally pulling a light hair out of his head and then asking the jurors and Burleigh if they could venture to tell whether one single hair from any one’s head could be an indication of the general color of a person’s hair, and if not, whether they were ready to believe that this particular hair was from Roberta’s head or not.

Mason then calling a Mrs. Rutger Donahue, who proceeded, in the calmest and most placid fashion, to tell how on the evening of July eighth last, between five-thirty and six, she and her husband immediately after setting up a tent above Moon Cove, had started out to row and fish, when being about a half-mile off shore and perhaps a quarter of a mile above the woods or northern fringe of land which enclosed Moon Cove, she had heard a cry.

“Between half past five and six in the afternoon, you say?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And on what date again?”

“July eighth.”

“And where were you exactly at that time?”

“We were——”

“Not ‘we.’ Where were you personally?”

“I was crossing what I have since learned was South Bay in a row-boat with my husband.”

“Yes. Now tell what happened next.”

“When we reached the middle of the bay I heard a cry.”

“What was it like?”

“It was penetrating—like the cry of some one in pain—or in danger. It was sharp—a haunting cry.”

Here a motion to “strike out,” with the result that the last phrase was so ordered stricken out.

“Where did it come from?”

“From a distance. From within or beyond the woods.”

“Did you know at the time that there was another bay or cove there—below that strip of woods?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, what did you think then—that it might have come from within the woods below where you were?”

(Objected to—and objection sustained.)

“And now tell us, was it a man’s or a woman’s cry? What kind of a cry was it?”

“It was a woman’s cry, and something like ‘Oh, oh!’ or ‘Oh, my!’—very piercing and clear, but distant, of course. A double scream such as one might make when in pain.”

“You are sure you could not be mistaken as to the kind of a cry it was—male or female.”

“No, sir. I am positive. It was a woman’s. It was pitched too high for a man’s voice or a boy’s. It could not have been anything but a woman’s.”

“I see. And now tell us, Mrs. Donahue—you see this dot on the map showing where the body of Roberta Alden was found?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you see this other dot, over those trees, showing approximately where your boat was?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you think that voice came from where this dot in Moon Cove is?”

(Objected to. Sustained.)

“And was that cry repeated?”

“No, sir. I waited, and I called my husband’s attention to it, too, and we waited, but didn’t hear it again.”

Then Belknap, eager to prove that it might have been a terrified and yet not a pained or injured cry, taking her and going all over the ground again, and finding that neither she nor her husband, who was also put on the stand, could be shaken in any way. Neither, they insisted, could the deep and sad effect of this woman’s voice be eradicated from their minds. It had haunted both, and once in their camp again they had talked about it. Because it was dusk he did not wish to go seeking after the spot from which it came; because she felt that some woman or girl might have been slain in those woods, she did not want to stay any longer, and the next morning early they had moved on to another lake.

Thomas Barrett, another Adirondack guide, connected with a camp at Dam’s Lake, swore that at the time referred to by Mrs. Donahue, he was walking along the shore toward Big Bittern Inn and had seen not only a man and woman off shore in about the position described, but farther back, toward the south shore of this bay, had noted the tent of these campers. Also that from no point outside Moon Cove, unless near the entrance, could one observe any boat within the cove. The entrance was narrow and any view from the lake proper completely blocked. And there were other witnesses to prove this.

At this psychological moment, as the afternoon sun was already beginning to wane in the tall, narrow courtroom, and as carefully planned by him beforehand, Mason’s reading all of Roberta’s letters, one by one, in a most simple and nondeclamatory fashion, yet with all the sympathy and emotion which their first perusal had stirred in him. They had made him cry.

He began with letter number one, dated June eighth, only three days after her departure from Lycurgus, and on through them all down to letters fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen, in which, in piecemeal or by important references here and there, she related her whole contact with Clyde down to his plan to come for her in three weeks, then in a month, then on July eighth or ninth, and then the sudden threat from her which precipitated his sudden decision to meet her at Fonda. And as Mason read them, all most movingly, the moist eyes and the handkerchiefs and the coughs in the audience and among the jurors attested their import:

“You said I was not to worry or think so much about how I feel, and have a good time. That’s all right for you to say, when you’re in Lycurgus and surrounded by your friends and invited everywhere. It’s hard for me to talk over there at Wilcox’s with somebody always in earshot and with you constantly reminding me that I mustn’t say this or that. But I had so much to ask and no chance there. And all that you would say was that everything was all right. But you didn’t say positively that you were coming on the 27th, that because of something I couldn’t quite make out—there was so much buzzing on the wire—you might not be able to start until later. But that can’t be, Clyde. My parents are leaving for Hamilton where my uncle lives on the third. And Tom and Emily are going to my sister’s on the same day. But I can’t and won’t go there again. I can’t stay here all alone. So you must, you really must come, as you agreed. I can’t wait any longer than that, Clyde, in the condition that I’m in, and so you just must come and take me away. Oh, please, please, I beg of you, not to torture me with any more delays now.”

And again:

“Clyde, I came home because I thought I could trust you. You told me so solemnly before I left that if I would, you would come and get me in three weeks at the most—that it would not take you longer than that to get ready, have enough money for the time we would be together, or until you could get something to do somewhere else. But yesterday, although the third of July will be nearly a month since I left, you were not at all sure at first that you could come by then, and when as I told you my parents are surely leaving for Hamilton to be gone for ten days. Of course, afterwards, you said you would come, but you said it as though you were just trying to quiet me. It has been troubling me awfully ever since.

“For I tell you, Clyde, I am sick, very. I feel faint nearly all the time. And besides, I am so worried as to what I shall do if you don’t come that I am nearly out of my mind.”


“Clyde, I know that you don’t care for me any more like you did and that you are wishing things could be different. And yet, what am I to do? I know you’ll say that it has all been as much my fault as yours. And the world, if it knew, might think so, too. But how often did I beg you not to make me do what I did not want to do, and which I was afraid even then I would regret, although I loved you too much to let you go, if you still insisted on having your way.”


“Clyde, if I could only die. That would solve all this. And I have prayed and prayed that I would lately, yes I have. For life does not mean as much to me now as when I first met you and you loved me. Oh, those happy days! If only things were different. If only I were out of your way. It would all be so much better for me and for all of us. But I can’t now, Clyde, without a penny and no way to save the name of our child, except this. Yet if it weren’t for the terrible pain and disgrace it would bring to my mother and father and all my family, I would be willing to end it all in another way. I truly would.”

And again:

“Oh, Clyde, Clyde, life is so different to-day to what it was last year. Think—then we were going to Crum and those other lakes over near Fonda and Gloversville and Little Falls, but now—now. Only just now some boy and girl friends of Tom’s and Emily’s came by to get them to go after strawberries, and when I saw them go and knew I couldn’t, and that I couldn’t be like that any more ever, I cried and cried, ever so long.”

And finally:

“I have been bidding good-by to some places to-day. There are so many nooks, dear, and all of them so dear to me. I have lived here all my life, you know. First, there was the springhouse with its great masses of green moss, and in passing it I said good-by to it, for I won’t be coming to it soon again—maybe never. And then the old apple tree where we had our playhouse years ago—Emily and Tom and Gifford and I. Then the ‘Believe,’ a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played.

“Oh, Clyde, you can’t realize what all this means to me, I feel as though I shall never see my home again after I leave here this time. And mamma, poor dear mamma, how I do love her and how sorry I am to have deceived her so. She is never cross and she always helps me so much. Sometimes I think if I could tell her, but I can’t. She has had trouble enough, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. No, if I go away and come back some time, either married or dead—it doesn’t make so much difference now—she will never know, and I will not have caused her any pain, and that means so much more than life itself to me. So good-by, Clyde, until I do meet you, as you telephoned. And forgive me all the trouble that I have caused you.

“Your sorrowful,


And at points in the reading, Mason himself crying, and at their conclusion turning, weary and yet triumphant, a most complete and indestructible case, as he saw it, having been presented, and exclaiming: “The People rest.” And at that moment, Mrs. Alden, in court with her husband and Emily, and overwrought, not only by the long strain of the trial but this particular evidence, uttering a whimpering yet clear cry and then falling forward in a faint. And Clyde, in his own overwrought condition, hearing her cry and seeing her fall, jumping up—the restraining hand of Jephson instantly upon him, while bailiffs and others assisted her and Titus who was beside her from the courtroom. And the audience almost, if not quite, as moved and incensed against Clyde by that development as though, then and there, he had committed some additional crime.

But then, that excitement having passed and it being quite dark, and the hands of the court clock pointing to five, and all the court weary, Justice Oberwaltzer signifying his intention of adjourning for the night.

And at once all the newspaper men and feature writers and artists rising and whispering to each other that on the morrow the defense would start, and wondering as to who and where the witnesses were, also whether Clyde would be permitted to go on the stand in his own defense in the face of this amazing mass of evidence against him, or whether his lawyers would content themselves with some specious argument as to mental and moral weakness which might end in prison for life—not less.

And Clyde, hissed and cursed as he left the court, wondering if on the morrow, and as they had planned this long time since, he would have the courage to rise and go on the stand—wondering if there was not some way, in case no one was looking (he was not handcuffed as he went to and from the jail) maybe to-morrow night when all were rising, the crowds moving and these deputies coming toward him—if—well, if he could only run, or walk easily and quietly and yet, quickly and seemingly unintentionally, to that stair and then down and out—to—well—to wherever it went—that small side door to the main stairs which before this he had seen from the jail! If he could only get to some woods somewhere, and then walk and walk, or run and run, maybe, without stopping, and without eating, for days maybe, until, well, until he had gotten away—anywhere. It was a chance, of course. He might be shot, or tracked with dogs and men, but still it was a chance, wasn’t it?

For this way he had no chance at all. No one anywhere, after all this, was going to believe him not guilty. And he did not want to die that way. No, no, not that way!

And so another miserable, black and weary night. And then another miserable gray and wintry morning.