An American Tragedy Chapter 23

By eight o’clock the next morning the great city papers were on the stands with the sprawling headlines, which informed every one in no uncertain terms:





And the architectonic way in which Mason had built his case, together with his striking and dramatic presentation of it, was sufficient to stir in Belknap and Jephson, as well as Clyde, the momentary conviction that they had been completely routed—that by no conceivable device could they possibly convince this jury now that Clyde was not a quadruple-dyed villain.

And all congratulating Mason on the masterly way he had presented his case. And Clyde, greatly reduced and saddened by the realization that his mother would be reading all that had transpired the day before. He must ask Jephson to please wire her so that she would not believe it. And Frank and Julia and Esta. And no doubt Sondra reading all this, too, to-day, yet through all these days, all these black nights, not one word! A reference now and then in the papers to a Miss X but at no time a single correct picture of her. That was what a family with money could do for you. And on this very day his defense would begin and he would have to go forward as the only witness of any import. Yet asking himself, how could he? The crowd. Its temper. The nervous strain of its unbelief and hatred by now. And after Belknap was through with him, then Mason. It was all right for Belknap and Jephson. They were in no danger of being tortured, as he was certain of being tortured.

Yet in the face of all this, and after an hour spent with Jephson and Belknap in his cell, finding himself back in the courtroom, under the persistent gaze of this nondescript jury and the tensely interested audience. And now Belknap rising before the jury and after solemnly contemplating each one of them, beginning:

“Gentlemen—somewhat over three weeks ago you were told by the district attorney that because of the evidence he was about to present he would insist that you jurors must find the prisoner at the bar guilty of the crime of which he stands indicted. It has been a long and tedious procedure since then. The foolish and inexperienced, yet in every case innocent and unintentional, acts of a boy of fifteen or sixteen have been gone into before you gentlemen as though they were the deeds of a hardened criminal, and plainly with the intention of prejudicing you against this defendant, who, with the exception of one misinterpreted accident in Kansas City—the most brutally and savagely misinterpreted accident it has ever been my professional misfortune to encounter—can be said to have lived as clean and energetic and blameless and innocent a life as any boy of his years anywhere. You have heard him called a man—a bearded man—a criminal and a crime-soaked product of the darkest vomiting of Hell. And yet he is but twenty-one. And there he sits. And I venture to say that if by some magic of the spoken word I could at this moment strip from your eye the substance of all the cruel thoughts and emotions which have been attributed to him by a clamorous and mistaken and I might say (if I had not been warned not to do so), politically biased prosecution, you could no more see him in the light that you do than you could rise out of that box and fly through those windows.

“Gentlemen of the jury, I have no doubt that you, as well as the district attorney and even the audience, have wondered how under the downpour of such linked and at times almost venomous testimony, I or my colleague or this defendant could have remained as calm and collected as we have.” (And here he waved with grave ceremoniousness in the direction of his partner, who was still waiting his own hour.) “Yet, as you have seen, we have not only maintained but enjoyed the serenity of those who not only feel but know that they have the right and just end of any legal contest. You recall, of course, the words of the Avon bard—‘Thrice armed is he who hath his quarrel just.’

“In fact, we know, as the prosecution in this case unfortunately does not, the peculiarly strange and unexpected circumstances by which this dramatic and most unfortunate death came about. And before we are through you shall see for yourselves. In the meantime, let me tell you, gentlemen, that since this case opened I have believed that even apart from the light we propose to throw on this disheartening tragedy, you gentlemen are not at all sure that a brutal or bestial crime can be laid upon the shoulders of this defendant. You cannot be! For after all, love is love, and the ways of passion and the destroying emotion of love in either sex are not those of the ordinary criminal. Only remember, we were once all boys. And those of you who are grown women were girls, and know well—oh, how very well—the fevers and aches of youth that have nothing to do with a later practical life. ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged and with whatsoever measure ye mete, it will be measured unto ye again.’

“We admit the existence and charm and potent love spell of the mysterious Miss X and her letters, which we have not been able to introduce here, and their effect on this defendant. We admit his love for this Miss X, and we propose to show by witnesses of our own, as well as by analyzing some of the testimony that has been offered here, that perhaps the sly and lecherous overtures with which this defendant is supposed to have lured the lovely soul now so sadly and yet so purely accidentally blotted out, as we shall show, from the straight and narrow path of morality, were perhaps no more sly nor lecherous than the proceedings of any youth who finds the girl of his choice surrounded by those who see life only in the terms of the strictest and narrowest moral regime. And, gentlemen, as your own county district attorney has told you, Roberta Alden loved Clyde Griffiths. At the very opening of this relationship which has since proved to be a tragedy, this dead girl was deeply and irrevocably in love with him, just as at the time he imagined that he was in love with her. And people who are deeply and earnestly in love with each other are not much concerned with the opinions of others in regard to themselves. They are in love—and that is sufficient!

“But, gentlemen, I am not going to dwell on that phase of the question so much as on this explanation which we are about to offer. Why did Clyde Griffiths go to Fonda, or to Utica, or to Grass Lake, or to Big Bittern, at all? Do you think we have any reason for or any desire to deny or discolor in any way the fact of his having done so, or with Roberta Alden either? Or why, after the suddenness and seeming strangeness and mystery of her death, he should have chosen to walk away as he did? If you seriously think so for one fraction of a moment, you are the most hopelessly deluded and mistaken dozen jurymen it has been our privilege to argue before in all our twenty-seven years’ contact with juries.

“Gentlemen, I have said to you that Clyde Griffiths is not guilty, and he is not. You may think, perhaps, that we ourselves must be believing in his guilt. But you are wrong. The peculiarity, the strangeness of life, is such that oftentimes a man may be accused of something that he did not do and yet every circumstance surrounding him at the time seem to indicate that he did do it. There have been many very pathetic and very terrible instances of miscarriages of justice through circumstantial evidence alone. Be sure! Oh, be very sure that no such mistaken judgment based on any local or religious or moral theory of conduct or bias, because of presumed irrefutable evidence, is permitted to prejudice you, so that without meaning to, and with the best and highest-minded intentions, you yourselves see a crime, or the intention to commit a crime, when no such crime or any such intention ever truly or legally existed or lodged in the mind or acts of this defendant. Oh, be sure! Be very, very sure!”

And here he paused to rest and seemed to give himself over to deep and even melancholy thought, while Clyde, heartened by this shrewd and defiant beginning was inclined to take more courage. But now Belknap was talking again, and he must listen—not lose a word of all this that was so heartening.

“When Roberta Alden’s body was taken out of the water at Big Bittern, gentlemen, it was examined by a physician. He declared at the time that the girl had been drowned. He will be here and testify and the defendant shall have the benefit of that testimony, and you must render it to him.

“You were told by the district attorney that Roberta Alden and Clyde Griffiths were engaged to be married and that she left her home at Biltz and went forth with him on July sixth last on her wedding journey. Now, gentlemen, it is so easy to slightly distort a certain set of circumstances. ‘Were engaged to be married’ was how the district attorney emphasized the incidents leading up to the departure on July sixth. As a matter of fact, not one iota of any direct evidence exists which shows that Clyde Griffiths was ever formally engaged to Roberta Alden, or that, except for some passages in her letters, he agreed to marry her. And those passages, gentlemen, plainly indicate that it was only under the stress of moral and material worry, due to her condition—for which he was responsible, of course, but which, nevertheless, was with the consent of both—a boy of twenty-one and a girl of twenty-three—that he agreed to marry her. Is that, I ask you, an open and proper engagement—the kind of an engagement you think of when you think of one at all? Mind you, I am not seeking to flout or belittle or reflect in any way on this poor, dead girl. I am simply stating, as a matter of fact and of law, that this boy was not formally engaged to this dead girl. He had not given her his word beforehand that he would marry her… Never! There is no proof. You must give him the benefit of that. And only because of her condition, for which we admit he was responsible, he came forward with an agreement to marry her, in case… in case” (and here he paused and rested on the phrase), “she was not willing to release him. And since she was not willing to release him, as her various letters read here show, that agreement, on pain of a public exposure in Lycurgus, becomes, in the eyes and words of the district attorney, an engagement, and not only that but a sacred engagement which no one but a scoundrel and a thief and a murderer would attempt to sever! But, gentlemen, many engagements, more open and sacred in the eyes of the law and of religion, have been broken. Thousands of men and thousands of women have seen their hearts change, their vows and faith and trust flouted, and have even carried their wounds into the secret places of their souls, or gone forth, and gladly, to death at their own hands because of them. As the district attorney said in his address, it is not new and it will never be old. Never!

“But it is such a case as this last, I warn you, that you are now contemplating and are about to pass upon—a girl who is the victim of such a change of mood. But that is not a legal, however great a moral or social crime it may be. And it is only a curious and almost unbelievably tight and yet utterly misleading set of circumstances in connection with the death of this girl that chances to bring this defendant before you at this time. I swear it. I truly know it to be so. And it can and will be fully explained to your entire satisfaction before this case is closed.

“However, in connection with this last statement, there is another which must be made as a preface to all that is to follow.

“Gentlemen of the jury, the individual who is on trial here for his life is a mental as well as a moral coward—no more and no less—not a downright, hardhearted criminal by any means. Not unlike many men in critical situations, he is a victim of a mental and moral fear complex. Why, no one as yet has been quite able to explain. We all have one secret bugbear or fear. And it is these two qualities, and no others, that have placed him in the dangerous position in which he now finds himself. It was cowardice, gentlemen—fear of a rule of the factory of which his uncle is the owner, as well as fear of his own word given to the officials above him, that caused him first to conceal the fact that he was interested in the pretty country girl who had come to work for him. And later, to conceal the fact that he was going with her.

“Yet no statutory crime of any kind there. You could not possibly try a man for that, whatever privately you might think. And it was cowardice, mental and moral, gentlemen, which prevented him, after he became convinced that he could no longer endure a relationship which had once seemed so beautiful, from saying outright that he could not, and would not continue with her, let alone marry her. Yet, will you slay a man because he is the victim of fear? And again, after all, if a man has once and truly decided that he cannot and will not endure a given woman, or a woman a man—that to live with her could only prove torturesome—what would you have that person do? Marry her? To what end? That they may hate and despise and torture each other forever after? Can you truly say that you agree with that as a rule, or a method, or a law? Yet, as the defense sees it, a truly intelligent and fair enough thing, under the circumstances, was done in this instance. An offer, but without marriage—and alas, without avail—was made. A suggestion for a separate life, with him working to support her while she dwelt elsewhere. Her own letters, read only yesterday in this court, indicate something of the kind. But the oh, so often tragic insistence upon what in so many cases were best left undone! And then that last, long, argumentative trip to Utica, Grass Lake, and Big Bittern. And all to no purpose. Yet with no intention to kill or betray unto death. Not the slightest. And we will show you why.

“Gentlemen, once more I insist that it was cowardice, mental and moral, and not any plot or plan for any crime of any kind, that made Clyde Griffiths travel with Roberta Alden under various aliases to all the places I have just mentioned—that made him write ‘Mr. and Mrs. Carl Graham,’ ‘Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Golden’—mental and moral fear of the great social mistake as well as sin that he had committed in pursuing and eventually allowing himself to fall into this unhallowed relationship with her—mental and moral fear or cowardice of what was to follow.

“And again, it was mental and moral cowardice that prevented him there at Big Bittern, once the waters of the lake had so accidentally closed over her, from returning to Big Bittern Inn and making public her death. Mental and Moral Cowardice—and nothing more and nothing less. He was thinking of his wealthy relatives in Lycurgus, their rule which his presence here on the lake with this girl would show to have been broken—of the suffering and shame and rage of her parents. And besides, there was Miss X—the brightest star in the brightest constellation of all his dreams.

“We admit all that, and we are completely willing to concede that he was, or must have been, thinking of all these things. The prosecution charges, and we admit that such is the fact, that he had been so completely ensnared by this Miss X, and she by him, that he was willing and eager to forsake this first love who had given herself to him, for one who, because of her beauty and her wealth, seemed so much more desirable—even as to Roberta Alden he seemed more desirable than others. And if she erred as to him—as plainly she did—might not—might not he have erred eventually in his infatuated following of one who in the ultimate—who can say?—might not have cared so much for him. At any rate, one of his strongest fear thoughts at this time, as he himself has confessed to us, his counsel, was that if this Miss X learned that he had been up there with this other girl of whom she had not even so much as heard, well then, it would mean the end of her regard for him.

“I know that as you gentlemen view such things, such conduct has no excuse for being. One may be the victim of an internal conflict between two illicit moods, yet nevertheless, as the law and the church see it, guilty of sin and crime. But the truth, none-the-less, is that they do exist in the human heart, law or no law, religion or no religion, and in scores of cases they motivate the actions of the victims. And we admit that they motivated the actions of Clyde Griffiths.

“But did he kill Roberta Alden?


“And again, no!

“Or did he plot in any way, half-heartedly or otherwise, to drag her up there under the guise of various aliases and then, because she would not set him free, drown her? Ridiculous! Impossible! Insane! His plan was completely and entirely different.

“But, gentlemen,” and here he suddenly paused as though a new or overlooked thought had just come to him, “perhaps you would be better satisfied, with my argument and the final judgment you are to render if you were to have the testimony of one eye-witness at least of Roberta Alden’s death—one who, instead of just hearing a voice, was actually present, and who saw and hence knows how she met her death.”

He now looked at Jephson as much as to say: Now, Reuben, at last, here we are! And Reuben, turning to Clyde, easily and yet with iron in his every motion, whispered: “Well, here we are, Clyde, it’s up to you now. Only I’m going along with you, see? I’ve decided to examine you myself. I’ve drilled and drilled you, and I guess you won’t have any trouble in telling me, will you?” He beamed on Clyde genially and encouragingly, and Clyde, because of Belknap’s strong plea as well as this newest and best development in connection with Jephson, now stood up and with almost a jaunty air, and one out of all proportion to his mood of but four hours before, now whispered: “Gee! I’m glad you’re going to do it. I’ll be all right now, I think.”

But in the meantime the audience, hearing that an actual eye-witness was to be produced, and not by the prosecution but the defense, was at once upon its feet, craning and stirring. And Justice Oberwaltzer, irritated to an exceptional degree by the informality characteristic of this trial, was now rapping with his gavel while his clerk cried loudly: “Order! Order! Unless everybody is seated, all spectators will be dismissed! The deputies will please see that all are seated.” And then a hushed and strained silence falling as Belknap called: “Clyde Griffiths, take the witness chair.” And the audience—seeing to its astonishment, Clyde, accompanied by Reuben Jephson, making his way forward—straining and whispering in spite of all the gruff commands of the judge and the bailiffs. And even Belknap, as he saw Jephson approaching, being a little astonished, since it was he who according to the original plan was to have led Clyde through his testimony. But now Jephson drawing near to him as Clyde was being seated and sworn, merely whispered: “Leave him to me, Alvin, I think it’s best. He looks a little too strained and shaky to suit me, but I feel sure I can pull him through.”

And then the audience noting the change and whispering in regard to it. And Clyde, his large nervous eyes turning here and there, thinking: Well, I’m on the witness stand at last. And now everybody’s watching me, of course. I must look very calm, like I didn’t care so very much, because I didn’t really kill her. That’s right, I didn’t. Yet his skin blue and the lids of his eyes red and puffy and his hands trembling slightly in spite of himself. And Jephson, his long, tensile and dynamic body like that of a swaying birch, turning toward him and looking fixedly into Clyde’s brown eyes with his blue ones, beginning:

“Now, Clyde, the first thing we want to do is make sure that the jury and every one else hears our questions and answers. And next, when you’re all set, you’re going to begin with your life as you remember it—where you were born, where you came from, what your father did and your mother, too, and finally, what you did and why, from the time you went to work until now. I may interrupt you with a few questions now and then, but in the main I’m going to let you tell it, because I know you can tell it better than any one.” Yet in order to reassure Clyde and to make him know each moment that he was there—a wall, a bulwark, between him and the eager, straining, unbelieving and hating crowd—he now drew nearer, at times so close as to put one foot on the witness stand, or if not that to lean forward and lay a hand on the arm of the chair in which Clyde sat. And all the while saying, “Yay-uss—Yay-uss.” “And then what?” “And then?” And invariably at the strong and tonic or protective sound of his voice Clyde stirring as with a bolstering force and finding himself able, and without shaking or quavering, to tell the short but straitened story of his youth.

“I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My parents were conducting a mission there at that time and used to hold open air meetings…”