An American Tragedy Chapter 28

Bridgeburg and a slow train that set down a tired, distrait woman at its depot after midnight on the eighth of December. Bitter cold and bright stars. A lone depot assistant who on inquiry directed her to the Bridgeburg Central House—straight up the street which now faced her, then two blocks to her left after she reached the second street. The sleepy night clerk of the Central House providing her instantly with a room and, once he knew who she was, directing her to the county jail. But she deciding after due rumination that now was not the hour. He might be sleeping. She would go to bed and rise early in the morning. She had sent him various telegrams. He knew that she was coming.

But as early as seven in the morning, rising, and by eight appearing at the jail, letters, telegrams and credentials in hand. And the jail officials, after examining the letters she carried and being convinced of her identity, notifying Clyde of her presence. And he, depressed and forlorn, on hearing this news, welcoming the thought of her as much as at first he had dreaded her coming. For now things were different. All the long grim story had been told. And because of the plausible explanation which Jephson had provided him, he could face her perhaps and say without a quaver that it was true—that he had not plotted to kill Roberta—that he had not willingly left her to die in the water. And then hurrying down to the visitor’s room, where, by the courtesy of Slack, he was permitted to talk with his mother alone.

On seeing her rise at his entrance, and hurrying to her, his troubled intricate soul not a little dubious, yet confident also that it was to find sanctuary, sympathy, help, perhaps—and that without criticism—in her heart. And exclaiming with difficulty, as a lump thickened in his throat: “Gee, Ma! I’m glad you’ve come.” But she too moved for words—her condemned boy in her arms—merely drawing his head to her shoulder and then looking up. The Lord God had vouchsafed her this much. Why not more? The ultimate freedom of her son—or if not that, at least a new trial—a fair consideration of the evidence in his favor which had not been had yet, of course. And so they stood for several moments.

Then news of home, the reason for her presence, her duty as a correspondent to interview him—later to appear with him in court at the hour of his sentence—a situation over which Clyde winced. Yet now, as he heard from her, his future was likely to depend on her efforts alone. The Lycurgus Griffiths, for reasons of their own, had decided not to aid him further. But she—if she were but able to face the world with a sound claim—might still aid him. Had not the Lord aided her thus far? Yet to face the world and the Lord with her just one plea she must know from him—now—the truth as to whether he had intentionally or unintentionally struck Roberta—whether intentionally or unintentionally he had left her to die. She had read the evidence and his letters and had noted all the defects in his testimony. But were those things as contended by Mason true or false?

Clyde, now as always overawed and thrown back on himself by that uncompromising and shameless honesty which he had never been able quite to comprehend in her, announced, with all the firmness that he could muster—yet with a secret quavering chill in his heart—that he had sworn to the truth. He had not done those things with which he had been charged. He had not. But, alas, as she now said to herself, on observing him, what was that about his eyes—a faint flicker perhaps. He was not so sure—as self-convinced and definite as she had hoped—as she had prayed he would be. No, no, there was something in his manner, his words, as he spoke—a faint recessive intonation, a sense of something troubled, dubious, perhaps, which quite froze her now.

He was not positive enough. And so he might have plotted, in part at least, as she had feared at first, when she had first heard of this—might have even struck her on that lone, secret lake!—who could tell? (the searing, destroying power of such a thought as that). And that in the face of all his testimony to the contrary.

But “Jehovah, jirah, Thou wilt not require of a mother, in her own and her son’s darkest hour, that she doubt him,—make sure his death through her own lack of faith? Oh, no—Thou wilt not. O Lamb of God, Thou wilt not!” She turned; she bruised under her heel the scaly head of this dark suspicion—as terrifying to her as his guilt was to him. “O Absalom, my Absalom!” Come, come, we will not entertain such a thought. God himself would not urge it upon a mother. Was he not here—her son—before her, declaring firmly that he had not done this thing. She must believe—she would believe him utterly. She would—and did—whatever fiend of doubt might still remain locked in the lowest dungeon of her miserable heart. Come, come, the public should know how she felt. She and her son would find a way. He must believe and pray. Did he have a Bible? Did he read it? And Clyde having been long since provided with a Bible by a prison worker, assured her that he had and did read it.

But now she must go first to see his lawyers, next to file her dispatch, after which she would return. But once out on the street being immediately set upon by several reporters and eagerly questioned as to the meaning of her presence here. Did she believe in her son’s innocence? Did she or did she not think that he had had a fair trial? Why had she not come on before? And Mrs. Griffiths, in her direct and earnest and motherly way, taking them into her confidence and telling how as well as why she came to be here, also why she had not come before.

But now that she was here she hoped to stay. The Lord would provide the means for the salvation of her son, of whose innocence she was convinced. Would they not ask God to help her? Would they not pray for her success? And with the several reporters not a little moved and impressed, assuring her that they would, of course, and thereafter describing her to the world at large as she was—middle-aged, homely, religious, determined, sincere and earnest and with a moving faith in the innocence of her boy.

But the Griffiths of Lycurgus, on hearing this, resenting her coming as one more blow. And Clyde, in his cell, on reading of it later, somewhat shocked by the gross publicity now attending everything in connection with him, yet, because of his mother’s presence, resigned and after a time almost happy. Whatever her faults or defects, after all she was his mother, wasn’t she? And she had come to his aid. Let the public think what it would. Was he not in the shadow of death and she at least had not deserted him. And with this, her suddenly manifested skill in connecting herself in this way with a Denver paper, to praise her for.

She had never done anything like this before. And who knew but that possibly, and even in the face of her dire poverty now, she might still be able to solve this matter of a new trial for him and to save his life? Who knew? And yet how much and how indifferently he had sinned against her! Oh, how much. And still here she was—his mother still anxious and tortured and yet loving and seeking to save his life by writing up his own conviction for a western paper. No longer did the shabby coat and the outlandish hat and the broad, immobile face and somewhat stolid and crude gestures seem the racking and disturbing things they had so little time since. She was his mother and she loved him, and believed in him and was struggling to save him.

On the other hand Belknap and Jephson on first encountering her were by no means so much impressed. For some reason they had not anticipated so crude and unlettered and yet convinced a figure. The wide, flat shoes. The queer hat. The old brown coat. Yet somehow, after a few moments, arrested by her earnestness and faith and love for her son and her fixed, inquiring, and humanly clean and pure blue eyes in which dwelt immaterial conviction and sacrifice with no shadow of turning.

Did they personally think her son innocent? She must know that first. Or did they secretly believe that he was guilty? She had been so tortured by all the contradictory evidence. God had laid a heavy cross upon her and hers. Nevertheless, Blessed be His name! And both, seeing and feeling her great concern, were quick to assure her that they were convinced of Clyde’s innocence. If he were executed for this alleged crime it would be a travesty on justice.

Yet both, now that they saw her, troubled as to the source of any further funds, her method of getting here, which she now explained, indicating that she had nothing. And an appeal sure to cost not less than two thousand. And Mrs. Griffiths, after an hour in their presence, in which they made clear to her the basic cost of an appeal—covering briefs to be prepared, arguments, trips to be made—asserting repeatedly that she did not quite see how she was to do. Then suddenly, and to them somewhat inconsequentially, yet movingly and dramatically, exclaiming: “The Lord will not desert me. I know it. He has declared himself unto me. It was His voice there in Denver that directed me to that paper. And now that I am here, I will trust Him and He will guide me.”

But Belknap and Jephson merely looking at one another in unconvinced and pagan astonishment. Such faith! An exhorter! An Evangelist, no less! Yet to Jephson, here was an idea! There was the religious element to be reckoned with everywhere—strong in its agreement with just such faith. Assuming the Griffiths of Lycurgus to remain obdurate and unmoved—why then—why then—and now that she was here—there were the churches and the religious people generally. Might it not be possible, with such a temperament and such faith as this, to appeal to the very element that had hitherto most condemned Clyde and made his conviction a certainty, for funds wherewith to carry this case to the court of appeals? This lorn mother. Her faith in her boy.


A lecture, at so much for admission, and in which, hard-pressed as she was and could show, she would set forth the righteousness of her boy’s claim—seek to obtain the sympathy of the prejudiced public and incidentally two thousand dollars or more with which this appeal could be conducted.

And now Jephson, turning to her and laying the matter before her and offering to prepare a lecture or notes—a condensation of his various arguments—in fact, an entire lecture which she could re-arrange and present as she chose—all the data which was the ultimate, basic truth in regard to her son. And she, her brown cheeks flushing and her eyes brightening, agreeing she would do it. She would try. She could do no less than try. Verily, verily, was not this the Voice and Hand of God in the darkest hour of her tribulation?

On the following morning Clyde was arraigned for sentence, with Mrs. Griffiths given a seat near him and seeking, paper and pencil in hand, to make notes of, for her, an unutterable scene, while a large crowd surveyed her. His own mother! And acting as a reporter! Something absurd, grotesque, insensitive, even ludicrous, about such a family and such a scene. And to think the Griffiths of Lycurgus should be so immediately related to them.

Yet Clyde sustained and heartened by her presence. For had she not returned to the jail the previous afternoon with her plan? And as soon as this was over—whatever the sentence might be—she would begin with her work.

And so, and that almost in spite of himself, in his darkest hour, standing up before Justice Oberwaltzer and listening first to a brief recital of his charge and trial (which was pronounced by Oberwaltzer to have been fair and impartial), then to the customary: “Have you any cause which shows why the judgment of death should not now be pronounced against you according to law?”—to which and to the astonishment of his mother and the auditors (if not Jephson, who had advised and urged him so to do), Clyde now in a clear and firm voice replied:

“I am innocent of the crime as charged in the indictment. I never killed Roberta Alden and therefore I think this sentence should not be passed.”

And then staring straight before him conscious only of the look of admiration and love turned on him by his mother. For had not her son now declared himself, here at this fatal moment, before all these people? And his word here, if not in that jail, would be true, would it not? Then her son was not guilty. He was not. He was not. Praised be the name of the Lord in the highest. And deciding to make a great point of this in her dispatch—so as to get it in all the papers, and in her lecture afterwards.

However, Oberwaltzer, without the faintest sign of surprise or perturbation, now continued: “Is there anything else you care to say?”

“No,” replied Clyde, after a moment’s hesitation.

“Clyde Griffiths,” then concluded Oberwaltzer, “the judgment of the Court is that you, Clyde Griffiths, for the murder in the first degree of one, Roberta Alden, whereof you are convicted, be, and you are hereby sentenced to the punishment of death; and it is ordered that, within ten days after this day’s session of Court, the Sheriff of this county of Cataraqui deliver you, together with the warrant of this Court, to the Agent and Warden of the State Prison of the State of New York at Auburn, where you shall be kept in solitary confinement until the week beginning Monday the 28th day of January, 19—, and, upon some day within the week so appointed, the said Agent and Warden of the State Prison of the State of New York at Auburn is commended to do execution upon you, Clyde Griffiths, in the mode and manner prescribed by the laws of the State of New York.”


And that done, a smile from Mrs. Griffiths to her boy and an answering smile from Clyde to her. For since he had announced that he was not guilty—here—her spirit had risen in the face of this sentence. He was really innocent,—he must be, since he had declared it here. And Clyde because of her smile saying to himself, his mother believed in him now. She had not been swayed by all the evidence against him. And this faith, mistaken or not, was now so sustaining—so needed. What he had just said was true as he now saw it. He had not struck Roberta. That was true. And therefore he was not guilty. Yet Kraut and Slack were once more seizing him and escorting him to the cell.

Immediately thereafter his mother seating herself at a press table proceeded to explain to contiguous press representatives now curiously gathering about her: “You mustn’t think too badly of me, you gentlemen of the papers. I don’t know much about this but it is the only way I could think of to be with my boy. I couldn’t have come otherwise.” And then one lanky correspondent stepping up to say: “Don’t worry, mother. Is there any way I can help you? Want me to straighten out what you want to say? I’ll be glad to.” And then sitting down beside her and proceeding to help her arrange her impressions in the form in which he assumed her Denver paper might like them. And others as well offering to do anything they could—and all greatly moved.

Two days later, the proper commitment papers having been prepared and his mother notified of the change but not permitted to accompany him, Clyde was removed to Auburn, the Western penitentiary of the State of New York, where in the “death house” or “Murderers’ Row,” as it was called—as gloomy and torturesome an inferno as one could imagine any human compelled to endure—a combination of some twenty-two cells on two separate levels—he was to be restrained until ordered retried or executed.

Yet as he traveled from Bridgeburg to this place, impressive crowds at every station—young and old—men, women and children—all seeking a glimpse of the astonishingly youthly slayer. And girls and women, under the guise of kindly interest, but which, at best, spelled little more than a desire to achieve a facile intimacy with this daring and romantic, if unfortunate figure, throwing him a flower here and there and calling to him gayly and loudly as the train moved out from one station or another:

“Hello, Clyde! Hope to see you soon again. Don’t stay too long down there.” “If you take an appeal, you’re sure to be acquitted. We hope so, anyhow.”

And with Clyde not a little astonished and later even heartened by this seemingly favorable discrepancy between the attitude of the crowds in Bridgeburg and this sudden, morbid, feverish and even hectic curiosity here, bowing and smiling and even waving with his hand. Yet thinking, none the less, “I am on the way to the death house and they can be so friendly. It is a wonder they dare.” And with Kraut and Sissel, his guards, because of the distinction and notoriety of being both his captors and jailors, as well also because of these unusual attentions from passengers on the train and individuals in these throngs without being themselves flattered and ennobled.

But after this one brief colorful flight in the open since his arrest, past these waiting throngs and over winter sunlit fields and hills of snow that reminded him of Lycurgus, Sondra, Roberta, and all that he had so kaleidoscopically and fatally known in the twenty months just past, the gray and restraining walls of Auburn itself—with, once he was presented to a clerk in the warden’s office and his name and crime entered in the books—himself assigned to two assistants, who saw to it that he was given a prison bath and hair cut—all the wavy, black hair he so much admired cut away—a prison-striped uniform and hideous cap of the same material, prison underwear and heavy gray felt shoes to quiet the restless prison tread in which in time he might indulge, together with the number, 77221.

And so accoutered, immediately transferred to the death house proper, where in a cell on the ground floor he was now locked—a squarish light clean space, eight by ten feet in size and fitted with sanitary plumbing as well as a cot bed, a table, a chair and a small rack for books. And here then, while he barely sensed that there were other cells about him—ranging up and down a wide hall—he first stood—and then seated himself—now no longer buoyed by the more intimate and sociable life of the jail at Bridgeburg—or those strange throngs and scenes that had punctuated his trip here.

The hectic tensity and misery of these hours! That sentence to die; that trip with all those people calling to him; that cutting of his hair downstairs in that prison barber shop—and by a convict; the suit and underwear that was now his and that he now had on. There was no mirror here—or anywhere,—but no matter—he could feel how he looked. This baggy coat and trousers and this striped cap. He threw it hopelessly to the floor. For but an hour before he had been clothed in a decent suit and shirt and tie and shoes, and his appearance had been neat and pleasing as he himself had thought as he left Bridgeburg. But now—how must he look? And to-morrow his mother would be coming—and later Jephson or Belknap, maybe. God!

But worse—there, in that cell directly opposite him, a sallow and emaciated and sinister-looking Chinaman in a suit exactly like his own, who had come to the bars of his door and was looking at him out of inscrutable slant eyes, but as immediately turning and scratching himself—vermin, maybe, as Clyde immediately feared. There had been bedbugs at Bridgeburg.

A Chinese murderer. For was not this the death house? But as good as himself here. And with a garb like his own. Thank God visitors were probably not many. He had heard from his mother that scarcely any were allowed—that only she and Belknap and Jephson and any minister he chose might come once a week. But now these hard, white-painted walls brightly lighted by wide unobstructed skylights by day and as he could see—by incandescent lamps in the hall without at night—yet all so different from Bridgeburg,—so much more bright or harsh illuminatively. For there, the jail being old, the walls were a gray-brown, and not very clean—the cells larger, the furnishings more numerous—a table with a cloth on it at times, books, papers, a chess—and checker-board—whereas here—here was nothing, these hard narrow walls—the iron bars rising to a heavy solid ceiling above—and that very, very heavy iron door which yet—like the one at Bridgeburg, had a small hole through which food would be passed, of course.

But just then a voice from somewhere:

“Hey! we got a new one wid us, fellers! Ground tier, second cell, east.” And then a second voice: “You don’t say. Wot’s he like?” And a third: “Wot’s yer name, new man? Don’t be scared. You ain’t no worse off than the rest of us.” And then the first voice, answering number two: “Kinda tall and skinny. A kid. Looks a little like mamma’s boy, but not bad at dat. Hey, you! Tell us your name!”

And Clyde, amazed and dumb and pondering. For how was one to take such an introduction as this? What to say—what to do? Should he be friendly with these men? Yet, his instinct for tact prompting him even here to reply, most courteously and promptly: “Clyde Griffiths.” And one of the first voices continuing: “Oh, sure! We know who you are. Welcome, Griffiths. We ain’t as bad as we sound. We been readin’ a lot about you, up dere in Bridgeburg. We thought you’d be along pretty soon now.” And another voice: “You don’t want to be too down. It ain’t so worse here. At least de place is all right—a roof over your head, as dey say.” And then a laugh from somewhere.

But Clyde, too horrified and sickened for words, was sadly gazing at the walls and door, then over at the Chinaman, who, silent at his door, was once more gazing at him. Horrible! Horrible! And they talked to each other like that, and to a stranger among them so familiarly. No thought for his wretchedness, his strangeness, his timidity—the horror he must be suffering. But why should a murderer seem timid to any one, perhaps, or miserable? Worst of all they had been speculating here as to how long it would be before he would be along which meant that everything concerning him was known here. Would they nag—or bully—or make trouble for one unless one did just as they wished? If Sondra, or any one of all the people he had known, should see or even dream of him as he was here now… God!—And his own mother was coming to-morrow.

And then an hour later, now evening, a tall, cadaverous guard in a more pleasing uniform, putting an iron tray with food on it through that hole in the door. Food! And for him here. And that sallow, rickety Chinaman over the way taking his. Whom had he murdered? How? And then the savage scraping of iron trays in the various cells! Sounds that reminded him more of hungry animals being fed than men. And some of these men were actually talking as they ate and scraped. It sickened him.

“Gee! It’s a wonder them guys in the mush gallery couldn’t think of somepin else besides cold beans and fried potatoes and coffee.”

“The coffee to-night… oh, boy!… Now in the jail at Buffalo—though…”

“Oh, cut it out,” came from another corner. “We’ve heard enough about the jail at Buffalo and your swell chow. You don’t show any afternoon tea appetite around here, I notice.”

“Just the same,” continued the first voice, “as I look back on’t now, it musta been pretty good. Dat’s a way it seems, anyhow, now.”

“Oh, Rafferty, do let up,” called still another.

And then, presumably “Rafferty” once more, who said: “Now, I’ll just take a little siesta after dis—and den I’ll call me chauffeur and go for a little spin. De air to-night must be fine.”

Then from still another hoarse voice: “Oh, you with your sick imagination. Say, I’d give me life for a smoker. And den a good game of cards.”

“Do they play cards here?” thought Clyde.

“I suppose since Rosenstein was defeated for mayor here he won’t play.”

“Won’t he, though?” This presumably from Rosenstein.

To Clyde’s left, in the cell next to him, a voice, to a passing guard, low and yet distinctly audible: “Psst! Any word from Albany yet?”

“No word, Herman.”

“And no letter, I suppose.”

“No letter.”

The voice was very strained, very tense, very miserable, and after this, silence.

A moment later, from another cell farther off, a voice from the lowest hell to which a soul can descend—complete and unutterable despair—“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

And then from the tier above another voice: “Oh, Jesus! Is that farmer going to begin again? I can’t stand it. Guard! Guard! Can’t you get some dope for that guy?”

Once more the voice from the lowest: “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

Clyde was up, his fingers clinched. His nerves were as taut as cords about to snap. A murderer! And about to die, perhaps. Or grieving over some terrible thing like his own fate. Moaning—as he in spirit at least had so often moaned there in Bridgeburg. Crying like that! God! And there must be others!

And day after day and night after night more of this, no doubt, until, maybe—who could tell—unless. But, oh, no! Oh, no! Not himself—not that—not his day. Oh, no. A whole year must elapse before that could possibly happen—or so Jephson had said. Maybe two. But, at that—! …in two years!!! He found himself stricken with an ague because of the thought that even in so brief a time as two years….

That other room! It was in here somewhere too. This room was connected with it. He knew that. There was a door. It led to that chair. That chair.

And then the voice again, as before, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

He sank to his couch and covered his ears with his hands.