An American Tragedy Chapter 29

The “death house” in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensitiveness and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible. Indeed, its total plan and procedure were the results of a series of primary legislative enactments, followed by decisions and compulsions as devised by the temperaments and seeming necessities of various wardens, until at last—by degrees and without anything worthy of the name of thinking on any one’s part—there had been gathered and was now being enforced all that could possibly be imagined in the way of unnecessary and really unauthorized cruelty or stupid and destructive torture. And to the end that a man, once condemned by a jury, would be compelled to suffer not alone the death for which his sentence called, but a thousand others before that. For the very room by its arrangement, as well as the rules governing the lives and actions of the inmates, was sufficient to bring about this torture, willy-nilly.

It was a room thirty by fifty feet, of stone and concrete and steel, and surmounted some thirty feet from the floor by a skylight. Presumably an improvement over an older and worse death house, with which it was still connected by a door, it was divided lengthwise by a broad passage, along which, on the ground floor, were twelve cells, six on a side and eight by ten each and facing each other. And above again a second tier of what were known as balcony cells—five on a side.

There was, however, at the center of this main passage—and dividing these lower cells equally as to number—a second and narrower passage, which at one end gave into what was now known as the Old Death House (where at present only visitors to the inmates of the new Death House were received), and at the other into the execution room in which stood the electric chair. Two of the cells on the lower passage—those at the junction of the narrower passage—faced the execution-room door. The two opposite these, on the corresponding corners, faced the passage that gave into the Old Death House or what now by a large stretch of the imagination, could be called the condemned men’s reception room, where twice weekly an immediate relative or a lawyer might be met. But no others.

In the Old Death House (or present reception room), the cells still there, and an integral part of this reception plan, were all in a row and on one side only of a corridor, thus preventing prying inspection by one inmate of another, and with a wire screen in front as well as green shades which might be drawn in front of each cell. For, in an older day, whenever a new convict arrived or departed, or took his daily walk, or went for his bath, or was led eventually through the little iron door to the west where formerly was the execution chamber, these shades were drawn. He was not supposed to be seen by his associates. Yet the old death house, because of this very courtesy and privacy, although intense solitude, was later deemed inhuman and hence this newer and better death house, as the thoughtful and condescending authorities saw it, was devised.

In this, to be sure, were no such small and gloomy cells as those which characterized the old, for there the ceiling was low and the sanitary arrangements wretched, whereas in the new one the ceiling was high, the rooms and corridors brightly lighted and in every instance no less than eight by ten feet in size. But by contrast with the older room, they had the enormous disadvantage of the unscreened if not uncurtained cell doors.

Besides, by housing all together in two such tiers as were here, it placed upon each convict the compulsion of enduring all the horrors of all the vicious, morbid or completely collapsed and despairing temperaments about him. No true privacy of any kind. By day—a blaze of light pouring through an over-arching skylight high above the walls. By night—glistening incandescents of large size and power which flooded each nook and cranny of the various cells. No privacy, no games other than cards and checkers—the only ones playable without releasing the prisoners from their cells. Books, newspapers, to be sure, for all who could read or enjoy them under the circumstances. And visits—mornings and afternoons, as a rule, from a priest, and less regularly from a rabbi and a Protestant minister, each offering his sympathies or services to such as would accept them.

But the curse of the place was not because of these advantages, such as they were, but in spite of them—this unremitted contact, as any one could see, with minds now terrorized and discolored by the thought of an approaching death that was so near for many that it was as an icy hand upon the brow or shoulder. And none—whatever the bravado—capable of enduring it without mental or physical deterioration in some form. The glooms—the strains—the indefinable terrors and despairs that blew like winds or breaths about this place and depressed or terrorized all by turns! They were manifest at the most unexpected moments, by curses, sighs, tears even, calls for a song—for God’s sake!—or the most unintended and unexpected yells or groans.

Worse yet, and productive of perhaps the most grinding and destroying of all the miseries here—the transverse passage leading between the old death house on the one hand and the execution-chamber on the other. For this from time to time—alas, how frequently—was the scene or stage for at least a part of the tragedy that was here so regularly enacted—the final business of execution.

For through this passage, on his last day, a man was transferred from his better cell in the new building, where he might have been incarcerated for so much as a year or two, to one of the older ones in the old death house, in order that he might spend his last hours in solitude, although compelled at the final moment, none-the-less (the death march), to retrace his steps along this narrower cross passage—and where all might see—into the execution chamber at the other end of it.

Also at any time, in going to visit a lawyer or relative brought into the old death house for this purpose, it was necessary to pass along the middle passage to this smaller one and so into the old death house, there to be housed in a cell, fronted by a wire screen two feet distant, between which and the cell proper a guard must sit while a prisoner and his guest (wife, son, mother, daughter, brother, lawyer) should converse—the guard hearing all. No handclasps, no kisses, no friendly touches of any kind—not even an intimate word that a listening guard might not hear. And when the fatal hour for any one had at last arrived, every prisoner—if sinister or simple, sensitive or of rugged texture—was actually if not intentionally compelled to hear if not witness the final preparations—the removal of the condemned man to one of the cells of the older death house, the final and perhaps weeping visit of a mother, son, daughter, father.

No thought in either the planning or the practice of all this of the unnecessary and unfair torture for those who were brought here, not to be promptly executed, by any means, but rather to be held until the higher courts should have passed upon the merits of their cases—an appeal.

At first, of course, Clyde sensed little if anything of all this. In so far as his first day was concerned, he had but tasted the veriest spoonful of it all. And to lighten or darken his burden his mother came at noon the very next day. Not having been permitted to accompany him, she had waited over for a final conference with Belknap and Jephson, as well as to write in full her personal impressions in connection with her son’s departure—(Those nervously searing impressions!) And although anxious to find a room somewhere near the penitentiary, she hurried first to the office of the penitentiary immediately upon her arrival at Auburn and, after presenting an order from Justice Oberwaltzer as well as a solicitous letter from Belknap and Jephson urging the courtesy of a private interview with Clyde to begin with at least, she was permitted to see her son in a room entirely apart from the old death house. For already the warden himself had been reading of her activities and sacrifices and was interested in seeing not only her but Clyde also.

But so shaken was she by Clyde’s so sudden and amazingly changed appearance here that she could scarcely speak upon his entrance, even in recognition of him, so blanched and gray were his cheeks and so shadowy and strained his eyes. His head clipped that way! This uniform! And in this dreadful place of iron gates and locks and long passages with uniformed guards at every turn!

For a moment she winced and trembled, quite faint under the strain, although previous to this she had entered many a jail and larger prison—in Kansas City, Chicago, Denver—and delivered tracts and exhortations and proffered her services in connection with anything she might do. But this—this! Her own son! Her broad, strong bosom began to heave. She looked, and then turned her heavy, broad back to hide her face for the nonce. Her lips and chin quivered. She began to fumble in the small bag she carried for her handkerchief at the same time that she was muttering to herself: “My God—why hast Thou forsaken me?” But even as she did so there came the thought—no, no, he must not see her so. What a way was this to do—and by her tears weaken him. And yet despite her great strength she could not now cease at once but cried on.

And Clyde seeing this, and despite his previous determination to bear up and say some comforting and heartening word to his mother, now began:

“But you mustn’t, Ma. Gee, you mustn’t cry. I know it’s hard on you. But I’ll be all right. Sure I will. It isn’t as bad as I thought.” Yet inwardly saying: “Oh, God how bad!”

And Mrs. Griffiths adding aloud: “My poor boy! My beloved son! But we mustn’t give way. No. No. ‘Behold I will deliver thee out of the snares of the wicked.’ God has not deserted either of us. And He will not—that I know. ‘He leadeth me by the still waters.’ ‘He restoreth my soul.’ We must put our trust in Him. Besides,” she added, briskly and practically, as much to strengthen herself as Clyde, “haven’t I already arranged for an appeal? It is to be made yet this week. They’re going to file a notice. And that means that your case can’t even be considered under a year. But it is just the shock of seeing you so. You see, I wasn’t quite prepared for it.” She straightened her shoulders and now looked up and achieved a brave if strained smile. “The warden here seems very kind, but still, somehow, when I saw you just now——”

She dabbed at her eyes which were damp from this sudden and terrific storm, and to divert herself as well as him she talked of the so very necessary work before her. Messrs. Belknap and Jephson had been so encouraging to her just before she left. She had gone to their office and they had urged her and him to be of good cheer. And now she was going to lecture, and at once, and would soon have means to do with that way. Oh, yes. And Mr. Jephson would be down to see him one of these days soon. He was by no means to feel that the legal end of all this had been reached. Far from it. The recent verdict and sentence was sure to be reversed and a new trial ordered. The recent one was a farce, as he knew.

And as for herself—as soon as she found a room near the prison—she was going to the principal ministers of Auburn and see if she could not secure a church, or two, or three, in which to speak and plead his cause. Mr. Jephson was mailing her some information she could use within a day or two. And after that, other churches in Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, Schenectady—in fact many cities in the east—until she had raised the necessary sum. But she would not neglect him. She would see him at least once a week and would write him a letter every other day, or maybe even daily if she could. She would talk to the warden. So he must not despair. She had much hard work ahead of her, of course, but the Lord would guide her in all that she undertook. She knew that. Had He not already shown his gracious and miraculous mercy?

Clyde must pray for her and for himself. Read Isaiah. Read the psalms—the 23rd and the 51st and 91st daily. Also Habbakuk. “Are there walls against the Hand of the Lord?” And then after more tears, an utterly moving and macerating scene, at last achieving her departure while Clyde, shaken to his soul by so much misery, returned to his cell. His mother. And at her age—and with so little money—she was going out to try to raise the money necessary to save him. And in the past he had treated her so badly—as he now saw.

He sat down on the side of his cot and held his head in his hands the while outside the prison—the iron door of the same closed and only a lonely room and the ordeal of her proposed lecture tour ahead of her—Mrs. Griffiths paused—by no means so assured or convinced of all she had said to Clyde. To be sure God would aid her. He must. Had He ever failed her yet—completely? And now—here—in her darkest hour, her son’s! Would He?

She paused for a moment a little later in a small parking-place, beyond the prison, to stare at the tall, gray walls, the watch towers with armed guards in uniform, the barred windows and doors. A penitentiary. And her son was now within—worse yet, in that confined and narrow death house. And doomed to die in an electric chair. Unless—unless—— But, no, no—that should not be. It could not be. That appeal. The money for it. She must busy herself as to that at once—not think or brood or despair. Oh, no. “My shield and my buckler.” “My Light and my Strength.” “Oh, Lord, Thou art my strength and my deliverance. In Thee will I trust.” And then dabbing at her eyes once more and adding: “Oh, Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief.”

So Mrs. Griffiths, alternately praying and crying as she walked.