An American Tragedy Chapter 30

But after this the long days in prison for Clyde. Except for a weekly visit from his mother, who, once she was entered upon her work, found it difficult to see him more often than that—traveling as she did in the next two months between Albany and Buffalo and even New York City—but without the success she had at first hoped for. For in the matter of her appeal to the churches and the public—as most wearily (and in secret if not to Clyde)—and after three weeks of more or less regional and purely sectarian trying, she was compelled to report the Christians at least were very indifferent—not as Christian as they should be. For as all, but more particularly the ministers of the region, since they most guardedly and reservedly represented their congregations in every instance, unanimously saw it, here was a notorious and, of course, most unsavory trial which had resulted in a conviction with which the more conservative element of the country—if one could judge by the papers at least, were in agreement.

Besides who was this woman—as well as her son? An exhorter—a secret preacher—one, who in defiance of all the tenets and processes of organized and historic, as well as hieratic, religious powers and forms (theological seminaries, organized churches and their affiliations and product—all carefully and advisedly and legitimately because historically and dogmatically interpreting the word of God) choosing to walk forth and without ordination after any fashion conduct an unauthorized and hence nondescript mission. Besides if she had remained at home, as a good mother should, and devoted herself to her son, as well as to her other children—their care and education—would this—have happened?

And not only that—but according to Clyde’s own testimony in this trial, had he not been guilty of adultery with this girl—whether he had slain her or not? A sin almost equal to murder in many minds. Had he not confessed it? And was an appeal for a convicted adulterer—if not murderer (who could tell as to that?) to be made in a church? No,—no Christian church was the place to debate, and for a charge, the merits of this case, however much each Christian of each and every church might sympathize with Mrs. Griffiths personally—or resent any legal injustice that might have been done her son. No, no. It was not morally advisable. It might even tend to implant in the minds of the young some of the details of the crime.

Besides, because of what the newspapers had said of her coming east to aid her son and the picture that she herself presented in her homely garb, it was assumed by most ministers that she was one of those erratic persons, not a constituent of any definite sect, or schooled theology, who tended by her very appearance to cast contempt on true and pure religion.

And in consequence, each in turn—not hardening his heart exactly—but thinking twice—and deciding no—there must be some better way—less troublesome to Christians,—a public hall, perhaps, to which Christians, if properly appealed to through the press, might well repair. And so Mrs. Griffiths, in all but one instance, rejected in that fashion and told to go elsewhere—while in regard to the Catholics—instinctively—because of prejudice—as well as a certain dull wisdom not inconsistent with the facts—she failed even to so much as think of them. The mercies of Christ as interpreted by the holder of the sacred keys of St. Peter, as she knew, were not for those who failed to acknowledge the authority of the Vicar of Christ.

And therefore after many days spent in futile knockings here and there she was at last compelled—and in no little depression, to appeal to a Jew who controlled the principal moving picture theater of Utica—a sinful theater. And from him, this she secured free for a morning address on the merits of her son’s case—“A mother’s appeal for her son,” it was entitled—which netted her, at twenty-five cents per person—the amazing sum of two hundred dollars. At first this sum, small as it was, so heartened her that she was now convinced that soon—whatever the attitude of the orthodox Christians—she would earn enough for Clyde’s appeal. It might take time—but she would.

Nevertheless, as she soon discovered, there were other factors to be considered—carfare, her own personal expenses in Utica and elsewhere, to say nothing of certain very necessary sums to be sent to Denver to her husband, who had little or nothing to go on at present, and who, because of this very great tragedy in the family, had been made ill—so ill indeed that the letters from Frank and Julia were becoming very disturbing. It was possible that he might not get well at all. Some help was necessary there.

And in consequence, in addition to paying her own expenses here, Mrs. Griffiths was literally compelled to deduct other reducing sums from this, her present and only source of income. It was terrible—considering Clyde’s predicament—but nevertheless must she not sustain herself in every way in order to win to victory? She could not reasonably abandon her husband in order to aid Clyde alone.

Yet in the face of this—as time went on, the audiences growing smaller and smaller until at last they constituted little more than a handful—and barely paying her expenses—although through this process none-the-less she finally managed to put aside—over and above all her expenses—eleven hundred dollars.

Yet, also, just at this time, and in a moment of extreme anxiety, Frank and Julia wiring her that if she desired to see Asa again she had better come home at once. He was exceedingly low and not expected to live. Whereupon, played upon by these several difficulties and there being no single thing other than to visit him once or twice a week—as her engagements permitted—which she could do for Clyde, she now hastily conferred with Belknap and Jephson, setting forth her extreme difficulties.

And these, seeing that eleven hundred dollars of all she had thus far collected was to be turned over to them, now, in a burst of humanity, advised her to return to her husband. Decidedly Clyde would do well enough for the present seeing that there was an entire year—or at least ten months before it was necessary to file the record and the briefs in the case. In addition another year assuredly must elapse before a decision could be reached. And no doubt before that time the additional part of the appeal fee could be raised. Or, if not—well, then—anyhow (seeing how worn and distrait she was at this time) she need not worry. Messrs. Belknap and Jephson would see to it that her son’s interests were properly protected. They would file an appeal and make an argument—and do whatever else was necessary to insure her son a fair hearing at the proper time.

And with that great burden off her mind—and two last visits to Clyde in which she assured him of her determination to return as speedily as possible—once Asa was restored to strength again and she could see her way to financing such a return—she now departed only to find that, once she was in Denver once more, it was not so easy to restore him by any means.

And in the meantime Clyde was left to cogitate on and make the best of a world that at its best was a kind of inferno of mental ills—above which—as above Dante’s might have been written—“abandon hope—ye who enter here.”

The somberness of it. Its slow and yet searing psychic force! The obvious terror and depression—constant and unshakeable of those who, in spite of all their courage or their fears, their bravado or their real indifference (there were even those) were still compelled to think and wait. For, now, in connection with this coldest and bitterest form of prison life he was in constant psychic, if not physical contact, with twenty other convicted characters of varying temperaments and nationalities, each one of whom, like himself, had responded to some heat or lust or misery of his nature or his circumstances. And with murder, a mental as well as physical explosion, as the final outcome or concluding episode which, being detected, and after what horrors and wearinesses of mental as well as legal contest and failure, such as fairly paralleled his own, now found themselves islanded—immured—in one or another of these twenty-two iron cages and awaiting—awaiting what?

How well they knew. And how well he knew. And here with what loud public rages and despairs or prayers—at times. At others—what curses—foul or coarse jests—or tales addressed to all—or ribald laughter—or sighings and groanings in these later hours when the straining spirit having struggled to silence, there was supposedly rest for the body and the spirit.

In an exercise court, beyond the farthermost end of the long corridor, twice daily, for a few minutes each time, between the hours of ten and five—the various inmates in groups of five or six were led forth—to breathe, to walk, to practice calisthenics—or run and leap as they chose. But always under the watchful eyes of sufficient guards to master them in case they attempted rebellion in any form. And to this it was, beginning with the second day, that Clyde himself was led, now with one set of men and now with another. But with the feeling at first strong in him that he could not share in any of these public activities which, nevertheless, these others—and in spite of their impending doom—seemed willing enough to indulge in.

The two dark-eyed sinister-looking Italians, one of whom had slain a girl because she would not marry him; the other who had robbed and then slain and attempted to burn the body of his father-in-law in order to get money for himself and his wife! And big Larry Donahue—square-headed, square-shouldered—big of feet and hands, an overseas soldier, who, being ejected from a job as night watchman in a Brooklyn factory, had lain for the foreman who had discharged him—and then killed him on an open common somewhere at night, but without the skill to keep from losing a service medal which had eventually served to betray and identify him. Clyde had learned all this from the strangely indifferent and non-committal, yet seemingly friendly guards, who were over these cells by night and by day—two and two, turn about—who relieved each other every eight hours. And police officer Riordan of Rochester, who had killed his wife because she was determined to leave him—and now, himself, was to die. And Thomas Mowrer, the young “farmer” or farm hand, as he really was, whom Clyde on his first night had heard moaning—a man who had killed his employer with a pitchfork—and was soon to die now—as Clyde heard, and who walked and walked, keeping close to the wall—his head down, his hands behind his back—a rude, strong, loutish man of about thirty, who looked more beaten and betrayed than as though he had been able to torture or destroy another. Clyde wondered about him—his real guilt.

Again Miller Nicholson, a lawyer of Buffalo of perhaps forty years of age who was tall and slim and decidedly superior looking—a refined, intellectual type, one you would have said was no murderer—any more than Clyde—to look at, who, none-the-less was convicted of poisoning an old man of great wealth and afterwards attempting to convert his fortune to his own use. Yet decidedly with nothing in his look or manner, as Clyde felt, at least, which marked him as one so evil—a polite and courteous man, who, noting Clyde on the very first morning of his arrival here, approached and said: “Scared?” But in the most gentle and solicitous tone, as Clyde could hear and feel, even though he stood blank and icy—afraid almost to move—or think. Yet in this mood—and because he felt so truly done for, replying: “Yes, I guess I am.” But once it was out, wondering why he had said it (so weak a confession) and afterwards something in the man heartening him, wishing that he had not.

“Your name’s Griffiths, isn’t it?”


“Well, my name’s Nicholson. Don’t be frightened. You’ll get used to it.” He achieved a cheerful, if wan smile. But his eyes—they did not seem like that—no smile there.

“I don’t suppose I’m so scared either,” replied Clyde, trying to modify his first, quick and unintended confession.

“Well, that’s good. Be game. We all have to be here—or the whole place would go crazy. Better breathe a little. Or walk fast. It’ll do you good.”

He moved away a few paces and began exercising his arms while Clyde stood there, saying—almost loudly—so shaken was he still: “We all have to be or the whole place would go crazy.” That was true, as he could see and feel after that first night. Crazy, indeed. Tortured to death, maybe, by being compelled to witness these terrible and completely destroying—and for each—impending tragedies. But how long would he have to endure this? How long would he?

In the course of a day or two, again he found this death house was not quite like that either—not all terror—on the surface at least. It was in reality—and in spite of impending death in every instance, a place of taunt and jibe and jest—even games, athletics, the stage—all forms of human contest of skill—or the arguments on every conceivable topic from death and women to lack of it, as far at least as the general low intelligence of the group permitted.

For the most part, as soon as breakfast was over—among those who were not called upon to join the first group for exercise, there were checkers or cards, two games that were played—not with a single set of checkers or a deck of cards between groups released from their cells, but by one of the ever present keepers providing two challenging prisoners (if it were checkers) with one checker-board but no checkers. They were not needed. Thereafter the opening move was called by one. “I move from G 2 to E 1”—each square being numbered—each side lettered. The moves checked with a pencil.

Thereafter the second party—having recorded this move on his own board and having studied the effect of it on his own general position, would call: “I move from E 7 to F 5.” If more of those present decided to join in this—either on one side or the other, additional boards and pencils were passed to each signifying his desire. Then Shorty Bristol, desiring to aid “Dutch” Swighort, three cells down, might call: “I wouldn’t do that, Dutch. Walt a minute, there’s a better move than that.” And so on with taunts, oaths, laughter, arguments, according to the varying fortunes and difficulties of the game. And so, too, with cards. These were played with each man locked in his cell, yet quite as successfully.

But Clyde did not care for cards—or for these jibing and coarse hours of conversation. There was for him—and with the exception of the speech of one—Nicholson—alone, too much ribald and even brutal talk which he could not appreciate. But he was drawn to Nicholson. He was beginning to think after a time—a few days—that this lawyer—his presence and companionship during the exercise hour—whenever they chanced to be in the same set—could help him to endure this. He was the most intelligent and respectable man here. The others were all so different—taciturn at times—and for the most part so sinister, crude or remote.

But then and that not more than a week after his coming here—and when, because of his interest in Nicholson, he was beginning to feel slightly sustained at least—the execution of Pasquale Cutrone, of Brooklyn, an Italian, convicted of the slaying of his brother for attempting to seduce his wife. He had one of the cells nearest the transverse passage, so Clyde learned after arriving, and had in part lost his mind from worrying. At any rate he was invariably left in his cell when the others—in groups of six—were taken for exercise. But the horror of his emaciated face, as Clyde passed and occasionally looked in—a face divided into three grim panels by two gutters or prison lines of misery that led from the eyes to the corners of the mouth.

Beginning with his, Clyde’s arrival, as he learned, Pasquale had begun to pray night and day. For already, before that, he had been notified of the approximate date of his death which was to be within the week. And after that he was given to crawling up and down his cell on his hands and knees, kissing the floor, licking the feet of a brass Christ on a cross that had been given him. Also he was repeatedly visited by an Italian brother and sister fresh from Italy and for whose benefit at certain hours, he was removed to the old death house. But as all now whispered, Pasquale was mentally beyond any help that might lie in brothers or sisters.

All night long and all day long, when they were not present, he did this crawling to and fro and praying, and those who were awake and trying to read to pass the time, were compelled to listen to his mumbled prayers, the click of the beads of a rosary on which he was numbering numberless Our Fathers and Hail Marys.

And though there were voices which occasionally said: “Oh, for Christ’s sake—if he would only sleep a little”—still on, on. And the tap of his forehead on the floor—in prayer, until at last the fatal day preceding the one on which he was to die, when Pasquale was taken from his cell here and escorted to another in the old death house beyond and where, before the following morning, as Clyde later learned, last farewells, if any, were to be said. Also he was to be allowed a few hours in which to prepare his soul for his maker.

But throughout that night what a strange condition was this that settled upon all who were of this fatal room. Few ate any supper as the departing trays showed. There was silence—and after that mumbled prayers on the part of some—not so greatly removed by time from Pasquale’s fate, as they knew. One Italian, sentenced for the murder of a bank watchman, became hysterical, screamed, dashed the chair and table of his cell against the bars of his door, tore the sheets of his bed to shreds and even sought to strangle himself before eventually he was overpowered and removed to a cell in a different part of the building to be observed as to his sanity.

As for the others, throughout this excitement, one could hear them walking and mumbling or calling to the guards to do something. And as for Clyde, never having experienced or imagined such a scene, he was literally shivering with fear and horror. All through the last night of this man’s life he lay on his pallet, chasing phantoms. So this was what death was like here; men cried, prayed, they lost their minds—yet the deadly process was in no way halted, for all their terror. Instead, at ten o’clock and in order to quiet all those who were left, a cold lunch was brought in and offered—but with none eating save the Chinaman over the way.

And then at four the following morning—the keepers in charge of the deadly work coming silently along the main passage and drawing the heavy green curtains with which the cells were equipped so that none might see the fatal procession which was yet to return along the transverse passage from the old death house to the execution room. And yet with Clyde and all the others waking and sitting up at the sound.

It was here, the execution! The hour of death was at hand. This was the signal. In their separate cells, many of those who through fear or contrition, or because of innate religious convictions, had been recalled to some form of shielding or comforting faith, were upon their knees praying. Among the rest were others who merely walked or muttered. And still others who screamed from time to time in an incontrollable fever of terror.

As for Clyde he was numb and dumb. Almost thoughtless. They were going to kill that man in that other room in there. That chair—that chair that he had so greatly feared this long while was in there—was so close now. Yet his time as Jephson and his mother had told him was so long and distant as yet—if ever—ever it was to be—if ever—ever——

But now other sounds. Certain walkings to and fro. A cell door clanking somewhere. Then plainly the door leading from the old death house into this room opening—for there was a voice—several voices indistinct as yet. Then another voice a little clearer as if some one praying. That tell-tale shuffling of feet as a procession moved across and through that passage. “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.”

“Mary, Mother of Grace, Mary, Mother of Mercy, St. Michael, pray for me; my good Angel, pray for me.

“Holy Mary, pray for me; St. Joseph, pray for me. St. Ambrose, pray for me; all ye saints and angels, pray for me.”

“St. Michael, pray for me; my good Angel, pray for me.”

It was the voice of the priest accompanying the doomed man and reciting a litany. Yet he was no longer in his right mind they said. And yet was not that his voice mumbling too? It was. Clyde could tell. He had heard it too much recently. And now that other door would be opened. He would be looking through it—this condemned man—so soon to be dead—at it—seeing it—that cap—those straps. Oh, he knew all about those by now though they should never come to be put upon him, maybe.

“Good-by, Cutrone!” It was a hoarse, shaky voice from some near-by cell—Clyde could not tell which. “Go to a better world than this.” And then other voices: “Good-by, Cutrone. God keep you—even though you can’t talk English.”

The procession had passed. That door was shut. He was in there now. They were strapping him in, no doubt. Asking him what more he had to say—he who was no longer quite right in his mind. Now the straps must be fastened on, surely. The cap pulled down. In a moment, a moment, surely——

And then, although Clyde did not know or notice at the moment—a sudden dimming of the lights in this room—as well as over the prison—an idiotic or thoughtless result of having one electric system to supply the death voltage and the incandescence of this and all other rooms. And instantly a voice calling:

“There she goes. That’s one. Well, it’s all over with him.”

And a second voice: “Yes, he’s topped off, poor devil.”

And then after the lapse of a minute perhaps, a second dimming lasting for thirty seconds—and finally a third dimming.

“There—sure—that’s the end now.”

“Yes. He knows what’s on the other side now.”

Thereafter silence—a deadly hush with later some murmured prayers here and there. But with Clyde cold and with a kind of shaking ague. He dared not think—let alone cry. So that’s how it was. They drew the curtains. And then—and then. He was gone now. Those three dimmings of the lights. Sure, those were the flashes. And after all those nights at prayer. Those moanings! Those beatings of his head! And only a minute ago he had been alive—walking by there. But now dead. And some day he—he!—how could he be sure that he would not? How could he?

He shook and shook, lying on his couch, face down. The keepers came and ran up the curtains—as sure and secure in their lives apparently as though there was no death in the world. And afterwards he could hear them talking—not to him so much—he had proved too reticent thus far—but to some of the others.

Poor Pasquale. This whole business of the death penalty was all wrong. The warden thought so. So did they. He was working to have it abolished.

But that man! His prayers! And now he was gone. His cell over there was empty and another man would be put in it—to go too, later. Some one—many—like Cutrone, like himself—had been in this one—on this pallet. He sat up—moved to the chair. But he—they—had sat on that—too. He stood up—only to sink down on the pallet again. “God! God! God! God!” he now exclaimed to himself—but not aloud—and yet not unlike that other man who had so terrorized him on the night of his arrival here and who was still here. But he would go too. And all of these others—and himself maybe—unless—unless——

He had seen his first man die.