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THEY said I broke some kind of a record during that first trial of our nation's champion spendthrift for the unprovoked killing of his wife's older suitor. In the autobiography which he wrote from his lifer's cell in Sing Sing, Chapin stated that regularly I turned out at least twelve thousand words per working day and that my reports were as full and comprehensive as those printed in any of the rival afternoon sheets, each of which had from two to five men collaborating in the descriptive matter, the new leads for succeeding editions, the interpretative treatment of developments needing explanation, and the gist of the running testimony and the speech-making. Partly he was wrong there. I didn't average twelve thousand words a day. But there were days, when my output went to a higher volume than that, notably while the witness chair was occupied by Evelyn Nesbitt Thaw, spuriously decked out in a reefer jacket and demure flat collar and big bow tie, and looking the part of a virginal schoolgirl innocently caught in a hideous web of circumstance.
At the beginning after a day or two of fumbling experimentations with helpers, I asked Chapin that he provide one boy to run with my copy, sheet by scrawled and sprawly sheet, down to a basement corridor of the Criminal Courts Building where capable Johnny Gavin of our city-room crew would read the manuscript over a private wire to a stenographer in a telephone booth at the shop a mile away on Park Row a real stroke of journalistic enterprise for that day; and provide another boy whose sole job it would be to stay just behind me at the press table and keep me supplied with freshly sharpened pencils. (Our weekly pencil bills must have been as added stabs in the bowels to Mr. Pulitzer's frugal treasurer. He suffered from acute financial cramps anyhow.)
Under these conditions I told the boss I'd try to swing the proposition singlehanded. I preferred to have it so, being vain of my agility at hand galloping and champing to show off before other disciples of my calling. At the finish, Cousins-Hardie, one of the foreign correspondents on the assignment, graciously gave me a laudatory paragraph in his wired account, praising quality as well as quantity. There was no doubt about the quantity, anyhow. I think his paper was the Daily Dispatch, anyhow one of the big London papers. Cable tolls were costly then and Cousins-Hardie had a big reputation, and I strutted about, treasuring the clipping that arrived from overseas. So far as I know this was the first time my name had ever been mentioned in print outside the United States and Canada. For in those days an assignment man rarely signed a news story no matter how much fancy language he might have milked it for. That distinction was reserved for halo-wearing feature writers and for specially hired celebrities popular novelists and professional criminologists and technical sharps and the likes of them. An anonymous umbra enveloped the rest of us us and our most ambitious literary footage as with a horse blanket. And not such a bad idea either, when you consider some of the by-lined effusions which, upon the slightest provocation, go shriekingly into print nowadays.
To the contrary of Chapin's estimates, there were days when my totaled grist would fill only a very few columns of double-spaced, double-width type under the blazing scareheads and the black-faced introductions for, no matter how dull the material, the make-up editor, at the behest of the circulation department, would play the tale for all it was worth. These breathing spells for the press gang came while long-winded counsel engaged in the customary flatulent quibbles over some legalistic precedent as far remote from the problem involved as it was possible to get without squabbling one another clear off the judicial reservation. Or else, only this would be toward the last after our patience with such solemn farces had frayed thin, the pleasant intermission would come when a chosen member of one or the other opposing herds of trained tame alienists responded to his mahout's prodding and put on a display of intricate and, very often, self-contradictory verbal acrobatics. (They call them psychiatrists now but the breed has altered very little, although shrunken somewhat in number and greatly in gainful employment.) These elephantine intellects had been procured for this exhibition without regard to expense and judging by results sometimes without much regard to scholarly background. Glibly, they knew all the stock answers, but under cross-racking the questions distressingly would upset them. Rarely though did one of them lose his gravity, which was specific and dense, or his air of infallibility, which almost was suffocating. To do so would have been unethical, it might even have set the populace to snickering. Better in moments of stress to take refuge, like the octopus, in an impenetrable inky screen of nonunderstandable jargon.
In this regard, Thaw had the best collection of talent that the general market afforded and money could buy. For the People of the State of New York, as the quaint term went, there daily appeared at so many hundreds of dollars of the taxpayers' money per appearance a mighty array which Dexter Fellowes of the Big Show probably would have billed as a Phenomenal Peerless Processional of Ponderous Pachydermic Prodigies Pluperfectly Presented in Peculiar Pageantry and Plastic Performances. Through experience District Attorney William Travers Jerome knew full well he could depend upon this mastodonic drove. They'd been many a time and oft on his pay roll and never had failed him yet. On previous occasions he had seen them adroitly swallowing their own profound deliverances when the strategy of the fight called for an abrupt shifting of tactics; had heard the slight nervous rattling as they swapped ends like so many old-style celluloid cuffs. Thaw's high-priced pets were equally adaptable, equally accommodating. And if you think I'm exaggerating, consult the files of any metropolitan paper during the decade, 1900 to 1910 or thereabouts, with particular reference to this affair and to the famous Robbins case.
In this trial the alienists of both wings rose to new heights of flexibility. Today and the strange thing was that nobody laughed out loud good old Dr. J. Mumble Viceversa, the snuffy, owlish ex-keeper of this public or that private madhouse in the adjacent area, would be adjusting his double lenses and smoothing his waistcoat and demonstrating by a mysterious patteran, studded thick with infirm Greek and limping Latin, and likewise by quoting substantiating extracts from medico-legal authorities, that Thaw had been wildly insane when he shot White although now was miraculously and absolutely restored to complete sanity. But tomorrow, provided the policy had about-faced overnight to meet the nimble opponents' double-back somersault, he'd be proving beyond the scintilla of a doubt that the man had never been at any hour of his life insane, or else, that from birth on he'd always been an incurable, a hopeless and a dangerous defective. It depended on which flavor the kind floor manager desired. Just give the spigot a slight turn of the wrist and out it gushed strawberry, vanilla, sarsaparilla. From that debased and disillusionizing period, I think, dated the decline and fall of faith in the integrity of bought-and-paid-for testimony in litigation affecting degrees of mental capacity and, to an even greater extent, in proceedings under the criminal code. For you can't fool all of the people all of the time, though P.T. Barnum said that frequently there are twin suckers born; but eventually chickens will come home to roost and the proof of the pudding is that the burnt child dreads the fire, while the pitcher which travels too often to the well butters no parsnips. The reader may go on from there as far as he likes.
As I now recall but two benefits unless you'd include getting a hung jury for Thaw accrued from the scurvy, sweated smear of pseudo-scientific poppycock which was spread, like batter on a hot griddle, all over the fraud-tinged transcript. For one thing, those former Pooh Bahs of the popular lunatic asylums along our eastern seaboard collected their fat retainers, meanwhile, I suppose, like the Roman augurs in the Forum, avoiding one another's gaze for fear of a betraying giggle; and, secondly, the native tongue eminently was enriched by passages of newly coined phraseology. "Brain storm" was a notable mintage. "Dementia Americana" was another. "Sob sister" became the aptly alliterative title for any over-heated young female who mistook flowing hysteria for a true reportorial viewpoint. It is still in use and deservedly so. Being recalled to the stand, an impressive pundit from over New Jersey way outdid his best previous metaphorical efforts. He likened a person suffering from a given type of delusion to "a rudderless ship adrift on an uncharted sea without any balance wheel." For some reason probably just an oversight he failed to mention "caught like rats in a trap." To describe Evelyn Thaw and her inevitable companion, a diminutive brownie-like ex-actress, somebody thought up "the Wounded Bluebird and the Broadway Sparrow," and that line was good until repetition wore it brassy.
As regards the merits of the rival camps of alienists I would say the score stood even-Steven. But, except in gross tonnage, Thaw fared infinitely less well in his choice of lawyers than in the personnel of his experting department. Here the state's attacking force was greatly outnumbered but by no matter of means outnoodled. Jerome was then at the crest of his prowess as a prosecutor which is the same as saying he had no superior anywhere in the land and perhaps no equal. He was murderous at cross-examination and malignant at invective, as quick as a panther to spring and as ready to strike as an adder; always keeping an eye skinned for the advantageous main chance and having the probing, boring abilities of a crawfish to undermine his adversary's strained and weakened levees. His principal dependency was his able first assistant from upstairs, Frank Garvan, who afterward served as Custodian of Alien Property in President Wilson's second term and as a rich man, a philanthropist and a deservedly admired patriot, died a few years ago. Of course the district attorney had behind him the resources of his own powerful organization and at his beck and call all the manifold police agencies of Manhattan Island, but his chief strength was in himself.
Studying the opposition line-up, the one which Thaw had pieced together to save him from the consequences of his jealous fury, I couldn't doubt but that he still was quite mad. No sane man would have picked such a conglomeration. The whole thing stank of money but, other than that, there wasn't much you could say for his layout. The attorney of record was a tall, raw-boned emigree from the Turpentine Belt, with the characteristic accent that Northerners so often mistake for a dialect, which it is not, but merely a sort of labial laziness. It was rumored he owed his present elevation to the fact that he had been Thaw's frequent partner at bridge in an expensive card club which they patronized. Nearly everybody excels at something. Doubtlessly this gentleman played a snappy game of bridge. Second rating among the resident coterie went to a paunchy nonentity who was in the nature of a landmark: he was one of the last stands of the North American side whisker, scarce then and now practically extinct. He distinguished himself and visibly convulsed his astounded affiliates by putting to the very first defense witness, who was a stodgy general practitioner of medicine from Pennsylvania, a hypothetical question based altogether on the accumulated testimony of the state a maneuver which, I'm sure, had never before been executed anywhere. After pushing through this novelty to its chaotic conclusion, he relapsed and was again just so much scenery. Next in order was grizzled Roger O'Mara, former chief of detectives of Pittsburgh, whose functions, if any, remained undisclosed, unless looking inscrutable was one of them. Also there was a youngish sprig of the law whose name I have entirely forgotten, not that it makes any difference. His principal tasks, apparently, were replacing the divots, so to speak, following intermittent family disagreements and in more peaceful intervals running errands for his imperious if sorely frightened client or for the client's austere elderly mother or for the brother or for either or both of the sisters, the Duchess of Yarmouth, but separated now from her noble husband, and little shy Mrs. George Carnegie who had married in amongst the opulent ironmongering Carnegies. He was quite competent for such duties. Occasionally too he was told off to act as liaison officer between the family group and Evelyn Nesbitt who sat yards removed from them, with her drab little Broadway friend for a sole companion, and except through this intermediary, had no contact whatsoever with anybody. So there were cliques inside the courtroom just as there were noisy antagonistic claques outside in the hallways.
A financial arrangement had been made; we all knew about that. For so much down and so much in continuing installments Evelyn Nesbitt was to do her level best to keep her husband out of the electric chair, and a very good job of it she made when you figured what she had to go on; but no amount could beguile her to maintain outward friendly relations with her husband's people.
To be the sun god of the strange galaxy of eclipsed legal lights with which the defendant had encircled himself; to bear the heaviest burdens of the fray and, when the proper hour struck, to undam great floods of persuasive, pent-up eloquence, the Thaws had imported from his native West at a reputed tremendous cost, one Delphin Michael Delmas, who in his prime, which now was faded and past, had scintillated as the most gifted Boco d'Oro to give the proper Spanish flavoring before the San Francisco bar. This was a crowning error on their part; on his also. To the sympathetically inclined, a practically extinct crater which still fancies itself an active volcano is a pitiful sight for to see. Lamentably in this instance, or maybe it was a blessing disguised, the victim hadn't heard the bad news yet. Perhaps nobody had the heart to tell him, and certainly not the closely attached satellite whom he had brought across the continent with him. This adhesive retainer was a silent reserved individual, with the melancholic look upon his face of an elderly fox hound, whose only duty seemed to be packing in a pile of lawbooks each morning and toting them out again at evenfall. If he ever spoke, I didn't catch it.
Mr. Delmas' repertoire included all the old tricks of all the old tricksters. He stemmed from the obsolete Clay-Webster-Calhoun-Yancey school, wherein a reputation might be made by an epigram or slain with a slogan. As reckoned against the brisk staccato routine of any eastern courtroom and the rapid-fire methods of a Jerome prosecution his fashion was so outmoded that almost you could see the lichens forming on the back of the neck and the tendrils of ground ivy creeping out of his shirt collar. He had a vocal register which could be dropped at will from the gusty roar of the Nubian lioness yearning for her mate to the softly plaintive notes of the lowing herd which poetically is alleged to wind slowly o'er the lea. But a typical New York jury would rather you totted it up like a cash register than that you stretched it out into a harp solo. It was said that he never discounted, but rather encouraged, circulation of a report that he was an uncertified yet nonetheless authentic descendant of the late Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. Outwardly he possessed most of the essential props an educated forelock which on the slightest whim of its master fell in a sweeping cascade off the forehead and into the eye; a dapper foot in a dapper bootee, a set of opulent gestures; unfailing benignant courtesy to one and all; small and beautifully garnished hands, there being huge seal rings on at least three of his fingers. By rights and to support this regalia of personality, the visiting gladiator should have been fashioned in the image of the towering redwoods of his own Pacific slope. But, alack, he was in stature as some stunted scrub oak is approximately five feet six inches of pudgy grandeur. And that stubbiness hurt his style, and style was almost the last shot left in the veteran smoothbore's locker.
It was a carnival of mayhem and maltreatment. It might be joy in a butcher shop but here it wasn't even funny and Lord knows wasn't sporting. It was the sharp corner of quick Broadway repartee suddenly thrust in to dent the rounded period which had traveled across with the prairie schooner of the pioneer fathers and now had come creakily back to be flattened as by a city steam riveter. It was the medieval play of rusted rapiers against the very newest thing in the line of Gatling guns. It was a spectacle which always I shall remember.
By devastatingly quick counter-blasts, by cruel indifference to the sufferings of an elder, Jerome preyed on his cornered but still gallant adversary as a famished tramp might prey on an unguarded free lunch. With almost a sadistic fervor he ate him alive, bite by wriggling bite. Jerome always was like that. Once let him taste blood and he'd turn tigerish and have no mercy. It was the one weak joint in his armor. For this ferocity created the sympathy which might defeat the ends of justice.
Certainly there was no fairness in the use of such tactics here. Before ever he arrived poor Delmas was most sorely handicapped. Lured by the price which was dangled before his eyes, he'd come hurrying to the slaughter pits, utterly unaware of what he was being let in for behind the bulwarks of that purse-proud but terribly tangled defense. It was common gossip that old lady Thaw, she being imperious and temperamental, bullied the runty, thwarted little man shamefully. Furthermore, we gathered that behind his back envious traitors among his confreres conspired to hamstring him and blunt his best designs and generally make a mock of him. When the debacle was over he had but one crumpled laurel leaf to rest upon. "Dementia Americana" was his very own; he publicly had authored it. He could take that puny consolation prize away with him; that and a gross check expressive in dollar signs, of the mess of pottage for which he'd sold his birthright of dignity and honorable distinction.
Aside from this cruelly circumvented relic of early California, there was one person in the curious Thaw entourage who strove to give the worth of the money paid to him by his distracted employers. They could never justly complain that they didn't get value received from Dan O'Reilly, "the Irish Cupid of Park Row," as the newspaper fraternity called him. He was a plump, juicy jelly roll of a man, handsome and debonair and witty, always in high spirits, always boisterously good natured, always beautifully groomed and shaven to the pinky underpelt. I never knew a man who had a sweeter smile than Dan, nor one who flashed his smile oftener. To him was assigned the secret sifting out of talesmen called for jury service, the finding of undercover witnesses and the moulding of testimony, all highly essential to the prisoner's interests and calling for shrewd and shifty handling. Dan could qualify there. His father had been an old-time city magistrate and his pretty wife was the daughter of a wise retired police captain. He had been weaned on a Tammany teething ring and fetched up in the back alleys of criminal law and he knew his way in and out of many a darkened maze of chicanery there. When Nan Patterson the Floradora chorus girl killed Caesar Young the English athlete in a cab, Dan got to her first at the nearest precinct stationhouse and saved her from her just deserts by making away with the scared young woman's pair of elbow-length white gloves with a telltale back spit of burnt powder grains in the crotch of the right-hand glove. After that she could claim Young had shot himself while she contended with him to take the gun away. Everybody liked Dan, barring Jerome. There was between them an old falling out dating rearward to a time when Dan slipped an especially captivating bit of skulduggery over on the district attorney's office. But Jerome couldn't see the joke and picked at his sores and swore to get even.*
On an evening in the second month of the trial I stayed on at the reporters' room in the courthouse to do an installment of an allegedly whimsical series which appeared thrice weekly on the magazine page of the Evening World and for which I was paid five dollars apiece and very glad to get the money. Somehow even while transcribing each day's proceedings, I contrived to turn out these contributions although frequently it meant getting up at 5:00 A.M., and being jocular or trying to on an empty stomach, or pegging away after adjournment when already I was poisoned from exhaustion.
This evening, with a finished screed in my pocket, I dragged my weary frame downstairs and at that moment Dan spiraled out of Pontin's Restaurant diagonally across the way. He barely was able to stay upright. It had been a hard grind on him too, that day.
I managed to load him into a hansom, a wild extravagance for me, but he was almost past navigating afoot and getting him aboard the subway or an L train was out of the question. We lived quite near each other in Harlem's remote wilds so the cab fare wouldn't all be a total loss. He drowsed for a mile or two while we jogged up the street, then all at once roused in a mood of maudlin self-pity. He put an arm about me and rested his wobbly head on my convenient shoulder.
"Time like thish a fellow needs a friend, Irv," he mumbled. "Yeshur, now's time for all good Samaritans come to the aid of the party. And I'm the party. Get so tired fighting with a bunch of ignorant, conceited rich nuts that want to raise hell, day in, day out. 'Nuff to run a fellow nutty himself. Say, Irv, lemme tell you about some things that happened one jusht yesterday, one jusht day before yesterday. Mosth incredible things ever did happen, I guess. Gotta tell somebody or bust or c'mit shuicide or something. Say, Irv, ole pal, lishen. On my word of honor, it's all Goshpel truth, s'help me!"
From then on there was no stopping him. Nor, to be honest about it, did I try to stop him. Such a thing was not to be expected of any normal human being. And especially not from a professional news gatherer.
For serio-comedy effects, the event of the day before yesterday, deftly put into shape for printing, would have been priceless copy, absolutely priceless. For it had to do with a battle royal properly you might almost call it that which Dan said had been staged at a hotel-room conference of all hands concerned, following a court session when their cause had suffered by reason of bobbles and backsets. One pair of bearded checks had been soundly slapped; smoking epithets and blistering denunciations for inefficiency had been exchanged and, for an unapproachable climax, an object of decoration in the nature of an urn or vase, being flung with accuracy by a feminine hand, had been dashed to fragments so Dan repeatedly averred against the high and domelike brow of the golden-throated Delmas, no less.
By itself, a circumstantial account of this free-for-all melee would have made, as you must allow, most satisfactory reading in any live journal. But it faded to a pallid triviality when set up alongside Dan's stumbling and repetitious but, in spite of all that, tremendously graphic recital of the alleged affair of the day before. Some of the parties to it still are alive; and it wouldn't be fair and might be libelous to undertake, even at this late date, the publishing of names and the story of an event for which there probably exists no actual substantiation, although I hadn't then nor have I now the slightest doubt of O'Reilly's veracity. I'm safe though, I'd think, in saying this much: In a cell block of that gloomy prison, the well-named Tombs, there had been a fiendishly planned and only accidentally averted attempt at cold-blooded homicide. In it had figured a Judas kiss and a weapon made from an iron bunk support, and an unsuspecting victim saved by chance or so this supposed eyewitness to it all now most vehemently proclaimed.
To publish this, especially with the public taste already whetted to the watering-at-the-mouth stage would have been the newspaper coup of many a year. It would have altered much of the integral fabric of the defense; it would entirely have annulled other equally important factors. It surely must have precipitated a mistrial since it was an impossibility to prevent the jurors from learning what would have been trumpeted in the public prints. And inevitably it would have ruined, professionally and otherwise, this babbling tattletale who lurched and floundered beside me in that confessional box of a hansom cab, and breathed his hot alcoholic breath in my face.
Verily I say unto you, the Devil had taken me up on a high mountain and promised me the world. And I sat there and perspired a cold dew and wrestled with temptation and finally but it almost tore me in two got a hammer lock on my demon and threw him down flat. Before Dan quit his gabble and relapsed into sleep, I knew what my course would be. I took no special credit to myself for it; my decision was what the decision of any reasonably self-respecting newspaperman, similarly placed, would have been. But to this long-after hour, thinking back on it, I like to hand myself an imaginary bouquet of rosemary and that's for remembrance although personally I would regard spring onions as being superior for re-creating reminiscent effects.
At his address the cabby and I got my sleepy co-passenger out and propped him against his door and rang the doorbell and ran. I was calm again calm and sadly resigned when I disembarked at our forty-four-dollars-a-month apartment on West One Hundred and Forty-third Street which then was as far north as the hardy traveler could go by subway or surface line. From then on, in wintry weather, you took dogsleighs and put your faith on the good monks of St. Bernard having a hostel in the unexplored reaches of the uppermost Bronx, or at least so the quip-writing paragraphers of the period delighted to intimate.
I didn't sleep very well. I was awake at six o'clock in the morning when the telephone rang in our form-fitting living room.
"Irvin," came Dan's shaken, agonized voice over the wire, "Irvin, for dear Christ's sake, what have I done?"
"I don't know what you've done today, it's still sort of early," I said. "But what you did last night was to go on a sincere toot. And I delivered you home like a laundryman with a jag of wet wash. The cab bill was four-eighty, in case you're interested."
"Don't kid with me," he pleaded. "I recall I recall what I told you last night, driving uptown. I was pretty drunk then, but it's all come back to me. Irvin, tell me what I told you, before I go crazy?"
"Dan," I said, "if you told me anything unusual last night I've entirely forgotten it. I'd advise you to do the same thing and take something for your nerves and get your clothes on and go to court."
"Then you aren't putting it in the paper?"
"How can I print anything about anything that I can't remember anything about?"
"Oh, thank God!" he said and he was sobbing now. "And oh, thank you!"
"Let it go at that," I said, "we'll split the credit between us me und Gott. You can buy the lunch today, and pay for half that cab bill."
Neither of us ever again mentioned the thing to the other. Nor till just now when I sat down to tell this tale, have I mentioned it, except in a very few private ears.
I'd like to add that I'm still a little pleased with myself that more than once when I put in my journalistic thumb and pulled out a forbidden but delectable plum, I put it right back in the pie. I may have done some bleeding inwardly. But I put it back.
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