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Exit laughing (1941)

by Irvin S. Cobb

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AT HIS second trial, Thaw's chief counsel, Martin Littleton, providentially was picked for him by somebody else and Littleton, with his slow drawl and his deceitfully gentle aspect, conducted the defense practically singlehanded and, for once in a misshapen life, Thaw got his rightful share of the breaks. Let the going be placid and slick, and stocky, curly-headed Littleton — he suggested pictures of the young Stephen A. Douglas — could be as smooth as custard and seemingly not much solider. But it were just as well not to start smacking the custard around. Because, when he flared up, he put me in mind of the story told of a resident of Littleton's own East Tennessee ridges who, testifying as a character witness for a somewhat combative friend from across the adjacent gap, said: "Yas, suh, Jedge, ef you don't rile him, Shep here is milder'n the new-bawn lamb and ez full of sweetness ez a bee-tree. But I must say he's a powerful onlikely fellow to prank with."*


   * Grantland Rice took me one night to a dinner of one of the Southern societies in New York where Littleton, who had been elected to Congress from a Long Island district, was to be the principal speaker. He came in late and it was evident that somewhere along the road to town he had been badly enveloped in liquor. He slumped into his seat at the top table and took a few lackadaisical bites and let his drowsy eyes close. Arising to introduce him, the toastmaster, who figured himself pretty good at satire, apparently felt it would be safe to take some caustic liberties with the guest of honor, which accordingly he did, while the target for his shafts sank deeper and deeper down inside the collar of a rumpled dress shirt. In concluding he said: "And now we are to hear this gifted friend of ours who is never at a loss on an occasion like this. The formula is simple: Down goes his dinner and up comes a speech." Littleton was instantly on his feet; all the befuddlement was gone from him. "How different the case with your toastmaster," he said. "Down goes his speech — and up comes your dinner!"

   From the outset Littleton took over absolute command of the rudderless ship which had no balance wheel. What browbeating as was done within Fort Money-Bags, he did; and the flaunting plutocratic flag came right down off of its parapet and a savor of humility arose from within the casemates. He hammered the relatives to rebellious acceptance of the fact that if he were going to save their black sheep from burning, they must fortify their souls to the prospect of seeing him locked up, either in a madhouse or a state's prison. In other words, they couldn't eat their cake and have it, too. Moreover if, in pursuance of this plan, family skeletons must come forth from family cupboards, why let 'em come. They came. There ensued quite a rattling of brittle dried bones as sundry ancestral cadavers passed in review. The imperious Littleton reduced the welter of wordage of the alienists and curtailed the stupid shilly-shallying of the first trial. Because the papers had begun to ridicule what obviously had been a masquerade, he stripped Evelyn Thaw of her last season's "testimony clothes" and dressed her in the sackcloth and ashes of a chastened repentance. True the sackcloth had been cut along smart juvenile lines and the ashes were appliquéd on in the best mode of Fifth Avenue. On the stand he reduced her smoothly rehearsed tale to its least common devisors. For it was a year old now and beginning to go rancid; even the part relating to seduction under duress and drugged champagne. It nearly always was drugged champagne in those days when seduction seemed to require more apologizing for than it does at present. Littleton faced the scowling Jerome, jowl to jowl, and gave him back snap for snarl. And the upshot was he made twelve tired jurymen believe that at the hour of the commission of the crime and, in the language of the statute, "defendant did not know the nature and the quality of his act and did not know that the act was wrong." So Thaw side-stepped by a margin of inches the death house at Sing Sing and went instead to the State Asylum for Criminal Insane at Matteawan, a few miles farther up the Hudson River. In no time at all he was much dissatisfied with the accommodations and craving to depart therefrom. His was ever a restless spirit.

   Common sense and hopes for their own peace of mind would have dictated that the Thaws leave well enough alone. But almost before the ink was dry on the commitment papers they were financing a campaign to win again to their collective bosoms the prodigal son. Some months passed, presumably spent in making ready the fatted calf and then they lighted the light in the cottage window and came out in the open with a petition for his release on the premise that while he had been insane in a certain tragic bygone hour, he now was sane and therefore entitled to his freedom. In the month of May the cause was tried at the seat of the county in which Matteawan is situated and that was Poughkeepsie, the historic site of Vassar College and the original home of the deathless haired-over Smith Brothers — Trade, with the classically Gothic whiskers, and Mark, who on the package, wears a chaste Doric set.

   A whole squadron of us — newspapermen, wardens, lawyers; Jerome and his caravan of pet testifiers; Thaw, in close custody, also with his entourage of savants, subpœna-servers and messengers went upriver for the hearing. It lasted one week, from a Monday morning to a Saturday night, and it was on Saturday night that the elaborately built-up pleadings of the Thaw expedition exploded right in their faces and canceled all the Welcome-Home-to-Our-Harry plans. But that's getting ahead of the narrative. All through that week Thaw's alienists, the same pedantic and pompous ones who regularly had served him, expounded the old familiar parrot talk and babbled those identical platitudes which already had been worn clear to the quick. A daring chance was taken when Thaw, for the first time, briefly went on the witness stand and was permitted to give semi-incoherent answers to a few cautiously framed questions. It was a repetitious procedure and calculated to wear a fellow down. But the reporters liked the presiding justice's looks and his attitude; he at least yielded us some copy. There was a most unlawyer-like directness about him as he cut through the traditional verbiage which drapes the English common law and probed straight to the core of things. Nor had he any hesitation whatsoever about kicking holes in the moldy though venerated foundations of the centuries-old Home for Decayed Precedents, so beloved of most of his fellow judges through the land. He had started life at a mechanic's workbench and worked up the hard way. Almost any state in the Union could do with a few like him on its highest bench.

   Late one night, along toward the middle of that boresome week, I dropped into a little groggery on the main street for a noggin of ale. Other than a sleepy barkeeper, the only person present was a rutabaga-looking, middle-aged man. He was an underkeeper, an Austrian, I guessed, or maybe a Saxon, who had been sent along from Matteawan to guard Thaw. I've always had a theory that prolonged association with demented people sooner or later will cut up didos in almost anybody's brain, especially if the party of the second part hasn't any too sinewy an intellect to begin with. And this individual, you'd say, had from the start belonged to one of the pithier species of the vegetable kingdom.

   "Say," he hailed me, "you been over yonder at the courthouse efery day, ain't?"

   "Yes," I said. "For my sins, I've been there."

   "Sure, I seen you. Reporter, huh? Say, Meester, ain't it a shame the way that Jerome crowd is trying to keep on keeping that poor boy Thaw locked up? Uf he vas gone I vould miss him but vot of it? The things I could tell you aboudt that boy — how nice he is, how free mit his money. Von thing in particular vot chust goes to show I'm thinking aboudt right now while I am standing here. Meester, if nothing else, you shouldt hear aboudt them Easter lilies und them vanilla éclairs."

   "Come on down to this end of the bar," I said with a sideglance to make sure the barkeeper wasn't eavesdropping. "What's yours going to be?"

   "Straight whisky," he said. He had been drinking beer. I waited until the order had been served and the barkeeper had gone back to his former station.

   "You were speaking about Easter?" I prompted.

   "Sure. I ain't told nobody aroundt here aboudt it. Somebody might say, vot is it your business? Und me vorking for the state."

   "That's right," I said. "But, brother, you could tell me. I'm not a state employee."

   "Say, that's right, ain't? Vell, first you should know how that boy loves vanilla éclairs. Chocolate éclairs sometimes und caramel élairs ulso, but mostly vanilla. Always he is eating them, alvays hafing them sent in from oudtside. Vell, vot does he do this last Easter morning, chust four-fife veeks ago? Nobody suggests it to him, mindt you. Oudt of his own head exclusively, he thinks it up. Listen, meester, und den you tell me vasn't that a beautiful thing to do? Almost to my eyes it brought tears. On Easter morning for breakfast vot does efery single solitary inmate in the whole place, even the violent ones, find at his place as a gift from Harry? On this side here, a lovely Burmuda lily — you know, on account it's Easter — und on that side there a nice fresh vanilla éclair! Vot a pity the chudge here don't know aboudt that. Quick then I'll bet you he vould turn that boy loose."

   "You said it," I agreed. "Have another drink. Two more of the same, please, Mr. Manager. Naturally you couldn't be the one to slip the word to the judge — your job being at stake and all that. You just leave that part to me. Without you being dragged into it, I'll see to it that he hears about it not later than tomorrow morning. So until then don't you whisper a word of this to a human soul."

   For all that he promised, I stood watch and ward over my Teutonic prize package until he safely was bestowed at his boardinghouse close by the county jail where Thaw was lodged. Then I sat up another hour at the telegraph office writing a substitute lead, dealing mainly with lilies and éclairs, for my story which would appear in the early "Lobster Trick" edition of the Evening World, on the streets and in the mails at 9:30 A.M. It was a gorgeous beat. It was the spiciest beat, and, in fact, the only real one which enlivened the dragging routine of the hearing clear on to its unexpected and sensational conclusion on Saturday night.

   Chapin, as city editor, wired me his congratulations, but when I turned in my expense tally for the trip, Tennant, the managing editor, sternly questioned my entries of half a dollar for hack fares between Poughkeepsie station and the hotel when for a nickel either way I could have ridden on a trolley car. These contrasting actions were characteristic of the two men. Under his contract, Chapin was the highest salaried city editor in New York. Tennant, his supposed ranking superior, drew a smaller wage. Still, by his penny-wise vigilance he probably lopped as much as seventy-five cents off the expense items, some weeks, while in hidden retaliation on the part of the staff, it couldn't have cost Mr. Pulitzer over five or six thousand dollars a year. Because if any green reporter didn't know how successfully to pad his "swindle sheet" there was always a veteran handy by to teach him.

   On Saturday, as I've said, the unexpected befell. In the afternoon the lawyers for Thaw closed their case. It was expected that, for offering his rebuttal and making his summing-up, Mr. Jerome would require several days anyhow. To expedite matters, His Honor ordered a night session, with more to follow. But when court reconvened at seven-thirty o'clock, Jerome fairly blew the Thaw crowd out of water by announcing that he would rest his case on the testimony already offered by them and would waive the right to present any counter-arguments against such speeches as his esteemed antagonists might choose to make. There was nothing for the bewildered adversaries to do except acquiesce and decline the opportunity to orate. Whereupon, with great promptness and a remarkably few words, the justice disallowed the petition and remanded the petitioner back to his place of confinement at Matteawan and there he remained until scads of money, plus a misguided persistency and at the end a suspicious court decision turned him free to go his scandal-studded way before age slowed those unwholesome activities of his.

   I'm anticipating though. At supper that evening at the Nelson House I was engaged in rescuing the last bite of my second stack of delectable wheat cakes — a specialty of this excellent old hotel — from drowning in an ambrosial puddle of genuine maple syrup, when the proprietor edged up behind me and said in an undertone: "Have another helping? No? Then if you're about done there's a gentleman waiting just outside the side door who wants to see you by yourself. I'd go out kind of quietly, if I were you."

   I finished mopping the platter clean and stepped out on the innerside of the dining-room wing, the side farther away from the street. There was a grape arbor there running alongside the extension and bordering it a vacant lot and on beyond that a little public park and in the deserted center of the park a small pagodalike bandstand. There was some moonlight, not much though. Under the interlacing of naked grapevines was a shortish, heavy-set man with a soft hat drawn down well and the collar of his light overcoat turned up. I looked closer and saw it was the presiding justice.

   "Good evening," he said and held out his hand. "Feel like taking a little stroll before we go back to court?"

   Wonderingly, I fell into step with him. He steered me across the empty lot and into the empty park, saying nothing en route except to ask me if I'd care to smoke. We came to the bandstand which was in a sort of circular clearing well away from any trees or heavy shrubbery, and sat down there. It was rather chilly with a keen wind blowing up from the river. There was no one else in sight.

   He cleared his throat, then asked me whether I belonged to a certain secret order. I said I didn't.

   "No matter," he said, "tell me, do you regard yourself as a fairly close observer? I've been told that you were."

   "Well, sir," I said, "ever since I was sixteen — and I'm in my thirties now — I've worked at a trade which is supposed to sharpen a fellow's powers of observation. Besides, I started out with a healthy natural curiosity, which I've cultivated deliberately. I figure that ought to help."

   "Just so," he said and went on with his catechizing: "How long have you had an opportunity to study Mr. Harry Thaw?"

   "Ever since the day after the shooting," I told him. "And that's going on into its third year now. Under various circumstances and conditions, I expect I've reported about every phase of his case."

   "And as a result of this scrutiny did you arrive at any fixed opinion as to his sanity or the lack of it, speaking, of course, strictly as a layman?"

   "I was bound to."

   "And what is that opinion, may I ask?"

   "Judge, he's as crazy as a creek crane."

   "I'm not familiar with creek cranes. Still, I think perhaps I get your general drift. Do you regard him as being of a dangerous type?"

   "Well, he shot down one defenseless man in cold blood."

   "Hum!" He puffed at his cigar which smelled like a cheap cigar and drew badly.

   "Here in my court this week has anything about him or his demeanor caused you to modify your belief as to his mental state?" he asked next.

   "You've watched him yourself," I said. "Judge, I came from a horse country. If I owned a horse with an eye in its head like the one Thaw's got, I'd hire somebody else to drive it."

   "This isn't much of a horse country," he stated dryly. "And in my judicial capacity I try not to permit myself to be too greatly swayed by outer impressions. Well, I guess that's about all." We stood up. "Oh, yes, another thing: What do you think of so-called expert testimony?"

   "Sir," I said, "I've seen the pick of the whole New York crop in action for weeks at a time. I've seen nearly every one of the present bunch on either side of this case reverse his own position so often that, as the fellow says, you'd almost expect him, coming in, to meet himself going out. Judge, it's a poor expert witness that won't work both ways."

   "Um hum," he murmured. "I suggest you return by the route you came. I'm going to take a short cut off yonder. Thank you and good night. One final thing: I see no impropriety in our having this little intimate chat. Still, I'd suggest that you treat it as strictly confidential between ourselves." He didn't ask for my pledge or my word of honor. I liked him the better for that.

   I've treated it as confidential until now and that means for thirty years and a little the rise. I figure there's no harm in telling it now.


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