The Corpus Delicti
Melville Davisson Post
"That man Mason," said Samuel Walcott, "is the mysterious member of this
club. He is more than that; he is the mysterious man of New York."
"I was much surprised to see him," answered his companion, Marshall St.
Clair, of the great law firm of Seward, St. Clair & De Muth. "I had lost
track of him since he went to Paris as counsel for the American
stockholders of the Canal Company. When did he come back to the
"He turned up suddenly in his ancient haunts about four months ago,"
said Walcott, "as grand, gloomy, and peculiar as Napoleon ever was in
his palmiest days. The younger members of the club call him 'Zanona
Redivivus.' He wanders through the house usually late at night,
apparently without noticing anything or anybody. His mind seems to be
deeply and busily at work, leaving his bodily self to wander as it may
happen. Naturally, strange stories are told of him; indeed, his
individuality and his habit of doing some unexpected thing, and doing it
in such a marvelously original manner that men who are experts at it
look on in wonder, cannot fail to make him an object of interest.
"He has never been known to play at any game whatever, and yet one night
he sat down to the chess table with old Admiral Du Brey. You know the
Admiral is the great champion since he beat the French and English
officers in the tournament last winter. Well, you also know that the
conventional openings at chess are scientifically and accurately
determined. To the utter disgust of Du Brey, Mason opened the game with
an unheard-of attack from the extremes of the board. The old Admiral
stopped and, in a kindly patronizing way, pointed out the weak and
absurd folly of his move and asked him to begin again with some one of
the safe openings. Mason smiled and answered that if one had a head
that he could trust he should use it; if not, then it was the part of
wisdom to follow blindly the dead forms of some man who had a head. Du
Brey was naturally angry and set himself to demolish Mason as quickly as
possible. The game was rapid for a few moments. Mason lost piece after
piece. His opening was broken and destroyed and its utter folly
apparent to the lookers-on. The Admiral smiled and the game seemed all
one- sided, when, suddenly, to his utter horror, Du Brey found that his
king was in a trap. The foolish opening had been only a piece of shrewd
strategy. The old Admiral fought and cursed and sacrificed his pieces,
but it was of no use. He was gone. Mason checkmated him in two moves
and arose wearily.
"'Where in Heaven's name, man,' said the old Admiral, thunderstruck,
'did you learn that masterpiece?'
"'Just here,' replied Mason. 'To play chess, one should know his
opponent. How could the dead masters lay down rules by which you could
be beaten, sir? They had never seen you'; and thereupon he turned and
left the room. Of course, St. Clair, such a strange man would soon
become an object of all kinds of mysterious rumors. Some are true and
some are not. At any rate, I know that Mason is an unusual man with a
gigantic intellect. Of late he seems to have taken a strange fancy to
me. In fact, I seem to be the only member of the club that he will talk
with, and I confess that he startles and fascinates me. He is an
original genius, St. Clair, of an unusual order."
"I recall vividly," said the younger man, "that before Mason went to
Paris he was considered one of the greatest lawyers of this city and he
was feared and hated by the bar at large. He came here, I believe, from
Virginia and began with the high-grade criminal practice. He soon
became famous for his powerful and ingenious defenses. He found holes
in the law through which his clients escaped, holes that by the
profession at large were not suspected to exist, and that frequently
astonished the judges. His ability caught the attention of the great
corporations. They tested him and found in him learning and unlimited
resources. He pointed out methods by which they could evade obnoxious
statutes, by which they could comply with the apparent letter of the law
and yet violate its spirit, and advised them well in that most important
of all things, just how far they could bend the law without breaking it.
At the time he left for Paris he had a vast clientage and was in the
midst of a brilliant career. The day he took passage from New York, the
bar lost sight of him. No matter how great a man may be, the wave soon
closes over him in a city like this. In a few years Mason was
forgotten. Now only the older practitioners would recall him, and they
would do so with hatred and bitterness. He was a tireless, savage,
uncompromising fighter, always a recluse."
"Well," said Walcott, "he reminds me of a great world-weary cynic,
transplanted from some ancient mysterious empire. When I come into the
man's presence I feel instinctively the grip of his intellect. I tell
you, St. Clair, Randolph Mason is the mysterious man of New York."
At this moment a messenger boy came into the room and handed Mr. Walcott
a telegram. "St. Clair," said that gentleman, rising, "the directors of
the Elevated are in session, and we must hurry." The two men put on
their coats and left the house.
Samuel Walcott was not a club man after the manner of the Smart Set, and
yet he was in fact a club man. He was a bachelor in the latter
thirties, and resided in a great silent house on the avenue. On the
street he was a man of substance, shrewd and progressive, backed by
great wealth. He had various corporate interests in the larger
syndicates, but the basis and foundation of his fortune was real estate.
His houses on the avenue were the best possible property, and his
elevator row in the importers' quarter was indeed a literal gold mine.
It was known that, many years before, his grandfather had died and left
him the property, which, at that time, was of no great value. Young
Walcott had gone out into the gold-fields and had been lost sight of and
forgotten. Ten years afterwards he had turned up suddenly in New York
and taken possession of his property, then vastly increased in value.
His speculations were almost phenomenally successful, and, backed by the
now enormous value of his real property, he was soon on a level with the
merchant princes. His judgment was considered sound, and he had the
full confidence of his business associates for safety and caution.
Fortune heaped up riches around him with a lavish hand. He was
unmarried and the halo of his wealth caught the keen eye of the matron
with marriageable daughters. He was invited out, caught by the whirl of
society, and tossed into its maelstrom. In a measure he reciprocated.
He kept horses and a yacht. His dinners at Delmonico's and the club
were above reproach. But with all he was a silent man with a shadow
deep in his eyes, and seemed to court the society of his fellows, not
because he loved them, but because he either hated or feared solitude.
For years the strategy of the match-maker had gone gracefully afield,
but Fate is relentless. If she shields the victim from the traps of
men, it is not because she wishes him to escape, but because she is
pleased to reserve him for her own trap. So it happened that, when
Virginia St. Clair assisted Mrs. Miriam Steuvisant at her midwinter
reception, this same Samuel Walcott fell deeply and hopelessly and
utterly in love, and it was so apparent to the beaten generals present,
that Mrs. Miriam Steuvisant applauded herself, so to speak, with encore
after encore. It was good to see this courteous, silent man literally
at the feet of the young debutante. He was there of right. Even the
mothers of marriageable daughters admitted that. The young girl was
brown-haired, brown-eyed, and tall enough, said the experts, and of the
blue blood royal, with all the grace, courtesy, and inbred genius of
such princely heritage.
Perhaps it was objected by the censors of the Smart Set that Miss St.
Clair's frankness and honesty were a trifle old-fashioned, and that she
was a shadowy bit of a Puritan; and perhaps it was of these same
qualities that Samuel Walcott received his hurt. At any rate the hurt
was there and deep, and the new actor stepped up into the old time-worn,
semi-tragic drama, and began his role with a tireless, utter sincerity
that was deadly dangerous if he lost.
Perhaps a week after the conversation between St. Clair and Walcott,
Randolph Mason stood in the private waiting-room of the club with his
hands behind his back.
He was a man apparently in the middle forties; tall and reasonably broad
across the shoulders; muscular without being either stout or lean. His
hair was thin and of a brown color, with erratic streaks of gray. His
forehead was broad and high and of a faint reddish color. His eyes were
restless inky black, and not over-large. The nose was big and muscular
and bowed. The eyebrows were black and heavy, almost bushy. There were
heavy furrows, running from the nose downward and outward to the corners
of the mouth. The mouth was straight and the jaw was heavy, and square.
Looking at the face of Randolph Mason from above, the expression in
repose was crafty and cynical; viewed from below upward, it was savage
and vindictive, almost brutal; while from the front, if looked squarely
in the face, the stranger was fascinated by the animation of the man and
at once concluded that his expression was fearless and sneering. He was
evidently of Southern extraction and a man of unusual power.
A fire smoldered on the hearth. It was a crisp evening in the early
fall, and with that far-off touch of melancholy which ever heralds the
coming winter, even in the midst of a city. The man's face looked tired
and ugly. His long white hands were clasped tight together. His entire
figure and face wore every mark of weakness and physical exhaustion; but
his eyes contradicted. They were red and restless.
In the private dining-room the dinner party was in the best of spirits.
Samuel Walcott was happy. Across the table from him was Miss Virginia
St. Clair, radiant, a tinge of color in her cheeks. On either side, Mrs.
Miriam Steuvisant and Marshall St. Clair were brilliant and
lighthearted. Walcott looked at the young girl and the measure of his
worship was full. He wondered for the thousandth time how she could
possibly love him and by what earthly miracle she had come to accept
him, and how it would be always to have her across the table from him,
his own table in his own house.
They were about to rise from the table when one of the waiters entered
the room and handed Walcott an envelope. He thrust it quickly into his
pocket. In the confusion of rising the others did not notice him, but
his face was ash white and his hands trembled violently as he placed the
wraps around the bewitching shoulders of Miss St. Clair.
"Marshall," he said, and despite the powerful effort his voice was
hollow, "you will see the ladies safely cared for, I am called to attend
a grave matter."
"All right, Walcott," answered the young man, with cheery good nature,
"you are too serious, old man, trot along."
"The poor dear," murmured Mrs. Steuvisant, after Walcott had helped them
to the carriage and turned to go up the steps of the club,-- "The poor
dear is hard hit, and men are such funny creatures when they are hard
Samuel Walcott, as his fate would, went direct to the private
writing-room and opened the door. The lights were not turned on and in
the dark he did not see Mason motionless by the mantel- shelf. He went
quickly across the room to the writing-table, turned on one of the
lights, and, taking the envelope from his pocket, tore it open. Then he
bent down by the light to read the contents. As his eyes ran over the
paper, his jaw fell. The skin drew away from his cheekbones and his
face seemed literally to sink in. His knees gave way under him and he
would have gone down in a heap had it not been for Mason's long arms
that closed around him and held him up. The human economy is ever
mysterious. The moment the new danger threatened, the latent power of
the man as an animal, hidden away in the centers of intelligence,
asserted itself. His hand clutched the paper and, with a half slide, he
turned in Mason's arms. For a moment he stared up at the ugly man whose
thin arms felt like wire ropes.
"You are under the dead-fall, aye," said Mason. "The cunning of my
enemy is sublime."
"Your enemy?" gasped Walcott. "When did you come into it? How in God's
name did you know it? How your enemy?"
Mason looked down at the wide bulging eyes of the man.
"Who should know better than I?" he said. "Haven't I broken through all
the traps and plots that she could set?"
"She? She trap you?" The man's voice was full of horror.
"The old schemer," muttered Mason. "The cowardly old schemer, to strike
in the back; but we can beat her. She did not count on my helping
you--I, who know her so well."
Mason's face was red, and his eyes burned. In the midst of it all he
dropped his hands and went over to the fire. Samuel Walcott arose,
panting, and stood looking at Mason, with his hands behind him on the
table. The naturally strong nature and the rigid school in which the
man had been trained presently began to tell. His composure in part
returned and he thought rapidly. What did this strange man know? Was
he simply making shrewd guesses, or had he some mysterious knowledge of
this matter? Walcott could not know that Mason meant only Fate, that he
believed her to be his great enemy. Walcott had never before doubted
his own ability to meet any emergency. This mighty jerk had carried him
off his feet. He was unstrung and panic-stricken. At any rate this man
had promised help. He would take it. He put the paper and envelope
carefully into his pocket, smoothed out his rumpled coat, and going over
to Mason touched him on the shoulder.
"Come," he said, "if you are to help me we must go."
The man turned and followed him without a word. In the hall Mason put
on his hat and overcoat, and the two went out into the street. Walcott
hailed a cab, and the two were driven to his house on the avenue.
Walcott took out his latchkey, opened the door, and led the way into the
library. He turned on the light and motioned Mason to seat himself at
the table. Then he went into another room and presently returned with a
bundle of papers and a decanter of brandy. He poured out a glass of the
liquor and offered it to Mason. The man shook his head. Walcott poured
the contents of the glass down his own throat. Then he set the decanter
down and drew up a chair on the side of the table opposite Mason.
"Sir," said Walcott, in a voice deliberate, indeed, but as hollow as a
sepulcher, "I am done for. God has finally gathered up the ends of the
net, and it is knotted tight."
"Am I not here to help you?" said Mason, turning savagely. "I can beat
Fate. Give me the details of her trap."
He bent forward and rested his arms on the table. His streaked gray
hair was rumpled and on end, and his face was ugly. For a moment
Walcott did not answer. He moved a little into the shadow; then he
spread the bundle of old yellow papers out before him.
"To begin with," he said, "I am a living lie, a gilded crime-made sham,
every bit of me. There is not an honest piece anywhere. It is all lie.
I am a liar and a thief before men. The property which I possess is not
mine, but stolen from a dead man. The very name which I bear is not my
own, but is the bastard child of a crime. I am more than all that--I am
a murderer; a murderer before the law; a murderer before God; and worse
than a murderer before the pure woman whom I love more than anything
that God could make."
He paused for a moment and wiped the perspiration from his face.
"Sir," said Mason, "this is all drivel, infantile drivel. What you are
is of no importance. How to get out is the problem, how to get out."
Samuel Walcott leaned forward, poured out a glass of brandy and
"Well," he said, speaking slowly, "my right name is Richard Warren. In
the spring of 1879 I came to New York and fell in with the real Samuel
Walcott, a young man with a little money and some property which his
grandfather had left him. We became friends, and concluded to go to the
far west together. Accordingly we scraped together what money we could
lay our hands on, and landed in the gold-mining regions of California.
We were young and inexperienced, and our money went rapidly. One April
morning we drifted into a little shack camp, away up in the Sierra
Nevadas, called Hell's Elbow. Here we struggled and starved for perhaps
a year. Finally, in utter desperation, Walcott married the daughter of
a Mexican gambler, who ran an eating house and a poker joint. With them
we lived from hand to mouth in a wild God-forsaken way for several
years. After a time the woman began to take a strange fancy to me.
Walcott finally noticed it, and grew jealous.
"One night, in a drunken brawl, we quarreled, and I killed him. It was
late at night, and, beside the woman, there were four of us in the poker
room,--the Mexican gambler, a half-breed devil called Cherubim Pete,
Walcott, and myself. When Walcott fell, the half- breed whipped out his
weapon, and fired at me across the table; but the woman, Nina San Croix,
struck his arm, and, instead of killing me, as he intended, the bullet
mortally wounded her father, the Mexican gambler. I shot the half-breed
through the forehead, and turned round, expecting the woman to attack
me. On the contrary, she pointed to the window, and bade me wait for
her on the cross trail below.
"It was fully three hours later before the woman joined me at the place
indicated. She had a bag of gold dust, a few jewels that belonged to
her father, and a package of papers. I asked her why she had stayed
behind so long, and she replied that the men were not killed outright,
and that she had brought a priest to them and waited until they had
died. This was the truth, but not all the truth. Moved by superstition
or foresight, the woman had induced the priest to take down the sworn
statements of the two dying men, seal it, and give it to her. This
paper she brought with her. All this I learned afterwards. At the time
I knew nothing of this damning evidence.
"We struck out together for the Pacific coast. The country was lawless.
The privations we endured were almost past belief. At times the woman
exhibited cunning and ability that were almost genius; and through it
all, often in the very fingers of death, her devotion to me never
wavered. It was doglike, and seemed to be her only object on earth.
When we reached San Francisco, the woman put these papers into my
hands." Walcott took up the yellow package, and pushed it across the
table to Mason.
"She proposed that I assume Walcott's name, and that we come boldly to
New York and claim the property. I examined the papers, found a copy of
the will by which Walcott inherited the property, a bundle of
correspondence, and sufficient documentary evidence to establish his
identity beyond the shadow of a doubt. Desperate gambler as I now was,
I quailed before the daring plan of Nina San Croix. I urged that I,
Richard Warren, would be known, that the attempted fraud would be
detected and would result in investigation, and perhaps unearth the
whole horrible matter.
"The woman pointed out how much I resembled Walcott, what vast changes
ten years of such life as we had led would naturally be expected to make
in men, how utterly impossible it would be to trace back the fraud to
Walcott's murder at Hell's Elbow, in the wild passes of the Sierra
Nevadas. She bade me remember that we were both outcasts, both
crime-branded, both enemies of man's law and God's; that we had nothing
to lose; we were both sunk to the bottom. Then she laughed, and said
that she had not found me a coward until now, but that if I had turned
chicken-hearted, that was the end of it, of course. The result was, we
sold the gold dust and jewels in San Francisco, took on such evidences
of civilization as possible, and purchased passage to New York on the
best steamer we could find.
"I was growing to depend on the bold gambler spirit of this woman, Nina
San Croix; I felt the need of her strong, profligate nature. She was of
a queer breed and a queerer school. Her mother was the daughter of a
Spanish engineer, and had been stolen by the Mexican, her father. She
herself had been raised and educated as best might be in one of the
monasteries along the Rio Grande, and had there grown to womanhood
before her father, fleeing into the mountains of California, carried her
"When we landed in New York I offered to announce her as my wife, but
she refused, saying that her presence would excite comment and perhaps
attract the attention of Walcott's relatives. We therefore arranged
that I should go alone into the city, claim the property, and announce
myself as Samuel Walcott, and that she should remain under cover until
such time as we would feel the ground safe under us.
"Every detail of the plan was fatally successful. I established my
identity without difficulty and secured the property. It had increased
vastly in value, and I, as Samuel Walcott, soon found myself a rich man.
I went to Nina San Croix in hiding and gave her a large sum of money,
with which she purchased a residence in a retired part of the city, far
up in the northern suburb. Here she lived secluded and unknown while I
remained in the city, living here as a wealthy bachelor.
"I did not attempt to abandon the woman, but went to her from time to
time in disguise and under cover of the greatest secrecy. For a time
everything ran smooth, the woman was still devoted to me above
everything else, and thought always of my welfare first and seemed
content to wait so long as I thought best. My business expanded. I was
sought after and consulted and drawn into the higher life of New York,
and more and more felt that the woman was an albatross on my neck. I
put her off with one excuse after another. Finally she began to suspect
me and demanded that I should recognize her as my wife. I attempted to
point out the difficulties. She met them all by saying that we should
both go to Spain, there I could marry her and we could return to America
and drop into my place in society without causing more than a passing
"I concluded to meet the matter squarely once for all. I said that I
would convert half of the property into money and give it to her, but
that I would not marry her. She did not fly into a storming rage as I
had expected, but went quietly out of the room and presently returned
with two papers, which she read. One was the certificate of her
marriage to Walcott duly authenticated; the other was the dying
statement of her father, the Mexican gambler, and of Samuel Walcott,
charging me with murder. It was in proper form and certified by the
"'Now,' she said, sweetly, when she had finished, 'which do you prefer,
to recognize your wife, or to turn all the property over to Samuel
Walcott's widow and hang for his murder?'
"I was dumfounded and horrified. I saw the trap that I was in and I
consented to do anything she should say if she would only destroy the
papers. This she refused to do. I pleaded with her and implored her to
destroy them. Finally she gave them to me with a great show of
returning confidence, and I tore them into bits and threw them into the
"That was three months ago. We arranged to go to Spain and do as she
said. She was to sail this morning and I was to follow. Of course I
never intended to go. I congratulated myself on the fact that all trace
of evidence against me was destroyed and that her grip was now broken.
My plan was to induce her to sail, believing that I would follow. When
she was gone I would marry Miss St. Clair, and if Nina San Croix should
return I would defy her and lock her up as a lunatic. But I was
reckoning like an infernal ass, to imagine for a moment that I could
thus hoodwink such a woman as Nina San Croix.
"To-night I received this." Walcott took the envelope from his pocket
and gave it to Mason. "You saw the effect of it; read it and you will
understand why. I felt the death hand when I saw her writing on the
Mason took the paper from the envelope. It was written in Spanish, and
"Greeting to RICHARD WARREN.
"The great Senor does his little Nina injustice to think she would go
away to Spain and leave him to the beautiful American. She is not so
thoughtless. Before she goes, she shall be, Oh so very rich! and the
dear Senor shall be, Oh so very safe! The Archbishop and the kind
Church hate murderers.
"NINA SAN CROIX.
"Of course, fool, the papers you destroyed were copies.
"N. SAN C."
To this was pinned a line in a delicate aristocratic hand saying that
the Archbishop would willingly listen to Madam San Croix's statement if
she would come to him on Friday morning at eleven.
"You see," said Walcott, desperately, "there is no possible way out. I
know the woman--when she decides to do a thing that is the end of it.
She has decided to do this."
Mason turned around from the table, stretched out his long legs, and
thrust his hands deep into his pockets. Walcott sat with his head down,
watching Mason hopelessly, almost indifferently, his face blank and
sunken. The ticking of the bronze clock on the mantel shelf was loud,
painfully loud. Suddenly Mason drew his knees in and bent over, put
both his bony hands on the table, and looked at Walcott.
"Sir," he said, "this matter is in such shape that there is only one
thing to do. This growth must be cut out at the roots, and cut out
quickly. This is the first fact to be determined, and a fool would know
it. The second fact is that you must do it yourself. Hired killers are
like the grave and the daughters of the horse leech,--they cry always,
'Give, Give.' They are only palliatives, not cures. By using them you
swap perils. You simply take a stay of execution at best. The common
criminal would know this. These are the facts of your problem. The
master plotters of crime would see here but two difficulties to meet:
"A practical method for accomplishing the body of the crime.
"A cover for the criminal agent.
"They would see no farther, and attempt to guard no farther. After they
had provided a plan for the killing, and a means by which the killer
could cover his trail and escape from the theater of the homicide, they
would believe all the requirements of the problems met, and would stop.
The greatest, the very giants among them, have stopped here and have
been in great error.
"In every crime, especially in the great ones, there exists a third
element, preeminently vital. This third element the master plotters
have either overlooked or else have not had the genius to construct.
They plan with rare cunning to baffle the victim. They plan with vast
wisdom, almost genius, to baffle the trailer. But they fail utterly to
provide any plan for baffling the punisher. Ergo, their plots are
fatally defective and often result in ruin. Hence the vital necessity
for providing the third element--the escape ipso jure."
Mason arose, walked around the table, and put his hand firmly on Samuel
Walcott's shoulder. "This must be done to-morrow night," he continued;
"you must arrange your business matters to-morrow and announce that you
are going on a yacht cruise, by order of your physician, and may not
return for some weeks. You must prepare your yacht for a voyage,
instruct your men to touch at a certain point on Staten Island, and wait
until six o'clock day after tomorrow morning. If you do not come aboard
by that time, they are to go to one of the South American ports and
remain until further orders. By this means your absence for an
indefinite period will be explained. You will go to Nina San Croix in
the disguise which you have always used, and from her to the yacht, and
by this means step out of your real status and back into it without
leaving traces. I will come here to-morrow evening and furnish you with
everything that you shall need and give you full and exact instructions
in every particular. These details you must execute with the greatest
care, as they will be vitally essential to the success of my plan."
Through it all Walcott had been silent and motionless. Now he arose,
and in his face there must have been some premonition of protest, for
Mason stepped back and put out his hand. "Sir," he said, with brutal
emphasis, "not a word. Remember that you are only the hand, and the
hand does not think." Then he turned around abruptly and went out of
The place which Samuel Walcott had selected for the residence of Nina
San Croix was far up in the northern suburb of New York. The place was
very old. The lawn was large and ill kept; the house, a square
old-fashioned brick, was set far back from the street, and partly hidden
by trees. Around it all was a rusty iron fence. The place had the air
of genteel ruin, such as one finds in the Virginias.
On a Thursday of November, about three o'clock in the afternoon, a
little man, driving a dray, stopped in the alley at the rear of the
house. As he opened the back gate an old negro woman came down the
steps from the kitchen and demanded to know what he wanted. The drayman
asked if the lady of the house was in. The old negro answered that she
was asleep at this hour and could not be seen.
"That is good," said the little man, "now there won't be any row. I
brought up some cases of wine which she ordered from our house last week
and which the Boss told me to deliver at once, but I forgot it until
to-day. Just let me put it in the cellar now, Auntie, and don't say a
word to the lady about it and she won't ever know that it was not
brought up on time."
The drayman stopped, fished a silver dollar out of his pocket, and gave
it to the old negro. "There now, Auntie," he said, "my job depends upon
the lady not knowing about this wine; keep it mum."
"Dat's all right, honey," said the old servant, beaming like a May
morning. "De cellar door is open, carry it all in and put it in de back
part and nobody ain't never going to know how long it has been in dar."
The old negro went back into the kitchen and the little man began to
unload the dray. He carried in five wine cases and stowed them away in
the back part of the cellar as the old woman had directed. Then, after
having satisfied himself that no one was watching, he took from the dray
two heavy paper sacks, presumably filled with flour, and a little bundle
wrapped in an old newspaper; these he carefully hid behind the wine
cases in the cellar. After awhile he closed the door, climbed on his
dray, and drove off down the alley.
About eight o'clock in the evening of the same day, a Mexican sailor
dodged in the front gate and slipped down to the side of the house. He
stopped by the window and tapped on it with his finger. In a moment a
woman opened the door. She was tall, lithe, and splendidly
proportioned, with a dark Spanish face and straight hair. The man
stepped inside. The woman bolted the door and turned round.
"Ah," she said, smiling, "it is you, Senor? How good of you!"
The man started. "Whom else did you expect?" he said quickly.
"Oh!" laughed the woman, "perhaps the Archbishop."
"Nina!" said the man, in a broken voice that expressed love, humility,
and reproach. His face was white under the black sunburn.
For a moment the woman wavered. A shadow flitted over her eyes, then
she stepped back. "No," she said, "not yet."
The man walked across to the fire, sank down in a chair, and covered his
face with his hands. The woman stepped up noiselessly behind him and
leaned over the chair. The man was either in great agony or else he was
a superb actor, for the muscles of his neck twitched violently and his
"Oh," he muttered, as though echoing his thoughts, "I can't do it, I
The woman caught the words and leaped up as though some one had struck
her in the face. She threw back her head. Her nostrils dilated and her
"You can't do it!" she cried. "Then you do love her! You shall do it!
Do you hear me? You shall do it! You killed him! You got rid of him!
but you shall not get rid of me. I have the evidence, all of it. The
Archbishop will have it to-morrow. They shall hang you! Do you hear
me? They shall hang you!"
The woman's voice rose, it was loud and shrill. The man turned slowly
round without looking up, and stretched out his arms toward the woman.
She stopped and looked down at him. The fire glittered for a moment and
then died out of her eyes, her bosom heaved and her lips began to
tremble. With a cry she flung herself into his arms, caught him around
the neck, and pressed his face up close against her cheek.
"Oh! Dick, Dick," she sobbed, "I do love you so! I can't live without
you! Not another hour, Dick! I do want you so much, so much, Dick!"
The man shifted his right arm quickly, slipped a great Mexican knife out
of his sleeve, and passed his fingers slowly up the woman's side until
he felt the heart beat under his hand, then he raised the knife, gripped
the handle tight, and drove the keen blade into the woman's bosom. The
hot blood gushed out over his arm, and down on his leg. The body, warm
and limp, slipped down in his arms. The man got up, pulled out the
knife, and thrust it into a sheath at his belt, unbuttoned the dress,
and slipped it off of the body. As he did this a bundle of papers
dropped upon the floor; these he glanced at hastily and put into his
pocket. Then he took the dead woman up in his arms, went out into the
hall, and started to go up the stairway. The body was relaxed and
heavy, and for that reason difficult to carry. He doubled it up into an
awful heap, with the knees against the chin, and walked slowly and
heavily up the stairs and out into the bathroom. There he laid the
corpse down on the tiled floor. Then he opened the window, closed the
shutters, and lighted the gas. The bathroom was small and contained an
ordinary steel tub, porcelain lined, standing near the window and raised
about six inches above the floor. The sailor went over to the tub,
pried up the metal rim of the outlet with his knife, removed it, and
fitted into its place a porcelain disk which he took from his pocket; to
this disk was attached a long platinum wire, the end of which he
fastened on the outside of the tub. After he had done this he went back
to the body, stripped off its clothing, put it down in the tub and began
to dismember it with the great Mexican knife. The blade was strong and
sharp as a razor. The man worked rapidly and with the greatest care.
When he had finally cut the body into as small pieces as possible, he
replaced the knife in its sheath, washed his hands, and went out of the
bathroom and downstairs to the lower hall. The sailor seemed perfectly
familiar with the house. By a side door he passed into the cellar.
There he lighted the gas, opened one of the wine cases, and, taking up
all the bottles that he could conveniently carry, returned to the
bathroom. There he poured the contents into the tub on the dismembered
body, and then returned to the cellar with the empty bottles, which he
replaced in the wine cases. This he continued to do until all the cases
but one were emptied and the bath tub was more than half full of liquid.
This liquid was sulphuric acid.
When the sailor returned to the cellar with the last empty wine bottles,
he opened the fifth case, which really contained wine, took some of it
out, and poured a little into each of the empty bottles in order to
remove any possible odor of the sulphuric acid. Then he turned out the
gas and brought up to the bathroom with him the two paper flour sacks
and the little heavy bundle. These sacks were filled with nitrate of
soda. He set them down by the door, opened the little bundle, and took
out two long rubber tubes, each attached to a heavy gas burner, not
unlike the ordinary burners of a small gas stove. He fastened the tubes
to two of the gas jets, put the burners under the tub, turned the gas on
full, and lighted it. Then he threw into the tub the woman's clothing
and the papers which he had found on her body, after which he took up
the two heavy sacks of nitrate of soda and dropped them carefully into
the sulphuric acid. When he had done this he went quickly out of the
bathroom and closed the door.
The deadly acids at once attacked the body and began to destroy it; as
the heat increased, the acids boiled and the destructive process was
rapid and awful. From time to time the sailor opened the door of the
bathroom cautiously, and, holding a wet towel over his mouth and nose,
looked in at his horrible work. At the end of a few hours there was
only a swimming mass in the tub. When the man looked at four o'clock,
it was all a thick murky liquid. He turned off the gas quickly and
stepped back out of the room. For perhaps half an hour he waited in the
hall; finally, when the acids had cooled so that they no longer gave off
fumes, he opened the door and went in, took hold of the platinum wire
and, pulling the porcelain disk from the stopcock, allowed the awful
contents of the tub to run out. Then he turned on the hot water, rinsed
the tub clean, and replaced the metal outlet. Removing the rubber
tubes, he cut them into pieces, broke the porcelain disk, and, rolling
up the platinum wire, washed it all down the sewer pipe.
The fumes had escaped through the open window; this he now closed and
set himself to putting the bathroom in order, and effectually removing
every trace of his night's work. The sailor moved around with the very
greatest degree of care. Finally, when he had arranged everything to
his complete satisfaction, he picked up the two burners, turned out the
gas, and left the bathroom, closing the door after him. From the
bathroom he went directly to the attic, concealed the two rusty burners
under a heap of rubbish, and then walked carefully and noiselessly down
the stairs and through the lower hall. As he opened the door and
stepped into the room where he had killed the woman, two police officers
sprang out and seized him. The man screamed like a wild beast taken in
a trap and sank down.
"Oh! oh!" he cried, "it was no use! it was no use to do it!" Then he
recovered himself in a manner and was silent. The officers handcuffed
him, summoned the patrol, and took him at once to the station house.
There he said he was a Mexican sailor and that his name was Victor
Ancona; but he would say nothing further. The following morning he sent
for Randolph Mason and the two were long together.
The obscure defendant charged with murder has little reason to complain
of the law's delays. The morning following the arrest of Victor Ancona,
the newspapers published long sensational articles, denounced him as a
fiend, and convicted him. The grand jury, as it happened, was in
session. The preliminaries were soon arranged and the case was
railroaded into trial. The indictment contained a great many counts,
and charged the prisoner with the murder of Nina San Croix by striking,
stabbing, choking, poisoning, and so forth.
The trial had continued for three days and had appeared so
overwhelmingly one-sided that the spectators who were crowded in the
court room had grown to be violent and bitter partisans, to such an
extent that the police watched them closely. The attorneys for the
People were dramatic and denunciatory, and forced their case with
arrogant confidence. Mason, as counsel for the prisoner, was
indifferent and listless. Throughout the entire trial he had sat almost
motionless at the table, his gaunt form bent over, his long legs drawn
up under his chair, and his weary, heavy-muscled face, with its restless
eyes, fixed and staring out over the heads of the jury, was like a
tragic mask. The bar, and even the judge, believed that the prisoner's
counsel had abandoned his case.
The evidence was all in and the People rested. It had been shown that
Nina San Croix had resided for many years in the house in which the
prisoner was arrested; that she had lived by herself, with no other
companion than an old negro servant; that her past was unknown, and that
she received no visitors, save the Mexican sailor, who came to her house
at long intervals. Nothing whatever was shown tending to explain who
the prisoner was or whence he had come. It was shown that on Tuesday
preceding the killing the Archbishop had received a communication from
Nina San Croix, in which she said she desired to make a statement of the
greatest import, and asking for an audience. To this the Archbishop
replied that he would willingly grant her a hearing if she would come to
him at eleven o'clock on Friday morning. Two policemen testified that
about eight o'clock on the night of Thursday they had noticed the
prisoner slip into the gate of Nina San Croix's residence and go down to
the side of the house, where he was admitted; that his appearance and
seeming haste had attracted their attention; that they had concluded
that it was some clandestine amour, and out of curiosity had both
slipped down to the house and endeavored to find a position from which
they could see into the room, but were unable to do so, and were about
to go back to the street when they heard a woman's voice cry out in,
great anger: "I know that you love her and that you want to get rid of
me, but you shall not do it! You murdered him, but you shall not murder
me! I have all the evidence to convict you of murdering him! The
Archbishop will have it to- morrow! They shall hang you! Do you hear
me? They shall hang you for this murder!" that thereupon one of the
policemen proposed that they should break into the house and see what
was wrong, but the other had urged that it was only the usual lovers'
quarrel and if they should interfere they would find nothing upon which
a charge could be based and would only be laughed at by the chief; that
they had waited and listened for a time, but hearing nothing further had
gone back to the street and contented themselves with keeping a strict
watch on the house.
The People proved further, that on Thursday evening Nina San Croix had
given the old negro domestic a sum of money and dismissed her, with the
instruction that she was not to return until sent for. The old woman
testified that she had gone directly to the house of her son, and later
had discovered that she had forgotten some articles of clothing which
she needed; that thereupon she had returned to the house and had gone up
the back way to her room,-- this was about eight o'clock; that while
there she had heard Nina San Croix's voice in great passion and
remembered that she had used the words stated by the policemen; that
these sudden, violent cries had frightened her greatly and she had
bolted the door and been afraid to leave the room; shortly thereafter,
she had heard heavy footsteps ascending the stairs, slowly and with
great difficulty, as though some one were carrying a heavy burden; that
therefore her fear had increased and that she had put out the light and
hidden under the bed. She remembered hearing the footsteps moving about
upstairs for many hours, how long she could not tell. Finally, about
half-past four in the morning, she crept out, opened the door, slipped
downstairs, and ran out into the street. There she had found the
policemen and requested them to search the house.
The two officers had gone to the house with the woman. She had opened
the door and they had had just time to step back into the shadow when
the prisoner entered. When arrested, Victor Ancona had screamed with
terror, and cried out, "It was no use! it was no use to do it!"
The Chief of Police had come to the house and instituted a careful
search. In the room below, from which the cries had come, he found a
dress which was identified as belonging to Nina San Croix and which she
was wearing when last seen by the domestic, about six o'clock that
evening. This dress was covered with blood, and had a slit about two
inches long in the left side of the bosom, into which the Mexican knife,
found on the prisoner, fitted perfectly. These articles were introduced
in evidence, and it was shown that the slit would be exactly over the
heart of the wearer, and that such a wound would certainly result in
death. There was much blood on one of the chairs and on the floor.
There was also blood on the prisoner's coat and the leg of his trousers,
and the heavy Mexican knife was also bloody. The blood was shown by the
experts to be human blood.
The body of the woman was not found, and the most rigid and tireless
search failed to develop the slightest trace of the corpse, or the
manner of its disposal. The body of the woman had disappeared as
completely as though it had vanished into the air.
When counsel announced that he had closed for the People, the judge
turned and looked gravely down at Mason. "Sir," he said, "the evidence
for the defense may now be introduced."
Randolph Mason arose slowly and faced the judge.
"If your Honor please," he said, speaking slowly and distinctly, "the
defendant has no evidence to offer." He paused while a murmur of
astonishment ran over the court room. "But, if your Honor please," he
continued, "I move that the jury be directed to find the prisoner not
The crowd stirred. The counsel for the People smiled. The judge looked
sharply at the speaker over his glasses. "On what ground?" he said
"On the ground," replied Mason, "that the corpus delicti has not been
"Ah!" said the judge, for once losing his judicial gravity. Mason sat
down abruptly. The senior counsel for the prosecution was on his feet
in a moment.
"What!" he said, "the gentleman bases his motion on a failure to
establish the corpus delicti? Does he jest, or has he forgotten the
evidence? The term 'corpus delicti' is technical, and means the body of
the crime, or the substantial fact that a crime has been committed.
Does anyone doubt it in this case? It is true that no one actually saw
the prisoner kill the decedent, and that he has so successfully hidden
the body that it has not been found, but the powerful chain of
circumstances, clear and close-linked, proving motive, the criminal
agency, and the criminal act, is overwhelming.
"The victim in this case is on the eve of making a statement that would
prove fatal to the prisoner. The night before the statement is to be
made he goes to her residence. They quarrel. Her voice is heard,
raised high in the greatest passion, denouncing him, and charging that
he is a murderer, that she has the evidence and will reveal it, that he
shall be hanged, and that he shall not be rid of her. Here is the
motive for the crime, clear as light. Are not the bloody knife, the
bloody dress, the bloody clothes of the prisoner, unimpeachable
witnesses to the criminal act? The criminal agency of the prisoner has
not the shadow of a possibility to obscure it. His motive is gigantic.
The blood on him, and his despair when arrested, cry 'Murder! murder!'
with a thousand tongues.
"Men may lie, but circumstances cannot. The thousand hopes and fears
and passions of men may delude, or bias the witness. Yet it is beyond
the human mind to conceive that a clear, complete chain of concatenated
circumstances can be in error. Hence it is that the greatest jurists
have declared that such evidence, being rarely liable to delusion or
fraud, is safest and most powerful. The machinery of human justice
cannot guard against the remote and improbable doubt. The inference is
persistent in the affairs of men. It is the only means by which the
human mind reaches the truth. If you forbid the jury to exercise it,
you bid them work after first striking off their hands. Rule out the
irresistible inference, and the end of justice is come in this land; and
you may as well leave the spider to weave his web through the abandoned
The attorney stopped, looked down at Mason with a pompous sneer, and
retired to his place at the table. The judge sat thoughtful and
motionless. The jurymen leaned forward in their seats.
"If your Honor please," said Mason, rising, "this is a matter of law,
plain, clear, and so well settled in the State of New York that even
counsel for the People should know it. The question before your Honor
is simple. If the corpus delicti, the body of the crime, has been
proven, as required by the laws of the commonwealth, then this case
should go to the jury. If not, then it is the duty of this Court to
direct the jury to find the prisoner not guilty. There is here no room
for judicial discretion. Your Honor has but to recall and apply the
rigid rule announced by our courts prescribing distinctly how the corpus
delicti in murder must be proven.
"The prisoner here stands charged with the highest crime. The law
demands, first, that the crime, as a fact, be established. The fact
that the victim is indeed dead must first be made certain before anyone
can be convicted for her killing, because, so long as there remains the
remotest doubt as to the death, there can be no certainty as to the
criminal agent, although the circumstantial evidence indicating the
guilt of the accused may be positive, complete, and utterly
irresistible. In murder, the corpus delicti, or body of the crime, is
composed of two elements:
"Death, as a result.
"The criminal agency of another as the means.
It is the fixed and immutable law of this State, laid down in the
leading case of Ruloff v. The People, and binding upon this Court, that
both components of the corpus delicti shall not be established by
circumstantial evidence. There must be direct proof of one or the other
of these two component elements of the corpus delicti. If one is proven
by direct evidence, the other may be presumed; but both shall not be
presumed from circumstances, no matter how powerful, how cogent, or how
completely overwhelming the circumstances may be. In other words, no
man can be convicted of murder in the State of New York, unless the body
of the victim be found and identified, or there be direct proof that the
prisoner did some act adequate to produce death, and did it in such a
manner as to account for the disappearance of the body."
The face of the judge cleared and grew hard. The members of the bar
were attentive and alert; they were beginning to see the legal escape
open up. The audience were puzzled; they did not yet understand. Mason
turned to the counsel for the People. His ugly face was bitter with
"For three days," he said," I have been tortured by this useless and
expensive farce. If counsel for the People had been other than
play-actors, they would have known in the beginning that Victor Ancona
could not be convicted for murder, unless he were confronted in this
court room with a living witness, who had looked into the dead face of
Nina San Croix; or, if not that, a living witness who had seen him drive
the dagger into her bosom.
"I care not if the circumstantial evidence in this case were so strong
and irresistible as to be overpowering; if the judge on the bench, if
the jury, if every man within sound of my voice, were convinced of the
guilt of the prisoner to the degree of certainty that is absolute; if
the circumstantial evidence left in the mind no shadow of the remotest
improbable doubt; yet, in the absence of the eyewitness, this prisoner
cannot be punished, and this Court must compel the jury to acquit him."
The audience now understood, and they were dumfounded. Surely this was
not the law. They had been taught that the law was common sense, and
this,--this was anything else.
Mason saw it all, and grinned. "In its tenderness," he sneered, "the
law shields the innocent. The good law of New York reaches out its hand
and lifts the prisoner out of the clutches of the fierce jury that would
Mason sat down. The room was silent. The jurymen looked at each other
in amazement. The counsel for the People arose. His face was white
with anger, and incredulous.
"Your Honor," he said, "this doctrine is monstrous. Can it be said
that, in order to evade punishment, the murderer has only to hide or
destroy the body of the victim, or sink it into the sea? Then, if he is
not seen to kill, the law is powerless and the murderer can snap his
finger in the face of retributive justice. If this is the law, then the
law for the highest crime is a dead letter. The great commonwealth
winks at murder and invites every man to kill his enemy, provided he
kill him in secret and hide him. I repeat, your Honor,"--the man's
voice was now loud and angry and rang through the court room--"that this
doctrine is monstrous!"
"So said Best, and Story, and many another," muttered Mason, "and the
"The Court," said the judge, abruptly, "desires no further argument."
The counsel for the People resumed his seat. His face lighted up with
triumph. The Court was going to sustain him.
The judge turned and looked down at the jury. He was grave, and spoke
with deliberate emphasis.
"Gentlemen of the jury," he said, "the rule of Lord Hale obtains in this
State and is binding upon me. It is the law as stated by counsel for
the prisoner: that to warrant conviction of murder there must be direct
proof either of the death, as of the finding and identification of the
corpse, or of criminal violence adequate to produce death, and exerted
in such a manner as to account for the disappearance of the body; and it
is only when there is direct proof of the one that the other can be
established by circumstantial evidence. This is the law, and cannot now
be departed from. I do not presume to explain its wisdom. Chief-
Justice Johnson has observed, in the leading case, that it may have its
probable foundation in the idea that where direct proof is absent as to
both the fact of the death and of criminal violence capable of producing
death, no evidence can rise to the degree of moral certainty that the
individual is dead by criminal intervention, or even lead by direct
inference to this result; and that, where the fact of death is not
certainly ascertained, all inculpatory circumstantial evidence wants the
key necessary for its satisfactory interpretation, and cannot be
depended on to furnish more than probable results. It may be, also,
that such a rule has some reference to the dangerous possibility that a
general preconception of guilt, or a general excitement of popular
feeling, may creep in to supply the place of evidence, if, upon other
than direct proof of death or a cause of death, a jury are permitted to
pronounce a prisoner guilty.
"In this case the body has not been found and there is no direct proof
of criminal agency on the part of the prisoner, although the chain of
circumstantial evidence is complete and irresistible in the highest
degree. Nevertheless, it is all circumstantial evidence, and under the
laws of New York the prisoner cannot be punished. I have no right of
discretion. The law does not permit a conviction in this case, although
every one of us may be morally certain of the prisoner's guilt. I am,
therefore, gentlemen of the jury, compelled to direct you to find the
prisoner not guilty."
"Judge," interrupted the foreman, jumping up in the box, "we cannot find
that verdict under our oath; we know that this man is guilty."
"Sir," said the judge, "this is a matter of law in which the wishes of
the jury cannot be considered. The clerk will write a verdict of not
guilty, which you, as foreman, will sign."
The spectators broke out into a threatening murmur that began to grow
and gather volume. The judge rapped on his desk and ordered the
bailiffs promptly to suppress any demonstration on the part of the
audience. Then he directed the foreman to sign the verdict prepared by
the clerk. When this was done he turned to Victor Ancona; his face was
hard and there was a cold glitter in his eyes.
"Prisoner at the bar," he said, "you have been put to trial before this
tribunal on a charge of cold-blooded and atrocious murder. The evidence
produced against you was of such powerful and overwhelming character
that it seems to have left no doubt in the minds of the jury, nor indeed
in the mind of any person present in this court room.
"Had the question of your guilt been submitted to these twelve arbiters,
a conviction would certainly have resulted and the death penalty would
have been imposed. But the law, rigid, passionless, even-eyed, has
thrust in between you and the wrath of your fellows and saved you from
it. I do not cry out against the impotency of the law; it is perhaps as
wise as imperfect humanity could make it. I deplore, rather, the genius
of evil men who, by cunning design, are enabled to slip through the
fingers of this law. I have no word of censure or admonition for you,
Victor Ancona. The law of New York compels me to acquit you. I am only
its mouthpiece, with my individual wishes throttled. I speak only those
things which the law directs I shall speak.
"You are now at liberty to leave this court room, not guiltless of the
crime of murder, perhaps, but at least rid of its punishment. The eyes
of men may see Cain's mark on your brow, but the eyes of the Law are
blind to it."
When the audience fully realized what the judge had said they were
amazed and silent. They knew as well as men could know, that Victor
Ancona was guilty of murder, and yet he was now going out of the court
room free. Could it happen that the law protected only against the
blundering rogue? They had heard always of the boasted completeness of
the law which magistrates from time immemorial had labored to perfect,
and now when the skillful villain sought to evade it, they saw how weak
a thing it was.
The wedding march of Lohengrin floated out from the Episcopal Church of
St. Mark, clear and sweet, and perhaps heavy with its paradox of
warning. The theater of this coming contract before high heaven was a
wilderness of roses worth the taxes of a county. The high caste of
Manhattan, by the grace of the check book, were present, clothed in
Parisian purple and fine linen, cunningly and marvelously wrought.
Over in her private pew, ablaze with jewels, and decked with fabrics
from the deft hand of many a weaver, sat Mrs. Miriam Steuvisant as
imperious and self-complacent as a queen. To her it was all a kind of
triumphal procession, proclaiming her ability as a general. With her
were a choice few of the genus homo, which obtains at the five-o'clock
teas, instituted, say the sages, for the purpose of sprinkling the holy
water of Lethe.
"Czarina," whispered Reggie Du Puyster, leaning forward, "I salute you.
The ceremony sub jugum is superb."
"Walcott is an excellent fellow," answered Mrs. Steuvisant; "not a vice,
you know, Reggie."
"Aye, Empress," put in the others, "a purist taken in the net. The
clean-skirted one has come to the altar. Vive la vertu!"
Samuel Walcott, still sunburned from his cruise, stood before the
chancel with the only daughter of the blue blooded St. Clairs. His face
was clear and honest and his voice firm. This was life and not romance.
The lid of the sepulcher had closed and he had slipped from under it.
And now, and ever after, the hand red with murder was clean as any.
The minister raised his voice, proclaiming the holy union before God,
and this twain, half pure, half foul, now by divine ordinance one flesh,
bowed down before it. No blood cried from the ground. The sunlight of
high noon streamed down through the window panes like a benediction.
Back in the pew of Mrs. Miriam Steuvisant, Reggie Du Puyster turned down
his thumb. "Habet!" he said.