Lessons of the Thaw Case

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By John Russell Coryell.

I WAS asked to write on this subject, or I would not have done it. I am so tired of the Thaw case that I no longer read about it in the daily papers. You may say this is due to the fact that there are no salacious details being published. You would be wrong if you said so. At no time have I read the salacious details. The journal I read prides itself on deciding for me what I shall read, and employs an editor to expurgate the accounts which lewd and ribald reporters give of the events of life. It was too late to obtain copies of the unexpurgated journals when I discovered what the purity of my editor had deprived me of. Not that it would have done me any injury if I had read the shocking things which the exigencies of the Thaw case had revealed, for I had heard of such things before, and, besides, like our president, I am so constituted that I can read such matters and remain pure. In this the President and I and a few reporters and editors and scientific persons are alike. It is you—everybody but ourselves—that we are concerned about. I do not know why it is that I and the President and the very few others are immune from impurity in print, while you—the common people—are in danger from it; but so it is.

Come to think that is one lesson of the Thaw case. I am very glad to have thought of it.

If I were asked on my honor, however, what the chief lesson of the case was, I would say, the majesty and the dignity of the law. I have been very much interested in this phase of the affair. I might have said that I derived my lesson from the vindication of the majesty and dignity of the law, but I refrained from doing so because, although a sonorous phrase and one much used, it was not what I meant to say. I hold by my statement on the ground that the law will not be vindicated in this case, whatever happens. Here is something which I think is out of a hymn, but I will not say so with positiveness. The point is that it is suggestive. This is it: "God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform." In so far God and the law may be said to be alike. Turning aside from the Thaw case for a moment I would ask your attention to the operation of the law in two other cases: A young man in the upper part of New York State became enamored of the legal wife of another man and wished to obtain money with which to pay the expense of entertaining her in illicit separation from her husband. No better way suggesting itself to him, he decided to wreck a Pullman train so that he might obtain from the persons of the men and women thereby killed the funds requisite for his purpose. Happily for the men and women who were to have served him in this involuntary way, he failed to accomplish the deed. He was found guilty and sentenced to six years and six months. Another man, with less imagination, and perhaps reprehensible for that reason, burglarized the house of the president of a Democratic club. He received nine years and six months for his sentence.

Of course there are comments to be made on these two cases, but I am not engaged to insult your intelligence. I would have kept the salacious details out of the newspapers—after reading them carefully myself— but that would have been to protect your purity—the purity of men in particular. In this I realize that I am different from many clergymen throughout the country, who made a mighty protest against the suppression of the details in question. But I would not insult your intelligence.

Returning to the Thaw case, chastened it may be by the thought of the two cases already cited, let us consider the circumstances and find, if we can, wherein lie the majesty and the dignity of the law. By the law which is written, the woman, Evelyn, belonged to the man, Harry. By the law which is said to be unwritten, the man, Harry, was bound to kill the man who had done harm to his property. It is true that by the law which is written as well as by that which is said to be unwritten, the harm to the said man, Harry, his property, was made good and as if it had never happened—to wit, the room of mirrors and all that appertained thereto; which may not be very good English, but has a legal sound and rather more sense than is usual under such circumstances. Of course we don't know that the room of mirrors and the episode thereunto appertaining had any existence in fact, for the majesty and the dignity of the law do not permit that the said Evelyn's story shall be contradicted or brought in question, but only that the said Evelyn should be morally undressed for the edification of the—shall I say?—salacious public. And to that end our district attorney, with an exquisite skill, not to speak of a glaring eye and a raucous voice, considers the majesty and the dignity of the law by exposing the said Evelyn in moral nudity, while at the same time tenderly concealing from the view of an eager and—may I say ?— salacious public, the names of the men—respectable men, I should have said—who were the participants in the episodes so damaging to the said Evelyn.

I do not say that the names of the said Evelyn's male companions should have been made public, but when I consider the pains that the law was at to entertain us, I do wonder that we were not told outright who the said men were; especially as the said men are well-known by name at every club in the city and at every gathering where our "upper" classes are to be found; and by reason thereof are lionized.

As has been said, the story of the room of mirrors may be untrue, but it will stand as true because the dignity and the majesty of the law demanded that its truth should not be questioned. And there is another reason why it will stand as true; which is not a lesson of the Thaw case, but of civilization: Men do the things that Evelyn told of, and worse. They do them constantly; they have done them in all the days that women have been forced to traffic in their bodies; nor does it matter, as to that, whether the woman wins the empty prize of a man's name, or the full one of a bank account; it is still the story of the room of mirrors. Only when the woman takes the man's name as her price, she gives a guarantee of silence, and the man is not indictable under either written or unwritten law. And I think that this is why the silent women of the land take such an interest in the salacious details. And why men chuckle as they read—in the privacy of the street car. And why the un-silent women are mostly indignant against the said Evelyn, saying: She won out all right, didn't she? She bears a man's name, doesn't she? What if—

But there! nd salacious details, if you please! It is an odd circumstance though, that the chorus girls are mostly against the said Evelyn, indignant with her. Some of them say she's a "squealer," whatever that may be; others that she is a plain liar. As to that, the dignity and the majesty of the law will not permit me to know.

Over in England a poor man killed a rich one—a certain Mr. Whiteley. The English are rejoicing that the dignity and the majesty of the law mean something over there, because the poor man was put through to his destination on the Legal Limited. Why, we can hurry a poor man along the legal road as swiftly as the English can. But Harry Thaw is rich. That is another lesson of the Thaw case. But of course we learned that lesson long ago.

Don't think I am yearning to have Harry Thaw disposed of quickly. No, no! I am not concerned about the majesty and the dignity of the law. If I had my way about it, I would take the three or four hundred thousand dollars known to have been spent in quarrelling over the poor wretch, and would spend it in ascertaining why Evelyn did what she did, why Harry Thaw did what he did, why the dead man did what it is said he did, and which, if he didn't do it, other men are doing the very instant I write, the very instant you read. Of course I know very well that I would not be permitted to publish the results of my ascertainment unless the miracle of free speech were to happen in the meantime; for I know I should have to explain in full why men are sex wolves and women sex lambs. Moreover, I should have to lift the cover off the hypocrisy of society in matters of sex. And the majesty and the dignity of the law would try to vindicate themselves at my expense; although in the end it would still be poor, old hypocritical society that would pay the whole cost. The majesty and the dignity of the law are very much concerned in punishment for crimes which have been made by law.

To an unprejudiced observer it would seem as if a difficult and complex game were being played; and as if the players, like good sportsmen, were playing it for the joy of the game and without much regard to the worthless prize of a man's life; for, mind you! the man says he is guilty. I don't want him killed. I think murder, whether legal or otherwise, is foolish. Not that my opinion counts for anything; and I give it only because it eases my mind to do so. But the law does say distinctly that if you kill a man under given conditions, you shall suffer accordingly. And there is no contention that the young man in the Tombs did not kill Stanford White. Why doesn't the law operate? Why do some men who are not guilty of murder—as charged—go to the scaffold, while others, confessedly or admittedly guilty, go free? A governor of Illinois once told of some men in Chicago who had been hung though innocent and who had not had a fair trial. Recently some men in Virginia, who frankly admitted killing a man because he no longer loved their sister, were set free with loud acclaim. It has been said that those men, if in New York, would have been convicted. Perhaps. I do not know how rich they are. But at any rate the law in Virginia is practically the same as here. Why were they not convicted there? Why were the Chicago men executed though innocent? Can it possibly be that the dignity and the majesty of the law is but a pretty phrase, and that judgment is pronounced outside of court first and only echoed in there? I make this question because I have heard and read complaints that the Thaw case is being tried outside of court by yellow journals. I suppose it is difficult for a jury to decide against the sentiment of the community it is drawn from.

Would it not be an odd thing if some day we were to accept the judgment of James C. Carter, once leader of the New York bar, that a law not in harmony with public opinion was unenforceable, while a law in harmony with public opinion was unnecessary? Upon my word! that sounds like anarchy. It is pretty much like saying that we could get along without law. Without law! Am I crazy ? What would we do with our Harry Thaws if we had no law? See answer in a paragraph all by itself!

There would be no Harry Thaws.

That word crazy up there reminds me of the insanity experts. I shall not lay myself liable in a suit for libel by saying what I think of them, but I would like to know what they think of themselves. If you can get one set of scientific gentlemen to solemnly swear that the Earth is square, and another set—both sets being paid, of course —to swear that it is conical, what in the world is a poor, ignorant layman to do when he wants to know whether or not it is true that the Earth is an oblate spheroid ? Or if I say we really might be happy if we had no laws, and somebody says I'm a lunatic, can I prove I am not by engaging an expert authority to say so? Or will it be taken as a proof of my insanity if I pay an authority to say that I am not crazy in declaring that we can do without authority?