An American Tragedy: Book 3, Chapters 25-30

Chapter XXVClyde is cross-examined by Mason, who is aggressive and sarcastic, determined to expose Clyde’s lies. Mason orders that the boat in which the incident took place be brought into the courtroom. The deadly incident is then acted out, over the protests of the defense that it is a meaningless demonstration. The following day, Mason attacks Clyde for failing to make any attempt to save Roberta when she was in the water, even though Clyde is a good swimmer. He also ridicules Clyde’s statement that in the water, he and Roberta were twenty feet apart and the boat thirty-five feet away. If Clyde was able to swim five hundred feet to shore, why could he not have swum to the boat and pushed it toward Roberta so she could save herself? Mason insists that Clyde wanted her to die. Clyde is unnerved by the fierceness of Mason’s manner, and he mumbles and hesitates in his responses. Mason brings out a lock of Roberta’s hair, and asks Clyde if he can confirm that it is her hair, which discomforts Clyde even more. Mason continues trying to catch Clyde out in various aspects of his testimony, including small things like how much money Clyde took with him on the trip. His purpose is to bring out the fact that Clyde never asked the boatman at Big Bittern how much the boat cost (which makes it look as if Clyde never intended to pay, knowing that he would not be bringing the boat back). Mason also brings out the fact that Clyde had much more money on the trip than he admits to, but Clyde will not reveal the name of the person from whom he borrowed it. (Of course, it was Sondra, but it was a gift, not a loan.) Mason produces photographs showing Clyde apparently enjoying himself with his wealthy friends only a few days after Roberta was drowned. Mason remarks on how odd that is, considering that Clyde supposedly had a change of heart regarding Roberta just before she died. Then Mason proves that Clyde collected one of the tourist pamphlets in Lycurgus before he left, not in Utica, which is what Clyde had testified. With this, Mason concludes his cross-examination.Chapter XXVI
A few more witnesses are called, and then Belknap begins his final statement for the defense, which takes up an entire day. He reemphasizes that Clyde is a mental and oral coward, and that the case against him is based on circumstantial evidence. There are no direct witnesses to the alleged crime. The following day Mason makes his summation, which also takes an entire day. Then the jury retires to consider their verdict. Only one juror expresses doubts about Clyde’s guilt, and the others threaten to expose him to public rage if he insists on maintaining his position. After five hours the jury returns a unanimous guilty verdict. A crowd outside the courtroom hails Mason as a hero.

Chapter XXVII
Reporters reach Mrs. Griffiths in Denver, who says she believes her son is innocent. She leans on her religious faith for support. She admits that Clyde sinned in seducing Roberta, but insists that Roberta must take some responsibility for that, too. She believes that the prosecutors used Roberta’s poignant letters to inflame the emotions of the jury. A reporter pays for her to send Clyde a telegram. Meanwhile, the Griffiths family in Lycurgus declare that they will not contribute any money to an appeal of the verdict. They decide to move their business to Boston. Clyde’s lawyers decide it would be a good idea if Clyde’s mother came to Bridgeburg, and a newspaper agrees to pay all her expenses if she goes there as a correspondent.

Chapter XXVIII
In early December, Mrs. Griffiths visits her son in jail. Clyde tells her he is innocent, and at first she has a glimmer of doubt because the tone of his voice is not quite convincing. But she dismisses her doubts immediately. Clyde is pleased to see her, since he knows that she is the only one who can help him now. The next day the judge sentences Clyde to death. He is transferred to the state prison in Auburn, where he occupies one of the twenty-two cells in the “death house.” He is dressed in prison garb; in the cell opposite him is a Chinese murderer. He listens to the coarse talk of the other condemned men. Clyde thinks of the electric chair and despairs.

Chapter XXIX
In the prison, the condemned men have no privacy. They amuse themselves with cards and checkers, and they are allowed to receive plenty of visitors. The atmosphere is gloomy, and all the prisoners gradually deteriorate mentally and physically because they know they cannot escape death.  Clyde’s mother comes to visit him on his second day there. She breaks down and cries on seeing him in this miserable situation. Then she tells him that according to Jephson, the verdict and sentence will certainly be reversed and a new trial ordered.

Chapter XXX
Mrs. Griffiths speaks to various Christian groups, hoping to raise money for Clyde’s defense. The Christians are wary of her, however, although she does manage to raise some money after a Jewish man allows her to give a public address in his theater. But she has to return to Denver to take care of her husband, who has been taken ill. Clyde, knowing that it could be two years before the legal procedures are exhausted, gets to know something of the other prisoners. In particular he gets to know Miller Nicholson, a lawyer from Buffalo who poisoned a wealthy man so he could get his money. Nicholson is courteous to him and speaks encouraging words. During this early period of his incarceration, an Italian prisoner is executed. No one in the jail eats supper that night. Clyde just feels numb and realizes that more than likely, he will face the same fate.

This section begins with the image of Orville Mason as “a restless harrier anxious to be off at the heels of its prey—of a foxhound within the last leap of its kill” (p. 807). Clyde is reduced to the status of an animal who is being hunted down, and his conviction is inevitable. The mood of the courtroom is well conveyed by the man who shouts out during Mason’s questioning of Clyde, “Why don’t they kill the God-damned bastard and be done with him?” (ch. XXV, p. 828).As Clyde goes to prison, his short life is beginning to round back upon itself. He started out in an impoverished mission house, without many of the things most people take for granted. For a while his world expanded—at the Green-Davidson Hotel, and then in Lycurgus—but now it has contracted to its smallest point ever, the dimensions of his cell in Auburn Prison. He who loved to dress as well as his budget allowed, knowing that clothes do much to much to define a person’s social status, is now humiliated by being dressed in prison garb no different from all the other condemned men. And as in Kansas City, his mother is now to play a role once more in his life. Mrs. Griffiths is presented here in a very positive light, doing everything she can to help her son. The real test for Clyde now is not whether he can live the life he dreams of, but whether he can come to terms with what he did and find some acceptance of his fate. Up to this point in his life he has been restless, on the move, filled with plans, but now he must learn to be more reflective, to salvage whatever he can from the wreckage of his life. Given what we know about Clyde—his weakness, his lack of inner resources—the prospects do not look good.