The Death House by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

In the early forenoon, we were on our way by train “up the river” to Sing Sing, where, at the station, a line of old-fashioned cabs and red-faced cabbies greeted us, for the town itself is hilly.

The house to which we had been directed was on the hill, and from its windows one could look down on the barracks-like pile of stone with the evil little black-barred slits of windows, below and perhaps a quarter of a mile away.

There was no need to be told what it was. Its very atmosphere breathed the word “prison.” Even the ugly clutter of tall- chimneyed workshops did not destroy it. Every stone, every grill, every glint of a sentry’s rifle spelt “prison.”

Mrs. Godwin was a pale, slight little woman, in whose face shone an indomitable spirit, unconquered even by the slow torture of her lonely vigil. Except for such few hours that she had to engage in her simple household duties, with now and then a short walk in the country, she was always watching that bleak stone house of atonement.

Yet, though her spirit was unconquered, it needed no physician to tell one that the dimming of the lights at the prison on the morning set for the execution would fill two graves instead of one. For she had come to know that this sudden dimming of the corridor lights, and then their almost as sudden flaring-up, had a terrible meaning, well known to the men inside. Hers was no less an agony than that of the men in the curtained cells, since she had learned that when the lights grow dim at dawn at Sing Sing, it means that the electric power has been borrowed for just that little while to send a body straining against the straps of the electric chair, snuffing out the life of a man.

To-day she had evidently been watching in both directions, watching eagerly the carriages as they climbed the hill, as well as in the direction of the prison.

“How can I ever thank you, Professor Kennedy,” she greeted us at the door, keeping back with difficulty the tears that showed how much it meant to have any one interest himself in her husband’s case.

There was that gentleness about Mrs. Godwin that comes only to those who have suffered much.

“It has been a long fight,” she began, as we talked in her modest little sitting-room, into which the sun streamed brightly with no thought of the cold shadows in the grim building below. “Oh, and such a hard, heartbreaking fight! Often it seems as if we had exhausted every means at our disposal, and yet we shall never give up. Why cannot we make the world see our case as we see it? Everything seems to have conspired against us–and yet I cannot, I will not believe that the law and the science that have condemned him are the last words in law and science.”

“You said in your letter that the courts were so slow and the lawyers so–“

“Yes, so cold, so technical. They do not seem to realise that a human life is at stake. With them it is almost like a game in which we are the pawns. And sometimes I fear, in spite of what the lawyers say, that without some new evidence, it–it will go hard with him.”

“You have not given up hope in the appeal?” asked Kennedy gently.

“It is merely on technicalities of the law,” she replied with quiet fortitude, “that is, as nearly as I can make out from the language of the papers. Our lawyer is Salo Kahn, of the big firm of criminal lawyers, Smith, Kahn

“Conine,” mused Kennedy, half to himself. I could not tell whether he was thinking of what he repeated or of the little woman.

“Yes, the active principle of hemlock,” she went on. “That was what the experts discovered, they swore. In the pure state, I believe, it is more poisonous than anything except the cyanides. And it was absolutely scientific evidence. They repeated the tests in court. There was no doubt of it. But, oh, he did not do it. Some one else did it. He did not–he could not.”

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Kennedy said nothing for a few minutes, but from his tone when he did speak it was evident that he was deeply touched.

“Since our marriage we lived with old Mr. Godwin in the historic Godwin House at East Point,” she resumed, as he renewed his questioning. “Sanford–that was my husband’s real last name until he came as a boy to work for Mr. Godwin in the office of the factory and was adopted by his employer–Sanford and I kept house for him.

“About a year ago he began to grow feeble and seldom went to the factory, which Sanford managed for him. One night Mr. Godwin was taken suddenly ill. I don’t know how long he had been ill before we heard him groaning, but he died almost before we could summon a doctor. There was really nothing suspicious about it, but there had always been a great deal of jealousy of my husband in the town and especially among the few distant relatives of Mr. Godwin. What must have started as an idle, gossipy rumour developed into a serious charge that my husband had hastened his old guardian’s death.

“The original will–THE will, I call it–had been placed in the safe of the factory several years ago. But when the gossip in the town grew bitter, one day when we were out, some private detectives entered the house with a warrant–and they did actually find a will, another will about which we knew nothing, dated later than the first and hidden with some papers in the back of a closet, or sort of fire proof box, built into the wall of the library. The second will was identical with the first in language except that its terms were reversed and instead of being the residuary legatee, Sanford was given a comparatively small annuity, and the Elmores were made residuary legatees instead of annuitants.”

“And who are these Elmores?” asked Kennedy curiously.

“There are three, two grandnephews and a grandniece, Bradford, Lambert, and their sister Miriam.”

“And they live–“

“In East Point, also. Old Mr. Godwin was not very friendly with his sister, whose grandchildren they were. They were the only other heirs living, and although Sanford never had anything to do with it, I think they always imagined that he tried to prejudice the old man against them.”

“I shall want to see the Elmores, or at least some one who represents them, as well as the district attorney up there who conducted the case. But now that I am here, I wonder if it is possible that I could bring any influence to bear to see your husband?”

Mrs. Godwin sighed.

“Once a month,” she replied, “I leave this window, walk to the prison, where the warden is very kind to me, and then I can see Sanford. Of course there are bars between us besides the regular screen. But I can have an hour’s talk, and in those talks he has described to me exactly every detail of his life in the–the prison. We have even agreed on certain hours when we think of each other. In those hours I know almost what he is thinking.” She paused to collect herself. “Perhaps there may be some way if I plead with the warden. Perhaps–you may be considered his counsel now–you may see him.”

A half hour later we sat in the big registry room of the prison and talked with the big-hearted, big-handed warden. Every argument that Kennedy could summon was brought to bear. He even talked over long distance with the lawyers in New York. At last the rules were relaxed and Kennedy was admitted on some technicality as counsel. Counsel can see the condemned as often as necessary.

We were conducted down a flight of steps and past huge steel- barred doors, along corridors and through the regular prison until at last we were in what the prison officials called the section for the condemned. Every one else calls this secret heart of the grim place, the death house.

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It is made up of two rows of cells, some eighteen or twenty in all, a little more modern in construction than the twelve hundred archaic caverns that pass for cells in the main prison.

At each end of the corridor sat a guard, armed, with eyes never off the rows of cells day or night.

In the wall, on one side, was a door–the little green door–the door from the death house to the death chamber.

While Kennedy was talking to the prisoner, a guard volunteered to show me the death chamber and the “chair.” No other furniture was there in the little brick house of one room except this awful chair, of yellow oak with broad, leather straps. There it stood, the sole article in the brightly varnished room of about twenty- five feet square with walls of clean blue, this grim acolyte of modern scientific death. There were the wet electrodes that are fastened to the legs through slits in the trousers at the calves; above was the pipe-like fixture, like a gruesome helmet of leather that fits over the head, carrying the other electrode.

Back of the condemned was the switch which lets loose a lethal store of energy, and back of that the prison morgue where the bodies are taken. I looked about. In the wall to the left toward the death house was also a door, on this side yellow. Somehow I could not get from my mind the fascination of that door–the threshold of the grave.

Meanwhile Kennedy sat in the little cage and talked with the convicted man across the three-foot distance between cell and screen. I did not see him at that time, but Kennedy repeated afterward what passed, and it so impressed me that I will set it down as if I had been present.

Sanford Godwin was a tall, ashen-faced man, in the prison pallor of whose face was written the determination of despair, a man in whose blue eyes was a queer, half-insane light of hope. One knew that if it had not been for the little woman at the window at the top of the hill, the hope would probably long ago have faded. But this man knew she was always there, thinking, watching, eagerly planning in aid of any new scheme in the long fight for freedom.

“The alkaloid was present, that is certain,” he told Kennedy. “My wife has told you that. It was scientifically proved. There is no use in attacking that.”

Later on he remarked: “Perhaps you think it strange that one in the very shadow of the death chair”–the word stuck in his throat- -“can talk so impersonally of his own case. Sometimes I think it is not my case, but some one else’s. And then–that door.”

He shuddered and turned away from it. On one side was life, such as it was; on the other, instant death. No wonder he pleaded with Kennedy.

“Why, Walter,” exclaimed Craig, as we walked back to the warden’s office to telephone to town for a car to take us up to East Point, “whenever he looks out of that cage he sees it. He may close his eyes–and still see it. When he exercises, he sees it. Thinking by day and dreaming by night, it is always there. Think of the terrible hours that man must pass, knowing of the little woman eating her heart out. Is he really guilty? I must find out. If he is not, I never saw a greater tragedy than this slow, remorseless approach of death, in that daily, hourly shadow of the little green door.”

East Point was a queer old town on the upper Hudson, with a varying assortment of industries. Just outside, the old house of the Godwins stood on a bluff overlooking the majestic river. Kennedy had wanted to see it before any one suspected his mission, and a note from Mrs. Godwin to a friend had been sufficient.

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Carefully he went over the deserted and now half-wrecked house, for the authorities had spared nothing in their search for poison, even going over the garden and the lawns in the hope of finding some of the poisonous shrub, hemlock, which it was contended had been used to put an end to Mr. Godwin.

As yet nothing had been done to put the house in order again and, as we walked about, we noticed a pile of old tins in the yard which had not been removed.

Kennedy turned them over with his stick. Then he picked one up and examined it attentively.

“H-m–a blown can,” he remarked.

“Blown?” I repeated.

“Yes. When the contents of a tin begin to deteriorate they sometimes give off gases which press out the ends of the tin. You can see how these ends bulge.”

Our next visit was to the district attorney, a young man, Gordon Kilgore, who seemed not unwilling to discuss the case frankly.

“I want to make arrangements for disinterring the body,” explained Kennedy. “Would you fight such a move?”

“Not at all, not at all,” he answered brusquely. “Simply make the arrangements through Kahn. I shall interpose no objection. It is the strongest, most impregnable part of the case, the discovery of the poison. If you can break that down you will do more than any one else has dared to hope. But it can’t be done. The proof was too strong. Of course it is none of my business, but I’d advise some other point of attack.”

I must confess to a feeling of disappointment when Kennedy announced after leaving Kilgore that, for the present, there was nothing more to be done at East Point until Kahn had made the arrangements for reopening the grave.

We motored back to Ossining, and Kennedy tried to be reassuring to Mrs. Godwin.

“By the way,” he remarked, just before we left, “you used a good deal of canned goods at the Godwin house, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but not more than other people, I think,” she said.

“Do you recall using any that were–well, perhaps not exactly spoiled, but that had anything peculiar about them?”

“I remember once we thought we found some cans that seemed to have been attacked by mice–at least they smelt so, though how mice could get through a tin can we couldn’t see.”

“Mice?” queried Kennedy. “Had a mousey smell? That’s interesting. Well, Mrs. Godwin, keep up a good heart. Depend on me. What you have told me to-day has made me more than interested in your case. I shall waste no time in letting you know when anything encouraging develops.”

Craig had never had much patience with red tape that barred the way to the truth, yet there were times when law and legal procedure had to be respected, no matter how much they hampered, and this was one of them. The next day the order was obtained permitting the opening again of the grave of old Mr. Godwin. The body was exhumed, and Kennedy set about his examination of what secrets it might hide.

Meanwhile, it seemed to me that the suspense was terrible. Kennedy was moving slowly, I thought. Not even the courts themselves could have been more deliberate. Also, he was keeping much to himself.

Still, for another whole day, there was the slow, inevitable approach of the thing that now, I, too, had come to dread–the handing down of the final decision on the appeal.

Yet what could Craig do otherwise, I asked myself. I had become deeply interested in the case by this time and spent the time reading all the evidence, hundreds of pages of it. It was cold, hard, brutal, scientific fact, and as I read I felt that hope faded for the ashen-faced man and the pallid little woman. It seemed the last word in science. Was there any way of escape?

Impatient as I was, I often wondered what must have been the suspense of those to whom the case meant everything.

“How are the tests coming along?” I ventured one night, after Kahn had arranged for the uncovering of the grave.

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It was now two days since Kennedy had gone up to East Point to superintend the exhumation and had returned to the city with the materials which had caused him to keep later hours in the laboratory than I had ever known even the indefatigable Craig to spend on a stretch before.

He shook his head doubtfully.

“Walter,” he admitted, “I’m afraid I have reached the limit on the line of investigation I had planned at the start.”

I looked at him in dismay. “What then?” I managed to gasp.

“I am going up to East Point again to-morrow to look over that house and start a new line. You can go.”

No urging was needed, and the following day saw us again on the ground. The house, as I have said, had been almost torn to pieces in the search for the will and the poison evidence. As before, we went to it unannounced, and this time we had no difficulty in getting in. Kennedy, who had brought with him a large package, made his way directly to a sort of drawing-room next to the large library, in the closet of which the will had been discovered.

He unwrapped the package and took from it a huge brace and bit, the bit a long, thin, murderous looking affair such as might have come from a burglar’s kit. I regarded it much in that light.

“What’s the lay?” I asked, as he tapped over the walls to ascertain of just what they were composed.

Without a word he was now down on his knees, drilling a hole in the plaster and lath. When he struck an obstruction he stopped, removed the bit, inserted another, and began again.

“Are you going to put in a detectaphone?” I asked again.

He shook his head. “A detectaphone wouldn’t be of any use here,” he replied. “No one is going to do any talking in that room.”

Again the brace and bit were at work. At last the wall had been penetrated, and he quickly removed every trace from the other side that would have attracted attention to a little hole in an obscure corner of the flowered wall-paper.

Next, he drew out what looked like a long putty-blower, perhaps a foot long and three-eighths of an inch in diameter.

“What’s that?” I asked, as he rose after carefully inserting it.

“Look through it,” he replied simply, still at work on some other apparatus he had brought.

I looked. In spite of the smallness of the opening at the other end, I was amazed to find that I could see nearly the whole room on the other side of the wall.

“It’s a detectascope,” he explained, “a tube with a fish-eye lens which I had an expert optician make for me.”

“A fish-eye lens?” I repeated.

“Yes. The focus may be altered in range so that any one in the room may be seen and recognised and any action of his may be detected. The original of this was devised by Gaillard Smith, the adapter of the detectaphone. The instrument is something like the cytoscope, which the doctors use to look into the human interior. Now, look through it again. Do you see the closet?”

Again I looked. “Yes,” I said, “but will one of us have to watch here all the time?”

He had been working on a black box in the meantime, and now he began to set it up, adjusting it to the hole in the wall which he enlarged on our side.

“No, that is my own improvement on it. You remember once we used a quick-shutter camera with an electric attachment, which moved the shutter on the contact of a person with an object in the room? Well, this camera has that quick shutter. But, in addition, I have adapted to the detectascope an invention by Professor Robert Wood, of Johns Hopkins. He has devised a fish-eye camera that ‘sees’ over a radius of one hundred and eighty degrees–not only straight in front, but over half a circle, every point in that room.

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“You know the refracting power of a drop of water. Since it is a globe, it refracts the light which reaches it from all directions. If it is placed like the lens of a camera, as Dr. Wood tried it, so that one-half of it catches the light, all the light caught will be refracted through it. Fishes, too, have a wide range of vision. Some have eyes that see over half a circle. So the lens gets its name. Ordinary cameras, because of the flatness of their lenses, have a range of only a few degrees, the widest in use, I believe, taking in only ninety-six, or a little more than a quarter of a circle. So, you see, my detectascope has a range almost twice as wide as that of any other.”

Though I did not know what he expected to discover and knew that it was useless to ask, the thing seemed very interesting. Craig did not pause, however, to enlarge on the new machine, but gathered up his tools and announced that our next step would be a visit to a lawyer whom the Elmores had retained as their personal counsel to look after their interests, now that the district attorney seemed to hare cleared up the criminal end of the case.

Hollins was one of the prominent attorneys of East Point, and before the election of Kilgore as prosecutor had been his partner. Unlike Kilgore, we found him especially uncommunicative and inclined to resent our presence in the case as intruders.

The interview did not seem to me to be productive of anything. In fact, it seemed as if Craig were giving Hollins much more than he was getting.

“I shall be in town over night,” remarked Craig. “In fact, I am thinking of going over the library up at the Godwin house soon, very carefully.” He spoke casually. “There may be, you know, some finger-prints on the walls around that closet which might prove interesting.”

A quick look from Hollins was the only answer. In fact, it was seldom that he uttered more than a monosyllable as we talked over the various aspects of the case.

A half-hour later, when he had left and had gone to the hotel, I asked Kennedy suspiciously, “Why did you expose your hand to Hollins, Craig?”

He laughed. “Oh, Walter,” he remonstrated, “don’t you know that it is nearly always useless to look for finger-prints, except under some circumstances, even a few days afterward? This is months, not days. Why on iron and steel they last with tolerable certainty only a short time, and not much longer on silver, glass, or wood. But they are seldom permanent unless they are made with ink or blood or something that leaves a more or less indelible mark. That was a ‘plant.’”

“But what do you expect to gain by it?”

“Well,” he replied enigmatically, “no one is necessarily honest.”

It was late in the afternoon when Kennedy again visited the Godwin house and examined the camera. Without a word he pulled the detectascope from the wall and carried the whole thing to the developing-room of the local photographer.

There he set to work on the film and I watched him in silence. He seemed very much excited as he watched the film develop, until at last he held it up, dripping, to the red light.

“Some one has entered that room this afternoon and attempted to wipe off the walls and woodwork of that closet, as I expected,” he exclaimed.

“Who was it?” I asked, leaning over.

Kennedy said nothing, but pointed to a figure on the film. I bent closer. It was the figure of a woman.

“Miriam!” I exclaimed in surprise.

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