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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter LVI

The Gilded Age

Chapter LVI



Mrs. Hawkins slowly and conscientiously, as if every detail of her family
history was important, told the story of the steamboat explosion, of the
finding and adoption of Laura. Silas, that its Mr. Hawkins, and she
always loved Laura, as if she had been their own, child.

She then narrated the circumstances of Laura's supposed marriage, her
abandonment and long illness, in a manner that touched all hearts. Laura
had been a different woman since then.

Cross-examined. At the time of first finding Laura on the steamboat,
did she notice that Laura's mind was at all deranged? She couldn't say
that she did. After the recovery of Laura from her long illness, did
Mrs. Hawkins think there, were any signs of insanity about her? Witness
confessed that she did not think of it then.

Re-Direct examination. "But she was different after that?"

"O, yes, sir."

Washington Hawkins corroborated his mother's testimony as to Laura's
connection with Col. Selby. He was at Harding during the time of her
living there with him. After Col. Selby's desertion she was almost dead,
never appeared to know anything rightly for weeks. He added that he
never saw such a scoundrel as Selby. (Checked by District attorney.)
Had he noticed any change in, Laura after her illness? Oh, yes.
Whenever, any allusion was made that might recall Selby to mind, she
looked awful--as if she could kill him.

"You mean," said Mr. Braham, "that there was an unnatural, insane gleam
in her eyes?"

"Yes, certainly," said Washington in confusion.

All this was objected to by the district attorney, but it was got before
the jury, and Mr. Braham did not care how much it was ruled out after
that.

"Beriah Sellers was the next witness called. The Colonel made his way to
the stand with majestic, yet bland deliberation. Having taken the oath
and kissed the Bible with a smack intended to show his great respect for
that book, he bowed to his Honor with dignity, to the jury with
familiarity, and then turned to the lawyers and stood in an attitude of
superior attention.

"Mr. Sellers, I believe?" began Mr. Braham.

"Beriah Sellers, Missouri," was the courteous acknowledgment that the
lawyer was correct.

"Mr. Sellers; you know the parties here, you are a friend of the family?"

"Know them all, from infancy, sir. It was me, sir, that induced Silas
Hawkins, Judge Hawkins, to come to Missouri, and make his fortune.
It was by my advice and in company with me, sir, that he went into the
operation of--"

"Yes, yes. Mr. Sellers, did you know a Major Lackland?"

"Knew him, well, sir, knew him and honored him, sir. He was one of the
most remarkable men of our country, sir. A member of congress. He was
often at my mansion sir, for weeks. He used to say to me, 'Col. Sellers,
if you would go into politics, if I had you for a colleague, we should
show Calhoun and Webster that the brain of the country didn't lie east of
the Alleganies. But I said--"

"Yes, yes. I believe Major Lackland is not living, Colonel?"

There was an almost imperceptible sense of pleasure betrayed in the
Colonel's face at this prompt acknowledgment of his title.

"Bless you, no. Died years ago, a miserable death, sir, a ruined man,
a poor sot. He was suspected of selling his vote in Congress, and
probably he did; the disgrace killed' him, he was an outcast, sir,
loathed by himself and by his constituents. And I think; sir"----

The Judge. "You will confine yourself, Col. Sellers to the questions of
the counsel."

"Of course, your honor. This," continued the Colonel in confidential
explanation, "was twenty years ago. I shouldn't have thought of referring
to such a trifling circumstance now. If I remember rightly, sir"--

A bundle of letters was here handed to the witness.

"Do you recognize, that hand-writing?"

"As if it was my own, sir. It's Major Lackland's. I was knowing to these
letters when Judge Hawkins received them. [The Colonel's memory was a
little at fault here. Mr. Hawkins had never gone into detail's with him
on this subject.] He used to show them to me, and say, 'Col, Sellers
you've a mind to untangle this sort of thing.' Lord, how everything
comes back to me. Laura was a little thing then. 'The Judge and I were
just laying our plans to buy the Pilot Knob, and--"

"Colonel, one moment. Your Honor, we put these letters in evidence."

The letters were a portion of the correspondence of Major Lackland with
Silas Hawkins; parts of them were missing and important letters were
referred to that were not here. They related, as the reader knows, to
Laura's father. Lackland had come upon the track of a man who was
searching for a lost child in a Mississippi steamboat explosion years
before. The man was lame in one leg, and appeared to be flitting from
place to place. It seemed that Major Lackland got so close track of him
that he was able to describe his personal appearance and learn his name.
But the letter containing these particulars was lost. Once he heard of
him at a hotel in Washington; but the man departed, leaving an empty
trunk, the day before the major went there. There was something very
mysterious in all his movements.

Col. Sellers, continuing his testimony, said that he saw this lost
letter, but could not now recall the name. Search for the supposed
father had been continued by Lackland, Hawkins and himself for several
years, but Laura was not informed of it till after the death of Hawkins,
for fear of raising false hopes in her mind.

Here the Distract Attorney arose and said,

"Your Honor, I must positively object to letting the witness wander off
into all these irrelevant details."

Mr. Braham. "I submit your honor, that we cannot be interrupted in this
manner we have suffered the state to have full swing. Now here is a
witness, who has known the prisoner from infancy, and is competent to
testify upon the one point vital to her safety. Evidently he is a
gentleman of character, and his knowledge of the case cannot be shut out
without increasing the aspect of persecution which the State's attitude
towards the prisoner already has assumed."

The wrangle continued, waxing hotter and hotter. The Colonel seeing the
attention of the counsel and Court entirely withdrawn from him, thought
he perceived here his opportunity, turning and beaming upon the jury, he
began simply to talk, but as the grandeur of his position grew upon him--
talk broadened unconsciously into an oratorical vein.

"You see how she was situated, gentlemen; poor child, it might have
broken her, heart to let her mind get to running on such a thing as that.
You see, from what we could make out her father was lame in the left leg
and had a deep scar on his left forehead. And so ever since the day she
found out she had another father, she never could, run across a lame
stranger without being taken all over with a shiver, and almost fainting
where she, stood. And the next minute she would go right after that man.
Once she stumbled on a stranger with a game leg; and she was the most
grateful thing in this world--but it was the wrong leg, and it was days
and days before she could leave her bed. Once she found a man with a scar
on his forehead and she was just going to throw herself into his arms,`
but he stepped out just then, and there wasn't anything the matter with
his legs. Time and time again, gentlemen of the jury, has this poor
suffering orphan flung herself on her knees with all her heart's
gratitude in her eyes before some scarred and crippled veteran, but
always, always to be disappointed, always to be plunged into new
despair--if his legs were right his scar was wrong, if his scar was right
his legs were wrong. Never could find a man that would fill the bill.
Gentlemen of the jury; you have hearts, you have feelings, you have warm
human sympathies; you can feel for this poor suffering child. Gentlemen
of the jury, if I had time, if I had the opportunity, if I might be
permitted to go on and tell you the thousands and thousands and thousands
of mutilated strangers this poor girl has started out of cover, and
hunted from city to city, from state to state, from continent to
continent, till she has run them down and found they wan't the ones; I
know your hearts--"

By this time the Colonel had become so warmed up, that his voice, had
reached a pitch above that of the contending counsel; the lawyers
suddenly stopped, and they and the Judge turned towards the Colonel and
remained far several seconds too surprised at this novel exhibition to
speak. In this interval of silence, an appreciation of the situation
gradually stole over the, audience, and an explosion of laughter
followed, in which even the Court and the bar could hardly keep from
joining.

Sheriff. "Order in the Court."

The Judge. "The witness will confine his remarks to answers to
questions."

The Colonel turned courteously to the Judge and said,

"Certainly, your Honor--certainly. I am not well acquainted with the
forms of procedure in the courts of New York, but in the West, sir, in
the West--"

The Judge. "There, there, that will do, that will do!

"You see, your Honor, there were no questions asked me, and I thought I
would take advantage of the lull in the proceedings to explain to the,
jury a very significant train of--"

The Judge. "That will DO sir! Proceed Mr. Braham."

"Col. Sellers, have you any, reason to suppose that this man is still
living?"

"Every reason, sir, every reason.

"State why"

"I have never heard of his death, sir. It has never come to my
knowledge. In fact, sir, as I once said to Governor--"

"Will you state to the jury what has been the effect of the knowledge of
this wandering and evidently unsettled being, supposed to be her father,
upon the mind of Miss Hawkins for so many years!"

Question objected to. Question ruled out.

Cross-examined. "Major Sellers, what is your occupation?"

The Colonel looked about him loftily, as if casting in his mind what
would be the proper occupation of a person of such multifarious interests
and then said with dignity:

"A gentleman, sir. My father used to always say, sir"--

"Capt. Sellers, did you; ever see this man, this supposed father?"

"No, Sir. But upon one occasion, old Senator Thompson said to me, its my
opinion, Colonel Sellers"--

"Did you ever see any body who had seen him?"

"No, sir: It was reported around at one time, that"--

"That is all."

The defense then sent a day in the examination of medical experts in
insanity who testified, on the evidence heard, that sufficient causes had
occurred to produce an insane mind in the prisoner. Numerous cases were
cited to sustain this opinion. There was such a thing as momentary
insanity, in which the person, otherwise rational to all appearances,
was for the time actually bereft of reason, and not responsible for his
acts. The causes of this momentary possession could often be found in
the person's life. [It afterwards came out that the chief expert for the
defense, was paid a thousand dollars for looking into the case.]

The prosecution consumed another day in the examination of experts
refuting the notion of insanity. These causes might have produced
insanity, but there was no evidence that they have produced it in this
case, or that the prisoner was not at the time of the commission of the
crime in full possession of her ordinary faculties.

The trial had now lasted two weeks. It required four days now for the
lawyers to "sum up." These arguments of the counsel were very important
to their friends, and greatly enhanced their reputation at the bar but
they have small interest to us. Mr. Braham in his closing speech
surpassed himself; his effort is still remembered as the greatest in the
criminal annals of New York.

Mr. Braham re-drew for the jury the picture, of Laura's early life; he
dwelt long upon that painful episode of the pretended marriage and the
desertion. Col. Selby, he said, belonged, gentlemen; to what is called
the "upper classes:" It is the privilege of the "upper classes" to prey
upon the sons and daughters of the people. The Hawkins family, though
allied to the best blood of the South, were at the time in humble
circumstances. He commented upon her parentage. Perhaps her agonized
father, in his intervals of sanity, was still searching for his lost
daughter. Would he one day hear that she had died a felon's death?
Society had pursued her, fate had pursued her, and in a moment of
delirium she had turned and defied fate and society. He dwelt upon the
admission of base wrong in Col. Selby's dying statement. He drew a
vivid, picture of the villain at last overtaken by the vengeance of
Heaven. Would the jury say that this retributive justice, inflicted by
an outraged, and deluded woman, rendered irrational by the most cruel
wrongs, was in the nature of a foul, premeditated murder? "Gentlemen;
it is enough for me to look upon the life of this most beautiful and
accomplished of her sex, blasted by the heartless villainy of man,
without seeing, at the-end of it; the horrible spectacle of a gibbet.
Gentlemen, we are all human, we have all sinned, we all have need of
mercy. But I do not ask mercy of you who are the guardians of society
and of the poor waifs, its sometimes wronged victims; I ask only that
justice which you and I shall need in that last, dreadful hour, when
death will be robbed of half its terrors if we can reflect that we have
never wronged a human being. Gentlemen, the life of this lovely and once
happy girl, this now stricken woman, is in your hands."

The jury were risibly affected. Half the court room was in tears. If a
vote of both spectators and jury could have been taken then, the verdict
would have been, "let her go, she has suffered enough."

But the district attorney had the closing argument. Calmly and without
malice or excitement he reviewed the testimony. As the cold facts were
unrolled, fear settled upon the listeners. There was no escape from the
murder or its premeditation. Laura's character as a lobbyist in
Washington which had been made to appear incidentally in the evidence was
also against her: the whole body of the testimony of the defense was
shown to be irrelevant, introduced only to excite sympathy, and not
giving a color of probability to the absurd supposition of insanity.
The attorney then dwelt upon, the insecurity of life in the city, and the
growing immunity with which women committed murders. Mr. McFlinn made a
very able speech; convincing the reason without touching the feelings.

The Judge in his charge reviewed the, testimony with great show of
impartiality. He ended by saying that the verdict must be acquital or
murder in the first, degree. If you find that the prisoner committed a
homicide, in possession of her reason and with premeditation, your
verdict will be accordingly. If you find she was not in her right mind,
that she was the victim of insanity, hereditary or momentary, as it has
been explained, your verdict will take that into account.

As the Judge finished his charge, the spectators anxiously watched the
faces of the jury. It was not a remunerative study. In the court room
the general feeling was in favor of Laura, but whether this feeling
extended to the jury, their stolid faces did not reveal. The public
outside hoped for a conviction, as it always does; it wanted an example;
the newspapers trusted the jury would have the courage to do its duty.
When Laura was convicted, then the public would tern around and abuse the
governor if he did; not pardon her.

The jury went out. Mr. Braham preserved his serene confidence, but
Laura's friends were dispirited. Washington and Col. Sellers had been
obliged to go to Washington, and they had departed under the unspoken
fear the verdict would be unfavorable, a disagreement was the best they
could hope for, and money was needed. The necessity of the passage of
the University bill was now imperative.

The Court waited, for, some time, but the jury gave no signs of coming
in. Mr. Braham said it was extraordinary. The Court then took a recess
for a couple of hours. Upon again coming in, word was brought that the
jury had not yet agreed.

But the, jury, had a question. The point upon which, they wanted
instruction was this. They wanted to know if Col. Sellers was related to
the Hawkins famiry. The court then adjourned till morning.

Mr. Braham, who was in something of a pet, remarked to Mr. O'Toole that
they must have been deceived, that juryman with the broken nose could
read!

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