The Case of Jennie Brice
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Part 3 out of 3
"You operated on her, I believe?"
"Yes. She came to me to have a name removed. It had been tattooed over
"You removed it?"
"Not at once. I tried fading the marks with goat's milk, but she was
impatient. On the third visit to my office she demanded that the name
be cut out."
"You did it?"
"Yes. She refused a general anesthetic and I used cocaine. The name
was John--I believe a former husband. She intended to marry again."
A titter ran over the court room. People strained to the utmost are
always glad of an excuse to smile. The laughter of a wrought-up crowd
always seems to me half hysterical.
"Have you seen photographs of the scar on the body found at Sewickley?
Or the body itself?"
"No, I have not."
"Will you describe the operation?"
"I made a transverse incision for the body of the name, and two
vertical ones--one longer for the _J_, the other shorter, for the
stem of the _h_. There was a dot after the name. I made a half-inch
incision for it."
"Will you sketch the cicatrix as you recall it?"
The doctor made a careful drawing on a pad that was passed to him. The
drawing was much like this.
Line for line, dot for dot, it was the scar on the body found at
"You are sure the woman was Jennie Brice?"
"She sent me tickets for the theater shortly after. And I had an
announcement of her marriage to the prisoner, some weeks later."
"Were there any witnesses to the operation?"
"My assistant; I can produce him at any time."
That was not all of the trial, but it was the decisive moment. Shortly
after, the jury withdrew, and for twenty-four hours not a word was
heard from them.
After twenty-four hours' deliberation, the jury brought in a verdict
of guilty. It was a first-degree verdict. Mr. Howell's unsupported
word had lost out against a scar.
Contrary to my expectation, Mr. Holcombe was not jubilant over the
verdict. He came into the dining-room that night and stood by the
window, looking out into the yard.
"It isn't logical," he said. "In view of Howell's testimony, it's
ridiculous! Heaven help us under this jury system, anyhow! Look at the
facts! Howell knows the woman: he sees her on Monday morning, and
puts her on a train out of town. The boy is telling the truth. He has
nothing to gain by coming forward, and everything to lose. Very
well: she was alive on Monday. We know where she was on Tuesday and
Wednesday. Anyhow, during those days her gem of a husband was in jail.
He was freed Thursday night, and from that time until his rearrest on
the following Tuesday, I had him under observation every moment. He
left the jail Thursday night, and on Saturday the body floated in at
Sewickley. If it was done by Ladley, it must have been done on Friday,
and on Friday he was in view through the periscope all day!"
Mr. Reynolds came in and joined us. "There's only one way out that I
see," he said mildly. "Two women have been fool enough to have a name
tattooed over their hearts. No woman ever thought enough of me to have
_my_ name put on her."
"I hope not," I retorted. Mr. Reynold's first name is Zachariah.
But, as Mr. Holcombe said, all that had been proved was that Jennie
Brice was dead, probably murdered. He could not understand the defense
letting the case go to the jury without their putting more stress on
Mr. Howell's story. But we were to understand that soon, and many
other things. Mr. Holcombe told me that evening of learning from John
Bellows of the tattooed name on Jennie Brice and of how, after an
almost endless search, he had found the man who had cut the name away.
At eight o'clock the door-bell rang. Mr. Reynolds had gone to lodge,
he being an Elk and several other things, and much given to regalia
in boxes, and having his picture in the newspapers in different
outlandish costumes. Mr. Pitman used to say that man, being denied his
natural love for barbaric adornment in his every-day clothing, took to
the different fraternities as an excuse for decking himself out. But
this has nothing to do with the door-bell.
It was old Isaac. He had a basket in his hand, and he stepped into the
hall and placed it on the floor.
"Evening, Miss Bess," he said. "Can you see a bit of company
"I can always see you," I replied. But he had not meant himself. He
stepped to the door, and opening it, beckoned to some one across the
street. It was Lida!
She came in, her color a little heightened, and old Isaac stood back,
beaming at us both; I believe it was one of the crowning moments
of the old man's life--thus to see his Miss Bess and Alma's child
"Is--is he here yet?" she asked me nervously.
"I did not know he was coming." There was no need to ask which "he."
There was only one for Lida.
"He telephoned me, and asked me to come here. Oh, Mrs. Pitman, I'm
so afraid for him!" She had quite forgotten Isaac. I turned to the
school-teacher's room and opened the door. "The woman who belongs here
is out at a lecture," I said. "Come in here, Ikkie, and I'll find the
evening paper for you.
"'Ikkie'!" said Lida, and stood staring at me. I think I went white.
"The lady heah and I is old friends," Isaac said, with his splendid
manner. "Her mothah, Miss Lida, her mothah--"
But even old Isaac choked up at that, and I closed the door on him.
"How queer!" Lida said, looking at me. "So Isaac knew your mother?
Have you lived always in Allegheny, Mrs. Pitman?"
"I was born in Pittsburgh," I evaded. "I went away for a long time,
but I always longed for the hurry and activity of the old home town.
So here I am again."
Fortunately, like all the young, her own affairs engrossed her. She
was flushed with the prospect of meeting her lover, tremulous over
what the evening might bring. The middle-aged woman who had come back
to the hurry of the old town, and who, pushed back into an eddy of the
flood district, could only watch the activity and the life from behind
a "Rooms to Let" sign, did not concern her much. Nor should she have.
Mr. Howell came soon after. He asked for her, and going back to the
dining-room, kissed her quietly. He had an air of resolve, a sort of
grim determination, that was a relief from the half-frantic look he
had worn before. He asked to have Mr. Holcombe brought down, and so
behold us all, four of us, sitting around the table--Mr. Holcombe with
his note-book, I with my mending, and the boy with one of Lida's hands
frankly under his on the red table-cloth.
"I want to tell all of you the whole story," he began. "To-morrow I
shall go to the district attorney and confess, but--I want you all to
have it first. I can't sleep again until I get it off my chest. Mrs.
Pitman has suffered through me, and Mr. Holcombe here has spent money
Lida did not speak, but she drew her chair closer, and put her other
hand over his.
"I want to get it straight, if I can. Let me see. It was on Sunday,
the fourth, that the river came up, wasn't it? Yes. Well, on the
Thursday before that I met you, Mr. Holcombe, in a restaurant in
Pittsburgh. Do you remember?"
Mr. Holcombe nodded.
"We were talking of crime, and I said no man should be hanged on
purely circumstantial evidence. You affirmed that a well-linked chain
of circumstantial evidence could properly hang a man. We had a long
argument, in which I was worsted. There was a third man at the
table--Bronson, the business manager of the Liberty Theater."
"Who sided with you," put in Mr. Holcombe, "and whose views I refused
to entertain because, as publicity man for a theater, he dealt in
fiction rather than in fact."
"Precisely. You may recall, Mr. Holcombe, that you offered to hang any
man we would name, given a proper chain of circumstantial evidence
"After you left, Bronson spoke to me. He said business at the theater
was bad, and complained of the way the papers used, or would not use,
his stuff. He said the Liberty Theater had not had a proper deal, and
that he was tempted to go over and bang one of the company on the
head, and so get a little free advertising.
"I said he ought to be able to fake a good story; but he maintained
that a newspaper could smell a faked story a mile away, and that,
anyhow, all the good stunts had been pulled off. I agreed with him. I
remember saying that nothing but a railroad wreck or a murder hit the
public very hard these days, and that I didn't feel like wrecking the
"He leaned over the table and looked at me. 'Well, how about a murder,
then?' he said. 'You get the story for your paper, and I get some
advertising for the theater. We need it, that's sure.'
"I laughed it off, and we separated. But at two o'clock Bronson called
me up again. I met him in his office at the theater, and he told me
that Jennie Brice, who was out of the cast that week, had asked for a
week's vacation. She had heard of a farm at a town called Horner, and
she wanted to go there to rest.
"'Now the idea is this,' he said. 'She's living with her husband, and
he has threatened her life more than once. It would be easy enough to
frame up something to look as if he'd made away with her. We'd get a
week of excitement, more advertising than we'd ordinarily get in a
year; you get a corking news story, and find Jennie Brice at the end,
getting the credit for that. Jennie gets a hundred dollars and a rest,
and Ladley, her husband, gets, say, two hundred.'
"Mr. Bronson offered to put up the money, and I agreed. The flood came
just then, and was considerable help. It made a good setting. I went
to my city editor, and got an assignment to interview Ladley about
this play of his. Then Bronson and I went together to see the Ladleys
on Sunday morning, and as they needed money, they agreed. But Ladley
insisted on fifty dollars a week extra if he had to go to jail. We
promised it, but we did not intend to let things go so far as that.
"In the Ladleys' room that Sunday morning, we worked it all out. The
hardest thing was to get Jennie Brice's consent; but she agreed,
finally. We arranged a list of clues, to be left around, and Ladley
was to go out in the night and to be heard coming back. I told him to
quarrel with his wife that afternoon,--although I don't believe
they needed to be asked to do it,--and I suggested also the shoe or
slipper, to be found floating around."
"Just a moment," said Mr. Holcombe, busy with his note-book. "Did you
suggest the onyx clock?"
"No. No clock was mentioned. The--the clock has puzzled me."
"Yes. I said no murder was complete without blood, but he kicked on
that--said he didn't mind the rest, but he'd be hanged if he was going
to slash himself. But, as it happened, he cut his wrist while cutting
the boat loose, and so we had the towel."
"Pillow-slip?" asked Mr. Holcombe.
"Well, no. There was nothing said about a pillow-slip. Didn't he say
he burned it accidentally?"
"So he claimed." Mr. Holcombe made another entry in his book.
"Then I said every murder had a weapon. He was to have a pistol at
first, but none of us owned one. Mrs. Ladley undertook to get a knife
from Mrs. Pitman's kitchen, and to leave it around, not in full view,
but where it could be found."
"A broken knife?"
"No. Just a knife."
"He was to throw the knife into the water?"
"That was not arranged. I only gave him a general outline. He was to
add any interesting details that might occur to him. The idea, of
course, was to give the police plenty to work on, and just when
they thought they had it all, and when the theater had had a lot of
booming, and I had got a good story, to produce Jennie Brice, safe
and well. We were not to appear in it at all. It would have worked
perfectly, but we forgot to count on one thing--Jennie Brice hated her
"Not really hated him!" cried Lida.
"_Hated_ him. She is letting him hang. She could save him by coming
forward now, and she won't do it. She is hiding so he will go to the
There was a pause at that. It seemed too incredible, too inhuman.
"Then, early that Monday morning, you smuggled Jennie Brice out of the
"Yes. That was the only thing we bungled. We fixed the hour a little
too late, and I was seen by Miss Harvey's uncle, walking across the
bridge with a woman."
"Why did you meet her openly, and take her to the train?"
Mr. Howell bent forward and smiled across at the little man. "One
of your own axioms, sir," he said. "Do the natural thing; upset the
customary order of events as little as possible. Jennie Brice went to
the train, because that was where she wanted to go. But as Ladley was
to protest that his wife had left town, and as the police would
be searching for a solitary woman, I went with her. We went in a
leisurely manner. I bought her a magazine and a morning paper, asked
the conductor to fix her window, and, in general, acted the devoted
husband seeing his wife off on a trip. I even"--he smiled--"I even
promised to feed the canary."
Lida took her hands away. "Did you kiss her good-by?" she demanded.
"Not even a chaste salute," he said. His spirits were rising. It was,
as often happens, as if the mere confession removed the guilt. I have
seen little boys who have broken a window show the same relief after
telling about it.
"For a day or two Bronson and I sat back, enjoying the stir-up. Things
turned out as we had expected. Business boomed at the theater. I got
a good story, and some few kind words from my city editor. Then--the
explosion came. I got a letter from Jennie Brice saying she was going
away, and that we need not try to find her. I went to Horner, but I
had lost track of her completely. Even then, we did not believe things
so bad as they turned out to be. We thought she was giving us a bad
time, but that she would show up.
"Ladley was in a blue funk for a time. Bronson and I went to him. We
told him how the thing had slipped up. We didn't want to go to the
police and confess if we could help it. Finally, he agreed to stick it
out until she was found, at a hundred dollars a week. It took all we
could beg, borrow and steal. But now--we have to come out with the
Mr. Holcombe sat up and closed his note-book with a snap. "I'm not so
sure of that," he said impressively. "I wonder if you realize, young
man, that, having provided a perfect defense for this man Ladley, you
provided him with every possible inducement to make away with his
wife? Secure in your coming forward at the last minute and confessing
the hoax to save him, was there anything he might not have dared with
"But I tell you I took Jennie Brice out of town on Monday morning."
"_Did you_?" asked Mr. Holcombe sternly.
But at that, the school-teacher, having come home and found old Isaac
sound asleep in her cozy corner, set up such a screaming for the
police that our meeting broke up. Nor would Mr. Holcombe explain any
Mr. Holcombe was up very early the next morning. I heard him moving
around at five o'clock, and at six he banged at my door and demanded
to know at what time the neighborhood rose: he had been up for an hour
and there were no signs of life. He was more cheerful after he had had
a cup of coffee, commented on Lida's beauty, and said that Howell was
a lucky chap.
"That is what worries me, Mr. Holcombe," I said. "I am helping the
affair along and--what if it turns out badly?"
He looked at me over his glasses. "It isn't likely to turn out badly,"
he said. "I have never married, Mrs. Pitman, and I have missed a great
deal out of life."
"Perhaps you're better off: if you had married and lost your wife--" I
was thinking of Mr. Pitman.
"Not at all," he said with emphasis. "It's better to have married and
lost than never to have married at all. Every man needs a good woman,
and it doesn't matter how old he is. The older he is, the more he
needs her. I am nearly sixty."
I was rather startled, and I almost dropped the fried potatoes. But
the next moment he had got out his note-book and was going over
the items again. "Pillow-slip," he said, "knife _broken_, onyx
clock--wouldn't think so much of the clock if he hadn't been so
damnably anxious to hide the key, the discrepancy in time as revealed
by the trial--yes, it is as clear as a bell. Mrs. Pitman, does that
Maguire woman next door sleep all day?"
"She's up now," I said, looking out the window.
He was in the hall in a moment, only to come to the door later, hat in
hand. "Is she the only other woman on the street who keeps boarders?"
"She's the only woman who doesn't," I snapped. "She'll keep anything
that doesn't belong to her--except boarders."
He lighted his corn-cob pipe and stood puffing at it and watching me.
He made me uneasy: I thought he was going to continue the subject of
every man needing a wife, and I'm afraid I had already decided to take
him if he offered, and to put the school-teacher out and have a real
parlor again, but to keep Mr. Reynolds, he being tidy and no bother.
But when he spoke, he was back to the crime again: "Did you ever work
a typewriter?" he asked.
What with the surprise, I was a little sharp. "I don't play any
instrument except an egg-beater," I replied shortly, and went on
clearing the table.
"I wonder--do you remember about the village idiot and the horse? But
of course you do, Mrs. Pitman; you are a woman of imagination. Don't
you think you could be Alice Murray for a few moments? Now think--you
are a stenographer with theatrical ambitions: you meet an actor and
you fall in love with him, and he with you."
"That's hard to imagine, that last."
"Not so hard," he said gently. "Now the actor is going to put you on
the stage, perhaps in this new play, and some day he is going to marry
"Is that what he promised the girl?"
"According to some letters her mother found, yes. The actor is
married, but he tells you he will divorce the wife; you are to wait
for him, and in the meantime he wants you near him; away from the
office, where other men are apt to come in with letters to be typed,
and to chaff you. You are a pretty girl."
"It isn't necessary to overwork my imagination," I said, with a little
bitterness. I had been a pretty girl, but work and worry--
"Now you are going to New York very soon, and in the meantime you have
cut yourself off from all your people. You have no one but this man.
What would you do? Where would you go?"
"How old was the girl?"
"I think," I said slowly, "that if I were nineteen, and in love with a
man, and hiding, I would hide as near him as possible. I'd be likely
to get a window that could see his going out and coming in, a place so
near that he could come often to see me."
"Bravo!" he exclaimed. "Of course, with your present wisdom and
experience, you would do nothing so foolish. But this girl was in her
teens; she was not very far away, for he probably saw her that Sunday
afternoon, when he was out for two hours. And as the going was slow
that day, and he had much to tell and explain, I figure she was not
far off. Probably in this very neighborhood."
During the remainder of that morning I saw Mr. Holcombe, at intervals,
going from house to house along Union Street, making short excursions
into side thoroughfares, coming back again and taking up his door-bell
ringing with unflagging energy. I watched him off and on for two
hours. At the end of that time he came back flushed and excited.
"I found the house," he said, wiping his glasses. "She was there, all
right, not so close as we had thought, but as close as she could get."
"And can you trace her?" I asked.
His face changed and saddened. "Poor child!" he said. "She is dead,
"Not she--at Sewickley!"
"No," he said patiently. "That was Jennie Brice."
"Mr. Howell is a young ass," he said with irritation. "He did not take
Jennie Brice out of the city that morning. He took Alice Murray in
Jennie Brice's clothing, and veiled."
Well, that is five years ago. Five times since then the Allegheny
River, from being a mild and inoffensive stream, carrying a few boats
and a great deal of sewage, has become, a raging destroyer, and has
filled our hearts with fear and our cellars with mud. Five times since
then Molly Maguire has appropriated all that the flood carried from my
premises to hers, and five times have I lifted my carpets and moved
Mr. Holcombe, who occupies the parlor bedroom, to a second-floor room.
A few days ago, as I said at the beginning, we found Peter's body
floating in the cellar, and as soon as the yard was dry, I buried him.
He had grown fat and lazy, but I shall miss him.
Yesterday a riverman fell off a barge along the water-front and was
drowned. They dragged the river for his body, but they did not find
him. But they found something--an onyx clock, with the tattered
remnant of a muslin pillow-slip wrapped around it. It only bore out
the story, as we had known it for five years.
The Murray girl had lived long enough to make a statement to the
police, although Mr. Holcombe only learned this later. On the
statement being shown to Ladley in the jail, and his learning of the
girl's death, he collapsed. He confessed before he was hanged, and his
confession, briefly, was like this:
He had met the Murray girl in connection with the typing of his play,
and had fallen in love with her. He had never cared for his wife, and
would have been glad to get rid of her in any way possible. He had not
intended to kill her, however. He had planned to elope with the Murray
girl, and awaiting an opportunity, had persuaded her to leave home and
to take a room near my house.
Here he had visited her daily, while his wife was at the theater.
They had planned to go to New York together on Monday, March the
fifth. On Sunday, the fourth, however, Mr. Bronson and Mr. Howell
had made their curious proposition. When he accepted, Philip Ladley
maintained that he meant only to carry out the plan as suggested. But
the temptation was too strong for him. That night, while his wife
slept, he had strangled her.
I believe he was frantic with fear, after he had done it. Then it
occurred to him that if he made the body unrecognizable, he would be
safe enough. On that quiet Sunday night, when Mr. Reynolds reported
all peaceful in the Ladley room, he had cut off the poor wretch's head
and had tied it up in a pillow-slip weighted with my onyx clock!
It is a curious fact about the case that the scar which his wife
incurred to enable her to marry him was the means of his undoing. He
insisted, and I believe he was telling the truth, that he did not know
of the scar: that is, his wife had never told him of it, and had been
able to conceal it. He thought she had probably used paraffin in some
In his final statement, written with great care and no little literary
finish, he told the story in detail: of arranging the clues as Mr.
Howell and Mr. Bronson had suggested; of going out in the boat, with
the body, covered with a fur coat, in the bottom of the skiff: of
throwing it into the current above the Ninth Street bridge, and of
seeing the fur coat fall from the boat and carried beyond his reach;
of disposing of the head near the Seventh Street bridge: of going to a
drug store, as per the Howell instructions, and of coming home at four
o'clock, to find me at the head of the stairs.
[Illustration: While his wife slept.]
Several points of confusion remained. One had been caused by Temple
Hope's refusal to admit that the dress and hat that figured in the
case were to be used by her the next week at the theater. Mr. Ladley
insisted that this was the case, and that on that Sunday afternoon
his wife had requested him to take them to Miss Hope; that they had
quarreled as to whether they should be packed in a box or in the brown
valise, and that he had visited Alice Murray instead. It was on the
way there that the idea of finally getting rid of Jennie Brice came
to him. And a way--using the black and white striped dress of the
Another point of confusion had been the dismantling of his room that
Monday night, some time between the visit of Temple Hope and the
return of Mr. Holcombe. This was to obtain the scrap of paper
containing the list of clues as suggested by Mr. Howell, a clue that
might have brought about a premature discovery of the so-called hoax.
To the girl he had told nothing of his plan. But he had told her she
was to leave town on an early train the next morning, going as his
wife; that he wished her to wear the black and white dress and hat,
for reasons that he would explain later, and to be veiled heavily,
that to the young man who would put her on the train, and who had seen
Jennie Brice only once, she was to be Jennie Brice; to say as little
as possible and not to raise her veil. Her further instructions were
simple: to go to the place at Horner where Jennie Brice had planned
to go, but to use the name of "Bellows" there. And after she had been
there for a day or two, to go as quietly as possible to New York. He
gave her the address of a boarding-house where he could write her, and
where he would join her later.
He reasoned in this way: That as Alice Murray was to impersonate
Jennie Brice, and Jennie Brice hiding from her husband, she would
naturally discard her name. The name "Bellows" had been hers by a
previous marriage and she might easily resume it. Thus, to establish
his innocence, he had not only the evidence of Howell and Bronson that
the whole thing was a gigantic hoax; he had the evidence of Howell
that he had started Jennie Brice to Horner that Monday morning, that
she had reached Horner, had there assumed an incognito, as Mr.
Pitman would say, and had later disappeared from there, maliciously
concealing herself to work his undoing.
In all probability he would have gone free, seeing no one in the
church in all that throng but the boy who waited at the end of the
long church aisle--I wanted to run out and claim her, my own blood, my
more than child.
I sat down and covered my face. And from the pew behind me some one
leaned over and patted my shoulder.
"Miss Bess!" old Isaac said gently. "Don't take on, Miss Bess!"
He came the next day and brought me some lilies from the bride's
bouquet, that she had sent me, and a bottle of champagne from the
wedding supper. I had not tasted champagne for twenty years!
That is all of the story. On summer afternoons sometimes, when the
house is hot, I go to the park and sit. I used to take Peter, but now
he is dead. I like to see Lida's little boy; the nurse knows me
by sight, and lets me talk to the child. He can say "Peter" quite
plainly. But he does not call Alma "Grandmother." The nurse says she
does not like it. He calls her "Nana."
Lida does not forget me. Especially at flood-times, apologies, the
chiffon gown her mother had worn at her wedding. Alma had never worn
it but once, and now she was too stout for it. I took it; I am not
proud, and I should like Molly Maguire to see it.
Mr. Holcombe asked me last night to marry him. He says he needs me,
and that I need him.
I am a lonely woman, and getting old, and I'm tired of watching the
gas meter; and besides, with Peter dead, I need a man in the house all
the time. The flood district is none too orderly. Besides, when I have
a wedding dress laid away and a bottle of good wine, it seems a pity
not to use them.
I think I shall do it.
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