Bananas

Jane Campbell

  • The Death of Old Man Rice: A Story of Criminal Justice in America by Martin Friedland
    New York, 423 pp, $29.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 8147 2627 5

At first it was supposed that William Marsh Rice, millionaire and founder of Rice University in Texas, had died from eating bananas; nine bananas, in fact, five baked and four raw. He had invited his valet Charlie Jones to join him. The valet, who later confessed that he had Chloroformed his employer, refused: ‘I told him that I was afraid of bananas and wouldn’t try any.’ Dr Curry, who attended the body, found that the 84-year-old man had died of natural causes. Worry about the Galveston hurricane, which had taken place a fortnight before, in August 1900, had exacerbated his decline, but eating bananas had been the major cause of death.

A lawyer called Albert T. Patrick took charge of the funeral arrangements. On the day after Rice’s death, Patrick tried to have four cheques certified. The cheques, all made out to himself, totalled $250,000, and appeared to have been signed by Rice on the day before he died. When James A. Baker, a Texas lawyer whose firm had represented Rice for many years and who had drawn up his will in 1896, arrived in New York, he went to Rice’s Madison Avenue apartment, where he met Patrick. ‘I suppose you are surprised to find me in charge,’ Patrick said, then explained that he had met Rice when they were both involved in litigation regarding the will of the late Mrs Rice and they had become friends. He then further confounded Baker: ‘You should also know that I have a will Rice made in June 1900 making me the residuary legatee of nine-tenths of his estate.’ When Baker asked why Rice had done this, Patrick said: ‘To be frank with you, the old man became, as it were, stuck on me; he thought I was the most wonderful man in the world.’ He added that he did not intend to keep the money for himself but, in accordance with Rice’s wishes, ‘to distribute it in great measure to charities ... I intend to quiet the voice of suffering wherever I hear it – in the name of William M. Rice.’ As things turned out the voice of suffering was to go unquieted, because Patrick was shortly thereafter charged with murder. It was alleged that he had forged the will of 1900, and then persuaded Charlie Jones to do away with the old man. He protested his innocence from the outset.

The press took up the case with alacrity. Murder cases in New York City were still relatively infrequent and this one had more than its fair share of interesting elements. The newspapers were particularly fascinated by the valet Charlie Jones, the only other occupant of Rice’s apartment, who eventually confessed to the murder, after giving at least three other versions of events. Jones had a complicated personal life and was seeing three different girls at the time of the murder – one of them only to avoid a breach of promise suit: ‘That is the hole I am in now. I never promised to marry her,’ he grumbled. The World and the Herald soon discovered that Jones had recently taken lessons at the American School of Hypnotism. The World ran several front-page stories, complete with diagrams, and a portrait of Jones’s eyes with the caption ‘Valet Jones’s Hypnotic Eyes’. Various people theorised about how Jones might have used his hypnotic powers to gain control of Rice, but then Dr Ferris, principal of the School of Hypnotism, admitted that he could have been mistaken and that Jones might not have been a pupil after all. Undeterred, the Herald continued to run hypnotism stories.

Jones was followed everywhere by the press, complaining after dropping off his washing at Foo Ching’s laundry on 42nd Street: ‘My name is Charles F. McKay Jones, not Valet Jones,’ At Patrick’s trial Jones testified that, at the lawyer’s urging, he had placed a cone-shaped towel with a chloroform-saturated sponge in its tip over Rice’s face while he slept and so brought about his death. He was never charged with anything himself and after the trial disappeared into Texas. Patrick’s lawyers tried unsuccessfully to find him, but did find a girl he had made pregnant and several people who were willing to swear that Jones had told them that Rice had died of natural causes. The rumours later became more extravagant and Jones was said to be in Russia, Mexico, Panama, and even the ground: murdered by the irate father and brother of a girl he had wronged.

By the time the trial ended in 1902 it was the longest on record in New York City. Patrick was convicted (women were cleared from the courtroom before the verdict was announced; the American noted ‘this is the rule in all capital cases ... Justice abhors scenes’), sentenced to death and dispatched to the ‘death house’ in Sing Sing prison. Then began the appeals, motions and petitions which were to last for the next ten years or thereabouts, until Patrick was released by order of the Governor of New York. In addition, long and costly litigation continued on the subject both of Rice’s disputed will, and that of his late wife.

Rice, probably the wealthiest Texan in the United States when he died, had made his money in everything from liquor, ice and cotton to railways. Two weeks before he died the Galveston hurricane hit, killing six thousand people and causing Rice dreadful worry about his losses. Both sides in the case accused the other of having too much money. Patrick’s defence and successive appeals were paid for by his brother-in-law John T. Milliken, who had married Patrick’s beautiful sister May. Milliken had telegraphed Patrick’s counsel at the beginning of the case: ‘One million dollars, if necessary, for Patrick’s legitimate defence.’ As the case wore on and the defence case became clearer more and more people were willing to testify that Jones had told them he had lied and that Rice had died a natural death. The prosecution asked in exasperation: ‘Where, when and how will this end if they are permitted to get new witnesses whenever others are torn to shreds and some of them are put in jail? The state of Texas is large and they can get new witnesses as long as Milliken’s bank roll lasts.’ May Milliken told the press: ‘I know that the Rice millions will buy up anything that may be discovered to my brother’s advantage, so I shall be very careful in talking about new evidence in his favour.’

Some of the lawyers in the case made monstrous sums. Hornblower, who acted for the Rice trustees, submitted a bill for $275,000. Baker and Botts received $200,000 for work in the will litigation: the total yearly gross income of the entire firm was only $48,000 in 1900 and $112,000 in 1905. One article in the Houston Post alleged that because the Patrick will had ‘deprived interested parties in Texas of a vast fortune he had to be put to death to enable them to acquire possession of it ... It is asserted that the fees paid to the lawyers in New York representing the estate are the largest fees ever paid attorneys in connection with any criminal case in the history of the world.’ In 1906, when Patrick’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, the subject of money was raised again by the press. The Evening Sun asked: ‘Is the chance equal as between those who have the money to pay for eminent legal services and for those who have not?’ while the Fort Worth Record bluntly stated: ‘It is impossible to hang a rich man.’

The district attorney said that it was difficult to assemble a jury ‘owing to the notoriety and publicity which has been given’ to the case ‘and to the fact that it has been widely commented on’. Television may have made it almost impossible to find a jury for O.J. Simpson, but before TV there was the cigar store. One potential juror owned a cigar store and said that he had discussed the case with his customers. He had heard many different opinions of it but admitted that the more he sided with the opinion of a customer, the more cigars he sold: he was peremptorily challenged by the prosecution. Reluctance was another problem: Judge Goff complained that ‘citizens are becoming too well educated in finding excuses for the evasion of their duties.’ When it was claimed that one man had a cold which affected his hearing Goff said: ‘If a cold was a ground for excuse there would be an epidemic tomorrow on the jury panel.’

The medical evidence on which Patrick was convicted was dubious. At the trial it was claimed that the congested state of Rice’s lungs was due to some gaseous irritation, like chloroform. Later Patrick asserted that the state of the lungs was caused by the embalming process and he appealed to the Medico-Legal Society to investigate this. The Society agreed with him and became fiercely involved in the debate, holding demonstrations on corpses to prove that embalming fluid, when introduced through the right brachial artery, will enter the lungs. While Patrick’s (unsuccessful) 1906 petition for a pardon was pending, the Society held a dinner, with demonstration, to which they invited the Governor of New York. The New York Mail reported, ‘the invitation does not specify whether the embalming and autopsy will take place before or after the dinner.’ The Society urged doctors and embalmers to take up Patrick’s cause. The embalmers’ journal Sunnyside (‘the Oldest and Leading Embalmers’ Journal in the World’) stated in an editorial that there was not a ‘scintilla’ of evidence of murder. Meanwhile 35,000 doctors signed a petition asking for an independent commission of inquiry. Dr James Ewing, a professor of pathology at Cornell, and founder of the American Cancer Society, sent a letter to the Governor’s legal adviser saying:

The present practice of calling expert medical testimony in homicide cases is a disgrace to our civilisation. The bearded ignoramus, the busy practitioner, the half-trained pathologist are called at random, and the testimony of each is given equal weight by the lay judge and jury, or is estimated by law standards. I would urge upon you, as a jurist, that of all branches of medicine experimental pathology is the most highly technical, expert and difficult, requiring rare natural gifts and long and critical training.

Patrick had less luck with the handwriting experts. Before the original trial the prosecution had gone to great lengths to obtain Opinions from all the reputable experts in the US, not because they intended to use them all, but in order to prevent them from being hired by the defence. David Carvalho (described by a colleague as ‘the Paul Bunyon of document examiners’) had given an opinion in the Dreyfus case and was the author of Forty Centuries of Ink. He said that the signatures on the cheques were exactly like one another and that therefore they must have been traced. At the trial Albert S. Osborn, who also believed the signatures on the will of 1900 to be forgeries, was asked whether any thing could change his opinion. ‘Nothing,’ he replied.

If two very reliable witnesses were produced and testified that they saw Mr Rice sign that will what would you say?’

‘I would say that they were either lying or that they were mistaken.’

‘What if Archbishop Corrigan and Bishop Potter so testified?’

This question, Friedland notes, was not allowed. Several cashiers from Houston were called to testify that the disputed signatures were not Rice’s. After one bank-teller too many the judge testily declined to hear from any more, saying: ‘It is manifest that the cross-examination is degenerating into levity.’

Friedland has a good eye for such exchanges and writes well about the minor characters in the affair. There were seven Texan witnesses dressed in flannel shirts and wide-brimmed hats whose ‘rough-and-ready costumes’, according to the Evening Sun, ‘lent a cow-punching atmosphere to the proceedings and suggested a round up rather than a court hearing’. One of them was a man named Joe Jordon, who testified that Charlie Jones had told him that Rice had died of natural causes. His credibility as a witness was undermined, however, when he denied under oath that he had been in prison in Texas from 1877 to 1882. ‘That was a cousin of mine,’ he said, and went on to describe the cousin who was the same age as him, looked like him, had the same name, had a cross and the initials JJ tattooed on his arm and was also, like him, crippled in the left leg. The cousin, he said, was now dead. Unfortunately for him, a guard from the penitentiary was called and identified Jordon: ‘I could identify his skin in a tannery.’ The World took Joe Jordon and the other Texans out on the town: ‘We didn’t discuss the case. We were out for a good time.’ Jordon was depressed, not only by what had happened in court but because he was staying in a non-alcoholic hotel. Jordon told the World about a similar hotel in Houston:

He told us of seeking lodgings for a belated and extremely intoxicated friend in Houston once. Mr Jordan said he bore the overcome friend into the office of a big hotel like carrying in a side of bacon. It was 3 a.m.

  ‘Don’t bring that man in here; this is a temperance house!’ said the night clerk.

  ‘It’s all right,’ said Mr Jordan; ‘he’s too drunk to know it.’

David Short, one of the witnesses to the 1900 will, was involved in several dubious enterprises: he promoted a device called ‘The Bust Developer’ and sold stock in the Dr Hortelius Medicine Company, which manufactured medicines for ‘lost manhood’. Another witness, Miss Minnie Gaillard, a Texas teacher, was questioned for a full five minutes before she would reveal her age.

‘How old are you?’ District Attorney Jerome asked her.

‘That’s got nothing to do with the case,’ she replied. After some toing and froing she was threatened with being found in contempt of court.

‘Oh, I didn’t know it was a criminal offence,’ she said. ‘I beg your pardon.’

‘All right. How old are you?’ asked the D.A.

‘From 39 to 50,’ she said.