Edmund Lester Pearson: Another "Edwin Drood" Trial

First pub­lished in "The Na­tion". vol. 98, 1914

John Jasper, whose neck was saved from the En­glish hang­man through Mr. Bernard Shaw's de­sire to make an epi­gram, is again to be put in jeop­ardy of his life. This time it is in Philadel­phia, where a mock-tri­al of the al­leged mur­der­er of Edwin Drood will be held on April 29.

It is a won­der they did not hang him in Lon­don. Fore­man Shaw of the jury had his lit­tle joke about finding him guilty of manslaugh­ter "in the spir­it of com­pro­mise." But it is pos­si­ble that all the ju­ry­men would have voted for a ver­dict of mur­der in the first de­gree if it had not been for the pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney. Mr. Cum­ing Wal­ters, who “led for the Crown," arose at eleven o'clock in the evening and de­liv­ered a long, very earnest, and rather dull ad­dress. In short, he bored the jury, the Court, and the au­di­ence, “full of holes." Mr. Wal­ters has writ­ten one book, com­piled an­oth­er, and pub­lished any num­ber of let­ters, ar­ti­cles, and ad­dress­es to prove that Jasper's plot against Edwin Drood re­al­ly suc­ceed­ed. So he not only re­fused to be frivolous about the case, but he al­most de­clined to be in­ter­est­ing. A dis­cus­sion about the make-be­lieve char­ac­ters in a novel had no room in it, he thought, for light­ness. And so the jury re­volt­ed and Jasper got off with his life.

The cards were stacked against Jasper from the start. The choir-mas­ter walked into court a half-doomed man. The de­fence seems to have taken a rather aca­dem­ic in­ter­est in an ac­quit­tal. But Mr. Wal­ters's thirst for a con­vic­tion was very real. For nine or ten years (since his pub­li­ca­tion of “Clues to the Mys­tery of Edwin Drood") he has pur­sued Jasper as re­lent­less­ly as fate. And the de­fence vir­tu­al­ly gave their case away be­fore the trial began. They agreed not to pro­duce Edwin in court, and then tried to clear his uncle of the charge of mur­der­ing him. This was an egre­gious blun­der. Jasper's lawyers should have in­sist­ed upon pro­duc­ing in court a per­son — Datch­ery, or an­oth­er — who would in­sist that he was Edwin Drood. Then the jury could have de­cid­ed the ques­tion of iden­ti­ty.


If a writ­er who has re­cent­ly de­scribed the ap­proach­ing Philadel­phia trial, in the Boston Tran­script, is cor­rect­ly in­formed, then the de­fence is going to make a worse blun­der than that made in Lon­don. “It was pro­posed by the de­fence," he writes, “to call Drood him­self to the stand by proxy, but the pros­e­cu­tion, rather than be hand­i­capped by such a pro­ceed­ing, agreed to admit that Drood was dead.”

That was good of them! It gives them their case half-won. In Lon­don, He­le­na Land­less was per­mit­ted to go on the wit­ness stand and tes­ti­fy that she was Mr. Datch­ery; that she, the Ori­en­tal tragedy queen, al­ready in love with that prop­er­est of per­sons, the Rev. Dr. Crisparkle, had been ca­reer­ing about Clois­ter­ham in trousers and wig, eat­ing fried sole, veal cut­let, and a pint of sher­ry for her din­ner!

It is true that she said she did not drink the sher­ry, but poured it away. This is an in­ven­tion of the ex­po­nents of the He­le­na-Datch­ery the­o­ry — Dick­ens says noth­ing about it. It is also true that the de­fence called Baz­zard, who, in turn, tes­ti­fied that he was Datch­ery. Mr. Wal­ters, in cross-ex­am­i­na­tion, was far less suc­cess­ful in de­stroy­ing his ev­i­dence than Mr. Cecil Chester­ton, for the de­fence, had been in shak­ing He­le­na's story.

The iden­ti­ty of Datch­ery is, of course, a sep­a­rate prob­lem from the ques­tion of Jasper's guilt. It is, un­less Datch­ery was Edwin Drood him­self. And if the de­fence be not per­mit­ted to make this con­tention any ar­gu­ment about Datch­ery mere­ly pro­longs the trial — though it may add some humor to it. At the En­glish trial Mr. "Jus­tice" Gilbert K. Chester­ton had to re­mind the pros­e­cu­tor that his lengthy cross-ex­am­i­na­tion of Baz­zard was drag­ging a lit­tle. They must get on, for “we are all in high hopes of hang­ing some­body."


They say that the Philadel­phia trial will be em­i­nent­ly fair be­cause of the lawyers who are to take part in it. A Jus­tice of the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court will be on the bench, and the pros­e­cu­tion will be con­duct­ed by At­tor­ney-Gen­er­al Bell and Judge Pat­ter­son, of the Court of Com­mon Pleas.

Re­al­ly, noth­ing could look worse for Jasper. Legal­ly, the ev­i­dence against him is tremen­dous. It is be­cause Mr. Wal­ters and Sir Robert­son Nicoll have looked at the prob­lem in such a cold, legal light that they are sure of Jasper’s legal as well as moral guilt. But imag­ine the choir-mas­ter's at­tor­neys try­ing to pre­sent it as an artis­tic prob­lem, as a study of the human equa­tion! Those judges and lawyers would sim­ply dance on the idea.

There is one ray of hope for Jasper. Among the tales­men are George Ade and “Mr. Doo­ley." The lawyers for the de­fence ought to see to it that these two hu­morists get into the box. They may find a way out for the pris­on­er.


The “legal" case for Jasper’s guilt is very strong. Cer­tain­ly, Dick­ens told Forster that his story was to con­cern an uncle who should mur­der his nephew. Cer­tain­ly, the nov­el­ist’s son and daugh­ter be­lieved that their fa­ther died still in­tend­ing the mur­der to suc­ceed. Cer­tain­ly, Dick­ens told Fildes, the il­lus­tra­tor, that Jasper must have a black scarf — for with that “Jasper stran­gles Edwin Drood." Cer­tain­ly, eigh­teen out of the thir­ty-two prin­ci­pal com­men­ta­tors on the prob­lem have be­lieved that the plot did not mis­car­ry, and that Edwin’s dead body was ac­tu­al­ly placed in the quick-lime after that sin­is­ter Christ­mas Eve din­ner.

But — it is not a legal prob­lem, in the nar­row sense. It is a human prob­lem — a ques­tion of the work­ings of a nov­el­ist's mind. An­oth­er nov­el­ist or lit­er­ary man is a bet­ter judge in the case than any lawyer who looks at it in a pure­ly pro­fes­sion­al light. That Jasper tried to mur­der Edwin is de­nied by no one; the ques­tion is whether he is legal­ly as well as moral­ly guilty. The list of lit­er­ary folk, es­pe­cial­ly imag­i­na­tive writ­ers, who be­lieve that Edwin es­caped is rather im­pres­sive: “Or­pheus G. Kerr,” “Gillan Vase," An­drew Lang, William Archer, Comyns Carr, M. R. James, Clement Short­er, and Cecil Chester­ton.

Forster and the Dick­ens­es heard from the nov­el­ist that Edwin was mur­dered, but there is no proof that the plan was not changed af­ter­wards. Charles Dick­ens was ap­par­ent­ly in trou­ble with his plot to­wards the last days of his life. The state­ment to Fildes about the black scarf is not con­clu­sive — an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt might have been made with the scarf. (Fildes never seems to have drawn it, by the way.) Fi­nal­ly, and it is a point sel­dom em­pha­sized, the ma­chin­ery of the opium, Jasper's drugged trances, seem ut­ter­ly un­nec­es­sary un­less they were to pre­vent the mur­der. They would ex­plain how the at­tempt failed, and do it beau­ti­ful­ly. What other pur­pose have they?