The War Terror by Arthur B. Reeve
Chapter XXVIII. The Family Skeleton
Surprised though we were at the unmasking of Dr. Coleman, there was nothing to do but to follow the thing out. In such cases we usually ran into the greatest difficulty--organized vice. This was no exception.
Even when cases involved only a clever individual or a prominent family, it was the same. I recall, for example, the case of a well-known family in a New York suburb, which was particularly difficult. It began in a rather unusual manner, too.
"Mr. Kennedy--I am ruined--ruined."
It was early one morning that the telephone rang and I answered it. A very excited German, breathless and incoherent, was evidently at the other end of the wire.
I handed the receiver to Craig and picked up the morning paper lying on the table.
"Minturn--dead?" I heard Craig exclaim. "In the paper this morning? I'll be down to see you directly."
Kennedy almost tore the paper from me. In the next to the end column where late news usually is dropped was a brief account of the sudden death of Owen Minturn, one of the foremost criminal lawyers of the city, in Josephson's Baths downtown.
It ended: "It is believed by the coroner that Mr. Minturn was shocked to death and evidence is being sought to show that two hundred and forty volts of electricity had been thrown into the attorney's body while he was in the electric bath. Joseph Josephson, the proprietor of the bath, who operated the switchboard, is being held, pending the completion of the inquiry."
As Kennedy hastily ran his eye over the paragraphs, he became more and more excited himself.
"Walter," he cried, as he finished, "I don't believe that that was an accident at all."
"Why?" I asked.
He already had his hat on, and I knew he was going to Josephson's breakfastless. I followed reluctantly.
"Because," he answered, as we hustled along in the early morning crowd, "it was only yesterday afternoon that I saw Minturn at his office and he made an appointment with me for this very morning. He was a very secretive man, but he did tell me this much, that he feared his life was in danger and that it was in some way connected with that Pearcy case up in Stratfield, Connecticut, where he has an estate. You have read of the case?"
Indeed I had. It had seemed to me to be a particularly inexplicable affair. Apparently a whole family had been poisoned and a few days before old Mr. Randall Pearcy, a retired manufacturer, had died after a brief but mysterious illness.
Pearcy had been married a year or so ago to Annette Oakleigh, a Broadway comic opera singer, who was his second wife. By his first marriage he had had two children, a son, Warner, and a daughter, Isabel.
Warner Pearcy, I had heard, had blazed a vermilion trail along the Great White Way, but his sister was of the opposite temperament, interested in social work, and had attracted much attention by organizing a settlement in the slums of Stratfield for the uplift of the workers in the Pearcy and other mills.
Broadway, as well as Stratfield, had already woven a fantastic background, for the mystery and hints had been broadly made that Annette Oakleigh had been indiscreetly intimate with a young physician in the town, a Dr. Gunther, a friend, by the way, of Minturn. "There has been no trial yet," went on Kennedy, "but Minturn seems to have appeared before the coroner's jury at Stratfield and to have asserted the innocence of Mrs. Pearcy and that of Dr. Gunther so well that, although the jury brought in a verdict of murder by poison by some one unknown, there has been no mention of the name of anyone else. The coroner simply adjourned the inquest so that a more careful analysis might be made of the vital organs. And now comes this second tragedy in New York."
"What was the poison?" I asked. "Have they found out yet?"
"They are pretty sure, so Minturn told me, that it was lead poisoning. The fact not generally known is," he added in a lower tone, "that the cases were not confined to the Pearcy house. They had even extended to Minturn's too, although about that he said little yesterday. The estates up there adjoin, you know."
Owen Minturn, I recalled, had gained a formidable reputation by his successful handling of cases from the lowest strata of society to the highest. Indeed it was a byword that his appearance in court indicated two things--the guilt of the accused and a verdict of acquittal.
"Of course," Craig pursued as we were jolted from station to station downtown, "you know they say that Minturn never kept a record of a case. But written records were as nothing compared to what that man must have carried only in his head."
It was a common saying that, if Minturn should tell all he knew, he might hang half a dozen prominent men in society. That was not strictly true, perhaps, but it was certain that a revelation of the things confided to him by clients which were never put down on paper would have caused a series of explosions that would have wrecked at least some portions of the social and financial world. He had heard much and told little, for he had been a sort of "father confessor."
Had Minturn, I wondered, known the name of the real criminal?
Josephson's was a popular bath on Forty-second Street, where many of the "sun-dodgers" were accustomed to recuperate during the day from their arduous pursuit of pleasure at night and prepare for the resumption of their toil during the coming night. It was more than that, however, for it had a reputation for being conducted really on a high plane.
We met Josephson downstairs. He had been released under bail, though the place was temporarily closed and watched over by the agents of the coroner and the police. Josephson appeared to be a man of some education and quite different from what I had imagined from hearing him over the telephone.
"Oh, Mr. Kennedy," he exclaimed, "who now will come to my baths? Last night they were crowded, but to-day--"
He ended with an expressive gesture of his hands.
"One customer I have surely lost, young Mr. Pearcy," he went on.
"Warner Pearcy?" asked Craig. "Was he here last night?"
"Nearly every night," replied Josephson, now glib enough as his first excitement subsided and his command of English returned. "He was a neighbor of Mr. Minturn's, I hear. Oh, what luck!" growled Josephson as the name recalled him to his present troubles.
"Well," remarked Kennedy with an attempt at reassurance as if to gain the masseur's confidence, "I know as well as you that it is often amazing what a tremendous shock a man may receive and yet not be killed, and no less amazing how small a shock may kill. It all depends on circumstances."
Josephson shot a covert look at Kennedy. "Yes," he reiterated, "but I cannot see how it could be. If the lights had become short- circuited with the bath, that might have thrown a current into the bath. But they were not. I know it."
"Still," pursued Kennedy, watching him keenly, "it is not all a question of current. To kill, the shock must pass through a vital organ--the brain, the heart, the upper spinal cord. So, a small shock may kill and a large one may not. If it passes in one foot and out by the other, the current isn't likely to be as dangerous as if it passes in by a hand or foot and then out by a foot or hand. In one case it passes through no vital organ; in the other it is very likely to do so. You see, the current can flow through the body only when it has a place of entrance and a place of exit. In all cases of accident from electric light wires, the victim is touching some conductor--damp earth, salty earth, water, something that gives the current an outlet and--"
"But even if the lights had been short-circuited," interrupted Josephson, "Mr. Minturn would have escaped injury unless he had touched the taps of the bath. Oh, no, sir, accidents in the medical use of electricity are rare. They don't happen here in my establishment," he maintained stoutly. "The trouble was that the coroner, without any knowledge of the physiological effects of electricity on the body, simply jumped at once to the conclusion that it was the electric bath that did it."
"Then it was for medical treatment that Mr. Minturn was taking the bath?" asked Kennedy, quickly taking up the point.
"Yes, of course," answered the masseur, eager to explain. "You are acquainted with the latest treatment for lead poisoning by means of the electric bath?"
Kennedy nodded. "I know that Sir Thomas Oliver, the English authority who has written much on dangerous trades, has tried it with marked success."
"Well, sir, that was why Mr. Minturn was here. He came here introduced by a Dr. Gunther of Stratfield."
"Indeed?" remarked Kennedy colorlessly, though I could see that it interested him, for evidently Minturn had said nothing of being himself a sufferer from the poison. "May I see the bath?"
"Surely," said Josephson, leading the way upstairs.
It was an oaken tub with metal rods on the two long sides, from which depended prismatic carbon rods. Kennedy examined it closely.
"This is what we call a hydro-electric bath," Josephson explained. "Those rods on the sides are the electrodes. You see there are no metal parts in the tub itself. The rods are attached by wiring to a wall switch out here."
He pointed to the next room. Kennedy examined the switch with care.
"From it," went on Josephson, "wires lead to an accumulator battery of perhaps thirty volts. It uses very little current. Dr. Gunther tested it and found it all right."
Craig leaned over the bath, and from the carbon electrodes scraped off a white powder in minute crystals.
"Ordinarily," Josephson pursued, "lead is eliminated by the skin and kidneys. But now, as you know, it is being helped along by electrolysis. I talked to Dr. Gunther about it. It is his opinion that it is probably eliminated as a chloride from the tissues of the body to the electrodes in the bath in which the patient is wholly or partly immersed. On the positive electrodes we get the peroxide. On the negative there is a spongy metallic form of lead. But it is only a small amount."
"The body has been removed?" asked Craig.
"Not yet," the masseur replied. "The coroner has ordered it kept here under guard until he makes up his mind what disposition to have made of it."
We were next ushered into a little room on the same floor, at the door of which was posted an official from the coroner.
"First of all," remarked Craig, as he drew back the sheet and began, a minute examination of the earthly remains of the great lawyer, "there are to be considered the safeguards of the human body against the passage through it of a fatal electric current-- the high electric resistance of the body itself. It is particularly high when the current must pass through joints such as wrists, knees, elbows, and quite high when the bones of the head are concerned. Still, there might have been an incautious application of the current to the head, especially when the subject is a person of advanced age or latent cerebral disease, though I don't know that that fits Mr. Minturn. That's strange," he muttered, looking up, puzzled. "I can find no mark of a burn on the body--absolutely no mark of anything."
"That's what I say," put in Josephson, much pleased by what Kennedy said, for he had been waiting anxiously to see what Craig discovered on his own examination. "It's impossible."
"It's all the more remarkable," went on Craig, half to himself and ignoring Josephson, "because burns due to electric currents are totally unlike those produced in other ways. They occur at the point of contact, usually about the arms and hands, or the head. Electricity is much to be feared when it involves the cranial cavity." He completed his examination of the head which once had carried secrets which themselves must have been incandescent.
"Then, too, such burns are most often something more than superficial, for considerable heat is developed which leads to massive destruction and carbonization of the tissues to a considerable depth. I have seen actual losses of substance--a lump of killed flesh surrounded by healthy tissues. Besides, such burns show an unexpected indolence when compared to the violent pains of ordinary burns. Perhaps that is due to the destruction of the nerve endings. How did Minturn die? Was he alone? Was he dead when he was discovered?"
"He was alone," replied Josephson, slowly endeavoring to tell it exactly as he had seen it, "but that's the strange part of it. He seemed to be suffering from a convulsion. I think he complained at first of a feeling of tightness of his throat and a twitching of the muscles of his hands and feet. Anyhow, he called for help. I was up here and we rushed in. Dr. Gunther had just brought him and then had gone away, after introducing him, and showing him the bath."
Josephson proceeded slowly, evidently having been warned that anything he said might be used against him. "We carried him, when he was this way, into this very room. But it was only for a short time. Then came a violent convulsion. It seemed to extend rapidly all over his body. His legs were rigid, his feet bent, his head back. Why, he was resting only on his heels and the back of his head. You see, Mr. Kennedy, that simply could not be the electric shock."
"Hardly," commented Kennedy, looking again at the body. "It looks more like a tetanus convulsion. Yet there does not seem to be any trace of a recent wound that might have caused lockjaw. How did he look?"
"Oh, his face finally became livid," replied Josephson. "He had a ghastly, grinning expression, his eyes were wide, there was foam on his mouth, and his breathing was difficult."
"Not like tetanus, either," revised Craig. "There the convulsion usually begins with the face and progresses to the other muscles. Here it seems to have gone the other way."
"That lasted a minute or so," resumed the masseur. "Then he sank back--perfectly limp. I thought he was dead. But he was not. A cold sweat broke out all over him and he was as if in a deep sleep."
"What did you do?" prompted Kennedy.
"I didn't know what to do. I called an ambulance. But the moment the door opened, his body seemed to stiffen again. He had one other convulsion--and when he grew limp he was dead."