«From a bigamist trial in the old South», by S. E. Griggs

Sutton Elbert Griggs (1872-1933), was a best selling “negro-writer” who introduced sensationalism and genre elements into African-American fiction.

Note from Historyradio.org:
the following text is not a model for anything, but an entertaining discussion point for all students of the past.

The Hon. H. G. Volrees sat in his office room looking moodily out of the window. Since the desertion of his young bride his life had been one long day of misery to him. His mystification and anger increased with the years, and he had kept a standing offer of a large reward for information leading to the discovery of his wife. He had vowed vengeance upon the author or authors of his ruin.

“Come in,” said he in a response to a knock on his door.

A young Negro man walked in and Mr. Volrees turned around slowly to look at his caller.

“This is Mr. Volrees?” asked the Negro.

Mr. Volrees nodded assent, surveying the Negro from head to foot, noting the flush of excitement on his swarthy face.

“I understand that you have offered a reward for information leading to the discovery of the whereabouts of your wife,” said the Negro.

An angry flush appeared on Mr. Volrees’ face and he cast a look of withering contempt in the Negro’s direction, who read at once Mr. Volrees’ disgust over the fact that he, a Negro, dared to broach the question of his family trouble.

“Pardon me,” said the Negro, turning to leave.

“Come back! Are you a fool?” said Mr. Volrees angrily, his desire for information concerning his wife overcoming his scruples.

“My wife took me to be one and left me,” said the Negro in a tone of mock humility.

Mr. Volrees looked up quickly to see whether he meant what he was saying or was making a thrust at him. The solemn face of the Negro was non-committal.

“Now, what do you know?” asked Mr. Volrees gruffly.

“I know where your wife is,” said the Negro.

“How do you know that she is my wife?”

“I was the porter on the train that you and she began your bridal tour on,” replied the Negro.

“How have you been able to trace her?”

“I was the porter on the train on which she first came to Almaville. She came into the section of the coach for Negroes, and she and a Negro girl created a scene.”

“Go on!” almost shouted Volrees, now thoroughly aroused.

“The reward?” timidly suggested the Negro.

“Of course you get that. Go on!” said Volrees, with increasing impatience.

“The affair was so sad-like that I always remembered the looks of the two women,” resumed the Negro. “One night not long ago I saw the Negro girl buy a ticket to Goldsboro, Mississippi. It came to me like a flash that she was going to see your wife. She had the same sad look on her face that she had the night I saw them together. I followed this girl to Mississippi and sure enough I came upon your wife.”

Volrees had now arisen and was restlessly moving about the room, his brain in a whirl.

“Was she living with some family, or how was she situated?” he asked.

“She and her husband live——”

“Her husband!” thundered Volrees, grabbing the Negro in the collar, fancying that he was grabbing the other husband.

“The people there say that she is married,” said the Negro timidly.

“I will choke the liver out of the miscreant,” said Volrees, tightening his hold in the Negro’s collar as if in practice.

“I am not the man,” said the Negro, with growing determination in his voice. Volrees was thus recalled to himself and resumed his restless tramping.

“No, you are not the man. You are only a —— nigger.”

Grasping his hat, Volrees strode rapidly out of the room. At the door he bawled back,

“You will get your reward.”

The Negro followed Volrees at a distance and noted that he went to the office of an exceedingly shrewd detective.

In the course of a few days the city of Almaville was shocked with the news that a Mrs. Johnson, wife of a leading Mississippi planter had been arrested and brought to Almaville on a charge of bigamy. The prosecutor in the case was the Hon. H. G. Volrees, who claimed that the alleged Mrs. Johnson was none other than Eunice Seabright, who had married him. Mrs. Johnson denied being the former Miss Seabright, and employed able counsel to conduct her defense.

The stir in the highest social circles of Almaville was indeed great, and for days very little was talked of save the forthcoming Volrees-Johnson bigamy trial.

Long before the hour set for the trial of the alleged Eunice Volrees on the charge of bigamy the court house yard and the corridors were full of people, but, strange to say, the court room in which the trial was to take place, though open, was not occupied. The crowds thus far were composed of Negroes and white people in the middle walks of life, who looked upon the forthcoming trial as a ‘big folks” affair and, as if by agreement, the court room was spared for the occupancy of the elite. As the hour for the trial drew near the carriages and automobiles of the upper classes began to arrive. Each arrival would come in for a share of the attention of the middle classes and the distinguishing feature of each personage was told in whispers from one to another.

When the carriage of the Hon. H. G. Volrees rolled up to the court house gate silence fell upon the multitude and those on the walk leading to the court house door fell back and let him pass. His face wore a solemn, determined look and the common verdict was, “No mercy there. A fight to a finish.”

The court room was now fairly well filled with Almaville notables, and the plain people now crowded in to get seats as best they could or to occupy standing room. Almost the last carriage to arrive was that containing Eunice. The curtains to the carriage were drawn so that no one in it could be seen until the door was opened. Eunice and her lawyers stepped out and quickly closed the door behind them. Contrary to the expectations of many, she wore no veil and each person in the great throng was highly gratified at an opportunity to scrutinize her features thoroughly. A way was made for her through the great throng and she walked to the prisoner’s seat holding to the arm of her lawyer.

The case was called, a jury secured, and the examination of witnesses entered into. The first witness on the part of the State was the Hon. H. G. Volrees himself. As he took the witness chair a bustle was heard in the room. The people in the aisle were trying to squeeze themselves together more tightly to allow a man to pass who was leading a little six-year-old boy, who had just been taken from the carriage which had brought Eunice to the trial. “Make room, please. I am taking her son to her,” the man would say, and the crowd would fall away as best it could.

The Hon. H. G. Volrees had opened his mouth to begin his testimony when he noticed that his attorney, the opposing counsel, the judge and the officers of the court had turned their eyes toward the prisoner’s seat. As nobody seemed to be listening to him he halted in the midst of his first sentence and turned to see what was attracting the attention of the others. As he looked, a peculiar sensation passed over him. Perspiration broke out in beads and his veins stood out like whip cords. He clutched his chair tightly and cleared his throat.

There sat beside Eunice her child, having all of Mr. Volrees’ features. There were his dark chestnut hair, his large dark eyes, his nose, his lips, his poise and a dark brown stain beneath the left ear which had been a recurrence in the Volrees family for generations. The public was mystified as it was commonly understood that the marital relations had extended no farther than the marriage ceremony. The presence of this child looked therefore to be an impeachment of the integrity of Mr. Volrees and of Eunice. The wonder was as to why nothing about the child had been mentioned before. Mr. Volrees sat in his chair, his eyes fixed on the boy.

The lawyer at length resumed the examination of Mr. Volrees, but the latter made a sorry witness. It was evident that the coming in of this child had thoroughly upset him in some way. He was mystified, and his mind, grappling with the problem of his likeness sitting there before him, could not address itself to the functions of a witness in the case at issue. He was finally excused from the witness chair.

The other witnesses, who, out of sympathy for H. G. Volrees had come to identify Eunice as his bride, seeing his collapse, did not feel inclined to take the prosecution of the case upon themselves and their testimony did not have the positiveness necessary to carry conviction. It was very evident that the state had not made out a case and an acquittal seemed assured.

The Negro porter was in the court room eagerly watching the progress of the trial, knowing that the obtaining of his reward hinged upon the outcome of the case. He saw the trend of affairs and felt that something had to be done to stem the tide. He saw Tiara sitting in the court room, and said to the prosecuting attorney in a whisper, “Yonder is a colored girl who knows her thoroughly and can tell all about her.”

To her great surprise Tiara was called as a witness. She was a striking, beautiful figure, as she stood to take the oath that she would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

“Mr. Judge,” said Tiara, in a sweet, sad voice, “can it go on record that I am not a volunteer witness in this case?”

The judge looked a little puzzled and Tiara said, “At any rate, judge, if in after time it be said that I did not on this occasion stand up for those connected with me by ties of blood, I want it understood that I did not seek this chair—did not know that I was to be called; but since I am here, I shall fulfil my oath and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Tiara now took her seat in the witness chair.

Eunice leaned forward and gazed at Tiara, her thin beautiful lips quivering, her eyes trying to read the intent of Tiara’s soul.

Tiara looked at the recording clerk and appeared to address her testimony to him. Now that she was forced to speak she desired the whole truth to come out. Her poor tired soul now clutched at proffered surcease through the unburdening of itself. She began:

“In revolutionary times one of your most illustrious men, whose fame has found lodgment in all quarters of the globe, was clandestinely married to a Negro woman. My mother was a direct descendant of this man. My mother’s ancestors, descendants of this man, made a practice of intermarrying with mulattoes, until in her case all trace of Negro blood, so far as personal appearance was concerned, had disappeared. She married my father, he thinking that she was wholly white, and she thinking the same of him. Two children, a boy and a girl, having all the characteristics of whites, were born to them. Then I was born and my complexion showed plainly the traces of Negro blood. The community in which we lived, Shirleyville, Indiana, in a quiet way, was much disturbed over the Negro blood manifested in me, and my mother’s good name was imperilled.

“My mother confessed to my father the fact that she was a descendant of Negroes and he made a like confession to my mother as to his ancestry. When Shirleyville found out that my parents had Negro blood in their veins, I was regarded as a ‘reversion to type,’ and the storm blew over. My father became Mayor of the town, and great ambitions began to form in my mother’s heart.

“A notable social event was to take place at Indianapolis and my mother aspired to be a guest. She met with a rebuff because she had Negro blood in her veins. This rebuff corrupted my mother’s whole nature, and hardened her heart. She had my father to resign as Mayor. Our home was burned and we were all supposed to have perished in the flames. This was my mother’s way of having us born into the world again.

“My mother, father and the other two children began life over as whites, and I began it over as a lone Negro girl without family connection, and we all had this second start in life here in your city.

“Most all people in America have theories as to the best solution of the race problem, but my mother fancied that she had the one solution. She felt that the mixed bloods who could pass for whites ought to organize and cultivate unswerving devotion to the Negro race. According to her plan the mixed bloods thus taught should be sent into the life of the white people to work quietly year after year to break down the Southern white man’s idea of the Negro’s rights. She felt that the mixed bloods should lay hold of every center of power that could be reached. She set for herself the task of controlling the pulpit, the social circle and the politics of Almaville and eventually of the whole South and the nation. O she had grand, wild dreams! If she had succeeded in her efforts to utilize members of her own family, she had planned to organize the mixed bloods of the nation and effect an organization composed of cultured men and women that could readily pass for white, who were to shake the Southern system to its very foundation. With this general end in view, she had her son trained for the ministry. This son became an eloquent preacher. My mother through a forged recommendation, which, however, the son did not know to be forged, had him chosen as pastor of a leading church in this city.

“My mother had a strange power over most people and a peculiar power over my brother. He did not at all relish his peculiar situation, but my mother insisted that he was but obeying the scriptural injunction to preach the gospel to every creature. The minister in question was none other than the universally esteemed Rev. Percy G. Marshall, who now rests in a highly honored grave in your most exclusive cemetery, from which Negroes are barred as visitors.”

There was a marked sensation in the court room at this announcement concerning the racial affinity of the Rev. Percy G. Marshall.

“I visited my brother clandestinely; often he and I sorrowed together. On the night of the murder, which you all remember, and preceding that sad event, closely veiled I visited him at his study. When we were through talking I arose to go and opened the door. ‘Kiss your brother. We may not meet again,’ said he sadly. Neglecting to close the door I stepped up to him and kissed him. When I turned to go out I saw that Gus Martin, whom Leroy Crutcher, as I afterwards found out, had set to watching me, had seen us kiss each other. I hurried on home embarrassed that I could not explain the situation to him. When on the next day I read of my brother’s death, I immediately guessed all. That is how I had the key to bringing Gus Martin to terms. When he found out his awful mistake he was willing to surrender.

“So resulted my mother’s plans for the mastery of your Southern pulpit.”

Turning to Eunice, she said, “There is her daughter. Through her my mother hoped to lay hold on the political power of the state. But that girl loved a Negro, the son of the prosecutor, the Hon. H. G. Volrees [sensation in the court].

“After leaving her husband, Eunice came to live with me. Earl Bluefield, who is Mr. Volrees’ son [decided sensation] was wounded in a scuffle that was not so much to his credit, and he was brought to my house to recover. Eunice waited on him. They fell in love, left my home and married. This explains how that boy favors the Hon. Mr. Volrees. It is his grandson.”

Tiara now stood up and said, “Mr. Judge, it may not be regular, but permit me to say a few words.”

The whole court seemed under a spell and nobody stirred as Tiara spoke.

“My mother is dead and paid dearly for her unnatural course. But do not judge her too harshly. You people who are white do not know what an awful burden it is to be black in these days of the world. If some break down beneath the awful load of caste which you thrust upon them, mingle pity with your blame.”

Tiara paused an instant and then resumed:

“One word to you all. I am aware of the fact that the construction of a social fabric, such as your Anglo-Saxondom, has been one of the marvelous works of nature, and I realize that the maintenance of its efficiency for the stupendous world duties that lie before it demand that you have strict regard to the physical, mental and moral characteristics that go to constitute your aggregation. But I warn you to beware of the dehumanizing influence of caste. It will cause your great race to be warped, to be narrow. Oratory will decay in your midst; poetry will disappear or dwell in mediocrity, taking on a mocking sound and a metallic ring; art will become formal, lacking in spirit; huge soulless machines will grow up that will crush the life out of humanity; conditions will become fixed and there will be no way for those who are down to rise. Hope will depart from the bosoms of the masses. You will be a great but a soulless race. This will come upon you when your heart is cankered with caste. You will devour the Negro to-day, the humbler white to-morrow, and you who remain will then turn upon yourselves.”

Tiara paused and glanced around the court room as if to see how much sympathy she could read in the countenances of her hearers. The rapt attention, the kindly look in their eyes gave her courage to take up a question which the situation in the South made exceedingly delicate, when one’s audience was composed of Southern white people.

“One thing, Mr. Judge, wells up in me at this time, and I suppose I will have to say it, unless you stop me,” said Tiara, in the tone of one asking a question.

The judge made no reply and Tiara interpreted his silence to mean that she was permitted to proceed.

Said she: “You white people have seen fit to make the Negro a stranger to your social life and you further decree that he shall ever be thus. You know that this weakens his position in the governmental fabric. The fact that he is thus excluded puts a perennial question mark after him. Furthermore the social influence is a tremendous force in the affairs of men, as all history teaches. To all that goes to constitute this powerful factor in your life as a people, you have seen fit to pronounce the Negro a stranger. The pride of the Negro race has risen to the occasion and there is a thorough sentiment in that race in favor of racial integrity.

“So, by your decree and the cordial acceptance thereof by the Negro, he is to be a stranger to your social system. That is settled. The very fact that the Negro occupies an inherently weak position in your communal life makes it incumbent upon you to provide safeguards for him.

“Instead, therefore, of the Negro’s absence from the social circle being a warrant for his exclusion from political functions, it is an argument in favor of granting full political opportunity to him. When a man loses one eye, nature strengthens the other for its added responsibility. Just so, logically, it seems absurd to hold that the Negro should suffer the loss of a second power because he is shut out from the use of a first.

Dont circumscribe the able, noble souls among the Negroes. Give them the world as a playground for their talents and let Negro men dream of stars as do your men.” “Don’t circumscribe the able, noble souls among the Negroes. Give them the world as a playground for their talents and let Negro men dream of stars as do your men.”

“Your Bible says: ‘And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.’ White friends of the South! Let me beseech you to vex not this social stranger within your borders; the stranger who invades your swamps and drains them into his system for your comfort; who creeps through the slime of your sewers; who wrestles with the heat in your ditches and fields; who has borne your onerous burdens and cheered you with his song as he toiled; who has never heard the war whoop but that he has prepared for battle; whose one hope is to be allowed to live in peace by your side and develop his powers and those of his children that they may be factors in making of this land, the greatest in goodness in all this world. Don’t circumscribe the able, noble souls among the Negroes. Give them the world as a playground for their talents and let Negro men dream of stars as do your men. They need that as much as you do. As for me, I shall leave your land.”

Turning to Eunice, Tiara stretched forth her hands, appealingly and said, “Sister, come let us leave this country! Come.”

“Ha! ha!” laughed Eunice, with almost maniacal intensity, as she waved her hand in disdain at Tiara, who now slowly left the witness stand.

All eyes were now turned toward Eunice, who had arisen and stood trying to drive away the passions of rage that seemed to clutch her vocal cords so that she could not speak. At last getting sufficient strength to begin, she said:

“Honorable Judge and you jurymen: I declare to you all to-day that I am a white woman. My blood is the blood of the whites, my instincts, my feelings, my culture, my spirit, my all is cast in the same mould as yours. That woman who talked to you a few moments ago is a Negro. Don’t honor her word above mine, the word of a white woman. I invoke your law of caste. Look at me! Look at my boy! In what respect do we differ from you?”

She paused and drawing her small frame to its full height, with her hands outstretched across the railing, with hot scalding tears coursing down her cheeks, she said in tremulous tones:

“And now, gentlemen, I came here hoping to be acquitted, but in view of the statements made I want no acquittal. Your law prescribes, so I am told, that there can be no such thing as a marriage between whites and Negroes. To acquit me will be to say that I am a Negro woman and could not have married a white man. I implore you to convict me! Send me to prison! Let me wear a felon’s garb! Let my son know that his mother is a convict, but in the name of heaven I ask you, send not my child and me into Negro life. Send us not to a race cursed with petty jealousies, the burden bearers of the world. My God! the thought of being called a Negro is awful, awful!”

Eunice’s words were coming fast and she was now all but out of breath. After an instant’s pause, she began:

“One word more. For argument’s sake, grant that I have some Negro blood in me. You already make a mistake in making a gift of your blood to the African. Remember what your blood has done. It hammered out on fields of blood the Magna Charta; it took the head of Charles I.; it shattered the sceptre of George III.; it now circles the globe in an iron grasp. Think you not that this Anglo-Saxon blood loses its virility because of mixture with Negro blood. Ah! remember Frederick Douglass, he who as much as any other mortal brought armies to your doors that sacked your home. I plead with you, even if you accept that girl’s malicious slanders as being true, not to send your blood back to join forces with the Negro blood.”

Eunice threw an arm around her boy, who had arisen and was clutching her skirts. She parted her lips as if to speak farther, then settled back in her seat and closed her pretty blue eyes. Her tangled locks fell over her forehead and the audience looked in pity at the tired pretty girl.

Eunice’s attorneys waived their rights to speak and the attorney for the prosecution stated that he, too, would now submit the case without argument.

“Without further formality the jury will take this case under advisement. You need no charge from me. You are all Anglo-Saxons,” said the judge solemnly in a low tone of voice.

The jury filed into the jury room and began its deliberations. A tall, white haired man, foreman of the jury, arose and spoke as follows:

“Gentlemen: We have a sad case before us to-day. That girl has the white person’s feelings and it seems cruel to crush her and drive her from those for whom she has the most affinity to those whom she is least like. Then, I pity the boy. He carries in his veins some of our proudest blood, and it seems awful to cast away our own. But we must stand by our rule. One drop of Negro blood makes its possessor a Negro.

“Our great race stands in juxtaposition with overwhelming millions of darker people throughout the earth, and we must cling to the caste idea if we would prevent a lapse that would taint our blood and eventually undermine our greatness. It is hard, but it is civilization. We cannot find this girl guilty. It would be declaring that marriage between a white man and a Negro woman is a possibility.”

A vote was taken and the jury returned to the court room to render the verdict. “The prisoner at the bar will stand up,” said the judge. Eunice stood up and her little boy stood up as well. There was the element of pathos in the standing up of that little boy, for the audience knew that his destiny was involved in the case.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” asked the judge.

“We have,” replied the foreman.

“Please announce it.”

The audience held its breath in painful suspense. Eunice directed her burning gaze to the lips of the foreman, that she might, if possible, catch his fateful words even before they were fully formed.

“We, the jury, find the prisoner not guilty.”

“Murder!” wildly shrieked Eunice. “Doomed! Doomed! They call us Negroes, my son, and everybody knows what that means!” Her tones of despair moved every hearer.

The judge quietly shed a few tears and many another person in the audience wept. The crowd filed out, leaving Eunice clasping her boy to her bosom, mother and son mingling their tears together. Tiara lingered in the corridor to greet Eunice when the latter should come out of the room. She had thought to speak to her on this wise:

“Eunice, we have each other left. Let us be sisters as we were in the days of our childhood.”

But when Tiara confronted Eunice, the latter looked at her scornfully and passed on. When Tiara somewhat timidly caught hold of her dress as if to detain her, Eunice spat in her face and tore herself loose.

Excerpts from the novel The Hindered Hand: Or, The Reign or the Repressionist (1905) by Sutton Elbert Griggs (1872-1933)


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