Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.
August 12th, 1913
By JAMES B. NEVIN.
Reader, proverbially gentle, if not always so, be glad, be joyful, and be filled with exceeding thankfulness that you have not been summoned, no matter which way, as a witness in the Frank trial!
Of course, there is a large, fat chance that you have been summoned—most everybody has—but be all those nice things aforesaid, if you haven’t.
And even at that, knock on wood.
The trial is young yet—it is not quite three weeks old, three weeks, count ‘em—and there still is time for somebody or other to remember that you may know something or other about something or other that may have something or other to do with the case.
Anyway, if you can’t be glad and all the rest of it, be just as glad and as nearly all the rest of it as you can, while the being is good or in anywise promising.
If you are a witness in the Frank case, you are skating on about the thinnest ice ever—it makes no different whatever whose pond you are skating on.
You are ambrosia and cake to one side and you likewise are gall and wormwood to the other—be very sure of that!
If your wife will have anything at all to do with you, and if the neighbors love you any more, when you get back home, it will be entirely because one side or the other forgot to mention the fact that once upon a time you were a horse thief, or somebody said you were a horse thief, or that you had an uncle who was a horse thief, or some pleasant little thing like that.
They don’t care particularly whether you ever look like anything any more, after they get through with you down there in the big court nowadays.
Cross-Examining Is What Hurts.
Always on the direct examination, of course, the sledding is elegant.
The gentlemanly party then asking you gentlemanly questions wouldn’t hurt your feelings for the world.
He knows you are a law-abiding citizen and worthy of any trust. He dotes upon you. He loves you. He is your friend until that thing that now and then breaks loose in Georgia freezes over.
Mighty fine—but you haven’t yet discovered what’s coming to you!
Wait until the cross-examining attorney gets you in his demoniac clutches!
Far be it from him to remember that you have any kinfolks, outside the penitentiary, or that you ever told a truth in your life.
He plainly but pointedly is perfectly willing to bet, right there, that you couldn’t tell the truth in three trials, and he will lay you big odds on it, moreover!
Now, of course, the following is not precisely a sample of what has been going on in the courthouse of late, ever since the trial began, in fact, but it is about the way it must seem to many witnesses and spectators to have been, after the day is over and they undertake to recall the things that transpired.
“Mr. Witness,” begins the cross-examiner, “you told the learned counsel (sarcastic smile) upon the other side, I believe, that you saw an owl sitting on the back fence about three minutes and two ticks past 8:34 on the night of the killing?”
“Mr. Witness” needn’t be the least, tiny bit fooled by that “Mr.” business—the cross-examiner would scorn to call a witness “Mister,” more than once—after that, it merely is “You, Smith,” or “Smith,” or “Look here, now,” or something snappy and snortish.
Witness: “I said I thought it was an owl—it looked like an owl.”
Begins to Shake Finger.
Attorney: “W-H-A-T! Didn’t you just now, in the presence of this erudite jury (shaking finger vigorously under witness’ nose), swear positively (shake) and without reserve (shake) sir (shake, shake, shake), that it WAS (shake) an OWL?”
Witness: “Why-er-um-I couldn’t swear it was an owl exactly—it has big eyes, anyhow!”
Attorney: “Big eyes? B-A-H! Also B-A-H, B-A-H! Likewise B-A-H, B-A-H, B-A-H!! Then (very sarcastically) it might have been a cat, eh?”
Witness: “Well, sir (very apologetically), I don’t think it was a cat—it didn’t say ‘Meow!’”
Attorney: “Come, come, person, I don’t want to know what you THINK—how dare you think, anyway?—you didn’t hang around there to HEAR whether it said ‘Meow,’ did you?”
Witness: “No, sir (very much abashed); I admit I didn’t hang around. Owls make me nervous, anyway!”
Attorney: “I’ve no doubt (sardonic smile) they make you nervous! By the way, person, didn’t one of your honorable ancestors (profound sarcasm) come over to this country with Captain Kidd, the well-known pirate?”
Witness: “Um, oh, I—“
Attorney: “Come, come now, answer me; speak right out; tell the truth, if you CAN; did he?”
Drags Wife Into Mix-Up.
Witness: “I really can not say, sir. You see that’s been so long ago, and I wasn’t there, either, and—“
Attorney: “Well, you won’t (more finger shaking under witness; nose) DENY that one of your ancestors may have been a pirate, will you?”
Witness: “I-er-hump-can’t say. I’ll ask my wife when I get home. Maybe she knows.”
Attorney: “You’ll ask your wife, will you? Is she your OWN wife?”
Here the Pleasant Lawyer gets up, and says:
“Your honor, I object to that question. What has a man’s own wife got to do with this case?”
His honor, doesn’t answer right off the reel, so the other lawyer jumps up and withdraws the question.
This makes the witness feel pretty good, for he knew he had a wife when he left home that morning, but he doubts that he can swear positively to any such circumstance now.
Attorney, beginning cross-examination once more: “Let’s go back to that owl. What sort of an owl was it, if (more sarcasm) it WAS an owl?”
Witness: “It LOOKED like a screech owl.”
Attorney: “Well, a screech owl goes ‘screech’ and a hoot-owl goes “hoot,” doesn’t it?”
Witness: “I am not sure, sir. I think that’s the way it is. I don’t know much about owls.”
Attorney, shocked almost speechless: “And here you have been telling this poor, unprotected, orphaned jury, these swell, elegant gentlemen, ALL about owls, and now you say you don’t know anything about them.”
Witness: “Well, ah, oh, I sup—“
Attorney: “Don’t you know an owl is a member of the striges family?”
Witness: “Of the Who-ges family?”
Attorney: “Come, now, don’t get gay with me, atom. Don’t you know the owl is a member of the striges family?”
Witness: “Never met such a family. They don’t live on my side of town.”
Attorney: “Well, if you saw in the big dictionary that the owl is of such a family, would you say it was true?”
Witness, perking up a bit: “If I saw it in the city directory, I might believe it, but what’s the dictionary got to do with it?”
Attorney, waxing superlatively sarcastic: “Will you, speck on the face of creation, kindly permit ME to ask the questions? All I ask of you is that you let ME do that, then YOU answer, if you CAN.”
Then the Pleasant Lawyer gets up again.
It certainly is a relief to a witness when the P. L. Arises to ejaculate a few broken observations. He is the only rainbow in sight, once things get going.
Pleasant Lawyer: “Your honor, I submit that the big dictionary itself is the highest evidence of what the big dictionary says. If the learned counsel on the other side (great gobs, clusters and festoons of sarcasm) wishes to know WHAT the big dictionary says about owls, screech or otherwise, let him tender the BIG DICTIONARY, and stop snarling and beefling at this gentlemanly, talented, honest and exceptionally bright witness!”
The witness thanks the pleasant lawyer for them kind words, all right, for they are the first he has heard in many hours.
Mean Attorney: “Well, animal, have you a big dictionary at home?”
Witness: “No, sir; the one I use is over in the State Library.”
Pleasant Lawyer: “Now, then, your honor, since this accommodating witness has answered the questions, I move that the able (withering contempt) counsel on the other side he required to bring the State Library into court, or shut off their questions about owls. I move to strike from the record everything this downtrodden witness has said about owls, unless the State Library he brought over and handed to the jury for inspection.”
Mean Attorney: “Does your honor mean to tell me—ME—that I must bring the entire State Library into court, in order to prove that an owl is a member of the striges family, merely because of this stubborn and evidently partisan witness will not say?”
His honor, sighing, patiently: “Well, gentlemen, what has this aforesaid and hereinbefore mentioned owl TO DO WITH THIS CASE, ANYWAY?”
Mean Attorney, getting red in the face, probably about to explode with righteous indignation: “What has it to DO with the case? Why, your honor, opposing counsel brought out the question of owls. Didn’t this witness, brazenly and with palpable malice aforethought, say to this grand and magnificent jury that when he went home last Thanksgiving night he saw an owl sitting on the back fence?”
The Grand Climax.
Pleasant Attorney: “I don’t think the gentleman said Thanksgiving night; I think it was Christmas. It makes a lot of difference in the matter of seeing things at night, as your honor may know, or—er—may have heard, whether it be Thanksgiving or Christmas. Besides, he didn’t say he saw an owl sitting on the back fence. He merely said he went home that night on an owl car.”
Everything about owls, the owl car and the back fence is ruled out, and the Mean Lawyer sits down, evidently greatly chagrined and angered.
And the witness?
About all the witness hopes as he leaves the stand is that his wife at home—if she’s still there—loves him, anyway, and will continue to think well of him hereafter, notwithstanding the fact that he has been a witness in Atlanta’s most famous murder trial.
It makes no difference whatever which side summons you to testify in the Frank case, it’s tough luck! You can’t win.
You will be made to wish you never had been born before they get through with you—that’s the surest thing you know!
* * *
Atlanta Georgian, August 12th 1913, “Frank Trial Witness is Sure, At Least, of One Thing—a ‘Good Ragging'”, Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)