Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.
August 15th, 1913
By JAMES B. NEVIN.
There is nothing apparently so plain to outside observation as character—just character—and there is, strange to say, nothing so difficult at times to prove.
“They say” and “but” are the two most notorious scandalmongers in the universe—“they say” so and so’ and he or she is all right, “but!”
Character, upon which so much depends in this world, upon which civilization itself and decency and right is founded, is, nevertheless, the most elusive of all things when it comes right down to brass tacks of proving it beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Human nature, too, for some curious and vague reason, seems rather to relish the downfall of character and the undermining of reputation—and that, moreover, the while it is vehemently and rather piously assuring itself that it does nothing of the kind!
Kind words travel on leaden feet—gossip gallops in seven-league boots!
Not at all—just truthimist, that’s all!
You stop me to tell me that Jones is the best man you ever knew, that his wife loves him immensely and that his children and all the neighbors’ children fairly dote upon him, and I am mildly, but not rampantly, interested. I am a pretty good fellow myself, you know, and so are you—who are telling me about Jones—and while I am glad that Jones is a fine fellow—like I am and like you are—I can not see why I should throw any fits about it.
And I—being the average sort of fellow, really—proceed not to throw any fits whatever tin re the Jones.
Scandal? That’s Different.
You stop me and tell me Jones is a grafter, despite his churchgoing proclivities, and that, besides, he turns Jack habitually from the bottom of the deck—and go up my hands in holy horror!
Sakes alive! I always DID think there was SOMETHING out of whack with Jones—and so forth and so on!
And you can bet your sweet life I stop to listen while you unwind all “they say” of Jones, and how he’s a good fellow, “but!”
If Jones is pulling his freight uphill, Jones interests me indifferently in a way—but if Jones and his freight are involuntarily on the toboggan, it’s me to stand along the edge of the slideway and watch the fun and make note of the wreckage at the bottom!
I feel sorry for Jones—just as I used to feel sorry always for the teacher beneath whom I had dexterously set up a pin, when said teacher innocently sat down upon it. And after Jones has gone to smash down the old toboggan, I may experience an attack of sorrow for Jones, and next Sunday when I go to church it may so happen that I even pray for Jones—after I have prayed carefully for myself!
Now these broken observations are not altruistic, of course—they may be out of order, and all that.
Preface to Character Sketch.
They are submitted merely by way of prefacing the citation just here of an ancient quotation running thuswise:
“There’s so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.”
Now, then, having brought ourselves to the point where we can give even such persons as Frank and Conley the benefit of the doubt in an argument adverse to the character of either—you know, good and well, gentle reader, we always hand ourselves ALL the doubts, and some!—let us proceed in order to a consideration of the status of the Frank case involved in the character or lack of character in the defendant.
Contemplating the matter of Frank’s character as a thing apart from the murder charge against him, the attack upon it thus far dwells within Conley, and Conley’s isolated word.
Conley’s charge against Leo Frank has not been corroborated by one witness worthy of belief—and it has not been corroborated even by that one in anything save relatively inconsequential detail.
One just as well believe what “they say” and ask no questions, as to believe anything such persons as Dalton say—and probably better.
I am sure I do not know whether Frank’s character is good or bad. In respect of a conclusion either way, I am “from Missouri.”
My mind is entirely open as to that—and I hope to keep it so until the last precinct has been heard from.
Issues Challenge to State.
I hope I shall know the TRUTH of the matter eventually—I should like to know, beyond a reasonable doubt.
The defense has put Frank’s character in issue. It thereby challenges the State to break it down, if the State can.
If the State can break it down, it should proceed to the breaking with all the vigor it fairly and honorably can command. If Frank is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the public is entitled to know it, and it is the duty of the Solicitor General to make it known, if he can.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing is a highly undesirable and dangerous thing to have at large in any peaceful, orderly and law-abiding community.
Far from quarreling with the Solicitor General for showing that Frank is a depraved character, I for one shall thank him if he makes his charge unmistakably plain. Maybe he can make it plain, and maybe he can not. He hasn’t had his opportunity yet, and I am willing to be patient as he goes forward.
The defense is seeking to establish Frank’s good character by this testimony of many admittedly good citizens. To the best of their knowledge and belief these good people are speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Hard to Back Up “the Daltons.”
People generally will be inclined to accept their statements as conclusive, unless the evidence combating the same is overwhelming.
It isn’t going to do, I think, for the State to bring more Daltons into the case for the purpose of corroborating Conley. The trouble about the Daltons as corroborators is that one never can find anybody to corroborate the Daltons—as sadly in need of corroborating, apparently, as even the Conleys.
Frank, by putting his character in evidence, has gained some ground in public estimation, I believe. At least, this action seems to show that he is willing to risk his all on the contention that the State can find nothing vile in him, save in so far as the word of Conley can establish such an allegation.
Conley is not to be corroborated by innuendo, by suggestion, or by roundabout methods.
He must be corroborated by people of some degree of decency and standing themselves, or not very many people will take unquestioned the sinister charge of the negro.
One Good Witness a Peril.
If the State comes forward, after Frank has made his showing as to good character, with a number of witnesses that the defense is able to impeach beyond question, as fast as they are introduced, I do not believe Frank will suffer irreparable injury from the Conley charge, in the long run.
On the contrary, if the State comes forward with even so few as one reputable and believable witness as to Frank’s evil character, there will remain in the minds of the jury, I suspect, an impression most dangerously unfavorable to the defendant.
One honorable and upright witness against Frank in the matter of his character can do him far greater harm then a hundred impeachable witnesses.
The State, having been confronted with the issue of Frank’s character—challenged in the gate, so to speak—must have brave, categorial, and complete answer, or the State’s case necessarily will be weakened markedly and, perhaps, fatally.
I believe the public, however prone to rush to conclusions primarily, and to make up its mind upon surface indications all too readily at times, nevertheless is fair and just in the end.
I think it likely there are few extremists either way—for or against Frank—who really wish to see him convicted or acquitted, regardless.
I think it is altogether likely, indeed, that hundreds of people, even inclined to side against Frank now, will gather a measure of satisfaction eventually, if he comes through the fire unscorched.
Jumping at Conclusions.
So the reader will observe that the things I said in the beginning of this article, like Bill Nye’s definition of classical music, are not so bad as they sound. They referred merely to the forming of opinion upon incompleted and disconnected evidence, brought to light one way or another in the very beginning of shocking stories.
Evil is, and always has been, in a way more entertaining to man than goodness—otherwise. Mother Eve never would have bitten the apple, and so on.
The defense has thrown a mighty challenge to the State in tendering Leo Frank’s character as an issue—particularly in that the defense alone could do that.
Unless the State meets that issue fairly and squarely, candidly and without quibble or faltering, Frank must profit immensely by the move.
If, on the other hand, the State does meet the issue successfully and completely, Frank’s case is undone, and Frank is lost.
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