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Of Things Evil, continued

To borrow the bombastic phrasing of the time, I was "numbed by the horror of this fearful story." Nothing I can recall reading has affected me as deeply as the newspaper accounts of White’s murder and the ensuing trials. Most disturbing, as I sank ever deeper into the case, the energizing image of White–seen perhaps too nobly by me in retrospect–gradually faded, to be replaced by a welling of outrage over a new monstrosity, every bit as brutal as White’s murder, but more systematic. What lay ahead for Ivory and Stirling revealed a rank indifference to the very concept of justice.
   
First, there is the quality and reliability of the local reporting (probably about average during the reign of yellow journalism). To put it simply: It’s quite possible that nothing I have written so far is true –because no single, unequivocal "fact" can be uncovered in this story beyond White’s death. The most complete initial coverage of the murder appeared in the Philadelphia North American, without byline, as was the universal custom. Though replete with hyperbole, it was basically a careful report taken from first-hand interviews and descriptions. Soon, however, the other dailies had shuffled both the facts and the chronology into a porridge of misinformation and speculation.
   
In the various accounts over time, elements merge, separate and reform like images in a kaleidoscope. The anonymous "reporters" traded phrases and whole paragraphs like baseball cards. I suspect that freelancers sold hastily written accounts to several papers which, in order to appear independent, stirred the original version into an alphabet soup of internal contradictions. Even the few apparently careful accounts are marred by purple prose and racist diatribe.
   
Numerous questions cried out for answers, but few reporters even thought to ask: Why were the police so consistent in claiming that Ward Knight had nothing to do with the killing, though his initial statements seem as contradictory as those of Ivory? Why did early reports (Telegraph, May 21) state that Knight and Ivory lived a few blocks apart in Wilmington, and were well-known troublemakers there, while later accounts, without explanation, called Knight a respected servant from Marietta, Pa.? How was it that Hartman, who said he had spoken only to Ivory and that the other man had stayed in the shadows, could later identify Stirling without hesitation? How was it that several witnesses could identify Stirling, a knock-kneed, bandy-legged man, by his "distinctive, shambling gait" when initial reports made no mention of anything peculiar about the second man’s walk? What caused John Exley, a rower who had himself been held up months earlier and who had tentatively identified the photos of Ivory and Knight as his assailants, to switch later to Ivory and Stirling?
   
Further clouding the reporting was an unquestioning reliance on police handouts and statements by Superintendent Quirk, a minor master of propaganda. The initial burst of police efficiency apparently sprang from a desire to offset the low esteem in which the department was held at the time. An editorial in the Press noted that the murder "coming, as it does, when the public has lost all confidence in the Director of Public Safety, throws a peculiar light on the demoralization of the police force, inevitable under the conditions that have prevailed for the past twelve months … The Police Department is on trial, and it should recognize the fact."
   
Such comments, however, were few. Police-beat reporters most likely feared losing insider access with negative stories, and Quirk made every effort to control the flow of information from the top. As an example, in the several accounts of Stirling’s capture, whole paragraphs are repeated from one report to another. Yet each reporter attempts to give the impression that he was direct witness to a remarkable–and frankly unbelievable–scene in which both Hartman and Leary spontaneously shout "There he is!" and place their hands together on Stirling’s shoulder. The scene smacks of having originated in a police handout that served as raw material for embellishments. Worse yet is Quirk’s "wanted" telegraph, supposedly sent to Trenton before the Philadelphia contingent arrived, which describes the as-yet-unseen Stirling so perfectly as to seem clairvoyant–and which includes a nickname or alias for Stirling, "Burrell," that was not known until after his capture. Yet the rail detective who had picked up Stirling had said that he ignored Stirling as a suspect initially because the descriptions sent by Philadelphia police did not fit him.
   
The police campaign of misinformation reached its height during the later trials, when Quirk assumed–all too rightly–that both the public and the newspapers would have forgotten salient evidence.


According to the Inquirer, following Stirling’s return to Philadelphia (where a crowd of some 300 waiting passengers cheered his unannounced arrival, in shackles between two detectives, at Broad Street Station), Ivory fingered Stirling as the killer in a dramatic hallway encounter: "The keen sense of the colored race was forcibly in evidence. Stirling, shifty, rambling in his step, rolling his eyes from Quirk to Miller and then to Ivory, fixed his gaze upon the latter. It was the look of defiance; of composure; of stolid indifference." The following day, the Record took a more sympathetic tone: "Amos Stirling … has been subjected to the moral torture of the ‘sweat box’ once every two hours since he was brought to this city from Trenton … It is doubtful if any alleged murderer in this State has ever been put through such an ordeal."
   
Despite repeated visits to the sweat box, however, Stirling steadfastly denied his guilt, ultimately outlasting his inquisitors.
   
Quirk’s department claimed to have more than enough evidence to wrap up the case: Ivory’s confession, three positive identifications of Stirling (by Ivory, Hartman and Leary) and the bloody clothes. Suddenly, however, a complication appeared, and with it a new inclination on the part of the press to question the infallibility of Quirk, Miller and their methods: A man named Charles Smith attempted to pawn Roy White’s missing watch–for which the police had circulated identifying numbers–at a shop in West Philadelphia. Collared by police, Smith claimed he had been given the watch by his roommate, Charles Perry.
   
Initially, the papers reported that Perry gave conflicting accounts of how he acquired the watch, without explaining what these accounts might be. A day later they more or less agreed that he claimed to have bought it a few blocks from the murder scene from a man who might have been Ivory, shadowed by a second figure whom he could not identify. The press shouted that this development threw a monkey wrench into the clean Ivory-Stirling scenario. The Evening Bulletin even mused, "Was Ivory’s alleged confession made under promise of immunity?"
   
Though it’s difficult to see how Perry, simply by possessing the watch, materially clouded the picture, the police-department’s reaction to media pressure pushed the case in a new direction. After stating that Perry was an innocent party who had bought, bartered or otherwise received the watch from Ivory, Quirk switched tactics and placed him in the notorious sweat box. It claimed another victory when Perry confessed that he too was a party to White’s murder, a second bystander while Stirling did the dirty work.
   
"Perry’s confession was secured without the man knowing anything of Ivory’s admission," the Philadelphia Times declared. "The stories of the two negroes were then compared, and they agreed in every particular." This is a remarkable claim: Ivory’s original confession pointed to no one beyond himself and the killer, as Quirk emphasized at the time.
   
According to Quirk, the fragmented case had once again been glued together. But by now the press, particularly in the person of a stylistically recognizable reporter for the Telegraph, openly questioned the convenience of the department’s hastily assembled scenario. No one to date–not Ivory, not the police, not Hartman, not Leary–had mentioned a third man.
   
At the formal early-June inquest into White’s murder, Stirling cleaved to his story that he had been in Harrisburg on the day of the killing, refusing to back down under heavy cross examination. Said the North American, "The man’s manner, his simple protest of innocence and boldness in turning squarely toward his accusers and charging them with falsehood, made a deep impression upon the spectators who crowded the Court room, and even upon the police who have believed him guilty of the actual murder."

White’s murder involved a clash of four conflicting cultures with vastly different needs and perceptions: (1) the white lower-middle class (the main target audience for newspapers), which the press assumed could be made to identify with Roy White only by turning his murder into a raw racial drama; (2) the black lower class, whose lives remained a fearful mystery to the middle class; (3) the police, with much to prove and little to lose from a quick conviction of three men without advocates or public sympathy; and (4) the press, presenting strident black-and-white simplifications, unhindered as yet by a code of ethics or responsibility.
   
These cultures met most dramatically during the trials of Ivory, Perry and Stirling. At Ivory’s October 1900 trial, members of the public used every variety of subterfuge to gain entrance to the courtroom in a preview of later widely publicized cases. The papers also noted that Ivory was being represented for the first time by an attorney. Throughout his interrogation and incarceration, no one had taken his part. The same was true of Perry and Stirling.
   
On the stand, waitresses Agnes McNeil and Elizabeth Boyle stated that Ivory, Stirling and Perry had eaten lunch at a restaurant on Market Street near 31st on the day of the murder–the only persons, at any point in the investigation, to claim to have seen the three together. Police Superintendent Quirk told how Ivory, sitting in his cell, was taken with a sudden urge to confess. The same bland account appears in virtually every report of the trial: "Superintendent Quirk said that when Ivory showed an inclination to make a statement he advised the prisoner that it was his privilege to keep silent and that whatever he would say might be used against him." None of the papers carrying this rendition mention at this point the sweat-box procedure which they had so righteously applauded in their earlier reports of Ivory’s confession. Ivory’s supposed original confession, as read in court, bears almost no resemblance to initial reports of its contents.
   
On October 23, despite his claims of limited complicity and a half-hearted defense by an attorney who had not had time to assemble even the basic facts of the case, Ivory was convicted of first-degree murder. The entire trial–jury selection, presentation of witnesses, cross examination, closing arguments, deliberation and verdict–took less than two days.
   
Perry’s trial began three days later. As with Ivory, a "pool" reporter seems to have provided the main courtroom account, since several papers’ stories contained virtually identical wording. Perry’s attorney, David Amram–also a part-time lecturer at the Law School, though there is no indication that his status there had any bearing on his accepting the case–attempted a vigorous defense, but, like Ivory’s attorney, he appeared unfamiliar with the early history of the case and its myriad contradictions. On the second day of the trial, Amram attempted to challenge the sweat-box system, but the judge admonished him: "What more could have been done than these [detectives] have done in obtaining the evidence in this case? Could there have been more prudent, discreet and careful conduct shown than these men have exhibited?"
   
Possibly, there could. Furthermore, the official account of Perry’s confession given at the trial was an out-and-out lie. Detectives stated that he confessed spontaneously, never mentioning his earlier claims that he had bought the watch from Ivory.
   
Amram’s closing argument had little substance but trod perhaps the only rhetorical road left to him: "No matter how repulsive the exterior, no matter how dark the skin, Almighty God has implanted a soul in that black frame, and you should be morally and absolutely convinced of your right to kill him before you consign him to the gallows."
   
After three hours of deliberation, the jury found Perry guilty of first-degree murder.
   
On November 17, Ivory and Perry were condemned to hang.

 

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