Read CHAPTER LIV of The Gilded Age, free online book, by Mark Twain, on

The case of the State of New York against Laura Hawkins was finally set down for trial on the 15th day of February, less than a year after the shooting of George Selby.

If the public had almost forgotten the existence of Laura and her crime, they were reminded of all the details of the murder by the newspapers, which for some days had been announcing the approaching trial.  But they had not forgotten.  The sex, the age, the beauty of the prisoner; her high social position in Washington, the unparalleled calmness with which the crime was committed had all conspired to fix the event in the public mind, although nearly three hundred and sixty-five subsequent murders had occurred to vary the monotony of metropolitan life.

No, the public read from time to time of the lovely prisoner, languishing in the city prison, the tortured victim of the law’s delay; and as the months went by it was natural that the horror of her crime should become a little indistinct in memory, while the heroine of it should be invested with a sort of sentimental interest.  Perhaps her counsel had calculated on this.  Perhaps it was by their advice that Laura had interested herself in the unfortunate criminals who shared her prison confinement, and had done not a little to relieve, from her own purse, the necessities of some of the poor creatures.  That she had done this, the public read in the journals of the day, and the simple announcement cast a softening light upon her character.

The court room was crowded at an early hour, before the arrival of judges, lawyers and prisoner.  There is no enjoyment so keen to certain minds as that of looking upon the slow torture of a human being on trial for life, except it be an execution; there is no display of human ingenuity, wit and power so fascinating as that made by trained lawyers in the trial of an important case, nowhere else is exhibited such subtlety, acumen, address, eloquence.

All the conditions of intense excitement meet in a murder trial.  The awful issue at stake gives significance to the lightest word or look.  How the quick eyes of the spectators rove from the stolid jury to the keen lawyers, the impassive judge, the anxious prisoner.  Nothing is lost of the sharp wrangle of the counsel on points of law, the measured decision’s of the bench; the duels between the attorneys and the witnesses.  The crowd sways with the rise and fall of the shifting, testimony, in sympathetic interest, and hangs upon the dicta of the judge in breathless silence.  It speedily takes sides for or against the accused, and recognizes as quickly its favorites among the lawyers.  Nothing delights it more than the sharp retort of a witness and the discomfiture of an obnoxious attorney.  A joke, even if it be a lame, one, is no where so keenly relished or quickly applauded as in a murder trial.

Within the bar the young lawyers and the privileged hangers-on filled all the chairs except those reserved at the table for those engaged in the case.  Without, the throng occupied all the seats, the window ledges and the standing room.  The atmosphere was already something horrible.  It was the peculiar odor of a criminal court, as if it were tainted by the presence, in different persons, of all the crimes that men and women can commit.

There was a little stir when the Prosecuting Attorney, with two assistants, made his way in, seated himself at the table, and spread his papers before him.  There was more stir when the counsel of the defense appeared.  They were Mr. Braham, the senior, and Mr. Quiggle and Mr. O’Keefe, the juniors.

Everybody in the court room knew Mr. Braham, the great criminal lawyer, and he was not unaware that he was the object of all eyes as he moved to his place, bowing to his friends in the bar.  A large but rather spare man, with broad shoulders and a massive head, covered with chestnut curls which fell down upon his coat collar and which he had a habit of shaking as a lion is supposed to shake his mane.  His face was clean shaven, and he had a wide mouth and rather small dark eyes, set quite too near together:  Mr. Braham wore a brown frock coat buttoned across his breast, with a rose-bud in the upper buttonhole, and light pantaloons.  A diamond stud was seen to flash from his bosom; and as he seated himself and drew off his gloves a heavy seal ring was displayed upon his white left hand.  Mr. Braham having seated himself, deliberately surveyed the entire house, made a remark to one of his assistants, and then taking an ivory-handled knife from his pocket began to pare his finger nails, rocking his chair backwards and forwards slowly.

A moment later Judge O’Shaunnessy entered at the rear door and took his seat in one of the chairs behind the bench; a gentleman in black broadcloth, with sandy hair, inclined to curl, a round; reddish and rather jovial face, sharp rather than intellectual, and with a self-sufficient air.  His career had nothing remarkable in it.  He was descended from a long line of Irish Kings, and he was the first one of them who had ever come into his kingdom ­the kingdom of such being the city of New York.  He had, in fact, descended so far and so low that he found himself, when a boy, a sort of street Arab in that city; but he had ambition and native shrewdness, and he speedily took to boot-polishing, and newspaper hawking, became the office and errand boy of a law firm, picked up knowledge enough to get some employment in police courts, was admitted to the bar, became a rising young politician, went to the legislature, and was finally elected to the bench which he now honored.  In this democratic country he was obliged to conceal his royalty under a plebeian aspect.  Judge O’Shaunnessy never had a lucrative practice nor a large salary but he had prudently laid away money-believing that a dependant judge can never be impartial ­and he had lands and houses to the value of three or four hundred thousand dollars.  Had he not helped to build and furnish this very Court House?  Did he not know that the very “spittoon” which his judgeship used cost the city the sum of one thousand dollars?

As soon as the judge was seated, the court was opened, with the “oi yis, oi yis” of the officer in his native language, the case called, and the sheriff was directed to bring in the prisoner.  In the midst of a profound hush Laura entered, leaning on the arm of the officer, and was conducted to a seat by her counsel.  She was followed by her mother and by Washington Hawkins, who were given seats near her.

Laura was very pale, but this pallor heightened the lustre of her large eyes and gave a touching sadness to her expressive face.  She was dressed in simple black, with exquisite taste, and without an ornament.  The thin lace vail which partially covered her face did not so much conceal as heighten her beauty.  She would not have entered a drawing room with more self-poise, nor a church with more haughty humility.  There was in her manner or face neither shame nor boldness, and when she took her seat in fall view of half the spectators, her eyes were downcast.  A murmur of admiration ran through the room.  The newspaper reporters made their pencils fly.  Mr. Braham again swept his eyes over the house as if in approval.  When Laura at length raised her eyes a little, she saw Philip and Harry within the bar, but she gave no token of recognition.

The clerk then read the indictment, which was in the usual form.  It charged Laura Hawkins, in effect, with the premeditated murder of George Selby, by shooting him with a pistol, with a revolver, shotgun, rifle, repeater, breech-loader, cannon, six-shooter, with a gun, or some other, weapon; with killing him with a slung-shot, a bludgeon, carving knife, bowie knife, pen knife, rolling pin, car, hook, dagger, hair pin, with a hammer, with a screw-driver; with a nail, and with all other weapons and utensils whatsoever, at the Southern hotel and in all other hotels and places wheresoever, on the thirteenth day of March and all other days of the Christian era wheresoever.

Laura stood while the long indictment was read; and at the end, in response to the inquiry, of the judge, she said in a clear, low voice; “Not guilty.”  She sat down and the court proceeded to impanel a jury.

The first man called was Michael Lanigan, saloon keeper.

“Have you formed or expressed any opinion on this case, and do you know any of the parties?”

“Not any,” said Mr. Lanigan.

“Have you any conscientious objections to capital punishment?”

“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”

“Have you read anything about this case?”

“To be sure, I read the papers, y’r Honor.”

Objected to by Mr. Braham, for cause, and discharged.

Patrick Coughlin.

“What is your business?”

“Well ­I haven’t got any particular business.”

“Haven’t any particular business, eh?  Well, what’s your general business?  What do you do for a living?”

“I own some terriers, sir.”

“Own some terriers, eh?  Keep a rat pit?”

“Gentlemen comes there to have a little sport.  I never fit ’em, sir.”

“Oh, I see ­you are probably the amusement committee of the city council.  Have you ever heard of this case?”

“Not till this morning, sir.”

“Can you read?”

“Not fine print, y’r Honor.”

The man was about to be sworn, when Mr. Braham asked,

“Could your father read?”

“The old gentleman was mighty handy at that, sir.”

Mr. Braham submitted that the man was disqualified Judge thought not. 
Point argued.  Challenged peremptorily, and set aside.

Ethan Dobb, cart-driver.

“Can you read?”

“Yes, but haven’t a habit of it.”

“Have you heard of this case?”

“I think so ­but it might be another.  I have no opinion about it.”

Dist.  A.  “Tha ­tha ­there!  Hold on a bit?  Did anybody tell you to say you had no opinion about it?”

“N ­n ­o, sir.”

Take care now, take care.  Then what suggested it to you to volunteer that remark?”

“They’ve always asked that, when I was on juries.”

All right, then.  Have you any conscientious scruples about capital punishment?”

“Any which?”

“Would you object to finding a person guilty ­of murder on evidence?”

“I might, sir, if I thought he wan’t guilty.”

The district attorney thought he saw a point.

“Would this feeling rather incline you against a capital conviction?”

The juror said he hadn’t any feeling, and didn’t know any of the parties.  Accepted and sworn.

Dennis Lafin, laborer.  Have neither formed nor expressed an opinion.  Never had heard of the case.  Believed in hangin’ for them that deserved it.  Could read if it was necessary.

Mr. Braham objected.  The man was evidently bloody minded.  Challenged peremptorily.

Larry O’Toole, contractor.  A showily dressed man of the style known as “vulgar genteel,” had a sharp eye and a ready tongue.  Had read the newspaper reports of the case, but they made no impression on him.  Should be governed by the evidence.  Knew no reason why he could not be an impartial juror.

Question by District Attorney.

“How is it that the reports made no impression on you?”

“Never believe anything I see in the newspapers.”

(Laughter from the crowd, approving smiles from his Honor and Mr. Braham.) Juror sworn in.  Mr. Braham whispered to O’Keefe, “that’s the man.”

Avery Hicks, pea-nut peddler.  Did he ever hear of this case?  The man shook his head.

“Can you read?”

“No.”  “Any scruples about capital punishment?”


He was about to be sworn, when the district attorney turning to him carelessly, remarked,

“Understand the nature of an oath?”

“Outside,” said the man, pointing to the door.

“I say, do you know what an oath is?”

“Five cents,” explained the man.

“Do you mean to insult me?” roared the prosecuting officer.  “Are you an idiot?”

“Fresh baked.  I’m deefe.  I don’t hear a word you say.”

The man was discharged.  “He wouldn’t have made a bad juror, though,” whispered Braham.  “I saw him looking at the prisoner sympathizingly.  That’s a point you want to watch for.”

The result of the whole day’s work was the selection of only two jurors.  These however were satisfactory to Mr. Braham.  He had kept off all those he did not know.  No one knew better than this great criminal lawyer that the battle was fought on the selection of the jury.  The subsequent examination of witnesses, the eloquence expended on the jury are all for effect outside.  At least that is the theory of Mr. Braham.  But human nature is a queer thing, he admits; sometimes jurors are unaccountably swayed, be as careful as you can in choosing them.

It was four weary days before this jury was made up, but when it was finally complete, it did great credit to the counsel for the defence.  So far as Mr. Braham knew, only two could read, one of whom was the foreman, Mr. Braham’s friend, the showy contractor.  Low foreheads and heavy faces they all had; some had a look of animal cunning, while the most were only stupid.  The entire panel formed that boasted heritage commonly described as the “bulwark of our liberties.”

The District Attorney, Mr. McFlinn, opened the case for the state.  He spoke with only the slightest accent, one that had been inherited but not cultivated.  He contented himself with a brief statement of the case.  The state would prove that Laura Hawkins, the prisoner at the bar, a fiend in the form of a beautiful woman, shot dead George Selby, a Southern gentleman, at the, time and place described.  That the murder was in cold blood, deliberate and without provocation; that it had been long premeditated and threatened; that she had followed the deceased-from Washington to commit it.  All this would be proved by unimpeachable witnesses.  The attorney added that the duty of the jury, however painful it might be, would be plain and simple.  They were citizens, husbands, perhaps fathers.  They knew how insecure life had become in the metropolis.  Tomorrow our own wives might be widows, their own children orphans, like the bereaved family in yonder hotel, deprived of husband and father by the jealous hand of some murderous female.  The attorney sat down, and the clerk called?”

“Henry Brierly.”