Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DOMESDAY BOOK: CHARLES WARREN, THE SHERIFF, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

DOMESDAY BOOK: CHARLES WARREN, THE SHERIFF, by                 Poet's Biography
First Line: I have seen twenty men hanged, hung myself
Last Line: "I tell you what I said to her. It's this:"
Subject(s): Crime & Criminals; Murder; Police; Quarrels; Arguments; Disagreements

I have seen twenty men hanged, hung myself
Two in this jail, with whom I talked the night
Before they had the rope, knotted behind
The ear to break the neck. These two I hanged,
One guilty and defiant, taking chops,
Four cups of coffee just an hour before
We swung him off; the other trembling, pale,
Protesting innocence, but guilty too --
Both wore the same look in the middle watch.
I tell you what it is: You take a steer,
And windlass him to where the butcher stands
With hammer ready for the blow and knife
To slit the throat after the hammer falls,
Well, there's a moment when the steer is standing
Head, neck strained side-ways, eyes rolled side-ways too,
Fixed, bright seen this way, but another way
A film seems spreading on them. That's the look.
They wear a corpse-like pallor, and their tongues
Are loose, sprawl in their mouths, lie paralyzed
Against their teeth, or fall back in their throats
Which make them cough and stop for words and close
Dry lips with little pops.

There's something else:
Their minds are out of them, like a rubber band
Stretched from the place it's pinned, about to break.
And all the time they try to draw it back,
And give it utterance with that sprawling tongue,
And lips too dry for words. They hold it tight
As a woman giving birth holds to the sheet
Tied to the bed's head, pulls the sheet to end
The agony and the reluctance of the child
That pauses, dreads to enter in this world.

So was it with Fred Taylor. But before
The high Court shook his hope, he talked to me
Freely and fully, saying many times
What could the world expect of him beside
Some violence or murder? He had borrowed
The books his lawyers used to fight for him,
And read for hours and days about heredity.
And in our talks he said: mix red and violet,
You have the color purple. Strike two notes,
You have a certain chord, and nature made me
By rules as mathematical as they use
In mixing drugs or gases. Then he'd say:
Look at this table, and he'd show to me
A diagram of chickens, how blue fowls
Come from a cross of black with one of white
With black splashed feathers. Look at the blues, he'd say.
They mate, and of four chickens, two are blue,
And one is black and one is white. These blues
Produce in that proportion. But the black
And white have chickens white and black, you see
In equal numbers. Don't you see that I
Was caught in mathematics, jotted down
Upon a slate before I came to earth?
They could have picked my forbears; on a slate
Forecast my soul, its tendencies, if they
Had been that devilish. And so he talked.

Well, then he heard that Elenor Murray died,
And told me that her grandmother, that woman
Known for her queerness and her lively soul
To eighty years and more, was grandmother
To his father, and this Elenor Murray cousin
To his father. There you have it, he exclaimed,
She killed herself, and I know why, he said
She loved someone. This love is in our blood,
And overflows, or spurts between the logs
You dam it with, or fully stayed grows green
With summer scum, breeds frogs and spotted snakes.

He was a study and I studied him.
I'd sit beside his cell and read some words
From his confession, ask why did you this?
His crime was monstrous, but he won me over.
I wished to help the boy, for boy he was
Just nineteen, and I pitied him. At last
His story seemed as clear as when you see
The truth behind poor words that say as much
As words can say -- you see, you get the truth
And know it, even if you never pass
The truth to others.

Lord! This girl he killed
Knew not the power she played with. Why she sat
Like a child upon the asp's nest picking flowers.
Or as a child will pet a mad dog. Look
You come into my life, what do you bring?
Why, everything that made your life, all pains,
All raptures, disappointments, wisdom learned
You bring to me. But do you show them, no!
You hide them maybe, some of them, and leave
Myself to learn you by the hardest means,
And bing! A something in you, or in me,
Out of a past explodes, or better still
Extends a claw from out the buttoned coat
And rips a face.

So this poor girl was killed,
And by an innocent coquetry evoked
The claw that tore her breast away.

One day
As I passed by his cell I stopped and sat.
What was the first thing entering in your mind
From which you trace your act? And he said: "Well
Almost from the beginning all my mind
Was on her from the moment I awaked
Until I slept, and often I awoke
At two or three o'clock with thoughts of her.
And through the day I thought of nothing else;
Sometimes I could not eat. At school my thought
Stretched out of me to her, could not be pulled
Back to the lesson. I could read a page
As it were Greek, not understand a word.
But just the moment I was with her then
My soul re-entered me, I was at peace,
And happy, oh so happy! In the days
When we were separated my unrest
Took this form: that I must be with her, or
If that could not be, then some other place
Was better than the place I was -- I strained,
Lived in a constant strain, found no content
With anything or place, could find no peace
Except with her."

"Right from the first I had
Two minds, two hearts concerning her, and one
Was confidence, and one was doubt, one love,
One hatred. And one purpose was to serve her,
Guard her and care for her, one said destroy,
Ruin or kill her. Sitting by her side,
Except as I shall say I loved her, trusted her,
Away from her, I doubted her and hated her.
But at the dances when I saw her smile
Up at another man, the storming blood
Roared in my brain for wondering about
The words they said. He might be holding her
Too close to him; or as I watched I saw
His knee indent her skirt between her knees,
That might be when she smiled. Then going home
I'd ask her what he said. She'd only smile
And keep a silence that I could not open
With any pry of questions."

"Well, we quarreled,
About this boy she danced with. So I said:
I'll leave her, never see her, I'll go find
Another girl, forget her. Sunday next
I saw her driving with this fellow. I
Was walking in the road, they passed me laughing,
She turned about and waved her hand at me.
That night I lay awake and tossed and thought:
Where are they now? What are they doing now?
He's kissing her upon the lips I've kissed,
Or worse, perhaps, I have been fooled, she lies
Within his arms and gives him what for love
I never asked her, never dared to ask."
This brought Fred Taylor's story to the murder,
In point of madness, anyway. Some business
Broke in our visit here. Another time
I sat with him and questioned him again
About the night he killed her.

"Well," he said,
"I told you that we quarreled. So I fought
To free myself of thought of her -- no use.
I tried another girl, it wouldn't work.
For at the dance I took this girl to, I
Saw Gertrude with this fellow, and the madness
Came over me in blackness, hurricanes,
Until I found myself in front of her,
Where she was seated, asking for a dance.
She smiled and rose and danced with me. And then
As the dance ended, May I come to see you,
I'm sorry for my words, came from my tongue,
In spite of will. She laughed and said to me:
'If you'll behave yourself.'"

"I went to see her,
But came away more wretched than I went.
She seemed to have sweet secrets, in her silence
And eyes too calm the secrets hid themselves.
At first I could not summon up the strength
To ask her questions, but at last I did.
And then she only shook her head and laughed,
And spoke of something else. She had a way
Of mixing up the subjects, till my mind
Forgot the very thing I wished to know,
Or dulled its edges so, if I remembered
I could not ask it so to bring the answer
I wished from her. I came away so weak
I scarce could walk, fell into sleep at once,
But woke at three o'clock, and could not sleep."

"Before this quarrel we had been engaged
And at this evening's end I brought it up:
'What shall we do? Are you engaged to me?
Will you renew it?' And she said to me:
'We still are young, it's better to be free.
Let's play and dance. Be gay, for if you will
I'll go with you, but when you're gloomy, dear,
You are not company for a girl.'"

"Dear me!
Here was I five feet nine, and could have crushed
Her little body with my giant arms.
And yet in strength that counts, the mind that moves
The body, but much more can move itself,
And other minds, she was a spirit power,
And I but just a derrick slowly swung
By an engine smaller, noisy with its chug,
And cloudy with its smoke bituminous.
That night, however, she engaged to go
To dance with me a week hence. But meanwhile
The hellish thing comes, on the morning after.
Thus chum of mine, who testified, John Luce
Came to me with the story that this man
That Gertrude danced with, told him -- O my God --
That Gertrude hinted she would come across,
Give him the final bliss. That was the proof
They brought out in the trial, as you know.
The fellow said it, damn him -- whether she
Made such a promise, who knows? Would to God
I knew before you hang me. There I stood
And heard this story, felt my arteries
Lock as you'd let canal gates down, my heart
Beat for deliverance from the bolted streams.
That night I could not sleep, but found a book,
Just think of this for fate! Under my eyes
There comes an ancient story out of Egypt:
Thyamis fearing he would die and lose
The lovely Chariclea, strikes her dead,
Then kills himself, some thousands of years ago.
It's all forgotten now, I say to self,
Who cares, what matters it, the thing was done
And served its end. The story stuck with me.
But the next night and the next night I stole out
To spy on Gertrude, by the path in the grass
Lay for long hours. And on the third night saw
At half-past eight or nine this fellow come
And take her walking in the darkness -- where?
I could have touched them as they walked the path,
But could not follow for the moon which rose.
Besides I lost them."

"Well, the time approached
Of the dance, and still I brooded, then resolved.
My hatred now was level with the cauldron,
With bubbles crackling. So the spade I took,
Hidden beneath the seat may show forethought,
They caught the jury with that argument,
And forethought does it show, but who made me
To have such forethought?"

"Then I called for her
And took her to the dance. I was most gay,
Because the load was lifted from my mind,
And I had found relief. And so we danced.
And she danced with this fellow. I was calm,
Believed somehow he had not had her yet.
And if his knee touched hers -- why let it go.
Nothing beyond shall happen, even this
Shall not be any more."

"We started home.
Before we reached that clump of woods I asked her
If she would marry me. She laughed at me.
I asked her if she loved that other man.
She said you are a silly boy, and laughed.
And then I asked her if she'd marry me,
And if she would not, why she would not do it.
We came up to the woods and she was silent,
I could not make her speak. I stopped the horse.
She sat all quiet, I could see her face
Under the brilliance of the moon. I saw
A thin smile on her face -- and then I struck her,
And from the floor grabbed up the iron wrench,
And struck her, took her out and laid her down,
And did what was too horrible, they say,
To do and keep my life. To finish up
I reached back for the iron wrench, first felt
Her breast to find her heart, no use of wrench,
She was already dead. I took the spade,
Scraped off the leaves between two trees and dug,
And buried her and said: 'My Chariclea
No man shall have you.' Then I drove till morning,
And after some days reached Missouri, where
They caught me."

So Fred Taylor told me all,
Filled in the full confession that he made,
And which they used in court, with looks and words,
Scarce to be reproduced; but to the last
He said the mathematics of his birth
Accounted for his deed.

Is it not true?
If you resolved the question that the jury
Resolved, did he know right from wrong, did he
Know what he did, the jury answered truly
To give the rope to him. Or if you say
These mathematics may be true, and still
A man like that is better out of way,
And saying so become the very spirit,
And reason which slew Gertrude, disregarding
The devil of heredity which clutched him,
As he put by the reason we obey,
It may be well enough, I do not know.

Now for last night before this morning fixed
To swing him off. His lawyers went to see
The governor to win reprieval, perhaps
A commutation. I could see his eyes
Had two lights in them; one was like a lantern
With the globe greased, which showed he could not see
Himself in death tomorrow -- what is that
In the soul that cannot see itself in death?
No to-morrow, continuation, the wall, the end!
And yet this very smear upon the globe
Was death's half fleshless hand which rubbed across
His senses and his hope. The other light
Was weirdly bright for terror, expectation
Of good news from the governor.

For his lawyers
Were in these hours petitioning. He would ask:
"No news? No word? What is the time?" His tongue
Would fall back in his throat, we saw the strain
Of his stretched soul. He'd sit upon his couch
Hands clasped, head down. Arise and hold the bars,
Himself fling on the couch face down and shake.
But when he heard the hammers ring that nail
The scaffold into shape, he whirled around
Like a rat in a cage. And when the sand bag fell,
That tested out the rope, a muffled thug,
And the rope creaked, he started up and moaned
"You're getting ready," and his body shivered,
His white hands could not hold the bars, he reeled
And fell upon the couch again.

There was no whiskey and no morphia,
Except for what the parsons think fit use,
A poor weak fellow -- not a Socrates --
Must march the gallows, walk with every nerve
Up-bristled like a hair in fright. This night
Was much too horrible for me. At last
I had the doctor dope him unaware,
And for a time he slept.

But when the dawn
Looked through the little windows near the ceiling
Cob-webbed and grimed, with light like sanded water,
And echoes started in the corridors
Of feet and objects moved, then all at once
He sprang up from his sleep, and gave a groan,
Half yell, that shook us all.

A clergyman
Came soon to pray with him, and he grew calmer,
And said: "O pray for her, but pray for me
That I may see her, when this riddle-world
No longer stands between us, slipped from her
And soon from me."

For breakfast he took coffee,
A piece of toast, no more. The sickening hour
Approaches -- he is sitting on his couch,
Bent over, head in hands, dazed, or in prayer.
My deputy reads the warrant -- while I stand
At one side so to hear, but not to see.
And then my clerk comes quickly through the door
That opens from the office in the jail;
Runs up the iron steps, all out of breath,
And almost shouts: "The governor telephones
To stop; the sentence is commuted." Then
I grew as weak as the culprit -- took the warrant,
And stepped up to the cell's door, coughed, inhaled,
And after getting breath I said: "Good news,
The governor has saved you."

Then he laughed,
Half fell against the bars, and like a rag
Sank in a heap.

I don't know to this day
What moved the governor. For crazy men
Are hanged sometimes. To-day he leaves the jail.
We take him where the criminal insane
Are housed at our expense.

So Merival heard the sheriff. As he knew
The governor's mind, and how the governor
Gave heed to public thought, or what is deemed
The public thought, what's printed in the press,
He wondered at the governor. For no crime
Had stirred the county like this crime. And if
A jury and the courts adjudged this boy
Of nineteen in his mind, what was the right
Of interference by the governor?
So Merival was puzzled. They were chums,
The governor and Merival in old days.
Had known club-life together, ate and drank
Together in the days when Merival
Came to Chicago living down the hurt
He took from her who left him. In those days
The governor was struggling, Merival
Had helped with friends and purse -- and later helped
The governor's ambition from the time
He went to congress. So the two were friends
With memories and secrets for the stuff
Of friendship, glad renewal of the surge
Of lasting friendship when they met.

And now
He sensed a secret, meant to bring it forth.
And telegraphed the governor, who said:
"I'll see you in Chicago." Merival
Went up to see the governor and talk.
They had not met for months for leisured talk.
And now the governor said: "I'll tell you all,
And make it like a drama. I'll bring in
My wife who figured in this murder case.
It was this way: It's nearly one o'clock,
I'm back from hearing lawyers plead. I wish
To make this vivid so you'll get my mind.
I tell you what I said to her. It's this:"

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