“We’re all so everlastingly canny and competent and sophisticated these days, going mechanically through a mechanical world, sharpening up our little emotions, tuning up our little sensations— and suddenly there’s a cry of ‘Murder!’ in the streets, and we stop and look back, shuddering, over our shoulder—and across us falls the shadow of a savage with a bloodstained club, and we know that it’s good and dangerous and beautiful to be alive.”
The sleepy town of Rosemont seems an unlikely location for the crime of the century. Yet that’s exactly what is unfolding, as reporters and eager townspeople jostle for front-row seats to the trial that has enthralled the whole country. Two of the town’s leading citizens are on trial for their lives, accused of a brutal crime of passion. But will the verdict reveal the truth?
The Bellamy Trial is a landmark legal drama (essentially the first proper legal drama) that is all the more compelling for keeping strictly within the courtroom. The reader does not get to see the characters in private moments until the very end, nor does Frances Noyes Hart reveal anything more about the main players in the case than spectators in the courtroom are able to witness. The reader is as much of an outsider to the case as the onlookers in the audience.
The crime is deceptively simple. Flighty beauty Mimi Bellamy was stabbed in the heart while waiting to meet her lover, Patrick Ives. The prosecution contends that she was confronted and killed by her own husband, Stephen Bellamy, and Pat’s wife, Sue Ives. Their defense is the risky one of innocence. Given the situation, jurors might have been sympathetic to a defense of temporary insanity or the “unwritten law,” but outright innocence may prove harder to accept. Prosecutor Farr is young, energetic, and ambitious. The defense attorney, Lambert, is an older, not very distinguished civil attorney who initially seems to be completely outclassed by Farr. Over the course of the trial, however, Lambert makes a surprisingly strong case for his clients.
Trial sequences can easily get bogged down in minutiae, but Hart keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. Each of the witnesses and attorneys have distinct personalities, which emerge during the proceedings. Farr indulges in melodrama during his opening and closing arguments, but examines witnesses with a cold, logical focus. Lambert wears his emotions on his sleeve, approaching the witness box “at almost a prance, his broad countenance smoldering with ill-concealed excitement,” only to be plunged into gloom if the questioning does not go his way. (His face, at one point, turns the color of “deep claret,” which I’m pretty sure is a symptom of stroke.) The more information that emerges, the less clear events become. A number of possible stories take shape, but which of them, if any, forms the true picture of the crime?
This murder is fascinating to the public, and some of those following the case find that the crime has an impact on their lives even though they are not actually involved with it. The trial is viewed mostly through the eyes of two nameless young journalists, a female cub reporter and a more experienced male newspaperman who takes her under his wing. They are meant to be an endearing young couple, but the gender dynamics are not very charming. The “red-headed girl,” as she is always referred to, is dying to learn everything about the newspaper game. When her new friend thinks the little lady needs more soup and more sleep, offering to “do your notes for you to-night so well that your boss will double your salary in the morning,” the red-headed girl isn’t having it—at first.
“Thank you kindly,” she said. “My boss wrote me two special-delivery letters yesterday to say that I was doing far the best stuff that was coming up out of Redfield—far. He said that the three clippings that I sent him of your stuff showed promise—he did, honestly…. I think that soup’s terrible, and this is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to stay up as late as I pleased without anyone sending me to bed. I’m mad about it…. Have some peanuts?”
This is on day two of the trial; her condition deteriorates rapidly from there, and by about day four she’s a complete wreck. From the moment they meet, the man (Hart always refers to him as “the reporter,” and even at one point “the real reporter”) picks apart everything about her, from her hat to her choice of writing utensil. The red-headed girl eagerly soaks up his wisdom; by the end of the trial, she has entirely remade herself in the image he prefers. At times, she barely comes across as an adult, let alone a competent professional (“Something in the drooping shoulders under the efficient jacket suggested an exhausted baby in need of a crib and a bottle of hot milk and a firm and friendly tucking in”). The red-headed girl only thinks she’s learning how to be a journalist. What she’s really learning is how to be a compliant woman.
The Bellamy Trial is not just the story of one particular crime, but of American society in the 1920s. The rise of mass media provides a hungry audience for scandals like this one, turning a family tragedy into entertainment for the masses. Our reporter heroes are gleefully complicit in this process, working hard to impose a storyline onto real-life events. Ordinary people, whose only distinction comes from a minor involvement in a murder case, are elevated into celebrities, even if just for a brief time. Witnesses like Flora Biggs will get their fifteen minutes of fame, for good or ill.
Flora Biggs might have been a pretty girl ten years ago, before that fatal heaviness had crept from sleazy silk ankles to the round chin above the imitation pearls. Everything about Miss Biggs was imitation—an imitation fluff of something that was meant to be fur on the plush coat that was meant to be another kind of fur; an imitation rose of a washed-out magenta trying to hide itself in the masquerading collar; pearls the size of large bone buttons peeping out from too golden hair; an arrow of false diamonds catching the folds of the purple velvet toque that was not quite velvet; nervous fingers in suede gloves that were rather a bad grade of cotton clutching at a snakeskin bag of stenciled cloth—a poor, cheap, shoddy imitation of what the well-dressed woman will wear. And yet in those small insignificant features that should have belonged to a pretty girl, in those round china-blue eyes, staring forlornly out of reddened rims, there was something candid and touching and appealing. For out of those reddened eyes peered the good shy little girl in the starched white dress brought down to entertain the company—the good, shy little girl whose name had been Florrie Biggs. And little Florrie Biggs had been crying.
“The worst thing about a murder trial,” says the red-headed girl, “is that it practically ruins everybody’s life.” For some witnesses, their moment in the sun will come at a high cost. Their darkest secrets are splashed across the front page simply because they chanced to go on a picnic on a certain night, or lived next door to a murder victim as a child. The general public will forget these little scandals by the next morning, but those whose sins have been exposed must live with the consequences forever.
Prosecutor Farr notes in his opening statement that this crime is a peculiarly modern one. Only the upheaval of World War I made it possible for a poor, ambitious girl like Mimi to marry Stephen Bellamy, at that time the most promising man in town. Only the vagaries of the 1920s stock market could have destroyed the fortune of Susan Ives’ wealthy father, while turning her formerly ne’er-do-well husband Pat into a rich stockbroker. And only postwar restlessness and the increasing popularity of the automobile has turned small towns like Rosemont into suburbs where transient populations combine into a volatile social mixture. Nothing makes that more clear than the Bellamy/Ives trial, which brings together a wide range of people from all walks of life.
My hopes for The Bellamy Trial were not high after suffering through Frances Noyes Hart’s Hide in the Dark. However, The Bellamy Trial is a vastly better book. It could be shorter, and the depiction of the female reporter is often irksome. Still, there is a freshness and intrigue to this story, as a seemingly simple case grows more and more complicated before our eyes. Hart has a deft touch with the courtroom scenes, demonstrating that justice and the legal system can be very different things.
Two features rescue the trial proceedings from the perils of stultifying legalism. First, Hart writes in a remarkably fresh style, with none of the held-over Victorian fustiness that afflicts a lot of 1920s prose. The tale, in fact, reads like a top-drawer screenplay from Hollywood’s golden age…Second, she employs a clever framing device: Over the course of eight days, we view the trial through the eyes of two nameless denizens of the press box—an ingenuous “girl with red hair” and a hardboiled “reporter”—and over that period we see a romance develop between them as well. Their interactions strike the judicious balance between sentiment and cynicism on which every courtroom drama depends.
As I said by the middle of the book I was getting into things but unfortunately the final third was a bit of a slog, being somewhat long winded and the ending itself, although surprising, a bit deflating. Personally I think the book could have lost 80 pages to great effect. So I am not sure it is one I can strongly recommend, though as a character study and as a record of murder trials in the 1920s it has value.
Hank Phillippi Ryan, “On the Hall-Mills Murders, (A) Crime of the Century,” Crimereads
Examines The Bellamy Trial in the context of the infamous murder case that inspired it.
The Bellamy Trial is available in paperback, hardcover, and ebook formats from American Mystery Classics. It was one of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone titles.