William F. Stratton
The Missing Witness
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
By Frank N. Stratton
The Back-Log of New York, September 1903.
Alone, in my office, near midnight. I am reviewing my rough notes of the testimony given that day at the coroners inquest. They ran substantially, thus;
“EDWARD A GRAY, Bachelor. Fifty-eight years old. Owner and manager Edgewood Hotel. On duty, at the desk, on the evening of July 31st. About 6 p.m. the deceased entered the hotel and registered as W. D. Straughn. Aurora, N. Y. Shown to room 16. At 6:30 I was relieved by my clerk, Robert B. Hayes. Retired to my rooms, 20 and 21, about 10 p.m. About 11:30 I was awakened by movement in my room, number 20. I called out, but received no answer. I took my revolver from under my pillow, got up and reached up with my left arm to turn on the light. Before I could do so the man sprang at me, and stabbed me in left forearm. I fired twice and he fell. I then turned on the light and saw Straughn, dead. Recognized him only by his clothes, as his face was shot away. Several persons rushed in; think Hayes came first. Think he picked up Straughn's knife. Know of no motive for Straughn's action, unless it might be robbery.
ROBERT B. HAYES, unmarried. Twenty-eight years old. Clerk at the Edgewood three years. Went on duty at 6:30 that evening. Never saw Straughn alive. About 11:30 heard two shots in quick succession. Rushed up stairs. The hall light was burning dimly. Saw Mrs. Emmett entering the door of her room, number 17, almost opposite, but a little south of number 20. Think she had on a white wrapper. The door of 20 was not quite closed. I pushed it open and entered. The light was turned on and Mr. Gray was standing with a revolver in his right hand. His left arm was bleeding. Straughn lay on the floor dead, face shot away, open pocket-knife near his right hand. I picked up the knife. Mr. Gray said the man had broken into his room and stabbed him. Door catch was broken.
MRS. FLORA EMMETT: Widow. Thirty-five years old. Husband, William D. Emmett, lost at sea three years ago. Came here from New York one month ago. Took rooms at the Edgewood, 16 and 17, intending to buy country residence. Never saw Gray before. Had only a speaking acquaintance with him. Was awakened that night by severe tooth-ache. Arose, slipped white wrapper on, and stepped into the hall, intending to procure remedy from Mrs. Ralston in room 14. Heard scuffling, then two shots in room 20. Stood for a moment shocked and terrified, then fled back to 17. Confined to her rooms by neuralgia for three days afterward. Never saw Straughn alive.
This was all the material evidence we had been able to find. I could learn nothing of Straughn or his antecedents. He was unknown in Aurora, N. Y. Nothing among his few personal effects furnished a clue to his identity. I had no choice but to accept the finding of the coroner’s jury, “justifiable homicide.”
Having reached this conclusion, I threw myself back in my chair for a few moments rest, then straightened up with a jerk.
A man was in the chair at the opposite side of my flat-topped desk. He was leaning back, his chin on his breast, staring at me thoughtfully. His eyes were dark and serious, his face pale and intelligent, his head slightly bald. I at once judged him to be a professional man, about forty years old.
I was impressed by the sadness of his expression. While I was yet wondering how he had entered unnoticed, he spoke: “You are Mr. Neilson, the prosecuting attorney of this circuit?”
“You have just decided not to prosecute Gray. Quite proper, with the evidence you have at hand. But, Gray is guilty—guilty of unprovoked and pre-meditated murder.”
“Now—” with an impatient gesture, “don’t interrupt me. My time is limited. The murdered man’s name is not Straughn—it is Emmett, William D. Emmett. Yes, he is—or was—Mrs. Emmett’s husband. They were married five years ago. One year afterward she deserted him. Emmett sailed for Europe on the Tuscola, searching for her. The ship foundered at sea, but Emmet escaped. The details of his adventures and final return to New York are not essential.”
“He had sought his wife. Foolish, I know, but there are men, who, loving always, never love but once. He found that Mrs. Emmett, thinking him dead, had returned to New York, and, as his only heir, had secured his fortune. He also discovered that she had met Gray at a certain watering resort, and had followed him here at his request. They arranged, because of some complication of Gray’s to meet here as strangers, and to be married later.”
"Impelled by his infatuation for the adventuress, Emmett came here secretly to plead with her. He registered under the assumed name of Straughn, because, if his mission failed, he wished to leave her unsuspected, and free to follow her desire. He would not betray her.”
“That fatal evening he went to his wife’s apartments. She had really believed him dead. After the shock of recognition had passed, she threw herself into his arms, she wept, she implored forgiveness, she lauded him in honeyed words for his constancy and charity. Then she begged him to leave her for a short time that she might compose herself. Ah, she was cunning—as merciless as cunning—as adorable as merciless.”
“She told him to return in two hours to room 20—Gray’s room—she told him it was hers. On the morrow they would depart on their second honeymoon. He obeyed her, believed her, he was supremely happy. When he had gone she sent for Gray, whom she loved. He was furious at the thought of losing her—and her fortune. They arranged the plot.”
“Promptly in two hours Emmett rapped at the door of room 20. His wife admitted him—in the darkness took his hand and led him to his death. Gray was nervous and fired too soon. In the darkness and excitement the woman, fleeing to her own room, could not immediately find the door of exit, and she was seen by Hayes. Gray broke the catch of his door, cut himself, and placed the knife near the dying man’s hand. The face was intentionally blown away and burned by the second shot, to prevent any possible recognition. Mrs. Emmett knew that her husband had no friends who were likely to trace him. It was a cunning plot, made safe and feasible by the victim himself, when he registered under an assumed name.”
“I am here to ask you in the name of Justice, the sake of that betrayed and murdered husband, to bring the guilty to trial. Will you do your duty?”.
“My dear sir,” I replied, cautiously, “this is a most serious charge against two apparently innocent persons, one of whom is an old and highly esteemed resident of this city. How can you prove this accusation?”
He looked, searchingly into my eyes, as though doubtful of the effect of his answer.
“I heard Gray and Mrs. Emmett discuss the affair last night—they meet again tomorrow night for the same purpose, and—I saw the murder committed!”
"Now, sir,” I exclaimed, reaching for pen and paper; "have the kindness to give me your name and address, and to state why you withheld this evidence when the officers were putting forth every effort to sift this matter.”
“My name—I will give you that later. My absence, believe me, was unavoidable.”
“This will not do, sir. I cannot assume the responsibility of having these people indicted until I am satisfied that your story can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt. If you are sincere you will answer my questions. Unless you do so, it becomes my duty to compel you to appear before the grand jury and at the trial.”
My visitor arose.
"I had feared this,” he said, plaintively. “My attendance as an ordinary witness, under cross-examination, is impossible. To give you my name would defeat my purpose. I can only urge you, implore you, to indict these murderers. I pledge you my honor that I will appear at the trial immediately after you have made such an opening statement to the jury as I have indicated. Look at me, sir; believe me, and rely on me. I swear I shall not fail you.”
He held out his hands imploringly; his face glowed with seeming earnestness and sincerity.
I stepped quickly to the door, locked it, and put the key in my pocket.
“Your request is preposterous,” I said. “You must either go with me quietly and give bond for you appearance, or I shall telephone for an officer to take you into custody.”
“You doubt my sincerity,” he replied, sadly. “Since there is no other way, if you will meet me on the cliff, above the falls, at ten-thirty, tomorrow night, I will convince you, and will give you my name.”
I stepped to the telephone and called an officer. When I turned again to face my visitor, he had disappeared. I had heard no movement, but the open window—yes—the man had certainly dropped from that second-story window!
I rushed down into the deserted street, and saw no one but the officer answering my call. With all the available police force I searched the city without success. The fellow had out-witted us.
The next night, at 10:30, I stood above the falls. I had taken no one into my confidence, for I felt that my errand would be fruitless, perhaps ridiculous. I was strong, active and well armed, and was determined that should my mysterious visitor by any chance appear, he should not again escape me.
In front of me, and a hundred feet below, the lake stretched, broad and deep, illumined by the full moon until the smallest object was discernible upon its placid bosom. At my right, and within a stone’s throw, arose another cliff, the two forming a canon through whose narrow pass the waters swept with terrific rapidity to plunge straight downward over the falls below in a wild leap of more than forty feet.
It was a secluded and a lonely spot. Save the roaring of the falls, the croaking of the frogs, and the occasional call of some distant night-bird, there was no sound to break the solemn solitude. An uncanny feeling, an intuition of some impending horror, gradually crept over me, and I was about to resume my saddle and return to the city when I saw a boat emerge, noiseless as a shadow, from an arm of the lake a few rods from me, and slowly guide toward the opposite shore.
There were two forms in the boat; a man at the oars, and a woman facing him. They were talking earnestly, but in so low a tone, that I caught no word. Suddenly a third form appeared, that of a man, standing in the bow. I could not see whence it came, it may have arisen from the bottom of the boat; I only saw it appear as suddenly as the flash of the biograph, and then I heard a shriek, the most piercing, pitiful, despairing shriek that ever burst from mortal woman’s throat, and the woman in the boat pitched forward on her face. I saw Gray turn his face so that the moon shone full upon it, saw him drop the oars and throw up his hands as though to shield himself, and then crouch, still looking upward into the face of—my missing witness!
Slowly the boat drifted down toward me, its speed gradually increasing as it neared the deadly canon. Once in the grasp of that mighty current there could be no escape. Mortal thews and sinews could avail nothing against the immeasurable forces of those black, rushing waters.
“For God’s sake,” I yelled, “take up the oars and row! You are drifting into the falls!”
No one moved. Faster and faster came the frail boat, dancing, now, upon the troubled waters that heralded the impending peril. They were directly beneath me, and never shall I forget the awful expression on Gray’s face, as they swept by, nor the sardonic smile and demoniacal eyes of the form that stood over him.
A threshing, foam-capped wave seized upon the boat, lifted it high, and hurled it whirling into the roaring canon, out of my sight. Horrified, I ran swiftly to a point directly over the falls, cast myself on the ground, and peered over just as the boat, with its three occupants, shot out from the brink, poised for a moment in mid-air, and then plunged downward and disappeared in the mad maelstrom below.
Hardly had I risen, tremblingly, to my feet, when I was confronted by—the missing witness. He smiled pleasantly, and said: “I trust you are convinced. They deserved a more ignominious death, but as you refused—”
“In the name of God,” I cried, rushing at him, “who—what are you?”
As I reached to grapple with him he vanished—to reappear, ten feet distant.
“My name?—I have none now, not even in the memory of man. I was once—William D. Emmett!”