Red Web - Blair Coan

A Tale From The Tomb

A good many years ago there was an orphan boy in Washington Courthouse, Ohio, in whose welfare the Daugherty boys—Harry and Mal—interested themselves. His name was Jess W. Smith. It was the Daugherty boys who financed young Jess and set him up in the mercantile business. He was quite adept at the business, made a go of it in that small Ohio town, paid off his debits to Harry and Mal, made more money, accumulated a small fortune, and became attached to the Daugherty boys with a devotion almost dog-like in its intensity.

Smith became enamoured of a young woman bearing the name of Roxie Stinson. She was striking, as to looks, at that time, and had a way with her that was fascinating to young Jess beyond all resisting. He fell in love with her and she enjoyed to the uttermost her triumph of "landing" the prosperous young merchant. So Jess and Roxie were married.

Time passed, and it developed that the Jess Smith household was none too tranquil. Social evenings in it became fewer, fewer people accepted invitations to play at cards, and the common report was that Roxie's temper was incompatible with social contacts. Jess lamented that so many of his personal friends shied at his hospitality and blamed it on his wife's proclivity for insulting them by the use of an uncontrollable tongue. Anyway, they agreed to disagree, and there was a divorce, Mrs. Smith reclaiming her maiden name.

[Illustration] from The Red Web by Blair Coan


Jess went to live elsewhere. But he never recovered from his infatuation for his somewhat tempestuous wife, and evidently regretted the untying of the matrimonial knot. For Roxie there appeared to be no such regrets, for she had negotiated a settlement with Jess that kept the wolf at a very respectable distance from her doorstep, and her freedom gave her the privilege, in addition, of "living her own life" in the way she wished to live it. She began to have other men friends, and the variety of them was a puzzle to Jess. To hear of it aroused Jess' jealousy beyond endurance. He went to see Roxie, and somehow or other made a most remarkable truce with her. Thereafter he became her most intimate friend, and his attentions and standing in the household became very much the same as they had been before the legal bonds of matrimony had been duly and judicially severed.

But Jess, if the almost unanimous conclusion of the citizenry of Washington Courthouse is worthy of belief, did not cut out all the rest of the men on Roxie's string, and he had to remain content with being the leading man and the one upon whose financial resources his ex-wife exercised a foremost lien. The arrangement was not exactly according to Hoyle in the eyes of Washington Courthouse; but, the world being more or less perverse, in some respects, Jess seemed to be the object of pity rather than contempt.

Jess Smith never flagged in his canine devotion to the Daugherty boys, nor did he ever relax to any notable extent in his attention to Roxie. To any and all advice to "put her out of his life" and stop her endless access to his money he turned a deaf ear. It was the one subject, in fact, about which he could work up a real case of indignation against the Daugherty boys, whose protege he had been and whose fondness for him, inexplicable as it may have seemed to many, was interminably enduring.

It must be remembered that Smith had been a sort of executive secretary to Mr. Daugherty throughout the entire campaign which was managed solely by Mr. Daugherty and which resulted in the nomination of Senator Harding for President and also during the campaign which resulted in the election of Harding and Coolidge.

These services of Smith to Mr. Daugherty were continuous and the duties so numerous that Smith lived with him most of the time, as Mrs. Daugherty, long an invalid, was compelled to spend practically all of her time in hospitals.

When Mr. Daugherty came to Washington as the Attorney General in the cabinet of President Harding, he brought Jess along to serve as a sort of unofficial intermediary between the Attorney General's office and the pests and ax-grinders that invariably hover about that office, as they do every other office of a government official in the city of Washington. He had found Jess serviceable, in this capacity, during political campaigns, and Jess had a knack of knowing Mr. Daugherty's desires and of being able to perform the duties of a lackey without appearing to be a lackey and without being himself conscious that he was one. Also, here might be one way to get Jess "out from under" the ever-present proprietorship of Roxie. Jess was for bringing Roxie along to Washington, to be sure, but Mr. Daugherty has a very emphatic way of saying "No!" and the suggestion all but died a-borning on Jess Smith's lips.

So Jess came to Washington and left Roxie behind, much to that lady's chagrin. He never had any official capacity or connection at the Department of Justice, and performed the duty as buffer to the varied assortment of visitors with axes to be ground who considered Mr. Daugherty to be the real spokesman for President Harding; ran personal errands for Mr. Daugherty; was companionable when the Attorney General wanted company and kept his place when the Attorney General did not want company. He was, in Mr. Daugherty's opinion at any rate, loyal to his benefactor and friend. But he was by no means a confidant—for Mr. Daugherty knew him too well to let him in on any state or official secrets. For he was a notorious gossip, had a considerable feeling of his own importance, strutted his stuff as only a nine o'clock fellow in a midnight town like Washington, D. C., can do, and while it would scarcely be just to characterize him as a man deliberately careless with the truth, it can not be denied that his imagination would have served him well had he been skilled in the field of literature. I can offer no testimony as to the honesty of Jess Smith. But if you ask people who knew him they will tell you most emphatically that they believe he was honest.

Asked about the position of Jess Smith at the Department of Justice, Mrs. Mabel Walker Willebrandt testified before the extraordinary Investigation Committee,—the Wheeler-Brookhart-Ashurst committee of the senate—that Jess was "a sort of glorified personal servant" to the Attorney General. It would be more accurate to say, perhaps, that he was a self-glorified personal servant. And the most conspicuous outlet for his self-glorification was, by the very nature of things, the feminine object of his ever-burning infatuation—Roxie Stinson. Jess was the sort of chap who, if he met some prominent man while enacting his role as buffer for the Attorney General, delighted in feeding Roxie, to impress her with his own importance, with the sort of talk that would give the impression, perhaps without actually saying so, that the man was a personal friend who called him "Jess, old boy," and whom he called "Tom," "Dick," or "Harry." And, in turn, Roxie was adept enough at the same game of self-glorification to have no trouble at all in convincing herself that she was herself on intimate social terms with all the big men in the Harding administration, from the President down.

Jess Smith's career came to an end in Washington on the 30th of May, 1923. He died from a bullet wound, self-inflicted. The suicide occurred in the apartments of the Attorney General. The Attorney General was absent at the time. Smith had been suffering from diabetes for a long time, and for many months he had suffered anguish from the effects of this disease and complications that had developed in connection with it. His afflictions became worse after an operation he underwent about a year before his death. That he was "losing his grip" on himself was apparent to the Attorney General and to all others who had a friendly interest in Smith, but none suspected that he might end his own life. He did not seem to be the type that commits suicide. But he did, and the only honest explanation of it in the face of known facts is that he preferred death to continued physical suffering.

The suicide left a will, that he should leave substantial shares of his little fortune to those who had been his benefactors in early days and his most nearly kin-like friends in his last days, was entirely natural. It was not strange that he should appoint Mal Daugherty his administrator inasmuch as a few months before Mal Daugherty had closed out his store business for him in Washington Courthouse.

Two events were saddening to Roxie Stinson—Jess Smith's death was one, and the other was the revelation of the contents of Jess Smith's will. Of the two, the latter, in all fairness, may be said to have been the more tragic. That her hold upon Jess was not, as she had thought, strong enough to make her the sole beneficiary in his will, was a keen disappointment to Roxie. The Daughertys stood none too well with her to begin with, but now she held them strictly to account for being such an influence in the life of Jess Smith that he should leave them anything by his will, and not leave her everything. Her hatred of the Daughertys was, and is, undeniable. She was convinced in her own mind that, but for the Daughertys, she would have got what Jess Smith left at death in its entirety.

Roxie had letters from Jess Smith by the bale. He was a prolific correspondent. Letter-writing is one of the most notable accomplishments of gossips, and as a gossip Jess Smith was no exception to the rule. It is a truth well known to students of the mental processes of mankind that the letters of a gossip manifest one glaring characteristic. This is the characteristic of conveying ideas that may be subject to more than one interpretation. The gossip says something in a cryptic and knowing manner and leaves it to the other fellow to give it the signifiance that supplies the most kick.

A bright idea struck the mind of Roxie Stinson close to the spot wherein reposed the idea that, but for the Daugherty brothers, she would have had enough from the provisions of Jess Smith's will to have justified her wearing mourning for him the rest of her life. She had benefitted plentifully from Jess Smith during his lifetime because he suffered from an infatuation for her.

Al Fink, broker and promoter, was in Cleveland, Ohio, on the 18th of February, 1924, to start a campaign for the sale of securities of the Ideal Tire & Rubber Corporation. He found himself short of funds adequate to the campaign and was in something of a quandary as to what to do about it.

A bright idea came to Mr. Fink's rescue also. As he confesses it now, in an affidavit (which is one of the appendices of this book) he recalled having read in the papers that an old sweetheart of his, Roxie Stinson, had become an heiress by the will of one Jess Smith, and it occurred to him that she might be good for a stake. He got in touch with her by telephone, and induced her to join him in Cleveland.

"We went to the Hotel Hollenden, where we registered as man and wife, under the fictitious name of A.L. French and wife of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," I quote from Fink's affidavit. 'So upon going to Room 452, which was assigned to us, I immediately started to talk to her about my business proposition, when she interrupted and said, 'I have a far bigger deal on right now and you ought to come in on it.' I asked her what it was and she said she was being defrauded out of her portion of Jess Smith's estate by Harry Daugherty, and that she wanted revenge upon Daugherty because he refused to recognize her or to allow Jess Smith to have her in Washington during the time Daugherty was in office, and that she was prepared, if necessary, to invent stories and piece stories together that would incriminate Daugherty to such an extent that he would be forced to resign from office; also that she expected to sell her story for $150,000, which she felt she was entitled to, and she asked me if I would get some strong Democrat to purchase her story, which she concocted, and also pay her $150,000."

As a further indication of her desire to exact more money from the Jess Smith estate than was bequeathed to her under the terms of the will, Roxie has since sued Mal Daugherty, as the executor of the estate itself, for an additional amount of more than eleven thousand dollars. Two courts have already heard this case and both promptly decided against her.

The affidavit of Fink is a voluminous one, and is available in full as an appendix to this book if the reader desires to read it, but many of the details may be passed over here as not of great importance to the present narrative of more important events. It is sufficient to say that Roxie's threats did not scare the Daughertys, who were not the kind to be frightened, and Roxie was informed politely but firmly that she could take her letters and her story and go to the devil. By a devious way, she went, instead, to Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana.

From the time of Fink's meeting with Roxie Stinson in Cleveland, a couple of weeks had elapsed when Henry Stern, a lawyer of Buffalo, N.Y., retained by Fink when he had run somewhat afoul the law at Rochester, N.Y., sent for Fink, Fink had apprised Stern of his adventure in Cleveland. Stern, it appears, among his other law business attachments, had become connected somehow with the Extraordinary Investigation Committee of the United States Senate. It is Fink's charge that Stern, holding over him the shadow of serious legal difficulties if he didn't, and of more favorable consequences if he did, induced him to make a trip with Stern to Washington.

It was through Fink, therefore, that Wheeler accomplished his connection with the woman who hated Attorney General Daugherty; and, fed by her hatred and her desire for money, went upon the witness stand in Washington to lay the groundwork for the colossal frame-up of perjury, insinuations, innuendoes, twisted truths and misinterpreted facts by which the Attorney General was to be driven from office, the Department of Justice demoralized, the integrity of the government impugned, and the reputations of public men crucified without stint and without conscience.

Wheeler took Fink and the lawyer, Stern, with him to Columbus, Ohio, to serve Roxie with a subpoena and induce her to come to Washington to tell her yarn. "After boarding the train and starting for Washington," says Fink's affidavit, "Wheeler spent several hours with her talking. The following morning Wheeler came back to the smoking compartment and said, 'At last I have gotten this girl to testify the way I want her to, and I had better get her right before the committee before she gets a change of heart.' He said, 'You and Stern go to the hotel and then come over to Room 410 Senate Office Building, and we will start the hearings at once.' The hearings started that morning."

Fink became alarmed over the possibility of trouble with his wife, if the episode of the Cleveland hotel came out, and it is his story that Roxie, after her initial testimony, was kept off the stand for several days to allow time for Wheeler to "fix it" with Fink's wife.

The testimony of Roxie Stinson was vast in quantity, but it will he remembered clearly, no doubt, by those who followed it, that virtually all of it rested upon her and Wheeler's interpretations of expressions in Jess Smith's gossipy letters and upon what she invariably referred to as information and events which the dead Jess Smith "told her about." Jess said this, and Jess told her that, she told the committee, but at no time did she testify to anything that she herself knew, and the tale in all its details and ramifications was a tale from the tomb—a dead man's tale, which the dead man could not be asked about—retold with all its twisted embellishments in the language of a vindictive woman who would hesitate at nothing.

On the witness stand she was often the clever actress, and particularly was this the case when asked about "The Little Green House on K Street." It was an arresting line, an attractive phrase, daubed with romance and painted with mystery. Conan Doyle could not have conceived a more fascinating scene for plots, intrigue and devilments to engage the attention of his great detective, Sherlock Holmes. Asked about the K street house, Roxie was exceedingly demure.

"What, if anything, do you know with reference to the K street house?" Wheeler asked her.

"I would rather not answer," she replied, assuming an attitude of shame and almost tearful distress that she should be obliged to go into matters so terrible as those associated with the "Little Green House on K Street."

For some little time, she "would rather not answer," but upon being duly pressed, she did answer.

The cue came from Wheeler as follows:

"You know that Mr. Smith and the Attorney General met at the K street house on a number of occasions?"

"I don't mind saying that," was her reply. "I WAS TOLD SO BY MR. SMITH."

"Do you know the number of the house?" inquired Senator Moses.

"No. I never saw it in my life."

And the fact of the matter is, she had never even heard of it in her life—until she had come to Washington and had worked out, with Wheeler, Gaston Means and others, according to Means' affidavit, the details of the yarn she was to recite upon the witness stand.

The further fact of the matter is, "The Little Green House on K Street" was a melodramatic myth, so far as its relationship to the Attorney General and the Department of Justice was concerned. Daugherty was never in it in his life, and never saw it in his life either inside or outside.

At one stage of the proceedings, Senator Jones of Washington, had his attentions arrested and his curiosity aroused by the fact that Roxie, in the course of her testimony, was reading her replies from a type-written memorandum. It seemed just a trifle out of the ordinary, in the mind of Senator Jones, and he was prompted to gratify his curiosity, if it were possible to do so.

"You are apparently reading from a type-written memorandum?" the senator from Washington interposed.

"Yes, sir."

"When did you make that?"

"This was made by my companion here in Washington, from notes that I had made."

"Since you came down here?"

"The notes were made at my home, at the time."

"When were the notes made?"

"On the 23rd of February."

"That is, the next day after you had been up to Cleveland?"

"No; I was in Cleveland—I returned on the 21st. Then on Saturday is when I made my notes, through the advice of a friend; just a personal friend whom I had told about the Cleveland frame-up (Roxie's version of it) only. It was on that advice."

"Have you those notes now?"

"No, sir; I have not; unless—I have destroyed them—you see, there was someone sent as a personal envoy from me to get my letters and general correspondence and everything from my home which I did not bring with me,"

"You brought those notes down here with you?"

"I did not."

"You had them here, may I ask?" put in Senator Wheeler, in an effort to rescue her from a bit of thin ice.

"I understood you to say you had them typed by your friend here—by your companion here, when you came down here in response to the subpoena," said Jones.

"Yes, sir."

"Then of course you must have had the notes?"

"Yes. But in the meantime I did not bring those notes with me; they were sent for and brought to me."

"Were they destroyed?"

"I think I tore them up, after I elaborated these. I will look at the hotel—"

"I wish you would."

"These are absolutely—I would almost say word for word."

"I would like very much to see those notes," Senator Jones persisted.

"Are they important?"


"They are only just items—just as this is."

"I know. They are very important to my mind; and I wish you would look and see if you can find them."

"I shall look; but I doubt that."

"When did you make these notes?" asked Wheeler.

"Twenty-third day of February."

"Were the notes in pencil or ink?" asked Senator Moses.


"Did anybody suggest that they be typewritten?"

"No; I just asked my companion here to do this for me, because I can not read my own writing very well."

"As a matter of fact," put in Wheeler apprehensively, "you had never shown those notes to me, either?"

"No; nobody has seen them."

"You had never shown even the statement you had typewritten to me?" coached Wheeler.

"No, sir."

"Had anybody ever seen those notes before you had them typewritten?" Senator Moses enquired.

"No sir, I do not discuss."

"Except your companion, of course? I suppose she saw them, or did you read them to her?"

"I read them off."

"She did not examine them herself?"

"I read them off. I read this off, and she wrote it from my reading. That was the first time I had ever dictated anything in my life."

The "companion" to whom she referred was Wheeler's sister, Mrs. Mitchell, in Wheeler's employ as a confidential stenographer. It is probably superfluous to say that the "notes" were never produced, and the curiosity of both Senators Jones and Moses concerning them was never adequately satisfied.

Roxie Stinson's recital of a highly fantastic tale from a dead man's grave constituted the groundwork for the entire case built up for the political assassination of Attorney General Daugherty and for the demoralization of the law-enforcing branch of the federal government. Its only corroboration came from the equally fantastic tales of Gaston B. Means, who was being kept out of jail by Wheeler and the Extraordinary Investigation Committee, and from an array of underworld characters, confidence game operators and discharged employes of the Department of Justice, coached for their parts by Means and Wheeler, and influenced to go through with them by threats of dire punishment in some instances and promises of financial or other rewards in others.

The rebellion of Al Fink against going through with his part of the plot, as detailed by himself under the oath of an affidavit, appears to have been a source of much embarrassment and annoyance to Wheeler, judging from the allegations of a corroborating affidavit made and sworn to by Florence Fink, Al's wife.

"H.S. Edmonds, my husband's secretary," Mrs. Fink recites, "advised me that he was in receipt of a telegram from Washington sent on a government 'frank' and signed 'Henry' telling him to bring me at once to Washington, that my husband was desperately in need of me."

"Mr. Edmonds and I arrived in Washington Friday morning, and I was led to Senator Burton K. Wheeler's office, Room 440, Senate Office Building. Upon meeting him, he asked me to come into his private office. He appeared very much worried and said to be in substance, 'Mrs. Fink, your husband is a very foolish man. He is holding up the committee hearings by threatening to refute Roxie Stinson's testimony. Now, I want you to be sensible and tell him that he has to allow her to continue to testify. He is going to be given a splendid appointment in Buffalo as Collector of Internal Revenue if he does what I want him te do. I am also going to make Mr. Stern a federal judge if we are able to make Daugherty resign. You should not be jealous over this woman, and you should prevent your husband from throwing away this opportunity. Mr. Stern tells me that unless you urge him to help us 'get' Daugherty, he will destroy the evidence that will exonerate your husband in the case in which he is representing him in Rochester. So you see, little girl, it is up to you to do this to save your husband."

"By this time I was crying, and I finally promised Senator Wheeler that I would not desert my husband because of this episode with this woman."

"Senator Wheeler then took my husband and me back into his office and continued to explain to us how valuable it would be to us if we would consent to join him in his 'frame-up' of Daugherty. As a further inducement he told me that he was raising a sum of money among the Democratic senators who were his friends for the purpose of playing the stock market as soon as he learned, as he would in advance, that Daugherty would resign; that he intended to reimburse Miss Stinson to the extent of twenty-five percent of this fund to make up for the $150,000 that she had originally demanded for her story. Senator Wheeler said that he would send my husband to New York to place this money, and that he would receive a share of the profits for himself."

Whether or not Roxie Stinson, the materialistic medium of the Senate seance, whose voice was the voice of vengeance and greed for gain pretending to speak from the tomb of the dead, ever got the twenty-five percent, or any other percent, the writer of these pages does not profess to know, and ventures not to suspect. But Al Fink appears to be confident that he, for one, never got his, and it is common report that a number of the crooks and con men who took the witness stand to add zest, if not truth, to Roxie's yarn have been whistling in vain for theirs. If this be true, sad though it be for them, they are irretrievably out of luck, for somehow or other the scurvy trick of cheating cheaters is not of itself a crime under the laws of the United States.