About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
At 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1912, in Aiken, South Carolina, Camilla (Mrs. Frederick O.) Beach was attacked in her own front garden. She was bludgeoned with a paling ripped from her fence. Her maid was also hit. Mrs. Beach’s earrings were ripped from her ears and her throat was cut. It was a bloody scene.
About those facts there was no dispute and, from that point, there was no agreement. In Version One, Mr. Beach said he was returning home, found his wife in the garden and carried her into the house. In Version Two, Beach was at home, heard his wife scream, went into the garden and carried her into the house. He then went after the attacker, was locked out of house and knocked for entry calling “This is Beach. Let me in.” In the third version, Beach was home, felt his wife had been gone too long and went out to find her. He did – in the garden bleeding.
They say changing your story is an indication of guilt. Mr. Beach attracted the attention of investigators by changing his story no fewer than three times. While Beach threw out theory after theory, the authorities developed one of their own.
Beach contended the earrings were of great value and were the motivation for the crime. The earrings were found on the driveway and were determined to be of no particular value. Beach was certain as he approached the prostrate body of his wife that he saw a dark figure brush by him. Enter that singular figure in American jurisprudence: the Black man attacking without reason, warning or provocation and running into the night, never to be seen again.
It was 9:30 p.m. on a warm Southern night and people were out; no one else saw a Black man. Beach contended the theft turned violent due to “the evil nature of the Negro race.” When the weapon that slashed his wife’s neck was found, it was his knife – a diamond-studded gold penknife of unique design that he wore on a chain suspended from his vest pocket. Her blood was on his knife.
You know what happened next: Beach was charged with the attempted murder of his wife. The police theory of the case was that Beach was returning home, drunk. He was unhappy because his wife was not home waiting for him. He insisted the maid tell him where his wife was. She did not know or would not tell him, and he hit her. He went out to search for her and through the fence saw his wife with “a certain man in a grey suit in an unconventional attitude.” He removed the paling to see them better. He would have been pleased to hit the man with the paling but, as Beach approached, the man in the grey suit ran away. Beach took his anger out on his wife, hitting her with the paling, ripping off her earrings and slashing her throat with his penknife.
Beach had three high-powered lawyers and an answer for everything. For example, his wife’s blood was on his knife because, when the unknown miscreant ripped the earrings off her ears, the lobes were cut and bleeding from ear lobes was profuse. As he carried her (tenderly, he stressed) into the house, her blood dripped onto his knife. How did the knife get from his vest pocket to the driveway? If the knife was attached to the vest when the blood dripped, how was it that the vest was clean of blood? Why was the blade damaged? Again Beach’s lawyers had the answer: This was a police conspiracy complete with planted evidence. They advised their clients to leave for Europe.
Throughout, Mrs. Beach said nothing. On the ship to Europe, other passengers reported the couple stayed in their cabin and she said nothing. However, on the night she was attacked, she was heard to whisper: “Oh, he’s done something dreadful to me.”
Just when the case appears to be open-and-shut, you learn an odd fact. Fourteen years earlier, on a May evening, Camilla found her first husband in the garden – one gun, one hole in his head, one dead body. Camilla was one of the three Moss sisters of Philadelphia. All married well. In 1890 Camilla married Charles Havemeyer, heir to the Sugar Trust. They had two sons. Charles died in May 1898. A coroner’s jury was convened as quickly as possible after Havemeyer’s death. The jury sat at midnight. It consisted of his peers – that is, Gilded Age millionaires including jury foreman August Belmont. The death was ruled an accident. Charles was 31 years old, healthy, wealthy and inexplicably dead.
Eighteen months later, Camilla married Frederick Beach, 20 years her senior. They called Beach “Beauty” because, the society ladies explained, “He is too cute for anything.”
Beach was a crack shot, an excellent horseman, a devotee of polo and coaching. William Kissam Vanderbilt was best man at his wedding. The Beaches wintered in Aiken, South Carolina, an exclusive colony for the horsey set. The colony stood by Beach. The mayor announced his disapprobation for gossips suggesting anything nefarious. His position was clear: Overlook the crime and punish the leakers. A fellow club member offered a reward for the identity of “the Negro.” The colony, it was rumored, kicked in $10,000 to cover the costs of the trial and the high-priced legal team.
That team successfully negotiated a one-year delay in the trial date and the sheriff was happy to release so fine a fellow. Further, he refused to investigate the crime and outside investigators were hired. The sheriff did everything save actually escorting Beach to the ship to Europe. Loyal to the end, the following winter, the colony postponed all activities until after the trial.
When a trial date was set in February 1913, Beach graciously agreed to return to Aiken. In an effort to entrap Beach, the investigators offered husband and wife a room in which to rest until the trial was gaveled to order. Thinking they were alone, they planned and practiced their coordinated testimony. The investigator behind the screen was disappointed. He heard what he expected to hear but not what he hoped to hear: A confession.
It is not so much a whodunit as a what-were-they-thinking. It is difficult to understand the behavior of some of the players in this drama. Beach’s behavior is clear: If he did the dastardly deed, he wanted to get away with it. Everything he said and did was consistent with that aim. Lawyers are lawyers, but what of the colony? They whispered about his guilt and publically supported him: Why? The answer is imbedded in the social context of the early 20th century. Perhaps he was the doer of a dreadful deed, but he was their doer. Nothing should besmirch one of their own.
The searing question is: What of Camilla? She died in 1938, the widow of two men and mother of four sons. If she had anything to say on the subject, she never said it. Her court testimony was that she was attacked and did not know by whom. If her husband said it was a Negro, well, then it was probably a Negro. What if it was not an anonymous Black man; what if she were looking into Beach’s eyes as he slit her throat ear to ear? Why did she protect him from prosecution? Was she dazzled by a society that placed men far above women? Was she desirous to be rich and married at any cost? Why did no one in the colony take her part? Did they know who was in the garden in the grey suit? Did they and she believe she was the guilty party — got what she deserved – for being caught with another man?
In the end Camilla testified for the defense. Beach was acquitted. Their life as a married couple went on until he died six years later.