W.H. Rhodes.

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much briefer period of time. May not these be due to some physiological
revolutions, general or convulsive, which are in progress in the
particular orb, and which, by affecting the constitution of its
atmosphere, compel the absorption or promote the transmission of
particular rays? The supposition appears by no means improbable,
especially if we call to mind the hydrogen volcanoes which have been
discovered on the photosphere of the sun. Indeed, there are a few small
stars which afford a spectrum of bright lines instead of dark ones, and
this we know denotes a gaseous or vaporized state of things, from which
it maybe inferred that such orbs are in a different condition from most
of their relations.

And, as if for the very purpose of throwing light upon this interesting
question, an event of the most striking character occurred in the
heavens, almost as soon as the spectroscopists were prepared to
interpret it correctly.

On the 12th of May, 1866, a great conflagration, infinitely larger than
that of London or Moscow, was announced. To use the expression of a
distinguished astronomer, a world was found to be on fire! A star, which
till then had shone weakly and unobtrusively in the corona borealis,
suddenly blazed up into a luminary of the second magnitude. In the
course of three days from its discovery in this new character, by
Birmingham, at Tuam, it had declined to the third or fourth order of
brilliancy. In twelve days, dating from its first apparition in the
Irish heavens, it had sunk to the eighth rank, and it went on waning
until the 26th of June, when it ceased to be discernible except through
the medium of the telescope. This was a remarkable, though certainly
not an unprecedented proceeding on the part of a star; but one singular
circumstance in its behavior was that, after the lapse of nearly two
months, it began to blaze up again, though not with equal ardor, and
after maintaining its glow for a few weeks, and passing through sundry
phases of color, it gradually paled its fires, and returned to its
former insignificance. How many years had elapsed since this awful
conflagration actually took place, it would be presumptuous to guess;
but it must be remembered that news from the heavens, though carried by
the fleetest of messengers, light, reaches us long after the event has
transpired, and that the same celestial carrier is still dropping the
tidings at each station it reaches in space, until it sinks exhausted by
the length of its flight.

As the star had suddenly flamed up, was it not a natural supposition
that it had become inwrapped in burning hydrogen, which in consequence
of some great convulsion had been liberated in prodigious quantities,
and then combining with other elements, had set this hapless world on
fire? In such a fierce conflagration, the combustible gas would soon be
consumed, and the glow would therefore begin to decline, subject, as in
this case, to a second eruption, which occasioned the renewed outburst
of light on the 20th of August.

By such a catastrophe, it is not wholly impossible that our own globe
may some time be ravaged; for if a word from the Almighty were to
unloose for a few moments the bonds of affinity which unite the elements
of water, a single spark would bring them together with a fury that
would kindle the funeral pyre of the human race, and be fatal to the
planet and all the works that are thereon.

"Your argument," he then instantly added, "is by no means a good one.
What do we know of the Supreme Architect of the Universe, or of his
designs? He builds up worlds, and he pulls them down; he kindles suns
and he extinguishes them. He inflames the comet, in one portion of its
orbit, with a heat that no human imagination can conceive of; and in
another, subjects the same blazing orb to a cold intenser than that
which invests forever the antarctic pole. All that we know of Him we
gather through His works. I have shown you that He burns other worlds,
why not this? The habitable parts of our globe are surrounded by water,
and water you know is fire in possibility."

"But all this," I rejoined, "is pure, baseless, profitless speculation."

"Not so fast," he answered. And then rising, he seized the small vial,
and handing it to me, requested me to open it.

I confess I did so with some trepidation.

"Now smell it."

I did so.

"What odor do you perceive?"

"Potassium," I replied.

"Of course," he added, "you are familiar with the chief characteristic
of that substance. It ignites instantly when brought in contact with
water. Within that little globule of potassium, I have imbedded a pill
of my own composition and discovery. The moment it is liberated from the
potassium, it commences the work of decomposing the fluid on which it
floats. The potassium at once ignites the liberated oxygen, and the
conflagration of this mighty globe is begun."

"Yes," said I, "begun, if you please, but your little pill soon
evaporates or sinks, or melts in the surrounding seas, and your
conflagration ends just where it began."

"My reply to that suggestion could be made at once by simply testing
the experiment on a small scale, or a large one, either. But I prefer
at present to refute your proposition by an argument drawn from nature
herself. If you correctly remember, the first time I had the pleasure
of seeing you was on the island of Galveston, many years ago. Do you
remember relating to me at that time an incident concerning the effects
of a prairie on fire, that you had yourself witnessed but a few days
previously, near the town of Matagorde? If I recollect correctly, you
stated that on your return journey from that place, you passed on the
way the charred remains of two wagon-loads of cotton, and three human
beings, that the night before had perished in the flames; that three
slaves, the property of a Mr. Horton, had started a few days before to
carry to market a shipment of cotton; that a norther overtook them on
a treeless prairie, and a few minutes afterward they were surprised by
beholding a line of rushing fire, surging, roaring and advancing like
the resistless billows of an ocean swept by a gale; that there was no
time for escape, and they perished terribly in fighting the devouring

"Yes; I recollect the event."

"Now, then, I wish a reply to the simple question: Did the single spark,
that kindled the conflagration, consume the negroes and their charge?
No? But what did? You reply, of course, that the spark set the entire
prairie on fire; that each spear of grass added fuel to the flame, and
kindled by degrees a conflagration that continued to burn so long as
it could feed on fresh material. The pilule in that vial is the little
spark, the oceans are the prairies, and the oxygen the fuel upon which
the fire is to feed until the globe perishes in inextinguishable flames.
The elementary substances in that small vial recreate themselves; they
are self-generating, and when once fairly under way must necessarily
sweep onward, until the waters in all the seas are exhausted. There is,
however, one great difference between the burning of a prairie and the
combustion of an ocean: the fire in the first spreads slowly, for the
fuel is difficult to ignite; in the last, it flies with the rapidity
of the wind, for the substance consumed is oxygen, the most inflammable
agent in nature."

Rising from my seat, I went to the washstand in the corner of the
apartment, and drawing a bowl half full of Spring Valley water, I turned
to Summerfield, and remarked, "Words are empty, theories are ideal - but
facts are things."

"I take you at your word." So saying, he approached the bowl, emptied
it of nine-tenths of its contents, and silently dropped the
potassium-coated pill into the liquid. The potassium danced around the
edges of the vessel, fuming, hissing, and blazing, as it always does,
and seemed on the point of expiring - when, to my astonishment and alarm,
a sharp explosion took place, and in a second of time the water was
blazing in a red, lurid column, half way to the ceiling.

"For God's sake," I cried, "extinguish the flames, or we shall set the
building on fire!"

"Had I dropped the potassium into the bowl as you prepared it," he
quietly remarked, "the building would indeed have been consumed."

Lower and lower fell the flickering flames, paler and paler grew the
blaze, until finally the fire went out, and I rushed up to see the
effects of the combustion.

Not a drop of water remained in the vessel! Astonished beyond measure at
what I had witnessed, and terrified almost to the verge of insanity, I
approached Summerfield, and tremblingly inquired, "To whom, sir, is
this tremendous secret known?" "To myself alone," he responded; "and now
answer me a question: is it worth the money?"

* * * * *

It is entirely unnecessary to relate in detail the subsequent events
connected with this transaction. I will only add a general statement,
showing the results of my negotiations. Having fully satisfied myself
that Summerfield actually held in his hands the fate of the whole world,
with its millions of human beings, and by experiment having tested the
combustion of sea-water, with equal facility as fresh, I next deemed
it my duty to call the attention of a few of the principal men in San
Francisco to the extreme importance of Summerfield's discovery.

A leading banker, a bishop, a chemist, two State university professors,
a physician, a judge, and two Protestant divines, were selected by me
to witness the experiment on a large scale. This was done at a small
sand-hill lake, near the seashore, but separated from it by a ridge of
lofty mountains, distant not more than ten miles from San Francisco.
Every single drop of water in the pool was burnt up in less than fifteen
minutes. We next did all that we could to pacify Summerfield, and
endeavored to induce him to lower his price and bring it within the
bounds of a reasonable possibility. But without avail. He began to grow
urgent in his demands, and his brow would cloud like a tempest-ridden
sky whenever we approached him on the subject. Finally, ascertaining
that no persuasion could soften his heart or touch his feelings, a
sub-committee was appointed, to endeavor, if possible, to raise the
money by subscription. Before taking that step, however, we ascertained
beyond all question that Summerfield was the sole custodian of his
dread secret, and that he kept no written memorial of the formula of his
prescription. He even went so far as to offer us a penal bond that his
secret should perish with him in case we complied with his demands.

The sub-committee soon commenced work amongst the wealthiest citizens
of San Francisco, and by appealing to the terrors of a few, and the
sympathies of all, succeeded in raising one-half the amount within
the prescribed period. I shall never forget the woe-begone faces of
California Street during the month of October. The outside world and
the newspapers spoke most learnedly of a money panic - a pressure in
business, and the disturbances in the New York gold-room. But to the
initiated, there was an easier solution of the enigma. The pale spectre
of Death looked down upon them all, and pointed with its bony finger
to the fiery tomb of the whole race, already looming up in the distance
before them. Day after day, I could see the dreadful ravages of this
secret horror; doubly terrible, since they dared not divulge it. Still,
do all that we could, the money could not be obtained. The day preceding
the last one given, Summerfield was summoned before the committee, and
full information given him of the state of affairs. Obdurate, hard and
cruel, he still continued. Finally, a proposition was started, that an
attempt should be made to raise the other half of the money in the city
of New York. To this proposal Summerfield ultimately yielded, but with
extreme reluctance. It was agreed in committee that I should accompany
him thither, and take with me, in my own possession, evidences of the
sums subscribed here; that a proper appeal should be made to the leading
capitalists, scholars and clergymen of that metropolis, and that, when
the whole amount was raised, it should be paid over to Summerfield, and
a bond taken from him never to divulge his awful secret to any human

With this, he seemed to be satisfied, and left us to prepare for his
going the next morning.

As soon as he left the apartment, the bishop rose, and deprecated the
action that had been taken, and characterized it as childish and absurd.
He declared that no man was safe one moment whilst "that diabolical
wretch" still lived; that the only security for us all was in his
immediate extirpation from the face of the earth, and that no amount of
money could seal his lips, or close his hands. It would be no crime,
he said, to deprive him of the means of assassinating the whole human
family, and that as for himself he was for dooming him to immediate

With a unanimity that was extraordinary, the entire committee coincided.

A great many plans were proposed, discussed and rejected, having in view
the extermination of Summerfield. In them all there was the want of
that proper caution which would lull the apprehensions of an enemy;
for should he for an instant suspect treachery, we knew his nature well
enough to be satisfied, that he would waive all ceremonies and carry his
threats into immediate execution.

It was finally resolved that the trip to New York should not be
abandoned, apparently. But that we were to start out in accordance with
the original program; that during the journey, some proper means should
be resorted to by me to carry out the final intentions of the committee,
and that whatever I did would be sanctioned by them all, and full
protection, both in law and conscience, afforded me in any stage of the

Nothing was wanting but my own consent; but this was difficult to

At the first view, it seemed to be a most horrible and unwarrantable
crime to deprive a fellow-being of life, under any circumstances; but
especially so where, in meeting his fate, no opportunity was to be
afforded him for preparation or repentance. It was a long time before
I could disassociate, in my mind, the two ideas of act and intent. My
studies had long ago made me perfectly familiar with the doctrine of the
civil law, that in order to constitute guilt, there must be a union
of action and intention. Taking the property of another is not theft,
unless, as the lawyers term it, there is the animus furandi. So, in
homicide, life may be lawfully taken in some instances, whilst the deed
may be excused in others. The sheriff hangs the felon and deprives him
of existence; yet nobody thinks of accusing the officer of murder. The
soldier slays his enemy, still the act is considered heroical. It does
not therefore follow that human life is too sacred to be taken away
under all circumstances. The point to be considered was thus narrowed
down into one grand inquiry, whether Summerfield was properly to be
regarded as hostis humani generis, the enemy of the human race, or not.
If he should justly be so considered, then it would not only be not a
crime to kill him, but an act worthy of the highest commendation. Who
blamed McKenzie for hanging Spencer to the yard-arm? Yet in his case,
the lives of only a small ship's crew were in jeopardy. Who condemned
Pompey for exterminating the pirates from the Adriatic? Yet, in
his case, only a small portion of the Roman Republic was liable to
devastation. Who accuses Charlotte Corday of assassination for stabbing
Marat in his bath? Still, her arm only saved the lives of a few
thousands of revolutionary Frenchmen. And to come down to our own times,
who heaps accusation upon the heads of Lincoln, Thomas or Sheridan, or
even Grant, though in marching to victory over a crushed rebellion, they
deemed it necessary to wade through seas of human gore? If society has
the right to defend itself from the assaults of criminals, who, at best,
can only destroy a few of its members, why should I hesitate when it was
apparent that the destiny of the globe itself hung in the balance? If
Summerfield should live and carry out his threats, the whole world would
feel the shock; his death was the only path to perfect safety.

I asked the privilege of meditation for one hour, at the hands of the
committee, before I would render a decision either way. During that
recess the above argumentation occupied my thoughts. The time expired,
and I again presented myself before them. I did not deem it requisite
to state the grounds of my decision; I briefly signified my assent, and
made instant preparation to carry the plan into execution.

Having passed on the line of the Pacific Railway more than once, I was
perfectly familiar with all of its windings, gorges and precipices.

I selected Cape Horn as the best adapted to the purpose, and... the
public knows the rest.

Having been fully acquitted by two tribunals of the law, I make
this final appeal to my fellowmen throughout the State, and ask them
confidently not to reverse the judgments already pronounced.

I am conscious of no guilt; I feel no remorse; I need no repentance.
For me justice has no terrors, and conscience no sting. Let me be judged
solely by the motives which actuated me, and the importance of the end
accomplished, and I shall pass, unscathed, both temporal and eternal

Leonidas Parker.

Additional Particulars

The following additional particulars, as sequel to the Summerfield
homicide, have been furnished by an Auburn correspondent:

Mr. Editor: The remarkable confession of the late Leonidas Parker, which
appeared in your issue of the 13th ultimo, has given rise to a series
of disturbances in this neighborhood, which, for romantic interest and
downright depravity, have seldom been surpassed, even in California.
Before proceeding to relate in detail the late transactions, allow me
to remark that the wonderful narrative of Parker excited throughout this
county sentiments of the most profound and contradictory character.
I, for one, halted between two opinions - horror and incredulity; and
nothing but subsequent events could have fully satisfied me of the
unquestionable veracity of your San Francisco correspondent, and the
scientific authenticity of the facts related.

The doubt with which the story was at first received in this
community - and which found utterance in a burlesque article in an
obscure country journal, the Stars and Stripes, of Auburn - has finally
been dispelled, and we find ourselves forced to admit that we stand even
now in the presence of the most alarming fate. Too much credit cannot be
awarded to our worthy coroner for the promptitude of his action, and we
trust that the Governor of the State will not be less efficient in the
discharge of his duty.

[Since the above letter was written the following proclamation has been
issued. - P. J.]

Proclamation of the Governor.

$10,000 Reward.

Department of State.

By virtue of the authority in me vested, I do hereby offer the above
reward of ten thousand dollars, in gold coin of the United States, for
the arrest of Bartholomew Graham, familiarly known as "Black Bart." Said
Graham is accused of the murder of C. P. Gillson, late of Auburn, county
of Placer, on the 14th ultimo. He is five feet ten inches and a half in
height, thick set, has a mustache sprinkled with gray, grizzled hair,
clear blue eyes, walks stooping, and served in the late civil war, under
Price and Quantrell, in the Confederate army. He may be lurking in some
of the mining-camps near the foot-hills, as he was a Washoe teamster
during the Comstock excitement. The above reward will be paid for him,
dead or alive, as he possessed himself of an important secret by robbing
the body of the late Gregory Summerfield.

By the Governor: H. G. Nicholson,

Secretary of State.

Given at Sacramento, this the fifth day of June, 1871.

Our correspondent continues:

I am sorry to say that Sheriff Higgins has not been so active in the
discharge of his duty as the urgency of the case required, but he is
perhaps excusable on account of the criminal interference of the editor
above alluded to. But I am detaining you from more important matters.
Your Saturday's paper reached here at 4 o'clock Saturday,13th May, and,
as it now appears from the evidence taken before the coroner, several
persons left Auburn on the same errand, but without any previous
conference. Two of these were named respectively Charles P. Gillson and
Bartholomew Graham, or, as he was usually called, "Black Bart." Gillson
kept a saloon at the corner of Prickly Ash Street and the Old Spring
Road; and Black Bart was in the employ of Conrad & Co., keepers of the
Norfolk Livery Stable. Gillson was a son-in-law of ex-Governor Roberts,
of Iowa, and leaves a wife and two children to mourn his untimely end.
As for Graham, nothing certain is known of his antecedents. It is said
that he was engaged in the late robbery of Wells & Fargo's express at
Grizzly Bend, and that he was an habitual gambler. Only one thing about
him is certainly well known: he was a lieutenant in the Confederate
army, and served under General Price and the outlaw Quantrell. He was a
man originally of fine education, plausible manners and good family, but
strong drink seems early in life to have overmastered him, and left him
but a wreck of himself. But he was not incapable of generous or, rather,
romantic acts; for, during the burning of the Putnam House in this
town last summer, he rescued two ladies from the flames. In so doing he
scorched his left hand so seriously as to contract the tendons of two
fingers, and this very scar may lead to his apprehension. There is no
doubt about his utter desperation of character, and, if taken at all, it
will probably be not alive.

So much for the persons concerned in the tragedy at the Flat.

Herewith I inclose copies of the testimony of the witnesses examined
before the coroner's jury, together with the statement of Gillson, taken
in articulo mortis:

Deposition of Dollie Adams.

State of California, } County of Placer. } ss.

Said witness, being duly sworn, deposes as follows, to wit: My name is
Dolly Adams, my age forty-seven years; I am the wife of Frank G. Adams,
of this township, and reside on the North Fork of the American River,
below Cape Horn, on Thompson's Flat. About one o'clock p. m., May 14,
1871, I left the cabin to gather wood to cook dinner for my husband and
the hands at work for him on the claim. The trees are mostly cut away
from the bottom, and I had to climb some distance up the mountainside
before I could get enough to kindle the fire. I had gone about five
hundred yards from the cabin, and was searching for small sticks of
fallen timber, when I thought I heard some one groan, as if in pain. I
paused and listened; the groaning became more distinct, and I started
at once for the place whence the sounds proceeded; about ten steps off
I discovered the man whose remains lie there (pointing to the deceased),
sitting up, with his back against a big rock. He looked so pale that I
thought him already dead, but he continued to moan until I reached his
side. Hearing me approach, he opened his eyes, and begged me, "For God's
sake, give me a drop of water!" I asked him, "What is the matter?" He
replied, "I am shot in the back." "Dangerously?" I demanded. "Fatally!"
he faltered. Without waiting to question him further, I returned to the
cabin, told Zenie, my daughter, what I had seen, and sent her off on
a run for the men. Taking with me a gourd of water, some milk and
bread - for I thought the poor gentleman might be hungry and weak, as
well as wounded - I hurried back to his side, where I remained until
"father" - as we all call my husband - came with the men. We removed
him as gently as we could to the cabin; then sent for Dr. Liebner, and
nursed him until he died, yesterday, just at sunset.

Question by the Coroner: Did you hear his statement, taken down by the
Assistant District-Attorney? - A. I did.

Q. Did you see him sign it? - A. Yes, sir.

Q. Is this your signature thereto as witness? - A. It is, sir.

(Signed) Dollie Adams.

Deposition of Miss X. V. Adams.

Being first duly sworn, witness testified as follows: My name is
Xixenia Volumnia Adams; I am the daughter of Frank G. Adams and the last
witness; I reside with them on the Flat, and my age is eighteen years.
A little past one o'clock on Sunday last my mother came running into
the house and informed me that a man was dying on the side-hill, from a


Online LibraryW.H. RhodesThe Case of Summerfield → online text (page 2 of 3)