The Case of the Autographed Corpse

From Smithsonian Magazine:

On a Saturday afternoon in February 1933, at the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona, a White Mountain Apache Indian named Silas John Edwards and his wife, Margaret, stopped by a friend’s place to visit and relax. Edwards, a trim middle-aged man with a penetrating gaze, was an influential figure on reservations throughout the Southwest. Hundreds of followers regarded him as a divinely inspired religious leader, a renowned shaman and medicine man.

When he and Margaret arrived at their friend’s dwelling, a tepee, they found people drinking tulapai, a homemade Apache liquor. Three hours later, the Edwardses joined a group heading to another friend’s home. People who were there reported that Margaret confronted him inside a tepee, demanding to know why he’d been spending time with a younger woman, one of Margaret’s relatives. The argument escalated, and Margaret threatened to end their marriage. She left the party. Edwards stayed until about 10:30 p.m. and then spent the night at a friend’s.

Shocking news came the next day: Margaret was dead. Children had discovered her body, along with bloody rocks, at the side of a trail two and a half miles outside of the Fort Apache town of Whiteriver. They alerted adults, who carried her body home. “I went in the tepee and found my wife in my own bed,” Edwards later wrote. “I went to her bedside and before I fully realized what I was doing or that she was really dead, I had picked her up in my arms, her head was very bloody and a part of the blood got on my hands and clothing.”

He was still kneeling there, holding his wife’s body, when a sheriff and an Apache police officer arrived.

A medical examiner reported that Margaret had been killed by blows to her head and strangulation. Curiously, at least two of the rocks used to crush her skull were inscribed with her husband’s initials: S.J.E.

. . . .

Seventeen years later, in March 1951, Edwards—now 64 and still imprisoned at McNeil Island—wrote a desperate letter. “Up ’til now you have never heard of me,” he began, and then repeated the protestations of innocence he’d been making ever since his arrest. He had affidavits from witnesses who’d said he could not have committed the murder. The White Mountain Apache Tribal Council had unanimously recommended his release from prison. Another suspect had even been found. Edwards had pleaded with authorities for a pardon or parole, but nothing he did could move them.

This letter was a last-ditch effort to avoid dying of old age behind bars. Edwards thought the man he was writing to could get him out. The man was Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason mystery books.

. . . .

At the time Gardner got the letter from Edwards, he was living on a ranch in Temecula, California, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego and just outside the borders of a Pechanga Reservation. (Today, the ranch is part of the reservation itself.) His office was decorated with American Indian artwork, baskets, masks and moccasins. But Gardner, a Massachusetts native, had little knowledge of the religious life or cultural significance of the man who wrote to him from the McNeil Island Penitentiary.

What Gardner did understand were the flaws in the prosecution’s case. A bespectacled man with a commanding gaze, Gardner had spent years practicing law in California. In the early 1920s, he’d started writing mystery stories for pulp magazines. He’d published his first Perry Mason novel one month after the murder of Edwards’ wife. Over the years, Perry Mason—a fictional defense attorney who usually defended innocent clients—became the center of a literary juggernaut, generating sales of more than 300 million books as well as a popular TV show.

Like the hero he’d invented, Gardner felt drawn to cases involving the wrongly accused. He believed America’s criminal justice system was often biased against the vulnerable. In the 1940s, Gardner used his fame and wealth to assemble what he called the Court of Last Resort, a group of forensic specialists and investigators who—like today’s Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law—applied new thinking to old cases.

Gardner’s team rescued dozens of innocent people from executions and long prison terms. Among them were Silas Rogers, a black man sentenced to death for shooting a police officer in Petersburg, Virginia; Clarence Boogie, a victim of false testimony in a murder case in Spokane, Washington; and Louis Gross, who had been framed for murder in Michigan. Gardner persuaded Harry Steeger of Argosy magazine to regularly publish his articles about his organization’s findings. “We are busybodies,” Gardner declared in a letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “If, on the other hand, citizens don’t take an active interest in law enforcement and the administration of justice, we are going to lose our battle with crime.”

The letter from the Apache shaman made a strong impression on Gardner. “This Silas John Edwards case has been preying on my mind,” he wrote to James Bennett, the director of the Bureau of Prisons at the U.S. Department of Justice, on May 2, 1952. “This man is a full-blooded Apache Indian. There is every possibility that he didn’t get justice at the hands of a jury who may not have understood Indian psychology, temperament and custom. I think we should investigate the case.”

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine