Corpus Delicti

No departure from Forestport ever caused so much discussion as that of William Wadsworth Wildman.

During his career in Forestport Mr. Wildman was the cause of much controversy; for he was so voluble and argumentative that, when there was no one else with whom to dispute, he would talk vociferously to himself.

As he was extremely eccentric, Mr. Wildman received considerable attention from the citizens of Forestport.

One of the chief causes of Mr. Wildman’s many angry arguments was his name. He hated his name, and the people, knowing this, were ever prone to wave it before him. Conversation became intense when anyone addressed Mr. Wildman as ‘Waddy.’ Therefore, it just naturally followed that everyone addressed him as ‘Waddy,’ and that the gates of oratory were thereby kept continuously unlocked.

‘If you call me “Waddy,” I’ll not answer you,’ he would say; ‘but if you’ll call me “William,” I’ll answer you every time.’

‘All right, Bill,’ the other person would say.

And then Mr. Wildman would launch into an excited tirade to explain that his name was not Bill, or Willy, or Wad, or Waddy, or Wild, or Wildy, or anything but William Wadsworth Wildman, plain and simple — no more and no less.

In addition to his name, Mr. Wildman’s wife was a persistent cause of controversy and a constant source of annoyance to her husband. She was a shiftless, careless housekeeper and an inferior cook, and Mr. Wildman loved good food and a neat house. And so, as he never could get any food that was palatable at home except when he prepared it himself, and as Mrs. Wildman was lazy and prone to let William do his own cooking, Mr. Wildman was unceasingly unhappy when he was in his own house.

In addition to this, his wife was constantly heckling him to keep him at work at jobs that would bring in some real cash, instead of devoting so much of his time to his ‘crazy inventions.’ As Mr. Wildman was a dyed-in-the-wool inventor, with all the high aspirations and vast expectations of the true inventive genius, his wife’s reference to his inventions constantly kept him in a frenzy.

By vocation, as has been noted, Mr. Wildman was an inventor; by avocation he was a carpenter. His time he managed to divide about equally between his vocation and his avocation. As the latter brought in the only income that he was able to provide for himself and his wife and two daughters, living conditions in the Wildman house were both meagre and precarious. Furthermore these conditions were an everpresent source of controversy and discussion. Indeed, home circumstances interfered terrifically with Mr. Wildman’s pursuit of his vocation, and prevented the fruition of most of his constructive visions.

However, after many patient years of thought and toil, Mr. Wildman perfected and secured a patent for his ‘FireEscaper.’ This contrivance was an intricate scheme of mechanism which would save merchandise in a store from being burned in case the store-building took fire. It provided for placing all shelves, counters, and furniture on wheels, and for a series of ropes and strings attached to a very heavy weight at the rear of the store. Likewise it provided for dividing the entire store-front into two sections, like vast French windows, which opened outward when occasion required.

The contraption operated on the theory that, in case of fire, one of the strings or ropes would burn through, and this would release the weight, which would throw the doors wide open and shoot the counters, shelves, and enwheeled contents of the store out into the street, where they would be saved from the flames. At the same time the weight would violently ring a bell on top of the store, thus arousing the bucket brigade; for this was before Forestport had a system of waterworks or even a volunteer fire department.

A few years earlier there had been a devastating conflagration in Forestport which burned all the stores on one side of Main Street, — and the best side at that, — with such great loss to the owners that fire was genuinely feared in the town.

After much negotiation, and by giving him a half-interest in the patent, Mr. W. W. Wildman persuaded Ezra Scott, the local shoe-merchant, to put in the ‘Wildman Fire-Escaper.’

Mr. Wildman did all the work of installation himself, and did it well.

For several weeks thereafter Mr. Scott slept soundly in his sense of the security of his merchandise, although Mr. Wildman suffered from insomnia as he lay awake furtively hoping for the fire in Scott’s store that would vindicate the Wildman Fire-Escaper and bring it into well-deserved recognition.

At about two o’clock one morning in June, when a terrific thunderstorm was raging, the moment of vindication for the Fire-Escaper arrived. It was announced by the wild ringing of the firebell on the roof of Scott’s store.

Forestport heard, rose en masse, donned scant clothes, and rushed to the scene of the fire. By the illumination of the lightning-flashes they saw the entire contents of Mr. Scott’s shoe-store out in the street, being thoroughly soaked by the torrents of rain that were pouring down.

Into the store they rushed to discover the fire. A thorough investigation revealed the fact that there had been no fire, but that presumably a mouse had gnawed one of the ropes in two and released the Fire-Escaper.

The heavy damage to Mr. Scott’s shoe-stock, the disappointment of the unexpected happening, and the bantering of the townspeople quickly drove the inventor into a state of mind highly perturbed. For several days after the Fire-Escaper fiasco Mr. Wildman showed pronounced signs of irritation and a distinctly hostile animus toward everything and everyone, particularly toward his wife, who suffered an unusually prolonged spell of bad cooking about that time.

On a Sunday morning soon after, when another storm was in progress, Mrs. Wildman sternly told her husband to step out and bring in an armful of wood and start a fire, or there would be no breakfast served in the house that morning.

Mr. Wildman always hated doing chores, and especially he hated fetching wood from the backyard.

‘Oh, hell!’ he muttered, as he put on his hat and stepped out and slammed the door sharply shut. He pulled his hat down light and walked briskly toward the woodpile.

However, William Wadsworth Wildman did not return with the wood. So many minutes elapsed without his reappearing, that Mrs. Wildman went to the door and called his name loudly. She received no answer and made a search for her husband.

William Wadsworth Wildman had disappeared!

On Monday morning Mrs. Wildman called in the neighbors, but no trace could be found of her husband. Then she went down and consulted Squire Palmer the village attorney.

Shortly after, all of Forestport had turned out, and a minute search was conducted for Waddy Wildman.

Not a trace of him could anyone discover—he had completely disappeared.

As the days went by, the search went on, but all without avail. Waddy had vanished.

The little cottage where he lived, with its acre of land, was all the property he had, and the title to that was in his own name; so that, unless he returned or some proof could be secured that he was dead, seven years would have to elapse before Squire Palmer could bring a proceeding to have W. W. Wildman judicially declared dead and the property transferred to Mrs. Wildman and her two daughters.

As there was no one else to provide for her and the girls, Mrs. Wildman, who had some talent in that direction, became a seamstress, and began the task of providing for the Wildmans.

As the months slipped by, the mystery of Wildman’s disappearance continued increasingly to absorb the attention of Forestport. Cut nothing came of the vast amount of detective work, conjecture, searching, and discussion of the case. Bill Wildman had left no sign of the direction he took after he slammed the door shut that last time on that June Sunday morning.

As the girls grew older, they were able to help their mother, with the result that the combined efforts of the three yielded them a more certain and better existence than Mr. Wildman had ever provided, and they really found life much more peaceful and, after all, more enjoyable, than under the regime of the husband and father.

With the way that time has in Forestport, the years slipped by until seven of them had elapsed since the departure of Bill Wildman, and Squire Palmer, in accordance with the statutes and procedure in such case made and provided, brought legal proceedings on behalf of Mrs. Wildman and her two daughters, with the result that William Wadsworth Wildman was judicially declared dead, and his real estate was accordingly turned over to his heirs and next of kin.

Two years later, on a Sunday morning, — the ninth anniversary of the disappearance of W. W. Wildman, — his wife and two daughters were eating breakfast in the Wildman home and visiting cheerfully together. Suddenly the door opened, and a man stepped in with an armful of wood which he proceeded to throw into the wood-box. Then he turned to the three astonished women and said, ‘There’s your damn wood! ’

It was William Wadsworth Wildman — absolutely no doubt about it. Except for being slightly gray-haired, he was the Mr. Wildman who started for the wood nine years before. Further, he drew a chair up to the table and sat down, without the slightest suggestion that he had not been regularly at the table during all those years.

Of course, Mrs. Wildman and the two girls plied him with a score of questions as to where he went and why.

‘I went after the wood, and I got it, did n’t I?’ This was the only explanation that they could get out of W. W. Wildman.

Not one word could they get from him as to where he had been all those nine years. He was working on a basket-making machine which would very soon make him rich, and he did not wish to be disturbed.

Finally, Mrs. Wildman sent one of the girls for Squire Palmer, who soon appeared at the house, and after saluting Mr. Wildman, undertook to crossexamine him. But not one word could Squire Palmer get from Mr. Wildman other than, ‘ I went after the wood, and I got it, did n’t I?’

And then it developed that Mr. Wildman did not know he had ever been away. Nine years had completely gone out of his life and memory.

He refused to believe Squire Palmer was serious when the Squire told him that, nine years had elapsed while he was getting the wood.

Then Squire Palmer sent for Doctor Record, who conducted an examination, only to confirm the conviction that Bill Wildman had lost all knowledge of himself for nine years.

Then Doctor Record confided to Squire Palmer that ‘something must be the matter with Waddy’s mind.’

‘Matter with his mind!’ exclaimed Squire Palmer; ‘why, sure there is — it’s gone!’

If Bill Wildman’s disappearance was a subject for excitement in Forestport, his reappearance caused an even greater sensation. And the baffling thing about it was that old Bill Wildman, to all intents and purposes, seemed just as sound mentally as when he disappeared, except for the complete blank of nine years. He acted just as if he had never been away, only he was much more irritable, loquacious, and domineering.

The day following his return he called at Squire Palmer’s office and told the Squire that he was going to mortgage his place to raise some money to use for the completion of his basket machine.

When the Squire told him that he, William W. Wildman, had been judicially declared dead and that the place had passed to Mrs. Wildman and the two daughters, Waddy nearly blew up. ‘Me dead!’ he shrieked. ‘Well, I’m a pretty lively corpse, I guess. It’s a damnable fraud! I’m William Wadsworth Wildman, and I’m alive, and you and no court could n’t go and make the mistake of deciding that I’m dead. You never proved no corpus delicti, nor you can’t prove any. You ’ve got to straighten out this fool business right off and get me legally resurrected, so I can get my property and my patents.’

Squire Palmer was diplomatic and talked gently to Mr. Wildman, promising to get matters straightened out as quickly as possible. Then there followed several conferences between Squire Palmer, Mrs. Wildman, Doctor Record, and others, with the result that William Wadsworth Wildman was unofficially pronounced to be unbalanced mentally. Also these conferences arrived at the conclusion that it would be the best thing for William W. Wildman, his family, and all concerned, if he were committed to some institution for frailminded persons.

Squire Palmer thereupon took William Wadsworth Wildman into the private office of the local legal shrine and explained many things at great length. The general tenor of his explanation was that William Wadsworth Wildman had never been happy in his home life and probably never could be, in view of the incompatibility existing between him and Mrs. Wildman. That he, William W. Wildman, was indeed a lucky man, by reason of having been declared judicially dead, because this judicial proceeding released him from all responsibility to his wife, his family, and everyone else — in other words, dead men can have no living responsibilities.

‘But,’ interrupted Bill at this stage, ‘how about this corpus delicti? They never proved it, and you can’t be dead without a corpus delicti, can you?’

Squire Palmer explained that Mr. Wildman’s complete disappearance for several years constituted a judicial corpus delicti, as it were, which he said was extremely fortunate for Mr. Wildman, because the state, having declared Mr. Wildman prematurely dead, as it were, would perforce be compelled to provide for his comfortable living as long as he remained a judicial corpse, as it were.

Squire Palmer then explained how he had taken the matter up with the state authorities and forced them to let Mr. Wildman live at state expense for the rest of his life at the Gowanda State Hospital. There Mr. Wildman would have a fine room, splendid, well-cooked meals, the full enjoyment of a thousand acres of farm and park lands, access to work-shops and tools wherewith to work out his inventions, freedom from responsibility and annoyances, and, in short, an ideal life for the balance of his years.

William Wadsworth Wildman liked this suggestion immensely, and was profuse in his thanks for all Squire Palmer had done for him.

Two days later, after certain formalities had been gone through with, William Wadsworth Wildman said farewell to Mrs. Wildman, his two daughters, and Forestport in general, and, accompanied by Squire Palmer, was driven away to Gowanda.

At the beautiful home for the insane high up in the Cattaraugus Hills, Mr. Wildman was given a comfortable room, and introduced to the authorities and attendants, and shown all over the attractive premises.

After eating a substantial meal, he was exuberant with happiness. ‘ I ’ll tell you, Squire Palmer,’ he said to his attorney, ‘ I like this place — it’s a regular judicial heaven, ain’t, it ?'

After arranging with the superintendent to allow Mr. Wildman as much freedom as the latter’s harmless condition might permit, and for the old man’s comfort, Squire Palmer bade Mr. Wildman farewell and drove back to Forest port.

Several weeks elapsed, during which Squire; Palmer received reports from Gowanda showing that W. W. Wildman was extremely comfortable and happy. One day he received a letter from Mr. Wildman. This letter was marked ‘Confidential,’ and demanded that Squire Palmer come at once to Gowanda, to confer with the writer on a most important matter.

When Squire Palmer arrived at the hospital on the following day, he was shown up to Mr. Wildman’s room, which was extremely bright and cheerful.

Mr. Wildman was clearly laboring under considerable excitement as he addressed Squire Palmer.

‘I’m worried to death!’ he said.

‘Over what, William?’ asked Squire Palmer.

‘Over this corpus-delicti thing of being here.’

‘What have you to worry about? What’s wrong?’ said Squire Palmer soothingly. ‘Everyt hing’s all fine here, is it not?’

‘Yes, in a way, it is,’ Mr. Wildman went on. ‘I’ve got the finest room I ever was in. It’s wonderfully comfortable here. The grounds and the farm are beautiful — just perfect. The workshops are fine, and I’m doing wonderful work on my inventions. And the food — honest, Squire Palmer, it’s as choice as anyone could ever wish for; and the Superintendent and the help here are amazing kind. Why, do you know that no one ever calls me anything but “ Mr. Wildman,” or once in a while “William,”when we’re visiting along on my inventions that they’re all interested in. Why, I’d he the happiest man in the world being corpus delicti here, if it was n’t for one thing that worries me almost to death.'

‘What’s that, William?’ asked Squire Palmer.

‘Well, it’s because there’s a lot of people here that’s crazy as bed-bugs; and I get so worried thinking that some of t hose fool people over at Forestport. may think my being here is sort of queer. I don’t mind, Squire Palmer, being thought corpus delicti, but by heck!' he said vehemently, ‘ I’d go mad if I figured that that Forestport crowd thought I was non compos mentis!’