Rodrigues Ottolengui.

Final Proof: or, The Value of Evidence

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Mr. Barnes was wondering whether he would soon have a case which would require special mental effort in its solution. "Something that will make me think," was the way he phrased it to himself. The same idea had occupied him for some time. Not that he had been idle, but his "cases" had all been of such a nature that with a little supervision it had been safe to intrust them entirely to his subordinates. Nothing had occurred to compel his personal investigation. On this morning, however, fate had something peculiarly attractive for him. His office-boy announced a visitor, who, when shown into the detective's sanctum, introduced himself thus:

"I am Stephen West, cashier of the Fulton National Bank. Is this Mr. Barnes?"

"Yes, sir," replied the detective. "Is your business important?"

"It is very important to me," said Mr. West. "I am interested to the extent of forty thousand dollars."

"Forty thousand dollars! Forgery?" Receiving an assenting nod, Mr. Barnes arose and closed the door of the office after instructing the boy to prevent his being disturbed. Returning to his seat, he said: "Now then, Mr. West, tell me the story. All of it, as far as you know it. Omit no detail, however unimportant it may seem to you."

"Very good. My bank has been swindled out of forty thousand dollars in the most mysterious manner. We have received four checks, each for ten thousand dollars. These were signed with the name John Wood, one of our best customers. In making up his monthly balance these checks were sent to his house in the usual order of business. To-day Mr. Wood came to the bank, and declared them to be forgeries."

"Were these checks paid by you personally?"

"Oh, no. We received them through the Clearing-House. They had been deposited at the Harlem National Bank, and reached us in the routine way. They were taken on four different days."

"Who was the depositor at the Harlem Bank?"

"There is a mystery there. His name is Carl Grasse. Inquiry at the Harlem Bank shows that he has been a depositor for about a year. He had a seemingly flourishing business, a beer-garden and concert place. Recently he sold out and returned to his home in Germany. Before doing so he drew out his deposits and closed his account."

"How is it that you did not yourself detect the forgeries? I supposed you bank people were so expert nowadays that the cashing of a worthless check would be impossible."

"Here are the forged checks, and here is one cashed by us since the accounting, which is genuine. Compare them, and perhaps you will admit that anyone might have been deceived."

Mr. Barnes examined the checks very closely, using a lens to assist his eyes. Presently he laid them down without comment, and said:

"What do you wish me to do, Mr. West?"

"To me it seems like a hopeless task, but at least I should like to have the forger arrested. I will gladly pay five hundred dollars as a reward."


Barnes took up the checks again, examined them most carefully with the lens, and once more laid them down. He strummed on his desk a moment and then said suddenly:

"Mr. West, suppose that I not only arrest the guilty man, but recover the forty thousand dollars?"

"You don't mean to say – " began Mr. West, rather astonished.

"I said 'suppose,'" interrupted Mr. Barnes.

"Why, in that case," said Mr. West, "I would gladly give a thousand more."

"The terms suit me," said the detective. "I'll do my best. Leave these checks with me, and I'll report to you as promptly as possible. One moment," as Mr. West was about to depart; "I will make a memorandum of something you must do yourself." He wrote a few lines on a sheet of paper and handed it to Mr. West, saying, "Let me have those to-day, if possible."

One week later Mr. West received the following note:

"Stephen West, Esq.: —

"Dear Sir – I have completed my investigation of your case. Please call at my office at four o'clock. If convenient, you may as well bring with you a check for fifteen hundred dollars, made payable to

John Barnes."

"Great heavens!" ejaculated the cashier upon reading the above, "he tells me to bring fifteen hundred dollars. That means he has recovered the money. Thank God!" He dropped into his chair, overcome at the sudden release from the suspense of the previous week, and a few tears trickled down his cheek as he thought of his wife and little one who would not now be obliged to give up their pretty little home to make good his loss.

Promptly at four he was ushered into the presence of Mr. Barnes. Impatient to have his hopes confirmed, he exclaimed at once:

"Am I right? You have succeeded?"

"Most thoroughly," said the detective. "I have discovered the thief, and have him in prison. I also have his written confession."

"But the forty thousand dollars?"

"All safe and sound. Your bank does not lose a dollar – except the reward." Mr. Barnes added the last after a pause and with a twinkle of his eye.

"Oh, Mr. Barnes, that is a trifle compared to what I expected. But tell me, how was this trick played on us? Who did it?"

"Suppose I give you a detailed account of my work in solving the riddle? I am just in the humor for telling it, and besides you will be more appreciative."

"That is just what I should most desire."

"Very well," began Mr. Barnes. "We will go back to the moment when, after scrutinizing the checks, I asked what you would give for the recovery of the money. I asked that because a suspicion had entered my mind, and I knew that if it should prove to be correct, the arrest of the criminal and the recovery of the money would be simultaneous. I will not explain now why that should be a necessary sequence, as you will see that I was right. But I will tell you what made me entertain the suspicion. In the first place, as you know, of course, John Wood uses a private special check. The forgeries were upon blanks which had been stolen from his check-book. Thus the thief seemingly had access to it. Next, as is commonly done nowadays, the amount of the check was not only written, but also punched out, with the additional precaution of punching a dollar mark before and after the figures. It would seem therefore almost impossible that any alterations had been made after the check was originally drawn. Such things have been done, the holes being filled up with paper pulp, and new ones punched afterwards. But in this case nothing of the sort had been attempted, nor indeed was any such procedure necessary, for the checks were not raised from genuine ones, but had been declared by Wood to be forgeries outright. That is, he denied the signatures."

"Certainly. They were declared to be spurious."

"Exactly. Now that was all that I knew when you were here last except that the signatures seemed to be very similar. It was possible that they were tracings. The plain deduction from this was that the forger was some one in John Wood's establishment; some one who could have access to the checkbook, to the punch, and also have a chance to copy the signature, if it was copied."

"All that is quite clear, but how to proceed?"

"I instructed you to send me a list of all the checks which had been paid out on John Wood's account, giving their dates, numbers, and amounts. I also asked you to procure for me from the Harlem National Bank a similar list of checks paid on order of Carl Grasse. These two lists you sent to me, and they have been very useful. As soon as you left me, and whilst awaiting your lists, I tried some experiments with the forged checks. First I argued that if the signatures were traced, having been made, as it were, from a model, it would follow necessarily that they would exactly coincide if superimposed the one upon the other. Now whilst a man from habit will write his name very similarly a thousand times, I doubt if in a million times he would, or could, exactly reproduce his signature. The test of placing one over the other and examining with transmitted light satisfied me that they were not tracings. I compared each check with each of the others, and with the genuine one which you also left with me. No two were exact counterparts of one another. Still this did not completely prove that they were not tracings, for an artistic criminal might have gone so far as to trace each check from a different model, thus avoiding identity whilst preserving similarity."

"Mr. Barnes," said Mr. West, admiringly, "you delight me with your care in reasoning out your point."

"Mr. West, in speculating upon circumstantial evidence the most thorough care must be used, if one would avoid arresting the innocent. Nothing, to my mind, is stronger proof against a criminal than a complete chain of circumstantial evidence, but again, nothing is so misleading if at any stage a mistake, an omission, or a misconstruction be allowed to occur. In this case, then, as I was starting out to prove what was merely a suspicion, I determined to be most careful, for indeed I dislike following up suspicion at any time. A suspicion is a prejudgment, and may prove a hindrance to correct reasoning. Not entirely satisfied, therefore, I took the next step. A tracing can be made in either of two ways: with a lead-pencil, or with a stylus of glass or agate. The former leaves a deposit of the lead, whilst the latter makes an indentation upon the paper. In the first case the forger will attempt to remove the lead with an erasing rubber, but will not succeed thoroughly, because some of it will be covered by the ink, and because of the danger of injuring the surface of the paper. In the latter instance, if he be a very thoughtful man, he might undertake to remove the indentation by rubbing the opposite side with the end of his knife or with an ivory paper-cutter. In either case a careful scrutiny with a strong glass would show the burnishing upon the reverse side. I could find nothing of the sort. Taking one of the checks I applied a solution to remove the ink. A thorough examination disclosed that there was no sign either of the graphite, or of the indentation from the stylus. In fact, I became satisfied that the signatures had not been traced."

"But what did that prove? They might have been imitations made by a clever penman."

"They might have been, but I doubted it; and since you ask, I will give my reasons. In the first place, the signatures were accepted at your bank not once, but four times. It would be a remarkably clever man to deceive experts so well. However, I did not abandon this possibility until further developments showed conclusively to my mind that it would be a waste of time to follow up that line of research. Had it been necessary to do so, I should have discovered who in the place had the opportunity to do the work, and by examining their past I should have received a hint as to which of these was most likely to be my man. For any man who could have the ability to commit such a clever forgery must have acquired it as a sequence of special skill and aptitude with his pen of which his friends would be cognizant. Once I looked up such a man, and found that as a boy he had forged his parents' names to excuses for absences from school. Later he turned to higher things. In this instance I was satisfied that the only person having the access to materials, the knowledge of the financial condition of the concern, and the ability to write the checks, was Mr. John Wood himself."

"John Wood!" exclaimed the cashier. "Impossible! Why, that would mean that – "

"Nothing is impossible, Mr. West. I know what you would say. That it involved his having an accomplice in this Carl Grasse? Well, that is what I suspected, and that is why I asked for an additional reward for the recovery of the funds. If I could prove that John Wood made the checks himself, they ceased to be forgeries in one sense, and the bank could rightfully charge the amounts against his account. But let me tell you why I abandoned your theory that an expert penman was at work. Observe that though you would have honored a check for forty thousand dollars drawn by John Wood, yet the forgeries were four in number. That showed that the man was not afraid of arousing your suspicion. The only man who could feel absolutely sure upon that point was John Wood. But there is another pretty point. These checks being spurious, and yet being numbered, could arouse your suspicion in two ways. If the numbers upon them greatly varied from those upon genuine checks coming in at the same time, the fraud would have been detected quickly. On the other hand, he could not give you correct numbers without being either in collusion with his bookkeeper or else duplicating the numbering of other checks. That the latter course was pursued, exempted the bookkeeper. All the numbers on the forged checks were duplicates of those on genuine ones."

"But, Mr. Barnes, that did not arouse our suspicion, because – "

"Just so," interrupted Mr. Barnes, "but let me tell you why, as the why is a very significant link in our chain. Your list of this man's checks helped me there. About a year ago Carl Grasse appeared upon the scene in Harlem, buying out a beer-garden, and starting an account in the Harlem National Bank. Now observe that prior to that time, from the first check sent to you by Wood, the strictest regularity as to numbering obtained. There is not a break or a skip anywhere. But in February, the month after Carl Grasse moved to Harlem, there is a duplication in Wood's checks. Two have the same numbering, but both are for trifling amounts, sixteen dollars in one instance and forty in the other. You possibly passed it over. Next month, I find two duplications, and from then on this apparent mistake happens no less than ten times."

"Mr. Barnes, the bookkeepers did notice this, and we spoke to Mr. Wood, but he said it was simply a clerical error of his own due to haste in business hours."

"Exactly, but he was paving the way for his big coup. He was disarming you of suspicion. This one fact satisfied me that I was on the right track, but your list gave me even better corroboration. On February 1st I find that Wood cashed a check payable to himself for ten thousand and fifty-nine dollars. On February 2d, Carl Grasse opened an account with the Harlem Bank, depositing ten thousand dollars, paying in the amount, in cash. This might seem but a coincidence, but by looking over the books of the beer-garden, which is still in existence, Grasse having sold it out, I find that on February 2d, Grasse paid his employees just fifty-nine dollars. The difference, you see, between Wood's draft and Grasse's deposit."

"It certainly seems to connect the two, when we remember that the final forgeries were checks signed by Wood in favor of Grasse."

"Precisely, but follow this a little further. For several months there is nothing to connect the two so far as their banking goes, but note that during this lapse Grasse does not draw a single check in favor of himself, nor does he deposit any checks from others. His transactions with his customers are strictly cash, and his checks are all to dealers, who supply him with his stock. None of these are for large amounts, and his balance does not exceed twelve thousand dollars at any time. On October 1st he deposited five thousand dollars in cash. On the day before that, Wood drew that amount out of your bank. On the 12th, this is repeated by both, and on the 14th, Grasse cashes a check for twelve thousand dollars, taking cash. This goes through successfully, and the Harlem Bank is made to see that Grasse commands large amounts and uses large amounts. This is repeated in varying amounts in November, and again in December, the bank by this time being quite ready to pay out money to Grasse. On January 2d, Wood has his check account balanced. On the 3d, Grasse deposits Wood's check for ten thousand dollars. This goes through the Clearing-House, and is accepted by your bank. The Harlem Bank is therefore satisfied of its authenticity. On the 5th, Grasse deposits check number two, and at the same time cashes a check for ten thousand dollars. The second spurious check goes through all right, and on the 10th and 15th, the transactions are repeated. On the 20th, Grasse explains to the Harlem Bank that he has sold his business, and is going home to Germany. He closes his account, taking out his money, and disappears from the scene. You are forty thousand dollars out by a clever swindle, with nothing to prove your suspicions save a few coincidences in the banking records of the two men."

"But assuredly, Mr. Barnes, enough evidence upon which to arrest Mr. Wood?"

"To arrest him, yes. But to convict him? That is another affair. Without conviction you do not recover your money. No, my work was by no means finished. I first sought to follow Grasse. I did not have far to go. At the Hamburg-American line I found him booked, but investigation showed that he never sailed. The ticket which he bought has never been taken up."

"Then the accomplice is still in this country?"

"No; the accomplice is not in this country," said Mr. Barnes, dryly. "Don't get ahead of the story. At this stage of the game I made some singular discoveries. I found, for example, that Carl Grasse slept over his saloon, but that he frequently would be absent all night. I also learned that when he did sleep there, he would leave about nine o'clock in the morning for that mysterious realm, 'down-town.' When he slept elsewhere, he usually reached the saloon at eight, and still went 'down-town' at nine. It was his general custom to get back about five in the afternoon. Extending my researches in the direction of John Wood, I learned that he was customarily at his office at ten o'clock, seldom leaving before four. Moreover, at his apartment the janitor told me that he frequently slept elsewhere, and that when he passed the night at that place, he would leave about seven in the morning. Do you follow me?"

"Do you mean that John Wood and Carl Grasse are one and the same person?"

"That idea entered my mind about this time. Up at the saloon I found some other small evidences that this was a probability. You see, a man may disguise his personal appearance, but it is difficult for him to change his habits with his clothing. For example, I found that Mr. Wood always uses Carter's writing fluid, and Mr. Grasse had the same predilection, as the empty bottles attest. Moreover, the bottles are of the same size in both places. Next I observe that both men used the same make of stub pens. Again note that though Carl Grasse is a German name and the man was keeping a beer saloon, he was never seen to drink beer himself. John Wood has the same antipathy to malt. But most singular is the fact that this man, who so carefully laid his plans, should have actually bought a check-punching stamp of the same make and style of figures as that used in the Wood establishment."

"Perhaps he did that so that he could make the spurious checks up-town instead of down-town, where he might be discovered."

"More than likely, but he should have taken it away with him. There is always some little detail of this kind that even the most skilful overlooks. He probably thought that the similarity of the instruments would never be detected, or made to count against him. It is nothing in itself, but as a link in a chain it mends a break. There was one fact, however, at wide variance with the theory of the identity of the two men. Wood is of ordinary build, with black hair and smooth-shaven face. Grasse is described as very stout, with red hair and whiskers. Of course, following the theory of impersonation, if Wood transformed himself into a stout man, totally different clothing would be needed for the two parts which he played. I found that Wood always dressed in the finest broadcloth, whilst Grasse wore conspicuous plaids. Supposing that he wore a red wig and false whiskers, I determined to find the man from whom he had procured them. I guessed that he would avoid any well-known place, and I began my hunt in the costumers' shops on Third Avenue. I went to several without obtaining any clue, when at last fortune favored me. I found a place where, upon their books, in last January was a record of 'red wig and whiskers' for the same customer. Moreover, they had furnished this person with a 'make-up' for a fat German, giving him the necessary 'pads,' as they are called, a suit of underwear wadded so as to increase the proportion of the body. Can you guess what I did next?"

"I think not."

"It was an inspiration. I ordered a similar outfit for myself, including the plaid suit. This morning they were delivered to me, and, dressed in them, I induced the costumer to go with me to Wood's place. As soon as I was shown into his presence, I began to talk in a most excited, angry tone. I said 'Mr. Wood, I come for satisfaction. I am Carl Grasse, the man you have been personating up-town. I am the man whose name you forged to the back of your own checks. And this is the costumer who sold you the disguise. Am I not right?' This last speech I addressed to the costumer, who, to my intense satisfaction, said, 'Yes, that is the gentleman; but I did not know he was going to impersonate anybody.'"

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