The Ways of the Hour: A Tale (1850)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978).

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

In this sociological novel, Cooper’s last full-length fictional work, the author evidences his concern about “the ways of the hour”: lack of principle as shown in easy divorce, financial independence of women, and flagrant abuse of justice by elected judges, incompetent jurors, culpable lawyers, and an irresponsible press; an unreasoning worship of mass opinion; and failure to pursue the truth beneath the trappings of appearance. The vehicle for exploring the sociological theme is a mid-1840s murder trial assuming the pattern of a murder mystery, a “whodunit,” complete with aliases, cloak-and-dagger schemes, a “revived” corpse, a missing treasure, a series of “jailbreaks,” bribery, and a madwoman.

[1] An innocent question concerning the wording of a dinner toast prompts Thomas Dunscomb, Cooper’s spokesman, to deny his young legal apprentices’ idealistic notion that the United States Constitution is the “palladium of our civil and religious liberties” (p. 14). This breakfast-table conversation in the opening scene introduces Dunscomb, a respected New York City lawyer and somewhat cynical sixty-year-old bachelor, and his orphaned niece Sarah Wilmeter and nephew John (Jack) Wilmeter. Present at the table also is Michael (Mike) Millington, friend and colleague of Jack, apprentice — as is Jack — of Dunscomb, and suitor of twenty-year-old Sarah, the naive observer. Their earnest discussion, well under way, is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Edward McBrain, the family doctor, long-term friend of Dunscomb, and the good-natured object of Dunscomb’s jibes for his upcoming marriage (his third) at the age of sixty to the charming Widow Anna Updyke.

[2] McBrain, perturbed by his preliminary findings on an inquest to which he has been summoned as consultant by the coroner in adjoining Duke’s (sic) County, reports the major features of what appears to be a clear instance of arson, robbery, and murder. A house fire in the county seat, Biberry, has produced several arresting but apparently related elements: the discovery of the charred remains of two people, presumably Peter and Dorothy Goodwin, the disappearance of a German woman working there for her board, the theft of a stocking containing a substantial amount of money, and the rescue — with all her belongings intact — of a beautiful young boarder, Mary Monson. McBrain, prepared to examine the Goodwins’ skeletons, finds instead the remains of two females, with their skulls fractured; moreover, from her behavior, he is convinced that the young boarder is using an alias. Concerned for the fate of the fascinating young lady in the face of strong circumstantial evidence, McBrain urges his attorney friend to attend the formal inquest that afternoon in Biberry.

[3-4] Dunscomb, accompanied by John and Michael, goes by carriage with McBrain to assess the situation, still not determined to become involved in the case himself. Coroner Sanford’s callous treatment of Mary Monson as a suspect rather than as a witness prompts Dunscomb to defend the friendless young woman. He is allowed to consult privately for an hour with Mary but is unable to learn anything about his client except her name — admittedly an alias — and the already-established circumstances of the case. The two return to the inquest to discover that McBrain’s identification of both skeletons as females has been flatly contradicted by the county doctors called to examine the remains; all are persuaded that, since Goodwins’ house had burned, the remains must be those of the owner and his wife, who had been almost exactly the same height. On the basis of testimony by a number of women that Mary Monson has in her purse a curious coin formerly seen among those hoarded in avaricious Mrs. Goodwin’s stocking treasury - a twenty-dollar gold piece Mary claims to have given to the deceased — and on suspicion aroused by Mary’s refusal to provide the solicited personal information about herself, Mary Monson finally stands accused of the first-degree murder of Peter Goodwin.

[5-7] Leaving John and Michael to provide for Mary Monson’s comfort and to assemble evidence toward a brief, Dunscomb returns to other cases in the city. The sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Gott, convinced of Mary’s innocence, makes her jail accommodations not only comfortable but elegant, furnishing the quarters under Mary’s direction and at Mary’s expense. John’s frequent conversations with Mary — always through the jail grate — lead to his infatuation with the beautiful stranger. Michael and John amass between them considerable material toward a brief; in their various interviews to achieve this end, they become painfully aware that public opinion runs strongly against their client, with new fuel added daily by the countless rumors and by incendiary, irresponsible newspaper reporting of the case. Mary, seeking a maidservant, welcomes John’s suggestion of Swiss Marie Moulin, formerly Sarah’s maid. Marie, told that Mary claims to have known her in Europe, accepts the job; the maid’s promise to inform Sarah of Mary’s real identity is not kept, for Marie becomes loyal solely to Mary Monson and honors her wish for secrecy. All that John is able to learn concerning Mary is her clearly superior social rank, indicated by Marie’s addressing her simply as “Mademoiselle.”

[8] The scene changes now to Dunscomb’s New York office, where Squire Timms — a coarse but aspiring Duke’s County lawyer whom Dunscomb has retained as an assistant in the Monson case — reports to Dunscomb but not to the reader the results of his assiduous efforts in their client’s behalf. Various shady techniques countenanced by this country lawyer, including “horse-shedding” and “pillowing” [influencing of witnesses and jurors by agents’ apparently innocent talk in the horse-sheds and in shared rooms at night], are distasteful to Dunscomb but are obviously effective in Biberry. The current of popular opinion, Timms says, has set even more strongly against Mary following her hiring of a maid to serve her in jail; he solicits and receives an additional $500 for “expenses” in countering this reaction of plain folks against what appears to be an aristocratic display.

[9] Timms, back again in the county seat, pursues the leads provided by John and Michael. In addition, he spends his client’s money where it will buy the greatest benefits for her cause among newspaper readers and among gossipmongers. Mary’s strong-willed insistence on playing her harp (a sacred instrument) and her piano in her jail quarters, as well as her refusal to gratify the curiosity of the vulgar by displaying herself at the window, arouse more ill will among Biberry residents, however, than can be offset by Timms’s most ambitious efforts in her behalf. Investigation persuades John and Timms that Sarah Burton, neighbor of the Goodwins, knows more about the case than she is willing to reveal. Mrs. Gott and John are more firmly convinced of Mary’s innocence than is Timms, who thus far is working for Mary’s money rather than for Mary.

[10] The scene changes to the home of the Widow Anna Updyke, where excitement concerning the McBrain-Updyke wedding runs high. Sarah and the widow’s daughter, Anna, nineteen years old, share their concern about John’s infatuation with Mary; they had hoped he would marry Anna. Following the McBrains’ wedding, the two girls spend a week at Rattletrap, Dunscomb’s country home, to which Timms, Dunscomb, Michael, and John come to continue their work on the brief. [11] Timms reveals that Mary has by “mother wit” initiated several clever schemes in her own behalf, devices not revealed either to Dunscomb or to the reader. [12] While the two older lawyers are closeted for hours concerning the case, the lovers Michael and Sarah go off together, leaving John to rediscover the charms of the modest and winning Anna, a welcome contrast to the increasingly distasteful cunning and conniving John has detected in Mary Monson. John suspects — through Marie’s slip of the tongue in addressing Mary as “Madame” — that Mary is in fact a married woman. His concern for Mary’s perilous situation continues, however, and Anna’s affection for John prompts her to console the prisoner; in addition to her warmhearted sympathy, Anna is motivated by a curiosity about Mary’s identity never satisfied by Marie.

[13] Further danger to Mary’s cause develops in the hiring by Jesse Davis, nephew and heir of Peter Goodwin, of a clever country lawyer nicknamed “Saucy” Williams to ensure Mary’s conviction. Maintaining that Mary’s plentiful supply of money must have come from Mrs. Goodwin’s purloined stocking hoard, Jesse initiates a savage campaign against the accused woman. Meanwhile, Timms is falling in love with his client, a condition clearly evident to all concerned, providing an interesting counterbalance to the lively rumor that Dunscomb himself, working without fee, is working literally “for love.”

[14] In view of all these reports, Dunscomb drives to Biberry to visit Mary, accompanied by Anna Updyke. Mrs. Horton, landlady at Biberry’s best tavern, greets Dunscomb and his companion warmly and, in a burst of good feeling, confides something that she and her husband, Daniel Horton, have kept secret for twelve years: Peter Goodwin had been so greatly addicted to mint juleps that many times the couple had hidden him away for several days in a “ward” at the inn to protect him from his shrewish wife’s anger. This piece of information proves valuable to Dunscomb. Timms, arriving shortly afterwards, is distraught because Mary still refuses to divulge any of her past — a factor that has hampered her case from the very start — and because she seems entirely without anxiety concerning the outcome of a case plainly about to cost her her life. Dunscomb, commenting sourly on Timms’s infatuation with his client, probes for further details on the local scene and learns that the Burtons, formerly willing to talk to Timms, have apparently moved to the side of the prosecution.

[15] Mrs. Gott, still sympathetic to Mary, urges Dunscomb to persuade Mary to court popular fav showing herself at the jail window, a move he does not support. He does endeavor to make clear to the confident prisoner her perilous situation, whereupon she assures him that she knows popular opinion is against her, since she has heard people discussing the case on her nightly walks through the village! Dunscomb is stunned by this revelation, and is further horrified to discover that Timms is aware of Mary’s excursions away from jail. Her exhilarated, cunning expression as she describes both these illegal forays and her ingenious schemes set afoot makes Dunscomb apprehensive about her sanity. But Mary’s composure and lovely smile so quickly follow these evidences of a diseased imagination that the lawyer scarcely knows how to deal with his unusual client. Suddenly, to Mary’s surprise, he announces the presence of Anna Updyke, who is of Mary’s own social class and is thus able to console her in her loneliness. Mary welcomes this source of comfort, and Dunscomb, assured that Mrs. Gott will house Anna comfortably, returns to the city.

[16] As Dunscomb, at work in his office one evening, turns again to the brief, following an interruption by McBrain’s coachman, Stephen Hoof, he is startled by the entry of Mary and Anna. The two have come by carriage after dark from Biberry to show him a letter from Timms to Mary beginning with a marriage proposal and continuing with a strong recommendation that she abscond. Astounded both by the letter and by this new proof of Mary’s rashness, Dunscomb accedes to her request that she be allowed to nap for an hour before their return and that Anna be taken to visit her mother. Certain that Mary will have left before he returns to his office, Dunscomb accompanies Anna to the McBrains’ and waits during her visit, to see her back safely. He overhears Anna’s inadvertent mention of Mrs. Monson, arousing Dunscomb’s suspicion that the obviously wealthy young woman may have sought inconspicuous housing in Biberry to hide from her husband, a violation of the proper respect for matrimonial bonds that the conservative lawyer deplores. The two girls return in good time to Biberry.

[17] A lengthy authorial comment — one of many in the novel — on the quality of judges, jurors, lawyers, and witnesses in Duke’s County (representative of the agents of justice throughout the republic) precedes the description of Mary’s arraignment. The discussion that occurs in the courtroom before the arraignment reveals the malpractice and chicanery that have made a mockery of the trial-by-jury system; even before an official arraignment, the “outdoor” — or outside-the-courtroom — influences brought to bear on both jury and witnesses have deprived the accused of a fair trial. In the absence of the District Attorney, busy on a case elsewhere, the arraignment is postponed until the following day, and the session is adjourned. [18] That evening, Williams, on the instruction of his client Jesse Davis, comes to Dunscomb and offers to withdraw himself and his damaging evidence from the Monson case in exchange for a “return” of $5000 of the money assumed stolen from the missing stocking by Mary Monson. Dunscomb, largely to gain time, conveys this offer to Mary, who indignantly refuses it on the grounds that she cannot “return” money she has not taken. For the first time, Dunscomb detects signs of insanity in his client; her spirited comments following her refusal convince him that if she is not a lunatic, she has a malevolent insight as well as cunning. Her mention of his early relationship with a Mary Millington and her knowledge of his family affairs mystify him. Who she herself is remains a mystery.

[19] Rumors about the accused increase: that she is the wife of a Frenchman, that she has a streak of insanity, that she is independently wealthy, that she is in hiding from her husband. These and other bits of gossip, swollen out of proportion by news-hungry reporters, bode ill for her acquittal. Dunscomb and Michael, moreover, sense that there is an unsettling truth about this particular cluster of rumors. A repetition of Williams’s offer to withdraw, with a “return” of $5000 still the condition, is refused by Mary, confident of her own innocence. A sudden fit of weeping is succeeded by an unnatural air of self-control assumed by the puzzling woman.

[20] Mary is duly arraigned, the jury is empaneled with surprisingly little difficulty for a capital trial, and the court is adjourned for dinner. [21] Dunscomb and Michael Millington then confer privately on a matter not revealed either to the other principals or to the reader, and Michael departs at once via horseback on a clearly urgent mission. Dunscomb then somberly reveals to John his own past, in which a Mary Millington had jilted him for a richer man. Mary Millington, Dunscomb believes, was the maternal grandmother of Mildred Millington (alias Mary Monson), who has, indeed, left her husband, a French viscount, and is afflicted by insanity. (Mildred Millington’s daughter had married a cousin, Frank Millington, and in that way Mildred is distantly related to Michael Millington.) Moreover, Dunscomb considers Mary capable of the crime for which she is standing trial. During the hasty dinner that follows this conversation, Dunscomb and McBrain discuss a noisy, troublesome neighbor in their wing at the inn, a man either drunk or idiotic, but the two friends have not yet lodged a complaint about him to Mrs. Horton. The landlady herself, stopping to inquire after their comfort, insists that Mary will be acquitted — she has learned it in a dream, she says — but Dunscomb is far from sanguine.

[22] Mary remains calm during the prosecution’s opening speech, which cites largely circumstantial evidence and centers the attack on the curious gold coin found in Mary’s purse. A series of state’s witnesses, self-assured and ready to testify, one by one lose their credibility under Dunscomb’s skillful cross-questioning: one cannot prove which of the two skeletons is that of Peter Goodwin; another cannot positively identify the stolen stocking. But the circumstantial evidence has already done the damage intended by the prosecution. At Dunscomb’s request, the court is adjourned for that day.

[23] During the evening, the noisy neighbor furtively enters Mrs. McBrain’s quarters at the inn, where Dunscomb, McBrain and his wife, and Sarah are desultorily playing whist, and reveals that he knows — and Mary Monson knows — who set Goodwins’ house on fire and who has the stolen gold. His frequent fearful mention of Mary Monson suggests connivance, but the man’s comments are discounted by Dunscomb as the ravings of an idiot, and the man, hearing footsteps down the hall, disappears as slyly as he had come. Elsewhere at the inn, in two private and locked parlors, the coarser elements of the trial-related group, chiefly the country lawyers, are drinking, gambling, and discussing the case, a revolting scene vividly described and closing with Williams’s reminding Timms that the lovesick attorney cannot marry a woman who has been hanged. Among the rumors widely circulated within the group is one identifying Mary Monson as the stool-pigeon of a New York City criminal gang.

[24] At the jail, meanwhile, Anna, more fully taken into Mary’s confidence than is any of the other principals, attempts to persuade Mary to use the “other means” (not identified for the reader) to gain an acquittal. Mary in her proudly negative response displays the same mad, cunning look that had distressed John and Dunscomb earlier; as before, this look is succeeded by a softer one that eases Anna’s alarm. As soon as Anna leaves, escorted by Dr. McBrain to join her mother, Timms is admitted to the cell. During the ensuing conversation, it becomes obvious that Mary herself had started the rumors revealing her marriage and hinting her connection with a New York gang: she is stimulated by her own case, involved in buying rumormongers and in testing the susceptibility of the public to gossip. Once again she refuses Williams’s offer to retire from the prosecution, determined to win acquittal on the merits of the case itself.

[25] Court is reconvened the next morning, and Samuel Burton, initially a strong witness for the prosecution, loses his credibility under Dunscomb’s cross-examination, chiefly on the matters of the corpses’ identities and of Peter Goodwin’s intemperance. The witnessing of Burton’s three unmarried sisters — that the notched gold coin found in Mary’s purse had frequently been displayed by Dolly Goodwin — cannot be shaken, however, and the evidence appears to trouble Mary herself. Mrs. Burton, called next, is even more convincing in her testimony against the accused, though she trembles as she testifies. Court is adjourned for the night, before Dunscomb’s cross-examination of Sarah Burton, on the grounds that the witness is fatigued. Reactions to the day’s events vary; Mrs. Gott is encouraged, Anna is confident, and Mary is curiously dejected. After a brief visit with Anna and Sarah, during which Mary appears to recover her steadiness and confidence of victory, she kisses the girls and bids them good night. Then she sends for Dunscomb, to whom she communicates facts — not revealed to the reader — that largely remove her lawyer’s doubt of her innocence and increase his confidence in the outcome of the case. Still, he awaits anxiously the return of Michael from his errand of locating the husband of Mary Monson and of confirming her suspected identity as Mildred Millington; testimony from these sources would allow Dunscomb, if all else failed, to enter a plea of insanity for his client.

[26] The following day, Dunscomb’s cross-examination of Sarah Burton produces uncertainty in the witness, but she maintains her position throughout. Dr. McBrain’s testimony that the charred skeletons are those of two females is this time upheld by several other doctors, leaving the case dependent on the notched gold coin. Michael Millington still has not returned from his mission, and Dunscomb lacks grounds for prolonging the court’s decision any further. [27] The summing up of the case by both sides and the judge’s charge to the jury make clear that the evidence, apart from the notched coin, is circumstantial. While the jury is in retirement to arrive at a decision, Mary, Anna, and Sarah talk quietly together, and Mary startles her friends by indicating her suspicion of Sarah Burton as guilty of exchanging two nearly identical gold coins while the contents of Mary’s purse were being examined by the women.

When the jury announces — to the stunned surprise of nearly all in attendance — that it has found Mary Monson guilty of murdering Peter Goodwin, Mary takes the stand herself to deplore the injustice of conviction on insufficient grounds, a charge unsettling to both judge and jury. Her statement is less shocking, however, than the sudden appearance — following the pronouncement by the judge of her punishment of death by hanging — of Peter Goodwin himself, led into the courtroom by Mrs. Horton. [28] The supposedly murdered man had been housed at the inn — Dunscomb’s noisy and intrusive “mad” neighbor — and is produced now to demonstrate the mockery of justice that had marked Mary Monson’s trial. Even Dunscomb is caught by surprise at this development, one that Mary had planned to introduce after her acquittal but now finds imperative to prevent her unwarranted execution.

To avoid total disgrace, the court hastily empanels a jury to try Mary first on the charge of murdering Dorothy Goodwin and then on the charge of committing arson. After a brief period, Mary herself requests and is granted permission to question Sarah Burton, then on the witness stand, warning her in the name of God to answer truthfully. Mrs. Burton, heretofore considered the most reliable among the witnesses for the prosecution, admits that she had entered Goodwins’ house before the skeletons were removed, unlocked the bureau drawer and stolen the stocking and its contents, and subsequently substituted the notched gold piece for the unnotched one in Mary’s purse while the purse was being passed from hand to hand. Moreover, she acknowledges that the house had not been set afire by any person but had flared from a faulty flue that had twice before caused a fire in the Goodwins’ house. The burned garret floor had allowed the plow stored right above the Goodwins’ bed to fall on the heads of Dorothy Goodwin and her German servant Jette — sleeping in the same bed in the absence from home of Peter Goodwin; Moses Steen, who had removed the plowshare to recover the skeletons, would testify that the share had come to rest on the victims’ foreheads, fracturing their skulls. Subsequent questioning reveals that Mary had seen Sarah Burton entering the house and stealing the stocking, as well as substituting the notched coin for the perfect one. While representatives of the court are sent to Sarah’s house to fetch the stocking from her bureau drawer, for which she furnishes the key, the District Attorney agrees to an acquittal on the murder charge and the dismissal of the arson charge; the jury acquits the accused without even leaving the jury box, and Mary Monson is free.

[29] After notice in the newspapers about the reversal of the accused’s situation, the case is abandoned by reporters as no longer newsworthy, and the rumors die as quickly as the news. Sarah Burton, guilty of theft, is not prosecuted; ironically, the innocent have proved to be most in danger of the law. And, it develops, a person deemed qualifiedly insane — as Mary Monson proves to be — had been the only one able to penetrate the veil of appearances sufficiently to arrive at the truth, an unfortunate commentary on the state of justice in a republic.

Michael Millington returns just as the court adjourns, and reports in private conference with Dunscomb that, as suspected, Mary Monson is indeed Mildred Millington by birth and Madame de Larocheforte by marriage, that her insanity is recognized by her intimate friends, and that she had lodged with the Goodwins to avoid her husband and thus escape the intolerable marriage into which she had entered. The wedding of Michael and Sarah Wilmeter is celebrated soon after the trial’s ending, and Dunscomb selects that occasion to announce his determination to retire from legal practice within a year; he names Michael and John as his law partners. [30] The marriage of Anna Updyke and John Wilmeter follows in due course. Timms is finally persuaded that Mary Monson — now Mildred Millington — would not marry him even if she were legally free to do so; and Mildred, with Dunscomb’s help, arrives at a quasi-divorce settlement with her husband, the viscount, who returns to France content with a share of Mildred’s substantial fortune and will trouble her no more. Mildred gradually recovers most of her reason; for her own protection, however, she remains under the supervision of Dunscomb and of the Millingtons, her distant relatives, lest she fall further victim to “the ways of the hour.”

Peter Bacon, Peter Bailey, Brookes, Miss Burton, Miss Burton, Miss Burton [three unmarried sisters], Samuel Burton, Sarah Burton, Dr. Coe, Crooks, Jesse Davis, Thomas Dunscomb, Garth, Dorothy Goodwin, Peter Goodwin, Gott, Mrs. Gott, Green, Hatfield, Hicks, Stephen Hoof, Nancy Horton, Hubbs [Sam Tongue], Jette, Johnson, Mrs. Jones, Ira Kingsland, Gabriel Jules Vincent Jean Baptiste de Larocheforte, Daniel Lord, Dr. Edward McBrain, Marvin, Michael Millington, Mildred Millington [Mary Monson], Marie Moulin, Peter, Abigail Pope, Jane Pope, Robert Robinson, Sanford, Scipio, Dr. Short, Timms, Peter Titus, Ira Truman, Widow Anna Updyke, Anna Updyke, Jonas Wattles, Frank Williams, John Wilmeter, Sarah Wilmeter, George Wood, Wright.