The Henry Morris Verdict Is In
Some may conclude that the case is not quite as black and white as it first seemed.
Last month you read a little bit about life in 1910 Montgomery, and a short synopsis of the Morris-Dumas murder. And, two weeks ago you read about the two people involved and their questionable entanglement.
Now, after you read about the testimony of the individual witnesses, and the wrap-up of the attorney for Henry Morris, you may conclude that the case is not quite as black and white as it first seemed.
Today’s technology would have made it possible to verify instead of merely speculate about the logistics of the shooting; and that, coupled with a clearer picture of the background and character of Mrs. Dumas, might have led to a different conclusion.
What the jury did not hear was that Mrs. Dumas had been arrested a few years earlier in Rockford for indecent conduct. Prostitution itself was not against the law; it was surely immoral, but not illegal. In reporting that incident, a newspaper interview with people from her hometown of Pontiac disclosed that she was addicted to drugs and that a Judge White from Pontiac was overseeing her inheritance. Her sob story to Morris was that this Judge had cheated her out of her property, but she did not tell him about her arrest. It was a scheme to get him financially involved, and he fell for it. The full truth of that died with Mrs. Dumas.
First we learned from two witnesses, friends of Mrs. Dumas who lived in the same boarding house on North Clark Street in Chicago; that the couple had spent several days there prior to the shooting. Many boarding houses on North Clark Street were used as a base of operations for a certain class of prostitutes. Morris testified that Mrs. Dumas told him business was poor on North Clark Street so she had come to Aurora. This coincides with a crackdown on vice in the city of Chicago about that time. Chicago was the center of a national white slave ring. Small town girls had been recruited and coerced into thinking they would be moving to the city and given good respectable jobs and lodging, only to be drugged and sold into prostitution. In the early 1900s there was a push to rid the city of this vice and its perpetrators.
The third woman to testify was Helen Hunt, the proprietor and madam of Helen Hunt’s resort, a bordello southeast of Aurora. She testified that Mrs. Dumas was an “inmate” at her place, and where she met Henry Morris three months prior to the killing.
Mrs. Dumas usually carried a pistol, but had left it behind at the rooming house in Chicago (her primary residence) along with clothing and other belongings. A detective went to the Clark Street address and retrieved this gun and it was placed in evidence.
The closest witness to the couple at the time of the shooting was 100 feet away when he heard four shots. It was A. J. Turco, the sheepshearer from Montana who returned to the village to testify at the trial. He further stated that the first shot was muffled, then an instant later three shots were fired in rapid succession. He heard a moan twice during the shooting.
Mr. Morris suffered one shot to his head. This matches his testimony that Mrs. Dumas held the pistol and fired a shot that grazed his head, before he grabbed her wrist and wrestled the gun away. He said he remembers nothing further as his head was not clear at that time. He claims his gun was in his overcoat pocket and the woman must have taken it from him some time during the evening.
Witness George Hurteau saw the couple when he went out for the evening paper, and when he returned to his house he heard three shots. He said two shots were fired in rapid secession, then there was an interval of two or three seconds between the second and third shots. This would mean four shots were fired in all, not three as he testified.
Zachariah Taylor testified that he was on the roof of his house, one block northeast of the corner of Clay and Main Streets, fixing a flue when the shooting occurred. He heard three reports of a gun in a southwest direction that were in rapid succession, and there was a little interval between the first two. “They were practically in quick succession.”
Charles Lightbody, who met the couple on the sidewalk on their way to the corner, testified that after passing them he heard two shots and in about two seconds he heard two more.
George Cooney testified that he lived at the corner of Clay and Main Streets when he heard four shots fired. “The first was a muffled shot and the next three were plain shots. They were right in rotation—one shot after the other. I heard a person halloo right after the shots. I heard more than one cry.”
John Healy testified that he was at the corner of Main and Webster, 300 feet or so from Clay. He heard four shots. The first was muffled and the last three were louder. He also saw the flash from east to west and downward, and the last three were in rapid succession with no interval between them.
Half of the witnesses heard three shots and half of them heard four. There were two holes in Morris’s hat, and two in Mrs. Dumas.
Henry Morris’s statement to Chief of Police Michels at the hospital differed from his story on the witness stand, and caused a big problem for the defense.
The defense attorney, N. J. Aldrich did a fine job of pointing out some troubling facts during the trial. He stated there is a state law against keeping disorderly houses and since Helen Hunt’s establishment is not within the city limits, the State’s Attorney W. J. Tyers is responsible for allowing it to flourish. Also, the Riverview Hotel in Montgomery is under his jurisdiction. “If these two places were wiped off the map, this thing would never have taken place. I don’t excuse Morris for going to Helen Hart’s the first part of September, but if the State’s Attorney had done his job there would have been no such place." He further argued, “Mrs. Dumas was as old as Morris, larger in physique, and deficient in character. She cared nothing for Morris and his family. Her motive was money. The evidence bears this out."
W. J. Tyers appointed himself prosecuting attorney, which the defense attorney objected to. Calling it improper, Aldrich argued there were other prosecuting attorneys who would have been glad to be given the job.
And finally he said, “The proprietor of the Riverview Hotel misled the detective who was looking for Morris and Dumas earlier in the day, by saying that they had not been there. The truth is, they were upstairs sleeping after a morning of heavy drinking. If they had been found earlier, the tragedy could have been prevented."
The jury took just five hours to reach a verdict. They found Henry Morris guilty of first-degree murder and recommended he be sentenced to life in prison.
The case was appealed, but the request for a retrial was denied on lack of sufficient evidence of misconduct in the first trial.
There is no doubt that Mrs. Dumas was killed by Henry Morris; but would he be considered guilty of murder in the first degree, beyond a reasonable doubt, as today’s juries are instructed? Or should self-defense or manslaughter have been considered? You be the judge.