MR. PONZI FALLS FROM THE FRYING-PAN INTO THE FIRE AND WONDERS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT
At the beginning, there was an awful fuss over Zarossi's flight. Some of the depositors were real ugly. They made things generally unpleasant all around. They threatened Zarossi's family. Even my own life. But things cooled down after a while. They always do. If they didn't, there would be more bank executives hanging from tree limbs, than running around in Rolls Royces or smoking dollar cigars behind mahogany desks. And that ”God forbid!” would be one form of bank insurance that would bring home the bacon without "ifs" and "buts".
The Zarossi family left their pretentious apartment and moved with me into a couple of furnished rooms. We shared with the landlady the use of the kitchen, bath, parlor and dining-room. I went to work. Yes, on the stagger plan; now and then. The two oldest girls went to work too. The mother remained home to cook the meals and mind the house.
We led a very modest and retired life. Entirely too much so. Hardly went anywhere. We spent our evenings at home yawning until bed time. But that could not last long. I was then 26 and very susceptible to girlish charms. Zarossi's eldest daughter was 17 and very pretty. The inevitable happened. We fell in love with each other. And yawned no longer evenings.
My old schoolmate was a frequent visitor at the house. He was about my age, and equally susceptible to a girl's charms, and he fell in love too, with the same girl. But I had the edge on him. His love never got to first base.
In so far as I was concerned, his being in love with my girl did not affect my friendship for him. For the very good reason that I did not know he was in love. I learned of it later. Too late, in fact, to put me on my guard. In so far as he was concerned, I am inclined to believe that his disappointment drove him actually insane. No sane person would have done to me what he did, unless he was the reincarnation of perfidy.
It happened in the summer of 1908. For some time he had been telling me that he intended to go out West to liquidate his interests in the independent branches of the Banco Zarossi. There were three of those branches. One in Sudbury, Ontario; one in Calgary, Alberta; and one in Fernie, British Columbia. I had established them and knew all about them.
He hesitated going because he was neither familiar with the language, nor the country, nor the business. He suggested that I go first and he would follow me. I told him I had no money to undertake such a trip. He said he would furnish the money and allow me a commission, and I agreed to go.
One Saturday we met in St. James Street by prearrangement. We went into the Bank of Hochelaga, in which he had an account, and he presented a check for certification. It was the closing hour or a few minutes after. I remember that, because the time had something to do with his alleged inability to cash the check right there and then. But I do not vouch for either the veracity or the accuracy of the allegation.
His failure to cash the check seemed to preclude my departure which had been set for the coming Monday. I could not go away for a month or two, on such a long trip, without a trunk, some clothes and a few things. All purchases I had planned to make that same Saturday afternoon. But he said that he might be able to cash the check elsewhere.
In the evening, when he came over to the house, he still had the check. He hadn't been able to do anything with it.
"There is a chance," he said, "that they might cash it at one of the Hochelaga branches which are open Saturday evenings. What do you say? Shall we try?"
I agreed that we should. So, we left the house and went to the branch in St. Catherine Street. He walked up to the paying-teller's window, exchanged a few words and got the cash. About $400.
We left the bank, made some purchases and went home to pack. All I had of mine did not fill one half of the trunk.
" Tomorrow I will bring some of my stuff to fill the trunk," said he and left.
The next day he came over and brought what he wanted me to take along. Mostly papers in large envelopes. He gave me about $200 in cash, saying that he would buy me the ticket in the morning and bring it over.
Monday forenoon, I went out to buy a few more things. I came home about 11:30. As I stepped into the doorway, two plain clothes men put me under arrest and rushed me upstairs to my room. They frisked me and found the $200. They went through the trunk, discovered a number of blank checks among his papers, seized everything, and took me to headquarters. There, I found myself locked up on a charge of forgery and held incommunicado.
I was dazed. I did not know what to think. I couldn't make head or tail of the whole thing. To make matters worse, I couldn't see anybody or talk with anybody.
From headquarters I was transferred later to the jail. While there, I was permitted to write letters. But I never received an answer to any of them. Never received a visit. Never saw a newspaper. I was virtually buried alive and knew not what was going on outside.
Conditions in the jail beggar description. The place was filthy and invested with vermin. The moment they assigned me to a cell, I knew I could not stand it for twenty-four hours. So, I mustered up my wits to the rescue. I cuddled up in a corner of the bed, against the wall, with a vacant stare, chewing a towel to shreds. Other inmates, going by, observed me and reported to the guard. He came over and had me transferred to the jail hospital.
There, I threw a couple of war whoops and started to climb into a barred window. Two orderlies took hold of me and put me into a strait-jacket. I lay still for a couple of hours. Then I acted as if I was coming to from an epileptic attack. The straitjacket was removed and I was given a bed in that jail. The ruse enabled me to remain in the hospital
all the time I was in jail. Conditions there were far from pleasant, but bearable.
One day, probably a month or so later, I learned, through the usual prison channels, that Zarossi was also a guest in the same jail. He had arrived the night before, brought back from Mexico under extradition proceedings. I asked to see him and was allowed.
My old schoolmate had doublecrossed him. Unable to effect a compromise with the other creditors and get ahold of Zarossi's assets, he blamed him for it. He had tried to blackmail him and his wife without success. So, he had turned right round and demanded Zarossi's extradition on the strength of the forged note.
Zarossi and I put our heads together and went over the situation. We found that only my testimony could convict him. As that of my old schoolmate could not do it. But, being in jail, I could not flee the jurisdiction of the coutry. Therefore, it was up to me to decide what to do. Whether to side with a despicable crook like my old schoolmate, or with Zarossi, a friend and my girl's father beside. I could not hesitate. I did not hesitate. I decided to save Zarossi, cost what it may.
A few days later, his came came up for a hearing. I was summoned as a witness. My old schoolmate took the stand first and accused Zarossi of having forged the note. After him, I was called to the stand to testify. I answered the preliminary questions. Then I was shown the forged note.
"Have you ever seen this note before?" I was asked.
"Yes, sir. I have." I answered.
"On what occasion did you see it?" was the next question. I related the circumstances under which I had seen it. In a barroom in St. James Street.
"Who was present on that occasion?" inquired the Crown prosecutor.
I mentioned my old schoolmate and myself.
"Was anyone else there?" insisted the prosecutor.
"No, sir. Only the two of us." I stated.
"Wasn't Zarossi there too?" asked the prosecutor a little provoked, because I was supposed to be his witness.
"No, sir. Zarossi was not there," I maintained.
The prosecutor shifted the attack from another angle.
"Do you know who wrote that note?" he asked point blank.
"I do," I replied calmly.
"Who wrote it?" he continued, believing he had me in a corner.
"I did," I replied.
"You did? You wrote that note?" exploded the prosecutor at my unexpected answer.
"Yes, sir. I did," I confirmed with the same nonchalance of a George Washington under the cherry tree.
"All of it," I said.
The hearing ended right there and then. My old schoolmate left the courtroom in a rage: like a wild man. The prosecutor asked the court to dismiss the charge. The judge ordered Zarossi discharged, but gave him twenty-hour hours to leave Canada. I went back to the jail.
Before I left the courtroom, the prosecutor, a young Italian, came up to me.
"You lied and you know you did," he whispered to me in our native language.
"Of course, I did. But you can't prove it," I replied to him with a grin.
"I don't hold it against you, Charlie," he said then. "Zarossi is a darned sight better man than the complainant."
Back in the jail, there was nothing else for me to do than to await patiently my own trial. Zarossi had left Montreal, followed shortly afterwards by his family. Their destination was unknown. My old schoolmate, apparently, had also dropped out of sight.
I was brought into court in October, I believe. There for the first time, I learned the exact nature of the charges against me. I was accused of having forged that very check which my old schoolmate had presented for certification and payment. I don't remember whose name had been forged. That of some shipping broker, I believe. And the amount was around $400.
I pleaded not guilty. The witnesses were called to the stand to testify. Four of them, I think. The man whose name had been forged, the two detectives and the paying teller. The shipping broker said he knew me. Said I had called at his office occasionally on Zarossi's business. That, was true. He also stated that the check had been torn from the back of his check book. Undoubtedly, that was also so. But he was unable to say whether I had done it. He had not seen me around his office about that time.
The two detectives testified to have found a number of blank checks in my trunk and $200 in my pocket.
"What has become of that money?" inquired the judge. "Is it here?"
"No, your Honor," answered one of the detectives. "It has been returned to the bank."
"Returned to the bank?" asked the judge rather amazed. "And upon whose authority?"
"It was the bank's money," explained the witness. "We saw no reason for holding it."
"That's it," interrupted the judge, considerably provoked. "The police take it upon themselves to decide what is and is not material evidence. If it had been some poor man's money, he would not have got it back so easily. But, being the money of the Bank of Hochelaga, a great bank, the police must go out of their way, actually violate the law, to see to it that the bank is not inconvenienced.
"I am going to adjourn this case and look into the matter. I want to see where the responsibility rests for the unwarranted return of that money. Upon the proper identification of that money, hinges, to a large extent, the defendant's guilt or innocence. He has a right to be confronted with the alleged proofs against him. He has a legitimate title to that money until it has been properly identified in this court as someone else's property."
After that blasting from the bench, a blasting which made headlines in the Montreal papers, I went back to the jail in high spirits. I felt reasonably sure that the judge would dismiss the case. And that goes to show how little I knew about judges at that time.
In fact, when the trial was resumed, the judge's attitude was changed. The money incident was dropped. The last witness was called to the stand. He was the paying-teller.
"Is this the man who presented the check and to whom it was paid?" the prosecutor asked him pointing to me.
The paying-teller said he "presumed" I was the man. Three months had elapsed and he had not seen me since, he admitted. However, he was under the impression that the man who presented the check was taller, thinner, clean shaved and had light hair. His description certainly did not fit me. It was more like that of my old schoolmate.
For an identification, it was a corker! But it got by. Anything would have got by that day. Besides, I couldn't butt in because I was represented by counsel. I hadn't mentioned that. But I had a lawyer. He had volunteered to represent me gratis because I had saved his client from jail.
He was the least loquacious member of the bar I ever ran across. Cal Coolidge was actually garrulous alongside of that lawyer. Throughout the whole trial, he never cross-examined a witness, he never put in an objection, he never so much as glanced in my direction. The only thing he did was to get up, presumably to argue in my behalf, and say:
"If Your Honor please, I recommend my client to the mercy of this Court."
When I heard that, they could have knocked me down with a feather. He had virtually conceded my guilt even before the court had pronounced me guilty. In a way, I am glad he did not say more. If he had, they would have hung me!
I got my first taste of legal uncertainties when the judge spoke:
"Notwithstanding the brilliant argument of counsel for the defense," he said, "the evidence compels me to find the defendant guilty of forgery as charged, etc â€¦"
Now, can you tie that? Brilliant argument of counsel, etc â€¦! He could have said just as well: "Failure of counsel to put up a defense, compels me to conclude that my belief in the defendant's guilt is shared by counsel â€¦" and let it go at that. It wouldn't have been half as raw as the other way.
A few days later, the court sentenced me to three years of imprisonment in the St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary. The same afternoon, I was transferred there from the jail. An hour afterwards, my own mother would not have recognized me. I was bathed, shaved, clipped, dressed in a hideous uniform, mugged, fingerprinted and numbered. I had ceased to be a citizen. To have a name of my own. I had become a number!