Saturday, January 9, 2021

REAL LIFE: The Case of the Autographed Corpse

Gardner dictating one of his
many Perry Mason novels

Much has been written about mystery writers and their involvement in real life crime cases. Arthur Conan Doyle used his skills as an amateur sleuth and ophthalmologist to help clear the name of George Edjali accused of mutilating horses and other farm animals. A nurse who after reading Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse recognized the signs of thallium poisoning in that book and managed to get proper treatment for a misdiagnosed patient in time to save the patient’s life. But what of other mystery writers' adventures in real criminal cases? Who else might have turned detective in real life or had their books used to help solve a crime? An article in the recent Smithsonian magazine highlights Erle Stanley Gardner’s involvement in helping to resolve a case of a wrongfully accused and imprisoned Apache shaman.

Gardner never stopped practicing law and, in fact, spent much of his later life helping prisoners. This may have been mentioned in Gardner’s biography by Dorothy B. Hughes but I’ve never read it. Nevertheless it was fascinating to learn that Gardner was one of the first people to create a foundation that examined miscarriages of justice (The Court of Last Resort), reviewing cases of prisoners who wrote letters claiming innocence and of being wrongfully imprisoned. One such letter written in 1951 found its way to Gardner’s desk. The writer was Silas John Edwards, an Apache medicine man who had started his own religion. In 1933 he had been tried for the murder of his wife, was quickly found guilty on largely circumstantial evidence, and sent to prison. Gardner reviewed the court transcripts and interviewed others on the reservation where the murder took place. Many of those he interviewed were convinced of the Apache’s innocence. Some even claimed to know the name of the true killer. It was a piece of supposed evidence presented by the prosecution, however, that set Gardner off on his quest to save Edwards.

Silas John Edwards (left) and his father
©E.E. Guenther, from collection of
William Kessel as published in Smithsonian

Edward’s wife had been bludgeoned and strangled. Near her body were bloody rocks inscribed with the initials of the accused. Gardner found convincing physical evidence that was overlooked or paid little attention to during the trial like blood that was smeared on Edward's clothing rather than splattered which would have happened if he had actually bludgeoned his wife. But in a bold and outrageous move the Prosecution claimed that the initialed rocks were part of an Apache ritual. The D.A. told the court that an Apache murderer left initials at a crime scene to prevent the victim's soul from seeking vengeance. Gardner thought it a ludicrous claim, something not only counterintuitive but utterly lacking in common sense, and he had his surmise backed up by Apaches on the reservation. None of the Apaches he spoke with could corroborate such a fraudulent sounding ritual. Not one Indian had ever heard of such a practice neither in their own culture or in the odd religion that Edwards had created. Working with the court transcript and gathering witness testimony from Apaches who were never called to the stand back in 1933 Gardner worked tirelessly to prove the prosecution manipulated facts and in some cases invented them to get the conviction. There is a happy ending for Edwards even though he served almost all of his time in prison.

Rather than summarize the entire story which has more than its fair share of life’s irony and twists to rival any Perry Mason novel I point you to the full story as written by journalist Jack El-Hai. Luckily it’s one of the articles you can read in full at the online version of the December 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine. It makes for eye opening reading.


  1. Sounds interesting, John. A Happy 2021 to you.

  2. As you said Gardner was very active in law, and I knew about his Court of Last Resort but not individual cases. There is a book and a TV series based on them. I read about Dr. R B H Gradwohl in his foreword of The Case of the Grinning Gorilla, who helped found The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, he was a friend so it shows how well up in his field he was. The book it's self is rather a run of the mill Perry Mason, rich eccentric does experimenter, murky past and identity, missing woman etc. foreword is probably the most interesting thing about the book. Christie herself was a dispensing nurse in both World Wars so got here knowledge on poisons from there.
    Happy New Year before I forget.

  3. Gardner's belief that it's difficult for the little guy to get justice when he comes up against the overwhelming resources of the state is something that comes through very strongly in the Perry Mason books. Gardner was one of the good guys.