By Henry Beetle Hough. From the Vineyard Gazette editions of September, 1982:
“Don’t you think Tracy must have been the murderer?”
“I know he was. He told me so.”
As directly as this 41 years after the acquittal of Ralph Huntingdon Rice in the most engrossing and extended criminal trial in the annals of Dukes County, on a charge of having brutally killed Mrs. Clara E. Smith, William Everett Moll, veteran of show business from old time summer stock — in this instance the Phidelah Rice Playhouse — to commercial television, set to rest any remaining mystery as to the identity of the man who raped Mrs. Smith, then past 70, and bludgeoned her to death in her room in Sumner Hall, the dormitory of the Rice Summer School and theatre on East Chop, after midnight Saturday, June 30, 1940.
The poignancy to many human beings, the sensational side, and much detail have faded with the years, and the murder has come to be regarded in its historical aspect, like the Lizzie Borden case on a lesser scale.
Considered as a chapter in the annals of crime, it has outstanding dramatic qualities, some of them disturbing, and raised the question how the state police could have been such captives of their own ingenuity that they pressed to its conclusion the prosecution of Ralph Rice who, though he seemed odd and was odd, had become so mainly because of an innate shyness and inner struggle to find himself.
The evidence against Ralph Rice was well characterized by the testimony of Miss Lydia Kipp, a housekeeper, that Rice had given her a “very fearful look,” and a postmarked envelope which seemed to show that Rice knew about the murder before the time he admitted he knew about it. This contradiction, as it seemed, had almost bewitched the state officers with their own skill, but it was readily explained during the trial that the envelope and letter it contained were mismatched, so that there was no contradiction
There was also the suggestion by Paul H. Whitnery, a financial backer for the then current season of the Rice Playhouse, that the police should look into the queer brother of Phidelah Rice. Compliantly they did, ignoring the presence on the theatre staff of Harold Tracy, stage electrician, present under the assumed name of Thomas. Not only did he have a criminal record but he was at the moment a fugitive from justice in Kentucky where he was wanted to serve out a sentence for complicity in a jewel robbery. Tracy, of course, was not on trail. The defendant, because of the prideful cleverness of the police, was Ralph Rice.
Tracy stayed at the theatre’s Stag Cottage, and after the final curtain at the theatre that evening, made a trip to downtown Oak Bluffs for food and drink, returning intoxicated. His friendship with the beautiful Marjorie Massow, who also roomed in Sumner Hall, was well known, and that a shade drawn up and down by Miss Massow was a signal to Tracy, but Tracy, being drunk missed her room by one floor and blundered instead into Mrs. Smith’s room. The next morning, on the way to breakfast, Mr. Moll recalls that Tracy said to him, “Something happened last night at Sumner Hall, and I am involved.”
Later in the trial a letter written by Tracy to Miss Massow was produced in court. “My real name is Harold Tracy and I have been in prison . . . I was forced to leave home and change my name because a friend was arrested and either hoped to make it easier for himself — or the police were eager to involve me again. Anyway, they came after me, but I got away. In leaving I violated my parole and as soon as my real identity is discovered, they’ll take me back — back to the city of the living dead — back where the only moonlight you see is a patch on the floor of your cell — moonlight crisscrossed by shadows of iron bars. And so — not because of my past — because I’ve lost you forever — I’m taking this way out . . . . All my love. I go — with your image on my heart and your name on my lips. Forever yours.”
Tracy knew that his criminal record had been discovered, and the literary production of this letter with its hint of suicide was so far from any context in reality that it must have been written for his exculpation with the police rather than for the information of Miss Massow. But Tracy did not take “this way out.” He was sent to the Barnstable House of Correction on a charge of having a concealed weapon. Presently he got out through a skylight, walked a wall to freedom, and disappeared.
Ralph Rice was acquitted. World War II intervened with its long years, and finally Tracy was recaptured and sent to Kentucky to serve out his sentence. Meantime he had been indicted at Edgartown in absentia, but after so long a scattering of time he could hardly have been successfully tried for the murder of Mrs. Smith. Mr. Moll. who was warned officially that Tracy had threatened to kill him was not concerned and now he thinks Tracy has also gone with old times.
Marjorie Massow went on with her career, changed her name to Madge Meredith, played small parts in the movies, and in 1947 at the age of 27 was convicted, with three men, of having lured her former manager and his bodyguard to a lonely canyon and beaten them. Her sentence ran from five years to life in the state prison for women at Tehachapi, Calif.
Mr. Moll eventually left the theatre, moving over to television and going to work for NBC. He counts among his many friends Kate Smith and Perry Como.
Compiled by Eulalie Regan