The papers were on fire with it: “Supernatural Murder!” Her twelve-year-old son had found Clothilde Marchand, wife of a famous artist, dead in their Buffalo home one March afternoon in 1930. Within twenty-four hours two Cayuga women from the Cattaraugus Reservation (near Gowanda) had admitted to the killing at the behest of a Cayuga mystic known as “Sassafras Charley.” He was unavailable for questioning, however; he had died weeks before.
Sassafras Charley Bowen had been a familiar figure to many Buffalonians. He sold trinkets, charms, herbs, his own nifty whittling, and, of course, sassafras. To his mostly Seneca neighbors he was a Cayuga, and somewhat offbeat. Sassafras Charley was into the firewater, too, which most people felt accounted for his bad moments - including the practice of sorcery. The rite he performed in front of a cabin of Christian Senecas (one of several deeds that got him into hot water) would probably never have been discovered but for the aftereffects - some red powder he had sprinkled in the snow outside. Several young Seneca threw Sassafras Charley off the reservation and stood guard over the cabin a few nights thereafter.
Charley’s death had been hard on his sixty-six-year-old widow Nancy, a Cayuga herbalist and healer. It was she whose hammer-blows had killed the artist’s wife. Her twentysomething co-conspirator Lila Jimerson - half-Seneca, half-Cayuga - was accounted a seer, even the inheritor of some of Charley’s magic after he passed into the dateless night. The Bowens’ close friend Lila had been a model for Henri Marchand, the illustrator at the Buffalo Museum of Natural Sciences. She rode with him around Buffalo as his wife was killed.
In the weeks before the murder, Jimerson and Bowen had received letters (never traced to any mortal hand) naming Mrs. Marchand as a “White witch” whose long-range maleficence was behind many reservation deaths. An escalating series of messages from the beyond were arriving through Lila (in a number of occult methods), attesting even that it was Mrs. Marchand who had killed Sassafras Charley. For weeks the two women had been aiming traditional Six Nations magic at Clothilde Marchand. Its failure must have convinced them of her sorcerous power. The final stroke - a ouija board message from Sassafras Charley - might have pushed others over the edge.
The Jimerson-Bowen trial may not have sensitized the public to Iroquois issues, but it woke them up to the supernaturalism on the reservation. Though there were many Christian Seneca, Handsome Lake’s Longhouse religion was strong, encouraging the old Six Nations traditions (in which wizardry was an active agent). One “expert” testified that an Iroquois would kill his best friend if convinced this was the source of a hex. The sober scholar Arthur C. Parker agreed that the Six Nations took magic for real.
Henri Marchand was a man of suave Gallic manners and great prestige. The papers presumed he was devoted to his family and his work of painting on the Cattaraugus Reservation, where Marchand had many acquaintances. He’d driven his models - among them Lila Jimerson - to various sites. Many Whites concluded that his wife’s murder was moved by infatuation: thinking to marry her husband, Lila Jimerson had Mrs. Marchand killed. It was more complicated than that.
As time and trial went on, Marchand was thoroughly tarnished. A Buffalo paper printed some letters he had written to Lila Jimerson; artist and model had long been more than friends, and Marchand had lied to the police about it. He’d had affairs with more Iroquois women than he could count and more women of all types than he could reliably estimate. He lived the image of the Continental artist, and his Continental wife (if so she expected to remain) was expected to understand.
When chided on the stand about his infidelities, Marchand claimed that he needed clear impressions of the Iroquois women’s breasts for his displays. (A nubile and hopefully accurate little image still in one of Marchand’s dioramas is said to represent Lila.) Iroquois women did not show themselves to men with whom they were not intimate, thus Marchand’s seductions of them served art. [The reaction to this line in the real Buffalo courtroom can only rival that of the Pink Panther’s filmed one - abrupt laughter - as “Inspector Closeau” (Peter Sellers), when asked how his family could live luxuriously on his policeman’s salary, deadpanned that his wife (a jewel-thief unbeknownst) was frugal with the laundry money.]
Occult speculation lent a lurid cast to the newspaper accounts, but it was not the focus of legal matters. Shouts of racism and conspiracy from the women’s defenders would be familiar in the late 1990’s. Caught between state and federal authorities (who sent a formidable team to defend the women), the case became a lightning rod for issues of cross-cultural communication, Native American sovereignty, and the role of religion in it all. Even jury selection was hard, because many prospective jurors refused to consider the death penalty for a woman. It was, after all, a charge of premeditated murder.
It’s hard to form a conviction about the case and the virtual acquittal of the two women. No one doubted that they’d committed the murder, but they were let off with no more punishment than the ordeal of the trials. Maybe the jury regarded the women as so uneducated and superstitious that they knew not what they did; maybe it felt the real culprit was not on trial.
The all-male jury seems to have loathed Marchand’s amorous escapades and sensed it no one else’s fault that something finally blew up. They may even have suspected that Marchand had a hand in provoking the murder. (There were those mysterious letters.) The artist did not flatter his image, having taken another wife - eighteen years old - by the time of the verdicts in 1931. Then again, the jury may have come to believe that the spirit of a Cayuga shaman had driven two women to the murder of one. We grieve for Clothilde, wife, mother, and undoubted victim. The injustices dealt her, alone, are not unclear.