On the morning of Dec. 11, 1940, a white woman emerged “drenched and hysterical” from the water near the Bear Gutter Bridge in Greenwich, Conn. She waved down a traveling truck and told police that she had been raped, kidnapped and pushed into the reservoir by her black chauffeur-butler.
Her dress was torn. Her legs and body scraped, she wore no coat, explaining she had managed to pull off her brown sealskin coat in the water, before swimming to safety.
The woman, Eleanor Strubing, then 32, was a former model and the wife of an advertising executive. She told police the chauffeur had attacked while she was bathing, threatening her with a pocket knife and pushing her onto her bed. She claimed he’d raped her four times, bound and gagged her, forced her into her car and then drove her to reservoir.
Hours later, Joseph Spell, then 32, was arrested. The chauffeur confessed to attacking her after 16 hours of questioning by police, but would later deny the charges, saying he and Strubing had a consensual sexual encounter.
Spell’s 1941 trial is the subject of a new movie, “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hudlin, and starring Chadwick Boseman as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
It focuses on a footnote in Marshall’s legendary legal career. He is best known for leading the NAACP legal team in Brown v. Board of Education that led to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision ending school segregation. In 1967, Marshall became the first black man to sit on the Supreme Court.
In 1941, by the time Marshall joined as co-counsel representing the chauffeur, he was on his way to becoming one of the most famous litigators in the country.
His skill in devising legal strategy in hostile courtrooms were nearly mythical. He had traveled more than 50,000 miles a year to work on cases in the South, where black people celebrated when they heard “Thurgood was coming.”
“It was not at all uncommon for Thurgood Marshall to wade into town and take on these obscure unknown cases,” said Wil Haygood, author of “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America.”
“Nothing was more dangerous, as he and the NAACP knew, than a black man having to defend himself against an accusation of sexual assault from a white woman. Because in those cases the whole town would immediately turn against the accused. A black man accused of sexual assault against a white woman … was such an explosive charge that they were immediately vulnerable to being kidnapped from their jail cells and lynched out in the woods.”
Marshall won so many of these cases, Haygood said, “that one can literally become busy trying to create a chronological account of his victories in small towns and large cities alike. Those victories came in the North, West, East and South.”
After a recent screening of “Marshall” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Hudlin explained why he chose to make a movie about the Greenwich trial during a conversation with Haygood.
Hudlin, the former president of Black Entertainment Television, said he was fascinated by the Connecticut trial precisely because the case was so obscure. Hudlin wanted to tell the story of a case that exemplified segregation and racism in a Northern city. He also wanted to capture Marshall’s legal brilliance and his swagger.
The movie captures Marshall’s swagger but not his courtroom eloquence. The judge in the Spell trial ruled that Marshall could assist white attorney Sam Friedman but could not speak in the courtroom. Marshall would be held in contempt if he uttered a single word.
Marshall was known as “the Negro lawyer from the North who could bring spectators to their feet with his words,” according to the Pulitzer-Prize winning book “Devil in the Grove,” by Gilbert King.
During a 1941 murder trial in Oklahoma, Marshall defended W.D. Lyons, a black man falsely accused of three counts of murder. (Lyons said he had confessed but only after he was beaten by police.)
Marshall cross examined a special investigator in the case: “After Marshall’s grilling, the special prosecutor stepped down from the witness stand ‘shaking as though suffering from palsy,’ ” according to “Devil in the Grove.”
“Marshall himself noted, ‘Boy, did I like that. And did the Negroes in the courtroom like it. You can’t imagine what it means to those people down there who have been pushed around for years to know that there is an organization that will help them.’ ”
“No one in the courtroom had ever seen anything like it before: a black man in a Jim Crow state standing up in court and talking to powerful white people without the slightest form of deference — all the while looking them straight in the eyes.”
In the movie, Marshall is relegated to passing notes to Friedman, though it does portray Marshall as the brains in Spell’s legal defense.
The Greenwich case was sensational. A Dec. 12, 1940, headline in the New York Times read: “Mrs. J.K. Strubing Is Kidnapped And Hurled Off Bridge by Butler.” The word alleged was not used to allow for Spell’s potential innocence. The New York Daily News ran a photo of Eleanor Strubing in a bathing suit, next to a photo of Spell.
The case was perfect for the tabloids — a rich white woman accusing her black chauffeur of rape.
Soon after Spell’s arrest, Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary, sent Marshall to Greenwich to make sure the chauffeur received a fair trial. The NAACP retained Samuel Friedman, played by Josh Gad, a Bridgeport, Conn., attorney with limited criminal trial experience. Eleanor Strubing is portrayed by Kate Hudson.
During jury selection on Jan. 21, 1941, Strubing sat “impassively” in the courtroom, according to a 1941 New York Times article. The headline read “10 Jurors Chosen In Strubing Case; Negro Butler Pleads Innocent to Attack on Woman as the Bridgeport Trial Starts.”
When the trial began, witnesses testified how upset Strubing appeared on the bridge. The doctor who examined her had to sedate her. On the second day of the trial, Strubing took the witness stand, testifying that the chauffeur had threatened her with a pocket knife and forced her to write a ransom note.
The Philadelphia Inquirer described her testimony.
“Mrs. Strubing, a slender blonde who looks less than her 32 years, appeared on the verge of hysteria throughout her difficult narration of the events that have brought Joseph Spell, Negro, to trial charged with criminal attack,” the newspaper reported.
During her direct examination by the state’s attorney, Archibald H. Tunick, Strubing “testified, ‘I’m sure he raped me three times. But I can’t remember now. On a stone floor or something. It’s so confused.’ ”
“After finishing her strange story of the nocturnal automobile ride, the kidnap threat and the attempt on her life, the smartly dressed housewife faced insinuating verbal shafts from Samuel A. Friedman, the houseman’s attorney, in cross-examination,” the Inquirer reported.
“Spell is bulwarked by Negro counsel, in addition to his white lawyer, Friedman,” the newspaper wrote. “Thurgood Marshall, attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sat silently at the counsel table all day, occasionally making notes.”
The defense methodically unwound the story, questioning Strubing about the times she said the chauffeur left her when she could have called police. The defense asked why she never screamed. She testified she was gagged. Friedman recreated the gag in the courtroom and asked Strubing whether it was the same way that Spell had allegedly gagged her. She confirmed it was. Friedman then tied material around his mouth and screamed. The sound pierced the courtroom.
During closing arguments, the prosecutor begged the jury to save white women in Connecticut from a “lust-mad Negro.”
“Acquit Spell and you send her forth with a name and reputation shattered and ruined beyond repair. There is no place on this Earth — no spot or hole dark enough that she can find to protect her — if he is acquitted of this crime.”
After 12 hours of deliberation, the jury, of six men and six women, returned with a verdict of not guilty.
By then, Marshall was on a train heading to defend a black man accused of murder in Oklahoma.
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