From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 46, No. 1, March 2010
The following article was written by Barbara Cook, the Town Historian for Tolland, and published in the October 2009 issue of Tolland Monthly. She has graciously granted us permission to reprint it. It concerns a murder that took place at Wormwood Hill and the subsequent trial and conviction of writer Leonard Cline. He served his sentence in the Tolland Jail, now home to the Tolland Historical Society. The information comes from various newspaper articles as well as interviews with Cline’s biographer, Douglas A. Anderson.
In 1922, Leonard Cline was a 29-year-old poet, short-story writer and journalist of great promise. Married at 20, he had published his first book of poems at 21. The couple soon had a son and a daughter. But undisciplined and somewhat reckless in both personal and professional behavior, he was soon divorced by his first wife, apparently for excessive drinking and adultery.
His work appeared in a variety of magazines, and he worked for many of the country’s leading newspapers, reviewing music, books, art and drama. He even worked for H. L. Mencken for a while, and became a friend and correspondent, though he broke with Mencken and later caricatured him in his second novel. He published novels in 1925 and 1926, and sent a third to his publisher early in 1927. He skillfully translated foreign language books, and spoke five languages. Although he had a taste for dark and gothic fiction, his future as a writer seemed assured.
By then he had remarried, moved back to New York and purchased for a retreat a farm in Mansfield that he called Chicory Hill. He was leaving the newspaper business behind for full time writing.
In the spring of 1927, he was joined at the farm by his friend Wilfred Irwin. Like Cline, Irwin loved the theater and loved drinking. In fact, he came to stay with Cline to recover from his drinking problem. He had come to the wrong place.
Irwin’s wife came to the farm with him and they apparently had a pleasant and uneventful stay. But Mrs. Irwin returned home, and during a bout of drinking in early May Irwin administered a beating to his host, who had him arrested, but bailed him out the next day. Cline purchased a shotgun.
On May 16 they quarreled again and, probably in self defense, Cline shot Irwin with the shotgun. Rushed to the hospital in Willimantic by his friend, who also gave a pint and a half of his blood, Irwin himself made a statement that he had been shot in a drunken quarrel. He died several hours later.
Irwin’s wife was convinced the shooting was accidental and related to drinking. Irwin’s brother said that he had been unstable. It was said by the defense that Irwin had fired the shotgun four times at Cline, who had then seized the gun and fired the fatal shot.
The state police version was that Cline had fired all the shots. And at the arraignment, the coroner withheld all of Irwin’s deathbed statement. Cline was bound over for criminal court, charged with first degree murder. In 1927, the penalty in Connecticut was still to be hanged by the neck until dead.
He entered a plea of not guilty. Sent to jail [in Tolland] to await his court date, Cline was despondent, passing most of the time in silent brooding. Jailer A. Esten Clough allowed him to occupy a room on the second floor sometimes used as a hospital for those prisoners who had to be segregated from the general population. The state’s attorney agreed that he should be furnished with a typewriter there and allowed to use it under the eye of a state police guard during limited hours. During this period he actually did little writing, but his third novel was published.
In September the trial began with four days of highly publicized jury selection. 130 men were originally impaneled, and from that number only ten jurors had been seated. But with a jury finally in place, a surprise plea bargain was reached. Cline entered a plea of guilty to a charge of manslaughter, a misdemeanor charge, in exchange for a year at Tolland Jail and a $1000 fine. Many in the courtroom felt relief. The wives of killer and victim embraced.
Irwin’s brother shook Cline’s hand.
Cline seemed relieved. “I would rather spend ten years in Clough’s Jail,” Cline said, “than a year in the state’s prison.”
While back in jail, after his second wife had deserted him, Cline also wrote a long poem, “After-Walker,” about a mythological demon which takes possession of a dead human body and uses it for a while. It was possibly his lowest moment. His biographer, Douglas A. Anderson, postulates that something within him had died when he took the life of his friend. The outspoken atheist, raised as a Catholic, worked on his fourth novel, and in the process re-embraced Catholicism.
After sentencing Cline kept the privilege of his infirmary room and typewriter, but slept, ate and worked in the general population. Free from the constraints of being bound over for trial, he described his new routine: “Up in the morning at 5:30 we would dress, each in his small stone cell, unlighted and without windows. Fifteen minutes later the big door would clang open and we would go out to work. There is neither lock-step nor prison stripes in Tolland Jail.” He tended the furnace, helped in the kitchen, chopped wood and acted as errand boy. Apparently well liked by the other inmates, he was nicknamed “the doctor,” and appeared much more content.
He wrote a ten-page article, “Jail Hill,” published in Plain Talk… It is a delightfully written, probably slightly more truth than fiction, account of the people he met in jail, humorous and yet compassionate.
Suffering a minor “nervous collapse” in April, he was again permitted to sleep in the infirmary, but kept up his job duties in daytime.
His financial problems worsened, and in order to save his farm he began to write pulp fiction under the pseudonym Alan Forsyth, publishing short stories and detective novels in various pulp magazines.
Released after ten months, Cline returned to his farm, where he was joined by his first ex-wife and later his children. Planning remarriage, the family spent the summer looking forward to happier times.
In January, alone in New York after having been offered a job at Time magazine by Henry Luce, he hosted a party at his Greenwich Village apartment, complaining during the evening of chest pains.
Five days later, friends requested the landlord to open the door, as Cline had not been seen again after the party. He was dead, of heart failure, at 35.
Tolland County Sheriff Fred O. Vinton had pronounced him “The finest type of prisoner ever tried for murder in my recollection.” Fame has not treated his work so kindly, and he is little known or read today.