This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It's fixed format so it's better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website.
My Little Chickadee
“The Defendant is charged with violation of Section 949 of the Penal Law in that on September 13th, 1928, at 11:35 P.M., at 755 Seventh Avenue, the Earl Carroll Theatre, he did carry a bird in his pocket and took the same from his pocket and permitted the bird to fly upon the stage and cause said bird to fall to the floor so as to produce torture.”
— This is from the transcript of The People Of The City Of New York vs. William C. Fields W.C. Fields. Fields pleaded not guilty to torturing the bird.
Officer Harry Moran, attached to the Humane Society, brought the complaint. He testified that Fields took “a bird from his pocket, known as a canary” put it to the chin of a man seated in a chair and released the bird which flew into the air and struck the scenery, fell to the floor, struggled to get up then flew offstage.
This was from a sketch in which Fields played a bungling dentist trying to find the mouth of a man with an enormous bush of a beard. The gag was that a canary concealed in Fields’ hand appeared to fly out of the beard. The bird would fly out over the audience and then backstage.
Moran then went backstage and arrested Fields. Moran and his partner took Fields and the bird in a cage to the West 47th St. station. Fields posted $500 bail and was arraigned the following morning at the Seventh District Magistrates’ Court. The trial began immediately after.
When asked by Field’s attorney why he arrested him instead of issuing a summons, Moran said “The Code reads, ‘summons or arrest,’ and I placed him under arrest.”
The bird in its cage was introduced into evidence. The judge noted “The bird evidently is dead now” and asked Moran when it had died. Moran said that he had noticed the bird gasping and took a cab to a veterinary hospital and the bird died on the way.
Both Moran and his partner Jacob Jacobs each testified that he had seen the bird hit the scenery and fall to the floor.
The property manager of the theater in charge taking care of the birds testified that there were a number of birds used in the act and that they were well cared for and this was the first one they had lost. He said he had witnessed the bird flying out of the beard and said it did not hit the scenery. He also said that Moran’s partner Jacobs had dropped the cage with the bird in it outside the theater. Jacobs had earlier denied that he had dropped the cage.
Then another witness who had been at the theater also testified that the bird did not hit the scenery. He had gone along to the station house with Fields. He said that Moran had originally charged Fields with torturing a sparrow, which Moran had earlier denied.
He testified that the officers had posed for photographers outside the police station. Photographers in those days used flash powder in an open tray which produced thick acrid smoke and the witness said that the smoke from the flash had blown into the bird cage being held up for the photo.
“There is not a scintilla of proof that the bird was tortured,” the judge said. He recounted testimony that the birds were well cared for, that none had ever had any problems, that the cage was dropped, and that smoke had blown into its cage. He also chastised Moran for arresting Fields rather than just issuing a summons.
“The bird did not die from any act on the part of this Defendant, William C. Fields, nor did the bird suffer any torture at his hands, whatsoever. Therefore, I find the Defendant not guilty, and he is acquitted,” the judge ruled.
Copyright © Joseph Mirsky 2015