- Historic Sites
Larcenous Mrs. Cody Vs. Pious Miss Gould
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Throughout the summer and fall of 1898 a lady named Margaret E. Cody, aged seventy-five or there-about, was a reluctant guest of the county jail in Albany, New York. Mrs. Cody’s preferred residence was in Denver, Colorado, where she and her long-deceased husband had once been leading citizens.
“I am one of the pioneers of Denver,” she said proudly. “I helped to make that city what it is.”
For a lady of her distinguished background Mrs. Cody was in a most distressing predicament. She was awaiting trial on a charge of having attempted to blackmail George Jay Gould, the eldest son of the financier Jay Gould, who had died six years earlier.
Mrs. Cody, for the better part of her adult life, had been a successful businesswoman with a keen scent for precious metals. Between 1860 and 1880 she had been the proprietress of a series of high-class dry-goods and ladies’-wear establishments in Denver, in the briefly booming towns of Central City and Georgetown, Colorado, and lastly in Virginia City, Nevada, during the heyday of the fabulous Big Bonanza. The elegant fripperies displayed in her stores were irresistible to the camp followers travelling with those rugged individualists who then roamed the West in search of gold or silver or of some personal will-o’-the-wisp they would probably never find. For a period in the sixties and early seventies, when she was operating all three of her Colorado stores at the same time, Mrs. Cody was said to be the richest woman in Denver. But by 1880, when even Virginia City—that queen of all boom towns with its ornate opera house and its scores of luxurious gingerbread mansions—began its swift fade into a ghostly oblivion, Mrs. Cody was getting on in years and she was weary of the chase. She returned to Denver, hoping to find some more restful and less risky occupation that would put to better use the vast accumulation of worldly knowledge stored in her fertile brain. For of the things Mrs. Cody prided herself upon, and there were many, she was especially proud of her astuteness.
“The world has been a school for me,” she liked to say. “It has not left me a fool.”
But for all her worldly wisdom she had—quite unwittingly, of course—permitted herself to be used as a pawn in a vicious scheme, a scheme cunningly contrived to expose Jay Gould as a bigamist. If the plot had been successful, his six unfortunate children would then, of course, have been branded with the dreadful stigma of illegitimacy, to say nothing of being deprived of a substantial part of their vast inheritance. At least that was Mrs. Cody’s story. And incredible as it may seem, she could point out that she was by no means the only one to have been deceived as to the validity of an illiterate woman’s claim to dower rights in the Gould estate. Some half dozen reputable lawyers, victims no doubt of wishful thinking, had swallowed the story whole in one greedy gulp.
The devious plot to defraud the Goulds had been simmering beneath them since early in 1891, almost two years before Jay Gould’s untimely death at the age of fifty-six. In February of that year Mrs. Mary Jane Pierce, a thirty-seven-year-old housewife living in the bleak little coal-mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, had been visited by a tall lady in black and a gentleman sporting a gold-headed cane who had asked a great many personal questions. The lady, who introduced herself as Mrs. Downing, had returned a second time, and had then informed Mrs. Pierce of a startling fact—that she, Mary Jane Pierce, was the daughter of Jay Gould, the great financier. Incredible as this may have seemed, it was not an absolute impossibility. Mrs. Pierce had been put out for adoption as an infant, and though she thought she knew who her mother was, she knew nothing whatever about her father. Her mysterious visitors, before leaving, advised her to obtain her adoption papers from her foster parents and then to await further word.
After talking things over with her husband the happily bewildered Mrs. Pierce had no difficulty convincing herself that her visitors could only have been emissaries from Mr. Gould himself, and she waited euphorically for a wave of that gold-headed cane to produce a miraculous gush of wealth.
When Jay Gould died, in December, 1892, Mrs. Pierce received a cruel awakening from her golden dreams. Her supposed father had made no provision for her in his will. But she did not give up hope by any means; perhaps some discreet arrangement was being made by the family. In July, 1893. she wrote a sisterly letter to Helen Gould. When she received no reply, she interpreted it as a sign that her half brothers and sisters, for selfish reasons of their own, were determined not to recognize her. She was more convinced than ever that Mr. Gould had been her father, and she fumed and fretted as she waited in vain for the reappearance of her mysterious visitors. As time went on Mrs. Pierce’s sad story became widely circulated in saloons and courthouses between Rock Springs, Laramie, and Denver.
Mrs. Cody, by her own account, first heard of Mrs. Pierce in September, 1894. when the Denver Rocky Mountain News published a lengthy interview with Mr. Pierce, who recited his wife’s story—adding a few embellishments of his own—with persuasive confidence.
To be sure, Mrs. Cody had a particular interest in such stories.