- Historic Sites
Larcenous Mrs. Cody Vs. Pious Miss Gould
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Back in 1880 she had helped her husband’s famous nephew, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, settle a dispute over his grandfather’s estate. Finding at that time that she had a talent and a liking for work of this nature, she had set herself up as what she called “a specialist in estate work.” Thus years later when she read of Mrs. Pierce’s strange plight, it aroused a professional interest, and she immediately wrote to offer her services. “If there is anything I can do in getting witnesses and preparing them for you, as I am unincumbered, I would be most happy to do so,” she assured Mrs. Pierce. After a lengthy exchange of correspondence and references the previously “unincumbered” Mrs. Cody went to work with her customary zeal.
By the time of her arrest in New York City on May 13, 1898, however, the Gould case was a closed book as far as Mrs. Cody was concerned, and she was about to sail for London on an entirely different estate matter. Furthermore, she was shocked to learn that her indictment was based solely upon what she had intended to be a friendly letter. On February 11, 1896, more than two years prior to her somewhat belated indictment by an Albany County grand jury, she had written to Mr. George Jay Gould as follows:
I am the person who has unearthed the woman who is supposed to be your father’s first wife. Her daughter Mrs. Pierce … solicited me … to go and find her mother. … Mrs. Pierce, as I understand, has five lawyers engaged to set your father’s will aside. … I do not want to be instrumental in bringing such a scandal on your family. The Scripture says “Scandal may come but woe unto them through whom it cometh.” … Without me they can do nothing. If you desire to see me, and I assure you it is in my power to stop this whole affair, I am at present in Albany and I shall meet you … wherever you name.
Although Mrs. Cody’s letter contained no overt threats or demands for money, it sounded to the Goulds about as friendly as the wings of a vulture flapping overhead, and George made no reply. “The woman who is supposed to be your father’s first wife,” Mrs. Mary Angell, had, in fact, already filed suit in New York State Supreme Court to secure her dower rights, and the Goulds were not in the best of humor. While they recognized that the annoyance of being charged with illegitimacy was one of the petty trials incident to their position, they were incensed by the aspersions cast on the good names of their deceased parents. Instead of relying on Mrs. Cody’s biblically inspired wish to evade woe the Goulds unleashed an army of detectives and lawyers. Obtaining conclusive evidence against a claim such as Mrs. Angell’s was not as simple as it might seem. But finally, in August, 1897, shortly before the suit for dower rights was due for trial, Mrs. Angell broke down and confessed that she had never so much as seen Jay Gould. Her abashed lawyer, who had apparently believed in the validity of her claim, thereupon moved that the case be dismissed.
If the scenario had followed the usual late-nineteenth-century pattern, that would have been the end of it. The Goulds, with exasperated sighs of relief, would have returned to their devoted absorption in the problems of being wealthy men and women. And the masterminds behind the plot—no richer for their efforts—would have been allowed to crawl back into their lairs to wait for less formidable victims. The seeming leniency that prevailed at this time was not entirely due to indifference on the part of the intended victims nor even to laxity of the public officials whose duty it was to prosecute such crimes. It was seldom easy to lay hands on the real villains—the deluded Mrs. Pierces and the pliable Mrs. Angells were mere pawns not worth bothering about—and even when they could be ferreted out, the shadowy nature of the crime made it difficult to obtain convictions. Most families, also, were only too happy to avoid any further exposure of the foibles, real or fictitious, of husbands and parents. The Goulds, however, were not most families; the private lives of their father and mother had been, they were certain, irreproachable.
“This scheme of fabricating widows for dead men is not a new one,” said the New York Tribune in an angry editorial urging the Goulds that it was not only their personal but their civic duty to track down and punish the scoundrels who had concocted the foul plot to tarnish their parents’ name. “The business of blackmailing dead men’s estates has gone far enough. No man’s good name or his property … is safe from attack if crime of this kind is not punished. It is not enough to drive off the robbers. They should be followed and caught.”
The Tribune cited other recent instances of flagrantly fabricated widows, one of them especially shocking to its prim editors—the alleged widow turned out to be “a woman of low character … who was picked up in a saloon by the conspirators and employed for the service.” What was most disturbing, however, was that the cases made public were only the visible portion of a malignant growth in the social body. Festering beneath the surface were many more in which the victims, pitifully anxious to conceal the possible and, only too often, the probable peccadillos of deceased husbands and fathers, paid off without a whimper.