Larcenous Mrs. Cody Vs. Pious Miss Gould


The vicious epidemic of blackmailing bereaved wives and children that had so aroused the Tribune was due in part to the enormous rise in the number of substantial estates that were accumulated during the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was also a time when moral standards were inflated by excessive amounts of pious gentility, which provided the blackmailer with an ideal climate for the cultivation of prospects.

Despite the Tribune’s stirring call to arms, however, the case might still have been dropped in the customary fashion. Judge John Dillon, the Gould family lawyer, was apparently reluctant to proceed with it. Demolishing Mrs. Angell’s incredible story had already cost the Gould estate nearly fifty thousand dollars, and Judge Dillon was apprehensive not only of the additional expense but of the legal pitfalls that might be encountered. Failure to win a conviction would be a mortifying calamity. George and Edwin, the elder sons, engrossed in a constant struggle to keep the rickety Gould empire from being dismembered by hostile bands of railroad moguls, might have been tempted to follow Judge Dillon’s prudent counsel. But sister Helen would not hear of it.

Kind and generous and unassuming though Helen Gould was, and shy and timid though she may have appeared, the instigator or instigators of the plot had erred fatally in casting her for the role of the hysterically doting daughter who would submit meekly to their demands. Where her father was concerned, little Miss Gould could be as fierce as a tigress, and she was determined that someone must be punished for the foul aspersions on his good name. To her mind Mrs. Cody was the perfect choice. Not only had Mrs. Gody had the audacity to write the vile letter on which she was indicted, she had written other letters, both to George and to Helen herself, that were filled with despicable references to “your father’s first wife” and to “your half-sister Mrs. Pierce.”

But Mrs. Cody turned out to be a tough morsel. Even the legal sharks brought in by the Goulds to bolster the prosecution found her a bit indigestible. And her defense was skillfully handled by Patrick G. Dugan and Newton B. Van Derzee, two brash young Albany lawyers who never for a moment let the jury forget that the Gould millions were arrayed on the side of the state against a destitute but proud old lady.

The case of The People of the State of New York v. Margaret E. Cody came up for trial on November 29, 1898, before Judge Clifford D. Gregory. For the ladies of Albany it was the social event of the season, and they turned out in coveys to brighten the county court-house with a display of exotic millinery. By contrast the defendant, draped in shabby widow’s weeds and grimly clutching a tattered umbrella, appeared more pathetic than sinister.

The purely legal aspects of the case were deceptively simple. The sole issue at trial was Mrs. Cody’s intent on February 11, 1896, when she wrote the letter to George Jay Gould on which she had been indicted. Did her offer to help the Goulds avoid the shame of illegitimacy constitute a threat of exposure made to extort money in return for her silence? Or was she, as Messrs. Dugan and Van Derzee would argue, acting in good faith as agent for her clients, Mrs. Pierce and Mrs. Angell, and merely attempting to effect a compromise settlement of Mrs. Angell’s then pending suit for dower rights in the estate of the late Jay Gould? Though Mrs. Cody’s letter invoking the Scriptures was ambiguous, if she was aware at the time of writing it that Mrs. Angell’s claim was false, then she was not acting in good faith and was guilty as charged.

The prosecution presented numerous witnesses whose testimony seemed to prove that Mrs. Cody had at all times been aware of the fraudulent nature of Mrs. Angell’s claim, for the excellent reason that it was she who had persuaded a reluctant Mrs. Angell that the scheme was feasible. For instance, there was Judge Melville E. Brown, perhaps the state’s star attraction. He was a frontier statesman from Laramie, Wyoming, who had originally been engaged by Mrs. Pierce to protect her mythical filial interests. Judge Brown testified that when, in the presence of Mrs. Cody, he interviewed Mrs. Angell in July of 1895, she denied ever having told Mrs. Cody or anyone else that she had been married to Jay Gould. She had never even heard of the gentleman, she claimed, until Mrs. Cody came along and told her that if she would sign some papers and keep her mouth shut, she could make some money out of it. Judge Brown ended his testimony by saying that he returned to Wyoming and told his client, Mrs. Pierce, to forget about being Jay Gould’s daughter.

Messrs. Dugan and Van Derzee worked hard to vitiate Judge Brown’s testimony; they stressed the undeniable, if somewhat irrelevant, fact that a number of reputable attorneys also had apparently been deceived by the validity of Mrs. Angell’s claim. There was, for example, Amasa J. Parker, Jr., scion of a family long distinguished in Albany legal and social circles. The unimpeachable Mr. Parker, they demonstrated, had been so convinced that the claim was legitimate and so eager to handle the case that he had paid Mrs. Cody’s expenses for several months while she scoured the countryside searching for additional evidence. If the esteemed Mr. Parker could be hoodwinked, why not Mrs. Cody?