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.
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.
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?
Mrs. Cody was subjected to nearly three days of cross-examination by De Lancy Nicoll, the most voracious of the Could legal sharks. Mr. Nicoll, a former district attorney of New York City, was noted for his ability to browbeat and gobble up hostile witnesses. Though Mrs. Cody fainted once and Mr. Nicoll was so unkind as to suggest that her faint might be feigned, she came out of her ordeal still spitting. Her sharp replies brought titters of amusement from the ladies of Albany, and there was at least one exchange Mr. Nicoll himself would not forget:
Q. Now, you never studied law, did you, Mrs. Cody?
A. No, sir; I have not; I don’t want to, nor wouldn’t want a child of mine to study it.
Speaking for the defense, Mr. Dugan had a rhetorical field day in his closing remarks to the jury, caustically sneering at the credibility of witnesses for the state and vigorously insinuating that they had been shamelessly bribed by the Goulds. He ended his remarks on an ominously cryptic note: “It looks to me, gentlemen,” he confided, “as if this prosecution was brought to deter Mrs. Cody and others from bringing honest claims against the Gould estate.”
What bothered the prosecution, however, was not so much Mr. Dugan’s insinuations as it was a noticeable shift in public sympathy, as the trial progressed, from the noble Miss Gould to the ignoble Mrs. Cody. The anxiety caused by this inexplicable change was dramatically expressed by John T. Cook, an assistant D.A., in his summing up for the state. With a gallant gesture toward Miss Gould, who had been busily taking notes and conferring with counsel throughout the trial, Mr. Cook declaimed, “Is there anyone here who believes for a moment that this noble, patriotic, charitable woman is here for the purpose of prosecuting this old woman?”
Mr. Cook could hardly have been accused of exaggerating Miss Gould’s sterling virtues. Only the day before, Congress had voted to bestow upon her a specially minted gold medal “in recognition of the patriotic devotion and bounteous benevolence of Miss Helen Miller Gould to the soldiers of the army of the United States during the war with Spain.”
Twenty-five increasingly long hours after the jury marched out to weigh the evidence, twelve weary men trudged back and informed Judge Gregory that it was impossible for them to reach a verdict. The first ballot had been eight to four for conviction. Eleven ballots later it was nine to three against Mrs. Cody, but there was no prospect whatever that the dissenting trio would ever bow to the will of the majority.
The outcome of the trial, though inconclusive, was a personal triumph for Patrick Dugan and Newton Van Derzee, and Albany was proud of them. The Albany Times-Union , expressing what it believed to be the opinion of most of the local citizens, said that the honor of the Goulds should now be satisfied and that the charge against Mrs. Cody should be dropped. But the Goulds, frustrated and embarrassed, were more determined than ever that Mrs. Cody must be punished, and she was remanded to jail to await a second trial.
It began on March a, 1899. Miss Gould was as devout as ever in her attendance, and the display of millinery by the ladies of Albany was again superb. It was soon evident, however, that the prosecution had realigned its forces. Mr. Nicoll and the other mercenary troops from New York City were now relegated to the rear, and the district attorney’s office was firmly in command. Even Miss Gould kept her pad and pencil out of sight.
A change in strategy was also apparent as Peter A. Delaney, an eloquent assistant D.A., made the opening remarks for the state. Mr. Delaney unblushingly tempted the jury with the alluring suggestion that they could find Mrs. Cody guilty without necessarily consigning her to prison. The penal code of the state of New York demanded no minimum sentence in criminal cases; consequently, as he carefully explained, “His Honor … might, if his wise judicial judgment should lead him in that direction, altogether suspend sentence. …” The happy results of a verdict of guilty would be, first, to rid the district attorney of Miss Gould and then, with her sentence suspended by the kind grace of Judge Gregory, to rid Albany of Mrs. Cody.
Judge Melville E. Brown, whose allegations at the first trial had proved so awkward to Mrs. Cody’s case, again made the long trip east from Laramie to repeat his testimony at the second trial (though the Goulds ungenerously knocked down his emolument from five hundred dollars to four hundred). But this time his star billing was dimmed by new revelations that could not be explained away, even by the skillful Messrs. Dugan and Van Derzee. The new evidence was a smudged little packet of letters Mrs. Cody had written to an old Denver crony of hers named Mrs. Beebe. The contents of the letters would, to use one of Mrs. Cody’s own favorite expressions, “throw her higher than a kite.” It was Mrs. Beebe who, on the promise of a handsome share in the loot, had financed the original research and development of Mrs. Pierce’s paternity. Even after Mrs. Cody had realized that Mrs. Angell’s claim for dower rights was doomed, she continued to nurse Mrs. Beebe’s greedy hopes by reporting in glowing terms on the progress of her investigation. In one letter Mrs. Cody’s technique for obtaining suitable evidence was cynically revealed: ”… one person who told me he knew nothing,” she confided, ”… when he received f 100 … knew more than I did.”
Mr. Van Derzee did his best to minimize the importance of the Beebe letters. “She wrote a great many letters to people all over the country,” he said as cheerfully as he could. “She is a great letter writer.” But Mrs. Cody’s propensity for writing letters had finally come home to roost. Her pose of being the innocent pawn of a sinister conspiracy was shattered, and the effectiveness of the other testimony against her was greatly enhanced. Although it never came out at the trial who the tall lady in black and the gentleman with the gold-headed cane had been—if in fact they had existed at all —it was clearly established that Mrs. Cody was busily involved in other aspects of the plot. It was she who had obtained a false baptismal certificate for Mrs. Pierce, and it was also shown that she had browbeaten Mrs. Angell into giving her a half interest in the mythical dower rights.
When the case went to the jury, the prosecution was confident of a speedy verdict. But eight hours dragged by in mounting anxiety for Miss Gould and her entourage, to say nothing of the district attorney and his staff. In the jury room another stubborn trio was holding out. The first ballot was eight to three for conviction, with one undecided. Only after six more ballots was the jury able to bring in a verdict of guilty, tempered with a strong recommendation of mercy. The nudging hint that Mr. Delaney had injected into his opening remarks for the state about judicial discretion may have spared Albany a continued affliction of Mrs. Cody.
Before pronouncing sentence Judge Gregory asked Mrs. Cody if she had anything to say. “Yes,” she replied. “I am innocent.”
“Mrs. Cody,” said the judge, “the evidence has convinced me that you are guilty beyond question, yet I feel that, in view of the jury’s unanimous recommendation to mercy and the popular sentiment which favors it, I am justified in following their suggestion and suspending sentence. … You are free to go.”
The attorneys for both sides congratulated each other, and everyone seemed pleased with the outcome—with one notable exception. Helen Gould was so incensed by Judge Gregory’s judicial bow to popular sentiment that she promptly expressed her displeasure in a curt and imperious statement to the press. “In the interests of truth,” it read, “Miss Gould desires to contradict emphatically the assertion that she either suggested or approved suspending the sentence in Mrs. Cody’s case.”
The irrational shift in public sympathy from the noble Miss Gould to an obviously malicious and reprehensible old scalawag is a classic example of the ill effects that may follow upon an overindulgence in virtue. Miss Gould’s overwhelming display of sterling qualities, seemingly unmitigated by the slightest flaw, when combined with the capricious tendency of ordinary mortals to side with the underdog, was too much for the public conscience to bear. The New York Tribune , nevertheless, did not desert Miss Gould in the face of popular sentiment. In a glowing editorial it paid tribute to her heroic persistence in bringing Mrs. Cody to justice. “She has vindicated the honor of her parents,” said the Tribune , “and made every honest man and woman in all the land far more secure against the attack of one of the most insidious and detestable of crimes.”
In retrospect, and from a less sanctimonious pedestal, however, it would seem more likely that the eventual decline in this ghoulish form of blackmail was due, in good part at least, to the gradual acceptance of more realistic moral standards. Those doting daughters “whose heart-strings will break” at the prospect of having paternal sexual escapades exposed vanished with the chaperon and the “family entrance” to the corner saloon.
Before boarding a train for Denver, Mrs. Cody vowed to live out her remaining years quietly and peaceably. But she was never able to suppress her interest in the Goulds, and in April, 1905, she popped up in the news again. “The Gould case is not yet settled,” she told reporters in Denver. “The next act will be played in New York within a few months’ time.” The wheels of her devious old mind were spinning a new web.
But that was Mrs. Cody’s last fling. Less than two months later—“Leaving Wealth and Mystery Behind,” according to a headline in the Denver News —she died alone in a room cluttered with trunks and boxes “said to contain many valuables” as well as the relics of what the Goulds’ lawyer Mr. Nicoll had once snidely called “your busy life.” She would have been pleased by her obituary notices. Although fantastically garbled versions of her involvement with the Goulds were given, no mention was made of her extended visit to the Albany county jail. One notice in particular would have delighted her for the social and financial prestige it accorded her. “A noted character of Denver since the early pioneer days, scarcely less well-known than her nephew, Buffalo Bill,” it read, “Mrs. Cody was once very wealthy and well-known among the members of the early exclusive social circles.”