January 23, 2013
Ida Wood never had any intention of renewing contact with the outside world, but on March 5, 1931, death made it necessary. At four o’clock that afternoon, the 93-year-old did something she hadn’t done in 24 years of living at the Herald Square Hotel: she voluntarily opened the door, craned her neck down the corridor, and called for help.
“Maid, come here!” she shouted. “My sister is sick. Get a doctor. I think she’s going to die.”
Over the next 24 hours various people filtered in and out of room 552: the hotel manager, the house physician of the nearby Hotel McAlpin and an undertaker, who summoned two lawyers from the venerable firm of O’Brien, Boardman, Conboy, Memhard & Early. The body of Ida’s sister, Miss Mary E. Mayfield, lay on the couch in the parlor, covered with a sheet. The room was crammed with piles of yellowed newspapers, cracker boxes, balls of used string, stacks of old wrapping paper and several large trunks. One of the lawyers, Morgan O’Brien Jr., began questioning hotel employees, trying to assemble the puzzle of this strange and disheveled life.
The manager said he had worked at the hotel for seven years and had never seen Ida Wood or her deceased sister. His records indicated that they had moved into the two-room suite in 1907, along with Ida’s daughter, Miss Emma Wood, who died in a hospital in 1928 at the age of 71. They always paid their bills in cash. The fifth-floor maid said she hadn’t gotten into the sisters’ suite at all, and only twice had persuaded the women to hand over soiled sheets and towels and accept clean ones through a crack in the door. A bellhop said that for many years it had been his habit to knock on the door once a day and ask the ladies if they wanted anything. They requested the same items every time: evaporated milk, crackers, coffee, bacon and eggs—which were cooked in a makeshift kitchenette in the bathroom—and occasionally fish, which they ate raw. Ida always tipped ten cents, telling him that money was the last she had in the world. From time to time they also requested Copenhagen snuff, Havana cigars and jars of petroleum jelly, which Ida massaged onto her face for several hours each day. She was five feet tall and 70 pounds, nearly deaf and stooped like a question mark, but her face still bore clear evidence of its former beauty. “You could see what an extraordinarily pretty woman she once was,” O’Brien noted. “Her complexion, in spite of her age, was as creamy and pink and unwrinkled as any I have ever seen. It was like tinted ivory. Her profile was like a lovely cameo.” She hadn’t had a bath in years.
As the undertaker prepared her sister’s body just a few feet away, Ida Wood suddenly grew talkative. She said she had been a celebrated belle in the South and a prominent socialite in the North. Her husband was Benjamin Wood, the brother of Fernando Wood, former mayor of New York and perennial congressman. She had, despite her complaints to the bellhop, a good deal of cash stashed in her bedroom.
At first they all thought she was senile.
O’Brien called his elderly father, who confirmed at least part of her story. When he was a lawyer in the 1880s, he said, he had known Ida Wood quite well, both professionally and socially. She had been known for both her beauty and her business sense, and was indeed the widow of Benjamin Wood, erstwhile owner of the New York Daily News and brother of the mayor. He doubted she was destitute, and encouraged his son to take her case regardless of her ability to pay.
The younger lawyer obliged and began looking into Ida’s finances. A representative from Union Pacific revealed that the sisters owned about $175,000 worth of stock and had not cashed their dividends for a dozen years. Examining the sale of the New York Daily News, O’Brien learned that Ida had sold the paper in 1901 to the publisher of the New York Sun for more than $250,000. An old acquaintance reported that she sold all of the valuable possessions she’d acquired over the years—furniture, sculptures, tapestries, oil paintings. An officer at the Guaranty Trust Company remembered Ida coming to the bank in 1907, at the height of the financial panic, demanding the balance of her account in cash and stuffing all of it, nearly $1 million, into a netted bag. Declaring she was “tired of everything,” she checked into the Herald Square Hotel and disappeared, effectively removing herself from her own life.
Ida first came to New York in 1857, when she was 19 and determined to become someone else. She listened to gossip and studied the society pages, finding frequent mention of Benjamin Wood, a 37-year-old businessman and politician. Knowing they would never cross paths in the ordinary course of events, she composed a letter on crisp blue stationery:
May 28, 1857
Having heard of you often, I venture to address you from hearing a young lady, one of your ‘former loves,’ speak of you. She says you are fond of ‘new faces.’ I fancy that as I am new in the city and in ‘affairs de coeur’ that I might contract an agreeable intimacy with you; of as long duration as you saw fit to have it. I believe that I am not extremely bad looking, nor disagreeable. Perhaps not quite as handsome as the lady with you at present, but I know a little more, and there is an old saying—‘Knowledge is power.’ If you would wish an interview address a letter to No. [excised] Broadway P O New York stating what time we may meet.
Although Benjamin Wood was married, to his second wife, Delia Wood, he did wish an interview, and was pleasantly surprised to find someone who wasn’t “bad looking” at all: Ida was a slight girl with long black hair and sad, languorous eyes. She told him she was the daughter of Henry Mayfield, a Louisiana sugar planter, and Ann Mary Crawford, a descendant of the Earls of Crawford. Ida became his mistress immediately and his wife ten years later, in 1867, after Delia died. They had a daughter, Emma Wood, on whom they doted. No one dwelled on the fact that she had been born before they wed.
As the consort and then wife of Benjamin Wood, Ida had access to New York’s social and cultural elite. She danced with the Prince of Wales during his 1860 visit to the city. Less than a year later she met Abraham Lincoln, who stopped in New York on his way from Illinois to Washington as president-elect. Reporters called her “a belle of New Orleans” and admired the “bright plumage and fragile beauty that made her remarkable even in the parasol age.” Every afternoon around four o’clock, attended by two liveried footmen, she went for a carriage ride, calling for Benjamin at the Manhattan Club. He emerged right away and joined her. She sat rigidly beside him, tilting her fringed parasol against the sun, and together they rode along Fifth Avenue.
There was one significant divide between them: Ida excelled at saving money, but Ben was a careless spender and avid gambler. He played cards for very high stakes, once even wagering the Daily News; luckily he won that hand. He often wrote letters to Ida apologizing for his gambling habits, signing them, “unfortunately for you, your husband, Ben.” The next day he would be back at John Morrissey’s gambling hall on lower Broadway, where he won and lost large sums at roulette. Once he woke Ida up, spread $100,000 across their bed, and giddily insisted she count it.
Ida devised methods for dealing with Ben’s addiction, often waiting outside the club so that if he won she was on hand to demand her share. If he lost, she charged him for making her wait. She promised not to interfere with his gambling as long as he gave her half of everything he won and absorbed all losses himself. When he died in 1900, the New York Times wrote, “It was said yesterday that Mr. Wood possessed no real estate and that his personal property was of small value”—a true statement, in a sense, since everything he’d owned was now in Ida’s name.
In the course of reconstructing Ida’s eventful life, O’Brien sent another member of his law firm, Harold Wentworth, back to the Herald Square Hotel. Harold brought Ida fresh roses every day. Sometimes she stuck them in a tin can of water; other times she snapped off their buds and tossed them over her shoulder. The firm also hired two private detectives to take the room next door and keep a 24-hour watch over her. While Ida smoked one of her slender cigars, slathered her face with petroleum jelly, and complained she couldn’t hear, Harold shouted at her about uncashed dividend checks, hoarded cash, the possibility of robbery and how she really should let the maid come in to clean the rooms.
Although Harold tried to be discreet, word about the rich recluse of Herald Square got around. One day a man named Otis Wood came to the firm’s office, identified himself as a son of Fernando Wood’s and a nephew of Ida’s, and said he would like to help her. The firm took him, his three brothers and several of their children as clients. Soon afterward, Benjamin Wood’s son from his first marriage and some of his children came forward and hired their own firm, Talley & Lamb. They all seemed to agree that the best way to help Ida was to have her declared incompetent, which, in September 1931, she was.
With the help of two nurses, and in the presence of members of both factions of the Wood family, Ida was moved to a pair of rooms directly below the ones she had occupied for so many years. She wept as they escorted her downstairs. “Why?” she asked. “I can take care of myself.” Her old suite was searched and inside an old shoebox they found $247,200 in cash, mostly in $1,000 and $5,000 bills. They thought that was all of it until the following day, when a nurse tunneled a hand up Ida’s dress while she slept and retrieved an oilcloth pocket holding $500,000 in $10,000 bills.
Next they examined Ida’s 54 trunks, some stored in the basement of the hotel, others in an uptown warehouse. Inside lay bolts of the finest lace from Ireland, Venice and Spain; armfuls of exquisite gowns, necklaces, watches, bracelets, tiaras and other gem-encrusted pieces; several $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 gold certificates dating back to the 1860s; a gold-headed ebony stick (a Wood family heirloom that had been a gift from President James Monroe), and an 1867 letter from Charles Dickens to Benjamin Wood. Each trunk was taken to the Harriman National Bank, where the contents were placed in vaults. In an old box of stale crackers they discovered a diamond necklace worth $40,000. They dug up her sister’s coffin and the undertaker inspected its contents, finding nothing but Mary Mayfield’s remains. There was not much left to do except wait for Ida Wood to die.
In that regard, as in everything else, Ida proved stubborn. Reporters, as yet unaware of brothers Homer and Langley Collyer living in similar squalor in Harlem, descended upon her hotel room. Her mind wandered from the past to the present but remained ever suspicious and alert. When nurses brought her food she asked, “How much did this cost?” If the answer was more than a dollar, she pushed it away and said, “It’s too much. Take it back. I won’t eat it.” On several occasions, when the nurses weren’t looking, she shuffled to a partly opened window and tried to scream above the roaring traffic of Herald Square: “Help! Help! I’m a prisoner. Get me out of here!” Other times she treated the nurses as her confidantes, sharing what they believed were cherished memories. “I’m a Mayfield,” she told them. “They used to spell it M-a-i-f-i-e-l-d in the old days, you know. I grew up in the city of New Orleans, a wonderful city.… My mother had a very good education, you know. She spoke German, Spanish and Italian, and she wanted me to be educated too, so she sent me to boarding school in New Orleans.”
Letters from these Southern relatives, the Mayfields, began to pour in, but Ida was too blind to read herself. Crawfords also jockeyed for attention, all of them ready to prove their ancestry to a branch of the Earls of Crawford. One missive addressed Ida as “Dear Aunt Ida” and promised to take care of her. She claimed to be the “daughter of Lewis Mayfield.” The nurse who read the letter to Ida asked if she knew the writer, and Ida replied that she never heard of her. All told, 406 people claimed to be her heirs.
By now Ida, too, was waiting for her death. She didn’t bother to dress, wearing her nightgown and ragged slippers all day, and stopped battling any attempt to take her temperature. She had nothing left but the exquisite fantasy she’d created, one that—to her mind, at least—had seemed more right and true with each passing year. Only after she died, on March 12, 1932, did all of the lawyers and supposed relatives unravel the mystery of her life: Her father wasn’t Henry Mayfield, prominent Louisiana sugar planter, but Thomas Walsh, a poor Irish immigrant who had settled in Malden, Massachusetts, in the 1840s. Her mother had little formal education and grew up in the slums of Dublin. Ida’s real name was Ellen Walsh, and when she was in her teens she adopted the surname Mayfield because she liked the sound of it. Her sister Mary took the name too. Emma Wood, her daughter with Benjamin Wood, wasn’t her daughter at all, but another sister. Her husband never divulged her secrets.
Toward the end, when the shades were drawn and the tattered lace curtains pulled tight, Ida shared one final memory. When she was a young girl she noticed a sign in a storefront window: “Your Future and Fortune Told.” She saved up the money for a consultation. In the dingy parlor, the old gypsy seer traced rough fingertips over her palms and spoke in dulcet tones. “My dear,” she said, “you are going to be a very lucky girl. You are going to marry a rich man, and get everything you want out of this life.” Ida believed it was true—and that, at least, they could never take away.
Joseph A. Cox, The Recluse of Herald Square. New York: the MacMillan Company, 1964; Benjamin Wood and Menahem Blondheim, Copperhead Gore: Benjamin Wood’s Fort Lafayette and Civil War America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
St. Clair McKelway, “The Rich Recluse of Herald Square.” The New Yorker, October 31, 1953; “Recluse Hid $1,000,000 in Her Hotel Room.” New York Times, March 13, 1932; “406 Claimants Out As Ida Wood Heirs.” New York Times, September 1, 1937; “Recluse Glimpses Wonders of Today.” New York Times, October 8, 1931; “Recluse’s Trunks Yield Dresses, Jewels, and Laces Worth Million.” New York Times, October 17, 1931; “Aged Recluse, Once Belle, Has $500,000 Cash In Skirt.” Washington Post, October 10, 1931; “Ida Wood’s Early Life Is Revealed.” Hartford Courant, September 16, 1937; “Who Gets This $1,000,000?” Seattle Sunday Times, August 18, 1935; “Mrs. Wood’s Forty Trunks Will Be Opened Today.” Boston Globe, November 2, 1931.
December 25, 2012
For nearly four decades, anyone driving down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the grainy images of five children, all dark-haired and solemn-eyed, their names and ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath, along with speculation about what happened to them. Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumors always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive. What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again.
George had tried to save them, breaking a window to re-enter the house, slicing a swath of skin from his arm. He could see nothing through the smoke and fire, which had swept through all of the downstairs rooms: living and dining room, kitchen, office, and his and Jennie’s bedroom. He took frantic stock of what he knew: 2-year-old Sylvia, whose crib was in their bedroom, was safe outside, as was 17-year-old Marion and two sons, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., who had fled the upstairs bedroom they shared, singeing their hair on the way out. He figured Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty still had to be up there, cowering in two bedrooms on either end of the hallway, separated by a staircase that was now engulfed in flames.
He raced back outside, hoping to reach them through the upstairs windows, but the ladder he always kept propped against the house was strangely missing. An idea struck: He would drive one of his two coal trucks up to the house and climb atop it to reach the windows. But even though they’d functioned perfectly the day before, neither would start now. He ransacked his mind for another option. He tried to scoop water from a rain barrel but found it frozen solid. Five of his children were stuck somewhere inside those great, whipping ropes of smoke. He didn’t notice that his arm was slick with blood, that his voice hurt from screaming their names.
His daughter Marion sprinted to a neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department but couldn’t get any operator response. A neighbor who saw the blaze made a call from a nearby tavern, but again no operator responded. Exasperated, the neighbor drove into town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris, who initiated Fayetteville’s version of a fire alarm: a “phone tree” system whereby one firefighter phoned another, who phoned another. The fire department was only two and a half miles away but the crew didn’t arrive until 8 a.m., by which point the Sodders’ home had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash.
George and Jeannie assumed that five of their children were dead, but a brief search of the grounds on Christmas Day turned up no trace of remains. Chief Morris suggested that the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies. A state police inspector combed the rubble and attributed the fire to faulty wiring. George covered the basement with five feet of dirt, intending to preserve the site as a memorial. The coroner’s office issued five death certificates just before the new year, attributing the causes to “fire or suffocation.”
But the Sodders had begun to wonder if their children were still alive. (More…)
November 27, 2012
Victorian-era women experiencing “female trouble” could pick up a daily newspaper, scan the advertisements and translate the euphemisms. A dash of “uterine tonic,” an application of a “female wash,” a brushing of “carbolic purifying powder” or any product with “French” in the title promised to prevent conception, while a “female regulator,” “rose injections” or a dose of “cathartic pills” could alleviate “private difficulties” and “remove obstructions.” They knew the key ingredients—pennyroyal, savin, black draught, tansy tea, oil of cedar, ergot of rye, mallow, motherwort—as well as the most trusted name in the business: Ann Lohman, alias Madame Restell, whose 40-year career as a “female physician” made her a hero to desperate patients and “the Wickedest Woman in New York” to nearly everyone else.
Restell, like many self-proclaimed physicians of the time, had no real medical background. Born Ann Trow in May 1812 in Painswick, England, she had little formal education and began working as a maid at age 15. A year later she married a tailor named Henry Summers. They had a daughter, Caroline, in 1830, and the following year sailed for New York City, where they settled on William Street in Lower Manhattan. A few months after they arrived, in August 1831, Henry died of bilious fever. Ann supported herself as a seamstress, doing piecework at home so she could look after Caroline while she worked, all the while longing for something better. Around 1836, she met 27-year-old Charles Lohman, a printer at the New York Herald. He was well-educated and literate, a habitué of a bookstore on Chatham Street where the city’s radical philosophers and freethinkers gathered to debate, and he began publishing tracts about contraception and population control.
It’s unclear how Ann first embarked upon the patent-medicine business, but Charles encouraged her fledgling career. Together they concocted a story of a trip to Europe where Ann allegedly trained as a midwife with her grandmother, a renowned French physician named Restell. Upon her return, she assumed the moniker “Mrs. Restell” (soon tweaking it to “Madame Restell”), and Charles encouraged her to advertise in the newspapers. Her first notice ran in the New York Sun of March 18, 1839, and read, in part:
TO MARRIED WOMEN.—Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate?… Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control? The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.
Clients arrived at her Greenwich Street office from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and if they couldn’t seek treatment in person, Restell responded by mail, sending Preventative Powder at $5 per package or Female Monthly Pills, $1 apiece. Her pills (as well as those of her competitors) simply commercialized traditional folk remedies that had been around for centuries, and were occasionally effective. Restell counted on clients returning for surgical abortions if the abortifacients failed—$20 for poor women, $100 for the rich.
As her practice flourished it attracted other aspiring “female physicians,” male and female, and Restell began warning prospective clients to “beware of imitators.” To remain competitive she began expanding her range of services. In addition to selling abortifacients, she opened a boardinghouse where clients with unwanted pregnancies could give birth in anonymity. For an additional fee, she facilitated the adoption of infants. Restell placed more newspaper ads, many referring to the thousands of letters she’d received from grateful customers.
When Madame Restell began her practice, New York State law regarding abortion reflected contemporary folk wisdom, which held that a fetus wasn’t technically alive until “quickening”—the moment when the mother felt it first move inside the womb, usually around the fourth month. An abortion before quickening was legal, but an abortion after quickening was considered to be second-degree manslaughter. Restell tried to determine how far along a patient was in her pregnancy before offering her services; if she intervened too late, she risked a $100 fine and one year in prison.
She had her first major brush with the law in 1840, when a 21-year-old woman named Maria Purdy lay on her deathbed, suffering from tuberculosis. She told her husband she wished to make a confession: While pregnant the previous year, she decided she didn’t want to give birth again; they had a ten-month-old child and she couldn’t handle another so soon. She had visited Restell’s office on Greenwich Street and joined several women waiting in the front parlor. When her turn came, Restell listened to her story and gave her a small vial of yellow medicine in exchange for a dollar.
Purdy took one dose that night and two the next day but then stopped, suddenly worried about the potential consequences. A doctor analyzed the medicine and concluded it contained oil of tansy and spirits of turpentine and advised her to never take it again. She returned to Restell, who told her that for $20 an operation could be performed without pain or inconvenience. Purdy had no cash, and instead offered a pawn ticket for a gold watch chain and a stack of rings, which Restell accepted. She led Purdy behind a curtain to a darkened room, where a strange man—not Restell’s husband—placed his hands on her abdomen and declared she was only three months along (if Purdy was past the first trimester, she didn’t correct him). She had the surgery, and was convinced that her present illness was a result. After hearing her deathbed confession her husband went to the police, who arrested Restell and charged her with “administering to Purdy certain noxious medicine… [and]… procuring her a miscarriage by the use of instruments, the same not being necessary to preserve her life.”
The case launched a debate that played out in the press, and the debate was as charged as it is today. One antiabortion advocate called Restell “the monster in human shape” responsible for “one of the most hellish acts ever perpetrated in a Christian land.” She was a threat to the institution of marriage, allowing women to “commit as many adulteries as there are hours in the year without the possibility of detection.” She encouraged prostitution by removing the consequences. She allowed wives to shirk the duties of motherhood. She insulted poor women by providing abortions when they could seek aid and solace from their church. She not only abetted immoral behavior but also harmed misguided and naïve women, acting as a “hag of misery” preying upon human weakness. The word “Restellism” became synonymous with abortion.
Restell decided to defend herself, placing an ad in the New York Herald in which she offered $100 to anyone who could prove that her medicine was harmful. “I cannot conceive,” she wrote, “how men who are husbands, brothers, or fathers can give utterance to an idea so intrinsically base and infamous, that their wives, their sisters or their daughters, want but the opportunity and ‘facility’ to be vicious, and if they are not so, it is not from an innate principle of virtue, but from fear. What is female virtue, then, a mere thing of circumstance and occasion?”
She was found guilty at trial, but the case was appealed on the ground that Maria Purdy’s deathbed statement was not admissible. The appellate court ruled that such depositions were admissible only in civil suits. Restell was retried, with Purdy’s statement removed from the evidence, and found not guilty. Emboldened, Restell opened branch offices in Boston and Philadelphia and increased her advertising, targeting “married ladies whose delicate or precarious health forbids a too rapid increase of family.”
In 1845, the New York State legislature passed a bill stipulating that providing abortions or abortifacients at any stage of pregnancy was a misdemeanor punishable by a mandatory year in prison. Women who sought abortions or attempted to self-abort would also be liable, subject to a $1,000 fine, a prison sentence of tree to 12 months, or both. The legislators apparently overlooked the possibility that this provision would discourage testimony from women who had undergone abortions, making it more difficult to prosecute abortionists.
Public scrutiny of Restell continued unabated—she was accused in the press, on the basis of an anonymous letters, of performing a fatal abortion on Mary Rogers, the real-life inspiration for the title character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget”—but she managed to avoid legal trouble for two years. In the fall of 1847, a woman named Maria Bodine visited her clinic, having been referred by an anonymous “sponsor.” Restell decided she was too far along for an abortion and suggested the woman stay and board instead, but Bodine’s lover insisted. Restell refused several times before allowing the surgery. Afterward, in pain, Bodine consulted a physician, who suspected an abortion and reported her to the police. She turned state’s evidence, and Restell was arrested for second-degree manslaughter.
Restell was found guilty of misdemeanor procurement and sentenced to a year on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Upon her release she claimed she would no longer offer surgical abortions, but would still provide pills and stays in her boardinghouse. In an attempt to improve her image she applied for United States citizenship—one had to be a “person of good character” to be approved—and was naturalized in 1854. The mayor of New York, Jacob A. Westervelt, officiated at her daughter’s wedding.
But Restell wasn’t able to escape her reputation. Newspaper reports seemed as bothered by her wealth as by how she obtained it, detailing her collection of diamonds and pearls, her furs, her ostentatious carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman, her brownstone mansion on the corner of 52nd Street and 5th Avenue (built in part, it was said, to annoy the first Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes, who had denounced her from his pulpit and who had bought the next block on which to build St. Patrick’s Cathedral). She was now so infamous nationwide that she was included in several guidebooks to the city, one of which dubbed her “the Wickedest Woman in New York.”
Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, likened pornography to cancer and drew no distinction between birth control and abortion. A federal passed in March 1873, which became known as the Comstock Law, made it a misdemeanor to sell or advertise obscene matter by mail, and made specific reference to “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” Telling someone where they could find such information carried a prison sentence of six months to five years and a fine of up to $2,000.
Comstock embarked on a personal campaign to hunt down violators. In 1878 he rang the bell of Madame Restell’s basement office on East 52nd Street, claiming to be a married man whose wife had already given him too many children. He was worried about her health and hoped Restell might be able to help, he said. She sold him some pills. Comstock returned the following day with a police officer and had her arrested. During a search he found pamphlets about birth control and some “instruments,” along with instructions for their use.
Once again Restell defended herself in the press. “He’s in this nasty detective business,” she said of Comstock. “There are a number of little doctors who are in the same business behind him. They think if they can get me in trouble and out of the way, they can make a fortune. If the public are determined to push this matter, they will have a good laugh when they learn the nature of the terrible items of the preventative prescriptions. Of course, if there’s a trial it will all come out.”
This time there was no trial. On April 1, 1878, Restell’s chambermaid found her nude body half-submerged in the bathtub, her throat slit from ear to ear. House servants told reporters that Restell had been restless and despondent, pacing her home and crying, “Why do they persecute me so? I have done nothing to harm anyone.” Since it was April Fool’s Day, Comstock initially believed the report to be a tasteless joke. When he realized it was true, he reached for his file on Ann Lohman and penned a final comment: “A bloody ending to a bloody life.”
Books: Clifford Browder, The Wickedest Woman in New York. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1988; A. Cheree Carlson, The Crimes of Womanhood. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009; Louis J. Palmer, Encyclopedia of Abortion in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002; Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in 19th Century America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994; Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997.
Articles: “End of an Infamous Life.” New York Herald Tribune, April 2, 1878; “A Vile Business Stopped.” New York Herald Tribune, February 12, 1878; “Madame Restell and Her Furnace for Destroying Babies.” Washington (PA) Review and Examiner, January 16, 1867; “Madame Restell Repudiated.” Newport Mercury, March 24, 1855; “Case of Madam Restell.” Boston Evening Transcript, February 9, 1848; “Another Death by Female Physicians and Arrest of Madame Restell.” Boston Courier, April 18, 1844; “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” Helena (MT) Weekly, November 26, 1868.
October 30, 2012
One of the greatest religious movements of the 19th century began in the bedroom of two young girls living in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. On a late March day in 1848, Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, 14, and Kate, her 11-year-old sister, waylaid a neighbor, eager to share an odd and frightening phenomenon. Every night around bedtime, they said, they heard a series of raps on the walls and furniture—raps that seemed to manifest with a peculiar, otherworldly intelligence. The neighbor, skeptical, came to see for herself, joining the girls in the small chamber they shared with their parents. While Maggie and Kate huddled together on their bed, their mother, Margaret, began the demonstration.
“Now count five,” she ordered, and the room shook with the sound of five heavy thuds.
“Count fifteen,” she commanded, and the mysterious presence obeyed. Next, she asked it to tell the neighbor’s age; thirty-three distinct raps followed.
“If you are an injured spirit,” she continued, “manifest it by three raps.”
And it did.
Margaret Fox did not seem to consider the date, March 31—April Fool’s Eve—and the possibility that her daughters were frightened not by an unseen presence but by the expected success of their prank.
The Fox family deserted the house and sent Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester. The story might have died there were it not for the fact that Rochester was a hotbed for reform and religious activity; the same vicinity, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, gave birth to both Mormonism and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism. Community leaders Isaac and Amy Post were intrigued by the Fox sisters’ story, and by the subsequent rumor that the spirit likely belonged to a peddler who had been murdered in the farmhouse five years beforehand. A group of Rochester residents examined the cellar of the Fox’s home, uncovering strands of hair and what appeared to be bone fragments.
The Posts invited the girls to a gathering at their home, anxious to see if they could communicate with spirits in another locale. “I suppose I went with as much unbelief as Thomas felt when he was introduced to Jesus after he had ascended,” Isaac Post wrote, but he was swayed by “very distinct thumps under the floor… and several apparent answers.” He was further convinced when Leah Fox also proved to be a medium, communicating with the Posts’ recently deceased daughter. The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and four hundred people came to hear the mysterious noises. Afterward Amy Post accompanied the sisters to a private chamber, where they disrobed and were examined by a committee of skeptics, who found no evidence of a hoax.
The idea that one could communicate with spirits was hardly new—the Bible contains hundreds of references to angels administering to man—but the movement known as Modern Spiritualism sprang from several distinct revolutionary philosophies and characters. The ideas and practices of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century Australian healer, had spread to the United States and by the 1840s held the country in thrall. Mesmer proposed that everything in the universe, including the human body, was governed by a “magnetic fluid” that could become imbalanced, causing illness. By waving his hands over a patient’s body, he induced a “mesmerized” hypnotic state that allowed him to manipulate the magnetic force and restore health. Amateur mesmerists became a popular attraction at parties and in parlors, a few proving skillful enough to attract paying customers. Some who awakened from a mesmeric trance claimed to have experienced visions of spirits from another dimension.
At the same time the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher and mystic, also surged in popularity. Swedenborg described an afterlife consisting of three heavens, three hells and an interim destination—the world of the spirits—where everyone went immediately upon dying, and which was more or less similar to what they were accustomed to on earth. Self love drove one toward the varying degrees of hell; love for others elevated one to the heavens. “The Lord casts no one into hell,” he wrote, “but those who are there have deliberately cast themselves into it, and keep themselves there.” He claimed to have seen and talked with spirits on all of the planes.
Seventy-five years later, the 19th-century American seer Andrew Jackson Davis, who would become known as the “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism,” combined these two ideologies, claiming that Swedenborg’s spirit spoke to him during a series of mesmeric trances. Davis recorded the content of these messages and in 1847 published them in a voluminous tome titled The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. “It is a truth,” he asserted, predicting the rise of Spiritualism, “that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres…all the world will hail with delight the ushering in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communication will be established.” Davis believed his prediction materialized a year later, on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits in their bedroom. “About daylight this morning,” he confided to his diary, “a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying ‘Brother, the good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration is born.’”
Upon hearing of the Rochester incident, Davis invited the Fox sisters to his home in New York City to witness their medium capabilities for himself. Joining his cause with the sisters’ ghostly manifestations elevated his stature from obscure prophet to recognized leader of a mass movement, one that appealed to increasing numbers of Americans inclined to reject the gloomy Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and embrace the reform-minded optimism of the mid-19th century. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, Americans who adopted Spiritualism believed they had a hand in their own salvation, and direct communication with those who had passed offered insight into the ultimate fate of their own souls.
Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox embarked on a professional tour to spread word of the spirits, booking a suite, fittingly, at Barnum’s Hotel on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, an establishment owned by a cousin of the famed showman. An editorial in the Scientific American scoffed at their arrival, calling the girls the “Spiritual Knockers from Rochester.” They conducted their sessions in the hotel’s parlor, inviting as many as thirty attendees to gather around a large table at the hours of 10 a.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., taking an occasional private meeting in between. Admission was one dollar, and visitors included preeminent members of New York Society: Horace Greeley, the iconoclastic and influential editor of the New York Tribune; James Fenimore Cooper; editor and poet William Cullen Bryant, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who witnessed a session in which the spirits rapped in time to a popular song and spelled out a message: “Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.”
Leah stayed in New York, entertaining callers in a séance room, while Kate and Maggie took the show to other cities, among them Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, where one visitor, explorer Elisha Kent Kane, succumbed to Maggie’s charms even as he deemed her a fraud—although he couldn’t prove how the sounds were made. “After a whole month’s trial I could make nothing of them,” he confessed. “Therefore they are a great mystery.” He courted Maggie, thirteen years his junior, and encouraged her to give up her “life of dreary sameness and suspected deceit.” She acquiesced, retiring to attend school at Kane’s behest and expense, and married him shortly before his untimely death in 1857. To honor his memory she converted to Catholicism, as Kane—a Presbyterian—had always encouraged. (He seemed to think the faith’s ornate iconography and sense of mystery would appeal to her.) In mourning, she began drinking heavily and vowed to keep her promise to Kane to “wholly and forever abandon Spiritualism.”
Kate, meanwhile, married a devout Spiritualist and continued to develop her medium powers, translating spirit messages in astonishing and unprecedented ways: communicating two messages simultaneously, writing one while speaking the other; transcribing messages in reverse script; utilizing blank cards upon which words seemed to spontaneously appear. During sessions with a wealthy banker, Charles Livermore, she summoned both the man’s deceased wife and the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, who announced his identity by writing his name on a card. Her business boomed during and after the Civil War, as increasing numbers of the bereaved found solace in Spiritualism. Prominent Spiritualist Emma Hardinge wrote that the war added two million new believers to the movement, and by the 1880s there were an estimated eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe. These new practitioners, seduced by the flamboyance of the Gilded Age, expected miracles—like Kate’s summoning of full-fledged apparitions—at every séance. It was wearying, both to the movement and to Kate herself, and she, too, began to drink.
On October 21, 1888, the New York World published an interview with Maggie Fox in anticipation of her appearance that evening at the New York Academy of Music, where she would publicly denounce Spiritualism. She was paid $1,500 for the exclusive. Her main motivation, however, was rage at her sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who had publicly chastised Kate for her drinking and accused her of being unable to care for her two young children. Kate planned to be in the audience when Maggie gave her speech, lending her tacit support.
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” Maggie said. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.” The sisters graduated from apple dropping to manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes to make rapping sounds. “A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” she explained. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”
She offered a demonstration, removing her shoe and placing her right foot upon a wooden stool. The room fell silent and still, and was rewarded with a number of short little raps. “There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow,” the New York Herald reported, “working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.” Maggie insisted that her sister Leah knew that the rappings were fake all along and greedily exploited her younger sisters. Before exiting the stage she thanked God that she was able to expose Spiritualism.
The mainstream press called the incident “a death blow” to the movement, and Spiritualists quickly took sides. Shortly after Maggie’s confession the spirit of Samuel B. Brittan, former publisher of the Spiritual Telegraph, appeared during a séance to offer a sympathetic opinion. Although Maggie was an authentic medium, he acknowledged, “the band of spirits attending [her] during the early part of her career” had been usurped by “other unseen intelligences, who are not scrupulous in their dealings with humanity.” Other (living) Spiritualists charged that Maggie’s change of heart was wholly mercenary; since she had failed to make a living as a medium, she sought to profit by becoming one of Spiritualism’s fiercest critics.
Whatever her motive, Maggie recanted her confession one year later, insisting that her spirit guides had beseeched her to do so. Her reversal prompted more disgust from devoted Spiritualists, many of whom failed to recognize her at a subsequent debate at the Manhattan Liberal Club. There, under the pseudonym Mrs. Spencer, Maggie revealed several tricks of the profession, including the way mediums wrote messages on blank slates by using their teeth or feet. She never reconciled with sister Leah, who died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking spree. Maggie passed away eight months later, in March 1893. That year Spiritualists formed the National Spiritualist Association, which today is known as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.
In 1904, schoolchildren playing in the sisters’ childhood home in Hydesville—known locally as “the spook house”—discovered the majority of a skeleton between the earth and crumbling cedar walls. A doctor was consulted, who estimated that the bones were about fifty years old, giving credence to the sisters’ tale of spiritual messages from a murdered peddler. But not everyone was convinced. The New York Times reported that the bones had created “a stir amusingly disproportioned to any necessary significance of the discovery,” and suggested that the sisters had merely been clever enough to exploit a local mystery. Even if the bones were that of the murdered peddler, the Times concluded, “there will still remain that dreadful confession about the clicking joints, which reduces the whole case to a farce.”
Five years later, another doctor examined the skeleton and determined that it was made up of “only a few ribs with odds and ends of bones and among them a superabundance of some and a deficiency of others. Among them also were some chicken bones.” He also reported a rumor that a man living near the spook house had planted the bones as a practical joke, but was much too ashamed to come clean.
Books: Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rose of Spiritualism. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004; Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America. Boston: Beacon University Press, 1989; Nancy Rubin Stuart, The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox. Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, 2005; Reuben Briggs Davenport, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism. New York: G.W. Dillingham, 1888; Andrew Jackson Davis, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. New York: S.S. Lyon and William Fishbough, 1847.
Articles: “The Origin of Spiritualism.” Springfield Republican, June 20, 1899; “Gotham Gossip. Margaretta Fox Kane’s Threatened Exposure of Spiritualism.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 7, 1888; “Fox Sisters to Expose Spiritualism.” New York Herald Tribune, October 17, 1888; “The Rochester Rappings.” Macon Telegraph, May 22, 1886; “Spiritualism Exposed.” Wheeling (WVa) Register, October 22, 1888; “Spiritualism in America.” New Orleans Times- Picayune, April 21, 1892; “Spiritualism’s Downfall.” New York Herald, October 22, 1888; “Find Skeleton in Home of the Fox Sisters.” Salt Lake Telegram, November 28, 1904; Joe Nickell, “A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism”: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/skeletons_tale_the_origins_of_modern_spiritualism/.
October 4, 2012
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over, then winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”
— Chicago folksong
There is no known photograph of Catherine O’Leary, and who could blame her for shunning the cameras? After those two catastrophic days in October 1871, when more than 2,000 acres of Chicago burned, reporters continually appeared on Mrs. O’Leary’s doorstep, calling her “shiftless and worthless” and a “drunken old hag with dirty hands.” Her husband sicced dogs at their ankles and hurled bricks at their heads. P.T. Barnum came knocking to ask her to tour with his circus; she reportedly chased him away with a broomstick. Her dubious role in one of the greatest disasters in American history brought her fame she never wanted and couldn’t deflect. When she died 24 years later of acute pneumonia, neighbors insisted the true cause was a broken heart.
Mrs. O’Leary claimed to be asleep on the night of Sunday, October 8, when flames first sparked in the barn next to the family cottage on DeKoven Street. The blaze traveled in northeast, tearing through shanties and sheds and leaping across Taylor Street, the heat so fierce that fireman Charles Anderson could hold his hose to the flames only when shielded by a door. His hat curdled on his head. All spare engines were called to the growing conflagration, prompting one fire marshal to ask another: “Where has this fire gone to?” The answer was swift and apt: “She has gone to hell and gone.” Residents noticed that a freakish wind whipped the flames into great walls of fire more than 100 feet high, a meteorological phenomenon called “convection whirls”—masses of overheated air rising from the flames and began spinning violently upon contact with cooler surrounding air. “The wind, blowing like a hurricane, howling like myriads of evil spirits,” one witness later wrote, “drove the flames before it with a force and fierceness which could never be described or imagined.”
Although the wind never exceeded 30 miles per hour, these “fire devils,” as they were dubbed, pushed the flames forward and across the city. By early morning on Tuesday, October 10, when rain extinguished the last meekly glowing ember, the city was ravaged: $200 million worth of property destroyed, 300 lives lost and 100,000 people—one third of the city’s population—left homeless. The Chicago Tribune likened the damage to that in Moscow after Napoleon’s siege in 1812. In a peculiar twist of fate, and one that would not go unnoticed by the city’s press, the fire spared the O’Leary family’s home.
Before the Great Chicago Fire, no one took notice of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, two Irish immigrants who lived with their five children on the city’s West Side. Patrick was a laborer and Catherine sold milk from door to door, keeping her five cows in the barn. Even before the fire died out on the city’s northern edges, the Chicago Evening Journal implicated her, reporting that it began “on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets, at about 9 o’clock on Sunday evening, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking”—a scenario that originated with children in the neighborhood. Similar articles followed, many perpetuating ethnic stereotypes and underscoring nativist fears about the city’s growing immigrant population. The Chicago Times, for one, depicted the 44-year-old Catherine as “an old Irish woman” who was “bent almost double with the weight of many years of toil, trouble and privation” and concluded that she deliberately set fire to her barn out of bitterness: “The old hag swore she would be revenged on a city that would deny her a bit of wood or a pound of bacon.”
During an inquiry held by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners to determine the cause of the blaze, Catherine testified that she went to bed sometime between eight o’clock and eight-thirty, and was sleeping when her husband roused her with the words, “Cate, the barn is afire!” She ran outside to see it for herself, and watched as dozens of neighbors worked to save adjacent homes, fixing two washtubs to fire hydrants and running back and forth with buckets of water. One of them had thrown a party that night—Catherine recalled hearing fiddle music as she prepared for bed—and a woman named Mrs. White told her that someone had wandered away from the gathering and slipped into her barn. “She mentioned a man was in my barn milking my cows,” Catherine said. “I could not tell, for I didn’t see it.”
The board also questioned a suspect named Daniel Sullivan, who lived directly across from the O’Leary’s on DeKoven Street, and who had first alerted Patrick O’Leary to the fire. Sullivan, known as “Peg Leg” for his wooden limb, said he had attended the party and left about half past nine. As he stepped out into the night, he said, he saw a fire in the O’Learys’ barn. He ran across the street hollering, “Fire, fire, fire!” and headed straight to the source of the flames, reasoning that he might be able to save the cows. “I knew a horse could not be got out of a fire unless he be blinded,” Sullivan testified, “but I didn’t know but cows could. I turned to the left-hand side. I knew there was four cows tied to that end. I made at the cows and loosened them as quick as I could. I got two of them loose, but the place was too hot. I had to run when I saw the cows were not getting out.”
After nine days of questioning 50 people—testimony that made up more than 1,100 handwritten pages—the board members issued an inconclusive report about the fire’s cause. “Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night,” it read, “or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine.” Nevertheless Catherine O’Leary remained culpable in the public’s eye. None of her contemporaries bothered to ask the obvious questions that indicate her innocence: Why would she leave the barn after setting the fire—even accidentally—and go back into her home? Why would she not scream for help? Why would she risk losing her cows, her barn, and possibly her home without trying to save them?
One of Catherine’s sons, James, was two years old at the time of the fire, and would grow up to become “Big Jim” O’Leary, notorious saloon proprietor and gambling kingpin. Over the years he granted numerous newspaper interviews, complaining that, “That musty old fake about the cow kicking over the lamp gets me hot under the collar.” He insisted that the fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of “green” (or newly harvested) hay, large quantities of which had been delivered to the barn on the eve of the fire. But the summer of 1871 had been one long and merciless heat wave in Chicago, with scorching temperatures extending into the fall, making it likely that the hay was thoroughly dry before being stored in the barn.
Patrick and Catherine O’Leary sold their cottage on DeKoven Street in 1879 and moved many times, eventually settling in on South Halstead Street on what was then the far South Side. In 1894, the year before Catherine died, her physician did what she’d always refused to do and gave a comment to the press:
“It would be impossible for me to describe to you the grief and indignation with which Mrs. O’Leary views the place that has been assigned her in history. That she is regarded as the cause, even accidentally, of the Great Chicago Fire is the grief of her life. She is shocked at the levity with which the subject is treated and at the satirical use of her name in connection with it…. She admits no reporters to her presence, and she is determined that whatever ridicule history may heap on her it will have to do it without the aid of her likeness. Many are the devices that have been tried to procure a picture of her, but she has been too sharp for any of them. No cartoon will ever make any sport of her features. She has not a likeness in the world and will never have one.”
Patrick and Catherine O’Leary are buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago, next to their son James and his wife. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating Catherine—and her cow—from all blame.
Richard F. Bales, The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002; Owen J. Hurd, After the Fact: The Surprising Fates of American History’s Heroes, Villains, and Supporting Characters. New York: Penguin Group, 2012; Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
“Fire and Death in Chicago.” New York Herald, October 10, 1871; “The Chicago Fire: Vivid Accounts by Eyewitnesses.” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October, 11, 1871; “The Chicago Fire! The Flames Checked At Last.” Richmond Whig, October 13, 1871; “The Great Fire That Wiped Out Chicago.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, October 9, 1892; “Lesson of the O’Leary Cow.” Biloxi Daily Herald, July 5, 1899; “Mrs. O’Leary Is Dead.” Baltimore Sun, July 6, 1895; “O’Leary Defends His Mother’s Cow.” Trenton Evening Times, December 1, 1909; “Alderman Tries to Exonerate Mrs. O’Leary and Her Cow.” Rockford (IL) Register Star, September 12, 1997.