March 1, 2013
In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.
And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.
To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale—85 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”
The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.
The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.
Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”
The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)
Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.
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Books: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, 2000, Penguin Books. Thomas Nickerson, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, 2000, Penguin Classics. Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket, 2006, A RIA Press Edition. Alex MacCormick, The Mammoth Book of Maneaters, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers. Joseph S. Cummins, Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea, 2001, The Lyons Press. Evan L. Balkan, Shipwrecked: Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea, 2008, Menasha Ridge Press.
Articles: “The Whale and the Horror,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, May, 2000. “Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?” by Susan Beegel, The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HN-fall1991-beegel.html. ”Herman Melville and Nantucket,” The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/faq/melville.html. Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, “Biography: Herman Melville,” American Experience, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/whaling-melville/. “No Moby-Dick: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed,” by Jesse McKinley, New York Times, February 11, 2011. “The Essex Disaster,” by Walter Karp, American Heritage, April/May, 1983, Volume 34, Issue 3. “Essex (whaleship),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_(whaleship). ”Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819-1821., Thomas Nickerson, http://www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/NICKERSON.HTM
February 19, 2013
There is a place in South America that was once the end of the earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.
South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”
Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a spot 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire” so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited—and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history. First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial—the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.
February 4, 2013
By the end of his brilliant and tortured life, the Serbian physicist, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was penniless and living in a small New York City hotel room. He spent days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him—pigeons—and his sleepless nights working over mathematical equations and scientific problems in his head. That habit would confound scientists and scholars for decades after he died, in 1943. His inventions were designed and perfected in his imagination.
Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack,” Tesla once wrote, “he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.”
But what his contemporaries may have been lacking in scientific talent (by Tesla’s estimation), men like Edison and George Westinghouse clearly possessed the one trait that Tesla did not—a mind for business. And in the last days of America’s Gilded Age, Nikola Tesla made a dramatic attempt to change the future of communications and power transmission around the world. He managed to convince J.P. Morgan that he was on the verge of a breakthrough, and the financier gave Tesla more than $150,000 to fund what would become a gigantic, futuristic and startling tower in the middle of Long Island, New York. In 1898, as Tesla’s plans to create a worldwide wireless transmission system became known, Wardenclyffe Tower would be Tesla’s last chance to claim the recognition and wealth that had always escaped him.
Nikola Tesla was born in modern-day Croatia in 1856; his father, Milutin, was a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church. From an early age, he demonstrated the obsessiveness that would puzzle and amuse those around him. He could memorize entire books and store logarithmic tables in his brain. He picked up languages easily, and he could work through days and nights on only a few hours sleep.
At the age of 19, he was studying electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute at Graz in Austria, where he quickly established himself as a star student. He found himself in an ongoing debate with a professor over perceived design flaws in the direct-current (DC) motors that were being demonstrated in class. “In attacking the problem again I almost regretted that the struggle was soon to end,” Tesla later wrote. “I had so much energy to spare. When I undertook the task it was not with a resolve such as men often make. With me it was a sacred vow, a question of life and death. I knew that I would perish if I failed. Now I felt that the battle was won. Back in the deep recesses of the brain was the solution, but I could not yet give it outward expression.”
He would spend the next six years of his life “thinking” about electromagnetic fields and a hypothetical motor powered by alternate-current that would and should work. The thoughts obsessed him, and he was unable to focus on his schoolwork. Professors at the university warned Tesla’s father that the young scholar’s working and sleeping habits were killing him. But rather than finish his studies, Tesla became a gambling addict, lost all his tuition money, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would not be his last.
In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, after recovering from his breakdown, and he was walking through a park with a friend, reciting poetry, when a vision came to him. There in the park, with a stick, Tesla drew a crude diagram in the dirt—a motor using the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by two or more alternating currents. While AC electrification had been employed before, there would never be a practical, working motor run on alternating current until he invented his induction motor several years later.
In June 1884, Tesla sailed for New York City and arrived with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor—a former employer—to Thomas Edison, which was purported to say, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”
A meeting was arranged, and once Tesla described the engineering work he was doing, Edison, though skeptical, hired him. According to Tesla, Edison offered him $50,000 if he could improve upon the DC generation plants Edison favored. Within a few months, Tesla informed the American inventor that he had indeed improved upon Edison’s motors. Edison, Tesla noted, refused to pay up. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke,” Edison told him.
Tesla promptly quit and took a job digging ditches. But it wasn’t long before word got out that Tesla’s AC motor was worth investing in, and the Western Union Company put Tesla to work in a lab not far from Edison’s office, where he designed AC power systems that are still used around the world. “The motors I built there,” Tesla said, “were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision, and the operation was always as I expected.”
Tesla patented his AC motors and power systems, which were said to be the most valuable inventions since the telephone. Soon, George Westinghouse, recognizing that Tesla’s designs might be just what he needed in his efforts to unseat Edison’s DC current, licensed his patents for $60,000 in stocks and cash and royalties based on how much electricity Westinghouse could sell. Ultimately, he won the “War of the Currents,” but at a steep cost in litigation and competition for both Westinghouse and Edison’s General Electric Company.
Fearing ruin, Westinghouse begged Tesla for relief from the royalties Westinghouse agreed to. “Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company,” he said. Tesla, grateful to the man who had never tried to swindle him, tore up the royalty contract, walking away from millions in royalties that he was already owed and billions that would have accrued in the future. He would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world—a titan of the Gilded Age.
His work with electricity reflected just one facet of his fertile mind. Before the turn of the 20th century, Tesla had invented a powerful coil that was capable of generating high voltages and frequencies, leading to new forms of light, such as neon and fluorescent, as well as X-rays. Tesla also discovered that these coils, soon to be called “Tesla Coils,” made it possible to send and receive radio signals. He quickly filed for American patents in 1897, beating the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to the punch.
Tesla continued to work on his ideas for wireless transmissions when he proposed to J.P. Morgan his idea of a wireless globe. After Morgan put up the $150,000 to build the giant transmission tower, Tesla promptly hired the noted architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead, and White in New York. White, too, was smitten with Tesla’s idea. After all, Tesla was the highly acclaimed man behind Westinghouse’s success with alternating current, and when Tesla talked, he was persuasive.
“As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere,” Tesla said at the time. “He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind.”
White quickly got to work designing Wardenclyffe Tower in 1901, but soon after construction began it became apparent that Tesla was going to run out of money before it was finished. An appeal to Morgan for more money proved fruitless, and in the meantime investors were rushing to throw their money behind Marconi. In December 1901, Marconi successfully sent a signal from England to Newfoundland. Tesla grumbled that the Italian was using 17 of his patents, but litigation eventually favored Marconi and the commercial damage was done. (The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld Tesla’s claims, clarifying Tesla’s role in the invention of the radio—but not until 1943, after he died.) Thus the Italian inventor was credited as the inventor of radio and became rich. Wardenclyffe Tower became a 186-foot-tall relic (it would be razed in 1917), and the defeat—Tesla’s worst—led to another of his breakdowns. ”It is not a dream,” Tesla said, “it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”
By 1912, Tesla began to withdraw from that doubting world. He was clearly showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and was potentially a high-functioning autistic. He became obsessed with cleanliness and fixated on the number three; he began shaking hands with people and washing his hands—all done in sets of three. He had to have 18 napkins on his table during meals, and would count his steps whenever he walked anywhere. He claimed to have an abnormal sensitivity to sounds, as well as an acute sense of sight, and he later wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” and “the sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit.”
Near the end of his life, Tesla became fixated on pigeons, especially a specific white female, which he claimed to love almost as one would love a human being. One night, Tesla claimed the white pigeon visited him through an open window at his hotel, and he believed the bird had come to tell him she was dying. He saw “two powerful beans of light” in the bird’s eyes, he later said. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.” The pigeon died in his arms, and the inventor claimed that in that moment, he knew that he had finished his life’s work.
Nikola Tesla would go on to make news from time to time while living on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel. In 1931 he made the cover of Time magazine, which featured his inventions on his 75th birthday. And in 1934, the New York Times reported that Tesla was working on a “Death Beam” capable of knocking 10,000 enemy airplanes out of the sky. He hoped to fund a prototypical defensive weapon in the interest of world peace, but his appeals to J.P. Morgan Jr. and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went nowhere. Tesla did, however, receive a $25,000 check from the Soviet Union, but the project languished. He died in 1943, in debt, although Westinghouse had been paying his room and board at the hotel for years.
Books: Nikola Tesla, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, Hart Brothers, Pub., 1982. Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Touchstone, 1981.
Articles: “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy With Special References to the Harnessing of the Sun’s Energy,” by Nikola Tesla, Century Magazine, June, 1900. “Reflections on the Mind of Nikola Tesla,” by R. (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, Centre for Intelligent Information Processing Systems, School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, Augst 27, 2006, http://www.ee.uwa.edu.au/~chandra/Downloads/Tesla/MindOfTesla.html”Tesla: Live and Legacy, Tower of Dreams,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_todre.html. ”The Cult of Nikola Tesla,” by Brian Dunning, Skeptoid #345, January 15, 2003. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4345. “Nikola Tesla, History of Technology, The Famous Inventors Worldwide,” by David S. Zondy, Worldwide Independent Inventors Association, http://www.worldwideinvention.com/articles/details/474/Nikola-Tesla-History-of-Technology-The-famous-Inventors-Worldwide.html. “The Future of Wireless Art by Nikola Tesla,” Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony, by Walter W. Massid & Charles R. Underhill, 1908. http://www.tfcbooks.com/tesla/1908-00-00.htm
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.
January 16, 2013
After serving two terms as president, Ulysses S. Grant settled in New York, where the most famous man in America was determined to make a fortune in investment banking. Wealthy admirers like J. P. Morgan raised money to help Grant and his wife, Julia, make a home on East 66th Street in Manhattan, and after two decades at war and in politics, the Ohio-born son of a tanner approached his 60s aspiring to join the circles of the elite industrialists and financiers of America’s Gilded Age.
But the Union’s preeminent Civil War hero had never been good at financial matters. Before the Civil War he’d failed at both farming and the leather business, and on the two-year, round-the-world tour he and Julia took after his presidency, they ran out of money when Grant miscalculated their needs. Their son Buck had to send them $60,000 so they could continue on with their travels. In New York, in the spring of 1884, things were about to get worse.
After putting up $100,000 in securities, Grant became a new partner, along with Buck, in the investment firm of Grant and Ward. In truth, Grant had little understanding of finance, and by May 1884, he had seen yet another failure, this one spectacular and publicized in newspapers across the country. Ferdinand Ward, his dashing and smooth-talking partner—he was only 33 but known as the “Young Napoleon of Wall Street”—had been running a Ponzi scheme, soliciting investments from Grant’s wealthy friends, speculating with the funds, and then cooking the books to cover his losses.
On May 4, Ward told Grant that the Marine National Bank was on the verge of collapse, and unless it received a one-day cash infusion of $150,000, Grant and Ward would be wiped out, as most of their investments were tied up with the bank. A panic, Ward told him, would most likely follow. Grant listened intently, then paid a visit to another friend—William H. Vanderbilt, richest man in the world, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
“What I’ve heard about that firm wouldn’t justify me in lending it a dime,” Vanderbilt told him. The tycoon then made it clear that it was his relationship with Grant that mattered to him most, and he made a personal loan of $150,000, which Grant promptly turned over to Ward, confident the crisis would be averted. The next morning, Grant arrived at his office only to learn from his son that both Marine National and Grant and Ward were bankrupt. “Ward has fled,” Buck told him. “We cannot find our securities.”
Grant spoke glumly to the firm’s bookkeeper. “I have made it a rule of life to trust a man long after other people gave up on him,” he said. “I don’t see how I can trust any human being ever again.”
As news of the swindle and Grant’s financial demise spread, he received a great deal of public sympathy, as well as cash donations from citizens who empathized and were grateful for his service to the nation. “There is no doubt,” one man told a reporter at the time, “that Gen. Grant became a partner to give his son a good start in life. He gave him the benefit of his moderate fortune and the prestige of his name, and this is his reward.”
Ward didn’t get very far. He served a six-year sentence for fraud at Sing Sing Prison, but he left Grant in ruin. After all was said and done, the investment firm had assets of just over $67,000 and liabilities approaching $17 million. Yet Grant would not accept any more help from his friends—especially Vanderbilt, who offered to forgive the loan. With no pension, Grant sold his home and insisted that Vanderbilt take possession of his Civil War mementos—medals, uniforms and other objects from Grant’s famous past. Vanderbilt reluctantly accepted them and considered the debt settled. (With Julia Grant’s consent, Vanderbilt later donated the hundreds of historical items to the Smithsonian Institution, where they remain today.)
Bankrupt and depressed, Ulysses S. Grant soon received more bad news. Pain at the base of his tongue had made it difficult for the 62 year-old to eat, and he visited a throat specialist in October of that year. “Is it cancer?” Grant asked. The physician, observing carcinoma, remained silent. Grant didn’t need to know more. The physician immediately began treating him with cocaine and a derivative of chloroform. Aware that his condition was terminal, and that he had no other way of providing for his family, Grant determined there was no better time to write his memoirs. He left the doctor’s office to meet with a publisher at the Century Co., who immediately offered a deal. As a contract was being drawn up, Grant determined to get to work on his writing and to cut back on cigars. Just three a day, his doctors told him. But shortly after his diagnosis, Grant received a visit from his old friend Mark Twain. The visit just happened to occur on the November day that Grant was sitting with his eldest son, Fred, about to sign the Century contract.
Twain had made a considerable amount of money from his writing and lecturing but, was, once again, in the midst of his own financial troubles. He’d suffered a string of failed investments, such as the Paige Compositor—a sophisticated typesetting machine that was, after Twain had put more than $300,000 in it, rendered obsolete by the Linotype machine. And he had a manuscript that he’d been laboring over for almost a decade in fits and starts. Twain had been after Grant to write his memoirs for years, and he knew a publishing deal was in the works. Grant told Twain to “sit down and keep quiet” while he signed his contract, and Twain obliged—until he saw Grant reach for his pen. “Don’t sign it,” Twain said. “Let Fred read it to me first.”
When Twain heard the terms, he was appalled: The royalty rate was only 10 percent, too low for even an unknown author, let alone someone of Grant’s stature. He said he could see to it that Grant would get 20 percent if he would hold off on signing the Century contract. Grant replied that Century had come to him first and he felt “honor-bound” to keep to the deal. Then Twain reminded his host that he had offered to publish Grant’s memoirs years before. Grant acknowledged that that was true, and ultimately allowed Twain to persuade him to sign with what would become Charles L. Webster & Co., the publisher Twain formed with his niece’s husband. Out of pride, Grant refused a $10,000 advance from his friend, fearing his book might lose money. He agreed, however, to accept $1,000 for living expenses while he wrote. Twain could only shake his head. “It was a shameful thing,” the author later recounted, “that a man who had saved his country and its government from destruction should still be in a position where so small a sum—$1,000—could be looked upon as a godsend.”
Even as he sickened over the next year, Grant wrote and, when too tired for that, dictated at a furious pace each day. On the advice of doctors, he moved into a cottage in the fresh Adirondack air at Mount McGregor in upstate New York. As word of his condition spread, Civil War veterans made pilgrimages to the cottage to pay their respects.
Twain, who was closely supervising Grant’s writing, also finally finished his own manuscript. He published it under the title The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the United States in February 1885. It was a huge and immediate success for Charles L. Webster and Co., and it has done rather nicely ever since.
On July 20, 1885, Grant—his neck swollen, his voice reduced to a pained whisper—deemed his manuscript complete. Unable to eat, he was slowly starving to death. Grant’s doctors, certain that his will to finish his memoir was the only thing keeping him alive, prepared for the end. It came on the morning of July 23, with Julia and his family beside him. Among the last words in his memoirs were the words that would eventually be engraved on his tomb: “Let us have peace.”
Twenty years before, Grant had stood at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral and wept openly. Grant’s Funeral March, through New York City on August 8, 1885, was the longest procession in American history to the time, with more than 60,000 members of the United States military marching behind a funeral car bearing Grant’s casket and drawn by 25 black stallions. Pallbearers included generals from both the Union and Confederate armies.
Earlier that year, Webster & Co. had begun taking advance orders on what was to be a two-volume set of Grant’s memoirs. Published that December, the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was an immediate success; it ultimately earned Julia Grant royalties of about $450,000 (or more than $10 million today), and today some scholars consider it one of the greatest military memoirs ever written. Between that and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles L. Webster & Co. had quite a year.
Books: Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year, De Capo Press, 2012. Mark Perry, Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America, Random House, 2004. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Charles L.Webster & Company, 1885-86.
Articles: “Pyramid Schemes Are as American as Apple Pie,” by John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2008. “A Great Failure,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 7, 1884. “Grant’s Funeral March,” American Experience, PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/grant-funeral/ ”The Selling of U.S. Grant,” by Bill Long, http://www.drbilllong.com/CurrentEventsVI/GrantII.html “Read All About Geneseo’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrel,” by Howard W. Appell, Livingston County News, May 16, 2012. “Museum to help spotlight Grant’s life, legacy,” by Dennis Yusko, Albany Times Union, November 23, 2012.