April 3, 2013
Bat Masterson spent the last half of his life in New York, hobnobbing with Gilded Age celebrities and working a desk job that saw him churning out sports reports and “Timely Topics” columns for the New York Morning Telegraph. His lifestyle had widened his waistline, belying the reputation he had earned in the first half of his life as one of the most feared gunfighters in the West. But that reputation was built largely on lore; Masterson knew just how to keep the myths alive, as well as how to evade or deny his past, depending on whichever stories served him best at the time.
Despite his dapper appearance and suave charm, Masterson could handle a gun. And despite his efforts to deny his deadly past, late in his life he admitted, under cross-examination in a lawsuit, that he had indeed killed. It took a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Cardozo, to get the truth out of Masterson. Some of it, anyway.
William Barclay “Bat” Masterson was born in Canada in 1853, but his family—he had five brothers and two sisters—ultimately settled on a farm in Sedgwick County, Kansas. At age 17, Masterson left home with his brothers Jim and Ed and went west, where they found work on a ranch near Wichita. “I herded buffalo out there for a good many years,” he later told a reporter. “Killed ‘em and sold their hides for $2.50 apiece. Made my living that way.”
Masterson’s prowess with a rifle and his knowledge of the terrain caught the attention of General Nelson Appleton Miles, who, after his highly decorated service with the Union Army in the Civil War, had led many a campaign against American Indian tribes across the West. From 1871-74, Masterson signed on as a civilian scout for Miles. “That was when the Indians got obstreperous, you remember,” he told a reporter.
Masterson was believed to have killed his first civilian in 1876, while he was working as a faro dealer at Henry Fleming’s Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas. Fleming also owned a dance hall, and it was there that Masterson tangled with an Army Sergeant who went by the name of Melvin A. King over the affections of a dance-hall girl named Mollie Brennan.
Masterson had been entertaining Brennan after hours and alone in the club when King came looking for Brennan. Drunk and enraged at finding Masterson with her, King pulled a pistol, pointed it at Masterson’s groin, and fired. The shot knocked the young faro dealer to the ground. King’s second shot pierced Brennan’s abdomen. Wounded and bleeding badly, Masterson drew his pistol and returned fire, hitting King in the heart. Both King and Brennan died; Masterson recovered from his wounds, though he did use a cane sporadically for the rest of his life. The incident became known as the Sweetwater Shootout, and it cemented Bat Masterson’s reputation as a hard man.
News of a gold strike in the Black Hills of South Dakota sent Masterson packing for the north. In Cheyenne, he went on a five-week winning streak on the gambling tables, but he tired of the town and had left when he ran into Wyatt Earp, who encouraged him to go to Dodge City, Kansas, where Bat’s brothers Jim and Ed were working in law enforcement. Masterson, Earp told him, would make a good sheriff of Ford County someday, and ought to run for election.
Masterson ended up working as a deputy alongside Earp, and within a few months, he won election to the sheriff’s job by three votes. Right away, Masterson was tasked with cleaning up Dodge, which by 1878 had become a hotbed of lawless activity. Murders, train robberies and Cheyenne Indians who had escaped from their reservation were just a few of the problems Masterson and his marshals confronted early in his term. But on the evening of April 9, 1878, Bat Masterson drew his pistol to avenge the life of his brother. This killing was kept apart from the Masterson lore.
City Marshal Ed Masterson was at the Lady Gay Saloon, where trail boss Alf Walker and a handful of his riders were whooping it up. One of Walker’s men, Jack Wagner, displayed his six-shooter in plain sight. Ed approached Wagner and told him he’d have to check his gun. Wagner tried to turn it over to the young marshal, but Ed told Wagner he’d have to check it with the bartender. Then he left the saloon.
A few moments later, Walker and Wagner staggered out of the Lady Gay. Wagner had his gun, and Ed tried to take it from him. A scuffle ensued, as onlookers spilled out onto the street. A man named Nat Haywood stepped in to help Ed Masterson, but Alf Walker drew his pistol, pushed it into Haywood’s face and squeezed the trigger. His weapon misfired, but then Wagner drew his gun and shoved it into Masterson’s abdomen. A shot rang out and the marshal stumbled backward, his coat catching fire from the muzzle blast.
Across the street, Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson reached for his gun as he chased Wagner and Walker. From 60 feet away, Masterson emptied his gun, hitting Wagner in the abdomen and Walker in the chest and arm.
Bat then tended to his brother, who died in his arms about a half hour after the fight. Wagner died not long afterward, and Walker, alive but uncharged, was allowed to return to Texas, where Wyatt Earp reported that he later died from pneumonia relating to his wounded lung.
Newspapers at the time attributed the killing of Jack Wagner to Ed Masterson; they said he had returned fire during the melee. It was widely believed that this account was designed to keep Bat Masterson’s name out of the story to prevent any “Texas vengeance.” Despite the newspaper accounts, witnesses in Dodge City had long whispered the tale of the Ford County sheriff calmly shooting down his brother’s assailants on the dusty street outside the Lady Gay.
Masterson spent the next 20 years in the West, mostly in Denver, where he gambled, dealt faro in clubs and promoted prize fights. In 1893 he married Emma Moulton, a singer and juggler who remained with Masterson for the rest of his life.
The couple moved to New York in 1902, where Masterson picked up work as a newspaperman, writing mostly about prizefighting at first, but then also covering politics and entertainment in his New York Morning Telegraph column, “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics.” A profile of him written about him 20 years before in the New York Sun followed Masterson to the East Coast, cementing the idea that he had killed 28 men out west. Masterson never did much to dispute the stories or the body count, realizing that his reputation did not suffer. His own magazine essays on life on the Western frontier led many to believe he was exaggerating tales of bravery for his own benefit. But in 1905, he played down the violence of his past, telling a reporter for the New York Times, “I never killed a white person that I remember—might have aimed my gun at one or two.”
He had good reason to burnish his reputation. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Masterson deputy U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New York—an appointment he held until 1912. Masterson began traveling in higher social circles, and became more protective of his name. So he was not pleased to find that a 1911 story in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser quoted a fight manager named Frank B. Ufer as saying Masterson had “made his reputation by shooting drunken Mexicans and Indians in the back.”
Masterson retained a lawyer and filed a libel suit, Masterson v. Commercial Advertiser Association. To defend itself, the newspaper hired a formidable New York attorney, Benjamin N. Cardozo. In May 1913, Masterson testified that Ufer’s remark had damaged his reputation and that the newspaper had done him “malicious and willful injury.” He wanted $25,000 in damages.
In defense of the newspaper, Cardozo argued that Masterson was not meant to be taken seriously—as both Masterson and Ufer were “sporting men” and Ufer’s comments were understood to be “humorous and jocular.” Besides, Cardozo argued, Masterson was a known “carrier of fire arms” and had indeed “shot a number of men.”
When questioned by his attorney, Masterson denied killing any Mexicans; any Indians he may have shot, he shot in battle (and he could not say whether any had fallen). Finally, Cardozo rose to cross-examine the witness. “How many men have you shot and killed in your life?” he asked.
Masterson dismissed the reports that he had killed 28 men, and to Cardozo, under oath, he guessed that the total was three. He admitted to killing King after King had shot him first in Sweetwater. He admitted to shooting a man in Dodge City in 1881, but he wasn’t certain whether the man died. And then he confessed that he, and not his brother Ed, had shot and killed Wagner. Under oath, Bat Masterson apparently felt compelled to set the record straight.
“Well, you are proud of those exploits in which you killed men, aren’t you?” Cardozo asked.
“Oh, I don’t think about being proud of it,” Masterson answered. “I do not feel that I ought to be ashamed about it; I feel perfectly justified. The mere fact that I was charged with killing a man standing by itself I have never considered an attack upon my reputation.”
The jury granted Masterson’s claim, awarding him $3,500 plus $129 in court costs. But Cardozo successfully appealed the verdict, and Masterson eventually accepted a $1,000 settlement. His legend, however, lived on.
Books: Robert K. DeArment, Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Robert K. DeArment, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. Michael Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Soft Skull Press, 2000.
Articles: “They Called Him Bat,” by Dale L. Walker, American Cowboy, May/June 2006. “Benjamin Cardozo Meets Gunslinger Bat Masterson,” by William H. Manz, New York State Bar Association’s Journal, July/August 2004. “‘Bat’ Masterson Vindicated: Woman Interviewer Gives Him ‘Square Deal,’ ” by Zoe Anderson Norris, New York Times April 2, 1905. “W.B. ‘Bat’ Masterson, Dodge City Lawman, Ford County Sheriff,” by George Laughead, Jr. 2006, Ford County Historical Society, http://www.skyways.org/orgs/fordco/batmasterson.html. ”Bat Masterson and the Sweetwater Shootout,” by Gary L. Roberts, Wild West, October, 2000, http://www.historynet.com/bat-masterson-and-the-sweetwater-shootout.htm. “Bat Masterson: Lawman of Dodge City,” Legends of Kansas, http://www.legendsofkansas.com/batmasterson.html. “Bat Masterson: King of the Gunplayers,” by Alfred Henry Louis, Legends of America, http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-batmasterson.html.
February 25, 2013
Besides her killers, the elevator operator was the last person to see Vivian Gordon alive late on the evening of February 25, 1931. A petite redhead about 40 years old, Gordon was wearing an ankle-length mink coat, a platinum watch and a two-carat diamond ring when she left her posh, three-room apartment at 156 East 37th Street in Manhattan around 11 p.m. and got into a Cadillac.
As the toxicologist would discover, at around 1 a.m. she probably ate some sauerkraut, raisins, “the white of egg, onions and celery” and had enough to drink so that her blood alcohol was 0.2 percent. Shortly after that, Gordon was beaten on the head, strangled with a piece of rope and possibly dragged from the car for an indeterminate amount of time. Her body was dumped in Van Cortland Park, near the cemetery and the golf course, where an oil company worker discovered it on his way to the office at 8:20 a.m.
According to the police report, Gordon was wearing a black velvet dress with lace trim and one white kid glove. The other glove lay nearby. A black straw hat and a black suede pump with a rhinestone buckle were found not far away. She was coatless, and her ring, watch and pocketbook were missing.
The case of Vivian Gordon obsessed New York City for weeks. It was on page one of every newspaper and on the covers of magazines. Herald Tribune columnist Heywood Broun covered it, and the Evening Post began “The New School of Murder,” a series about the rise of “the smartest” professional killings. Fictionalizations were sold. Several newspapers, including the Post, compared Gordon’s murder with that of Herman Rosenthal, who in 1912 had been slaughtered in cold blood for threatening to expose police corruption. The difference was that Gordon’s murder would lead to a real investigation into police practices.
Reading about the case in the newspapers in Albany, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt immediately telegrammed Charles McLaughlin, the Bronx district attorney, to ask for the police report. He suspected there was a connection between Gordon’s murder and police “frame-ups,” and he was determined to get to the bottom of it. He had already empowered former judge Samuel Seabury, a crusader against Tammany Hall, to investigate corruption in the magistrates’ courts, where police and judges framed innocent women as prostitutes. But Gordon’s death would inspire Roosevelt to give Seabury broader powers still, one result of which would be that in 1932, New York City’s good-time Mayor Jimmy Walker would be indicted on charges of corruption.
Gordon was born as Benita Franklin in 1891 in Joliet, Illinois. Her father, a prison warden, sent her to the Ladies of Loretto Convent nearby, where she was described as “insubordinate” and tried to kill herself. After running away from the convent, Benita worked as a chorus girl for a while. In Charleston in 1912, she met a man named John Bischoff and became his common-law wife. Three years later, Gordon gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Benita. She fled to New York in 1920.
It is not clear when or why she took the name Gordon or what happened from the time she moved to New York to the moment she was arrested in 1923. But when Vice Patrolman Andrew J. McLaughlin nabbed Gordon at the Langwell Hotel in the arms of her lover, Al Marks, a lingerie salesman and ex-con from Long Branch, New Jersey, Bischoff was filing for divorce. Gordon was convicted of prostitution and sentenced to two years in the Bedford Reformatory, and Bischoff got custody of Benita. The desperate mother would contest the custody decision three times, without success.
Meanwhile, she became what the police would describe as “a woman of many acquaintances” and a scam artist. Or, as the New York Times put it, she was in “the blackmail business” and lent money to gangsters.
By 1931, Gordon had reason to be afraid of many people. Perhaps emboldened by reading about Seabury’s investigations in the paper, in January she wrote her ex-husband—who was by then living in Philadelphia—threatening to reveal his “dirty frame-up” to her daughter and anyone else who would listen. She wrote a similar letter to Officer McLaughlin. On February 7, she wrote to the Seabury Commission to say she wanted to testify that McLaughlin and Bischoff had conspired to frame her eight years earlier in order to seize custody of her daughter.
On February 20, five days before she was strangled, Gordon appeared at 80 Centre Street to tell Seabury lawyer Irving Ben Cooper her story. She left promising to seek corroborating evidence.
Besides squealing, Gordon had other reasons to be afraid. Searching her apartment, the police found diaries mentioning over 300 names—nearly every major gangland figure in New York and prominent businessmen, like the philanthropist Henry Joralemon and John Hoagland, the baking-powder emperor. The notorious madam Polly Adler was there as well. “[Gordon’s] just another woman out to feather her nest quickly,” Adler said.
One way Gordon feathered was by blackmailing wealthy men. A number of gangsters owed her money. She owned buildings in Queens that seemed to be gambling dens. But her diaries named John Radeloff —her lawyer and once her boyfriend—as the “only man I fear.”
Hundreds of police officers were put on the case, and a grand jury was convened. The first people to be interviewed were Radeloff and his associate Sam Cohen, aka Sam Harris aka Chowderhead Cohen, an ex-con Gordon also mentioned in the diaries. The grand jury concluded that the men were hiding something, and they were each held on $100,000 bail.
As the police continued to read the diaries, they discovered another candidate for Gordon’s murder: Joseph Radelow, another ex-boyfriend, her partner in a stock swindle and Radeloff’s cousin. In 1930, the duo fell out after he declined to pay Gordon some money he owed and she testified against him, revealing their “immoral” relationship in front of a grand jury. But the police could find no record of this hearing.
The more the police dug, the more suspects and motives they found. According to a call girl named Helen Dorf, the deceased was a “gold digger.” But Gordon was more like a central bank for criminals. She had advanced the Bronx racketeer Harry Stein funds to commit either bank fraud or start a bootlegging racket in Oslo, of all places. There was speculation that she had been involved with dope and all manner of extortionists and criminals, from Legs Diamond to Arnold Rothstein to the “Long Beach Liquor Mob.”
As the investigation revved up, reformers and educators began to speak out more boldly against corruption in city government than anyone had. John Dewey demanded reform. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Reverend John Haynes Holmes demanded a “swift” investigation and a sweeping examination of corruption in Jimmy Walker’s office. Wise and Holmes were even emboldened to urge Walker to resign, which he declined to do.
In 1931, although Seabury was careful to stay out of the murder investigation and focus on corruption, he personally interviewed some witnesses relevant to the former. He was the first to hear Cassie Clayton, a friend of Gordon’s—and a possible associate of Legs Diamond’s—testify that the victim was obsessed with getting revenge on the men she believed had stolen her daughter.
By March 1, the case had attracted the attention of someone who wished to stop it. Considering that Seabury relied heavily on informants to make his case against the magistrates, it was not surprising that he received several death threats from one “Dr. X,” warning him that Gordon’s fate was evidence of what happened to “squealers.” These threats, written in longhand on telegram forms, immediately were turned over the police, but Dr. X’s identity was never determined.
Officer Andrew McLaughlin was aboard the S.S. California on a six-day Cunard line cruise to Bermuda when Gordon was murdered. After the California docked back in New York, McLaughlin was interviewed by the grand jury. At first he denied remembering anything about her. But the next day, he recalled the dead woman “flirting” with him in 1923.
Roosevelt called Seabury to Albany, probably to discuss the murder investigation, which seemed to have stalled. Asked by the New York Times if he was pursuing any particular persons of interest, Bronx District Attorney Charles McLaughlin (no relation to the patrolman) replied, “Yes, everybody in New York.”
And then on March 4 came a shocking development: Gordon’s 16-year-old daughter killed herself. “I can’t face the world,” she wrote before she turned on the gas.
The outcry from religious figures and reformers surged. Rabbi Wise and Reverend Holmes again spoke out. Two bishops deplored the “wave of lawlessness.” The murder investigation seemed to regain strength. Roosevelt announced that he would launch an investigation of corruption in New York City government. The police, he said, were “on trial.” The Pinkerton Detective Agency was called in to help with the Gordon case; old timers at the police department groused that that had never happened before. Roosevelt named Seabury “special investigator” and launched a parallel investigation into possible misconduct by the ancient Manhattan district attorney, Thomas C. Crain. While the police pursued Gordon’s murderer, special hearings were convened to determine whether there had been judicial misconduct in her 1923 arrest.
It seemed that there had been. Testifying in one of these hearings on March 9, Magistrate H. Stanley Renaud, who had seen Gordon in appellate court that year, was “flushed and nervous.” He said he didn’t remember Gordon. And the minutes of that hearing had been destroyed.
Seabury’s deputy pointed out that Vivian Gordon was a first offender and would not have ordinarily been sentenced. (One thing Seabury focused on was whether judges delivered harsher sentences to first offenders, especially those declining to reveal personal information about themselves.) Renaud evaded the question, instead referring to Bedford Reformatory as a “wonderful school” that anyone would be glad to go to. At the same time, Manhattan D.A. Crain tried to stop Seabury’s investigation into him by offering to cooperate if the judge ceased his special hearings into the magistrates.
And then on March 13, there was a break in the Gordon case. Investigators found that Officer McLaughlin had deposited $35,800 in his bank account over a period of two years when his salary was $3,000 a year. McLaughlin declined to say where he had gotten the money, citing his constitutional rights and accusing Seabury of exceeding his investigation’s authority.
At his hearing, McLaughlin was cavalier, claiming to have made as many as 1,200 vice arrests in ten years, roaming up and down Broadway arresting women, working through his lunch break. He usually worked alone, though he did not want to be called a “lone wolf.” But apparently this lone wolf, while interrogating witnesses, pummeled them with their previous crimes until they confessed to imaginary new ones.
The NYPD speedily released McLaughlin, and he was never charged with framing Vivian Gordon. Nor was the precise source of the $35,800 ever learned. The same morning, Seabury presented H. Stanley Renaud, the magistrate in Gordon’s 1923 arrest, with a table showing that witnesses who protested their innocence in his court fared worse than those who. Renaud confessed that justice had not been served in his court.
On March 18, the City Affairs Committee demanded the removal of Jimmy Walker, who was vacationing in California at the time. Walker dismissed any accusation of police corruption and denied responsibility for corruption in the courts. But the pressure on him was building.
Three weeks later, the police finally dredged up some suspects in the Gordon murder case: The racketeer Harry Stein was indicted. He pleaded not guilty, although the police had collected proof that he had disposed of Gordon’s belongings the day after she died. By May, another indictment followed: Stein’s pal Samuel Greenhauer, a tailor.
And then the police found Harry Schlitten, who was alleged to have driven the murder car. For testifying against Stein, Schlitten was given immunity. Jimmy Walker, having returned from California, applauded the police action and said the arrests proved that there had been no cover-up. Yet even before the trial began, at least some journalists were wondering whether about the convenience of it all. “If by some odd quirk of fate, Mr. Stein should be found not guilty (and what an odd quirk that should be) a good lawyer could make quite a bit of money,” the New Yorker opined.
The trial commenced on June 18. A parade of underworld figures testified. Among the most damning pieces of evidence came when Schlitten told the jury that Stein had pointed out a newspaper photo of Radeloff and identified him as the person who hired him to kill Gordon. Schlitten said Stein told him that Radeloff had threatened a gangland colleague with jail if he didn’t comply. As it turned out, both of the alleged murderers had alibis. Greenhauer was sitting shiva (mourning) for his mother, his family swore. Stein was with his sister at the movies and then a Chinese restaurant. On July 1, after just three hours of deliberation, the men were acquitted.
A representative from the grand jury that had convened in February to investigate Gordon’s death immediately presented the judge with a sworn statement saying that the verdict was a “shock.” The Bronx district attorney would later call the trial “a gross miscarriage of justice.”
The Vivian Gordon case continued to haunt New Yorkers. Seabury was never happy with the verdict. He felt that Stein and Greenhauer had materialized to cover up police corruption. He kept investigating their alibis, but to no avail. As for Walker, he would think about the Vivian Gordon case long after the trial. “There are still more frames than there are pictures,” Walker told his fans in May 1932, only a few months before Roosevelt, aided by Seabury, finally forced him to resign. It could not have happened without the dead woman in Van Cortland Park.
February 21, 2013
Lyudmila Pavlichenko arrived in Washington, D.C., in late 1942 as little more than a curiosity to the press, standing awkwardly beside her translator in her Soviet Army uniform. She spoke no English, but her mission was obvious. As a battle-tested and highly decorated lieutenant in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, Pavlichenko had come on behalf of the Soviet High Command to drum up American support for a “second front” in Europe. Joseph Stalin desperately wanted the Western Allies to invade the continent, forcing the Germans to divide their forces and relieve some of the pressure on Soviet troops.
She visited with President Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterward, Eleanor Roosevelt asked the Ukranian-born officer to accompany her on a tour of the country and tell Americans of her experiences as a woman in combat. Pavlichenko was only 25, but she had been wounded four times in battle. She also happened to be the most successful and feared female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills to her credit—the majority German soldiers. She readily accepted the first lady’s offer.
She graciously fielded questions from reporters. One wanted to know if Russian women could wear makeup at the front. Pavlichenko paused; just months before, she’d survived fighting on the front line during the Siege of Sevastopol, where Soviet forces suffered considerable casualties and were forced to surrender after eight months of fighting. “There is no rule against it,” Pavlichenko said, “but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”
The New York Times dubbed her the “Girl Sniper,” and other newspapers observed that she “wore no lip rouge, or makeup of any kind,” and that “there isn’t much style to her olive-green uniform.”
In New York, she was greeted by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and a representative of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, C.I.O., who presented her with, as one paper reported, a “full-length raccoon coat of beautifully blended skins, which would be resplendent in an opera setting.” The paper lamented that such a garment would likely “go to the wars on Russia’s bloody steppes when Lyudmila Pavlichenko returns to her homeland.”
But as the tour progressed, Pavlichenko began to bristle at the questions, and her clear, dark eyes found focus. One reporter seemed to criticize the long length of her uniform skirt, implying that it made her look fat. In Boston, another reporter observed that Pavlichenko “attacked her five-course New England breakfast yesterday. American food, she thinks, is O.K.”
Soon, the Soviet sniper had had enough of the press’s sniping. “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
Still, Malvina Lindsey, “The Gentler Sex” columnist for the Washington Post, wondered why Pavlichenko couldn’t make more of an effort with regard to her style. “Isn’t it a part of military philosophy that an efficient warrior takes pride in his appearance?” Lindsey wrote. “Isn’t Joan of Arc always pictured in beautiful and shining armor?”
Slowly, Pavlichenko began to find her voice, holding people spellbound with stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion on her homeland, and her career in combat. In speeches across America and often before thousands, the woman sniper made the case for a U.S. commitment to fighting the Nazis in Europe. And in doing so, she drove home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight.
Lyudmila Mykhailvna Pavlichenko was born in 1916 in Balaya Tserkov, a Ukranian town just outside of Kiev. Her father was a St. Petersburg factory worker father, and her mother was a teacher. Pavlichenko described herself as a tomboy who was “unruly in the class room” but athletically competitive, and who would not allow herself to be outdone by boys “in anything.”
“When a neighbor’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range,” she told the crowds, “I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot.” After taking a job in an arms plant, she continued to practice her marksmanship, then enrolled at Kiev University in 1937, intent on becoming a scholar and teacher. There, she competed on the track team as a sprinter and pole vaulter, and, she said, “to perfect myself in shooting, I took courses at a sniper’s school.”
She was in Odessa when the war broke out and Romanians and Germans invaded. “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in,” Pavlichenko recalled, noting that officials tried to steer her toward becoming a nurse. To prove that she was as skilled with a rifle as she claimed, a Red Army unit held an impromptu audition at a hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her toward a pair of Romanians who were working with the Germans. “When I picked off the two, I was accepted,” Pavlichenko said, noting that she did not count the Romanians in her tally of kills “because they were test shots.”
The young private was immediately enlisted in the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, named for Vasily Chapayev, the celebrated Russian soldier and Red Army Commander during the Russian Civil War. Pavlichenko wanted to proceed immediately to the front. “I knew that my task was to shoot human beings,” she said. “In theory that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
On her first day on the battlefield, she found herself close to the enemy—and paralyzed by fear, unable to raise her weapon, a Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm rifle with a PE 4x telescope. A young Russian soldier set up his position beside her. But before they had a chance to settle in, a shot rang out and a German bullet took out her comrade. Pavlichenko was shocked into action. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled. “And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”
She got the first of her 309 official kills later that day when she picked off two German scouts trying to reconnoiter the area. Pavlichenko fought in both Odessa and Moldavia and racked up the majority of her kills, which included 100 officers, until German advances forced her unit to withdraw, landing them in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula. As her kill count rose, she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all—countersniping, where she engaged in duels with enemy snipers. Pavlichenko never lost a single duel, notching 36 enemy sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and night (and, in one case, three days). “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, noting the endurance and willpower it took to maintain positions for 15 or 20 hours at a stretch. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.”
In Sevastopol, German forces badly outnumbered the Russians, and Pavlichenko spent eight months in heavy fighting. “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she said. In May 1942, she was cited in Sevastopol by the War Council of the Southern Red Army for killing 257 of the enemy. Upon receipt of the citation, Pavlichenko, now a sergeant, promised, “I’ll get more.”
She was wounded on four separate occasions, suffered from shell shock, but remained in action until her position was bombed and she took shrapnel in her face. From that point on, the Soviets decided they’d use Pavlichenko to train new snipers. “By that time even the Germans knew of me,” she said. They attempted to bribe her, blaring messages over their radio loudspeakers.“Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”
When the bribes did not work the Germans resorted to threats, vowing to tear her into 309 pieces—a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even knew my score!”
Promoted to lieutenant, Pavlichenko was pulled from combat. Just two months after leaving Sevastopol, the young officer found herself in the United States for the first time in 1942, reading press accounts of her sturdy black boots that “have known the grime and blood of battle,” and giving blunt descriptions of her day-to-day life as a sniper. Killing Nazis, she said, aroused no “complicated emotions” in her. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.”
To another reporter she reiterated what she had seen in battle, and how it affected her on the front line. “Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks,” she said.“Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
Her time with Eleanor Roosevelt clearly emboldened her, and by the time they reached Chicago on their way to the West Coast, Pavlichenko had been able to brush aside the “silly questions” from the women press correspondents about “nail polish and do I curl my hair.” By Chicago, she stood before large crowds, chiding the men to support the second front. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” Her words settled on the crowd, then caused a surging roar of support.
Pavlichenko received gifts from dignitaries and admirers wherever she went—mostly rifles and pistols. The American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song, “Miss Pavlichenko,” about her in 1942. She continued to speak out about the lack of a color line or segregation in the Red Army, and of gender equality, which she aimed at the American women in the crowds. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity,” she said, “a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”
While women did not regularly serve in the Soviet military, Pavlichenko reminded Americans that “our women were on a basis of complete equality long before the war. From the first day of the Revolution full rights were granted the women of Soviet Russia. One of the most important things is that every woman has her own specialty. That is what actually makes them as independent as men. Soviet women have complete self-respect, because their dignity as human beings is fully recognized. Whatever we do, we are honored not just as women, but as individual personalities, as human beings. That is a very big word. Because we can be fully that, we feel no limitations because of our sex. That is why women have so naturally taken their places beside men in this war.”
On her way back to Russia, Pavlichenko stopped for a brief tour in Great Britain, where she continued to press for a second front. Back home, she was promoted to major, awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, her country’s highest distinction, and commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. Despite her calls for a second European front, she and Stalin would have to wait nearly two years. By then, the Soviets had finally gained the upper hand against the Germans, and Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
Eventually, Pavlichenko finished her education at Kiev University and became a historian. In 1957, 15 years after Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied the young Russian sniper around America, the former first lady was touring Moscow. Because of the Cold War, a Soviet minder restricted Roosevelt’s agenda and watched her every move. Roosevelt persisted until she was granted her wish—a visit with her old friend Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Roosevelt found her living in a two-room apartment in the city, and the two chatted amiably and “with cool formality” for a moment before Pavlichenko made an excuse to pull her guest into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of the minder’s sight, Pavlichenko threw her arms around her visitor, “half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how happy she was to see her.” In whispers, the two old friends recounted their travels together, and the many friends they had met in that unlikeliest of summer tours across America 15 years before.
Articles: “Girl Sniper Calm Over Killing Nazis,” New York Times, August 29., 1942. “Girl Sniper Gets 3 Gifts in Britain,” New York Times, November 23, 1942. “Russian Students Roosevelt Guests,” New York Times, August 28, 1942. “Soviet Girl Sniper Cited For Killing 257 of Foe,” New York Times, June 1, 1942. “Guerilla Heroes Arrive for Rally,” Washington Post, August 28, 1942. Untitled Story by Scott Hart, Washington Post, August 29, 1942. “’We Must Not Cry But Fight,’ Soviet Woman Sniper Says,” Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 1942. “Step-Ins for Amazons,” The Gentler Sex by Malvina Lindsay, Washington Post, September 19, 1942. “No Color Bar in Red Army—Girl Sniper,” Chicago Defender, December 5, 1942. “Only Dead Germans Harmless, Soviet Woman Sniper Declares,” Atlanta Constitution, August 29, 1942. “Russian Heroine Gets a Fur Coat,” New York Times, September 17, 1942. “Mrs. Roosevelt, The Russian Sniper, And Me,” by E.M. Tenney, American Heritage, April 1992, Volume 43, Issue 2. “During WWII, Lyudmila Pavlichenko Sniped a Confirmed 309 Axis Soldiers, Including 36 German Snipers,” By Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, June 2, 2012, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/06/during-wwii-lyudmila-pavlichenko-sniped-a-confirmed-309-axis-soldiers-including-36-german-snipers/ “Lieutenant Liudmila Pavlichenko to the American People,” Soviet Russia Today; volume 11, number 6, October 1942. Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/pavlichenko/1942/10/x01.htm
Books: Henry Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2003. Andy Gougan, Through the Crosshairs: A History of Snipers, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.
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.