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.
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.
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 8, 2013
On April 30, 1945, as Soviet troops fought toward the Reich Chancellery in Berlin in street-to-street combat, Adolf Hitler put a gun to his head and fired. Berlin quickly surrendered and World War II in Europe was effectively over. Yet Hitler’s chosen successor, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, decamped with others of the Nazi Party faithful to northern Germany and formed the Flensburg Government.
As Allied troops and the U.N. War Crimes Commission closed in on Flensburg, one Nazi emerged as a man of particular interest: Albert Speer, the brilliant architect, minister of armaments and war production for the Third Reich and a close friend to Hitler. Throughout World War II, Speer had directed an “armaments miracle,” doubling Hitler’s production orders and prolonging the German war effort while under relentless Allied air attacks. He did this through administrative genius and by exploiting millions of slave laborers who were starved and worked to death in his factories.
Speer arrived in Flensburg aware that the Allies were targeting Nazi leaders for war-crimes trials. He—like many other Nazi Party members and SS officers—concluded that he could expect no mercy once captured. Unlike them, he did not commit suicide.
The hunt for Albert Speer was unusual. The U.N. War Crimes Commission was determined to bring him to justice, but a U.S. government official hoped to reach the Nazi technocrat first. A former investment banker named Paul Nitze, who was then vice chairman of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, believed it was imperative to get to Speer. As the war in Europe was winding down, the Americans were hoping that strategic bombing in Japan could end the war in the Pacific. But in order to achieve that, they hoped to learn more about how Germany had maintained its war machine while withstanding heavy bombing. Thus Nitze needed Speer. In May 1945, the race was on to capture and interrogate one of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen.
Just after Hitler’s death, President Donitz and his cabinet took up residence at the Naval Academy at Murwik, overlooking the Flensburg Fjord. On his first evening in power, the new leader gave a nationwide radio address; though he knew German forces could not resist Allied advances, he promised his people that Germany would continue to fight. He also appointed Speer his minister of industry and production.
On May 15, American forces arrived in Flensburg and got to Speer first. Nitze arrived at Glucksburg Castle, where Speer was being held, along with the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was also working for the Strategic Bombing Survey, and a team of interpreters and assistants. They interrogated Speer for seven straight days, during which he talked freely with the Americans, taking them through what he termed “bombing high school.” Each morning Speer, dressed in a suit, would pleasantly answer questions with what struck his questioners as remarkable candor—enough candor that Nitze and his associates dared not ask what Speer knew of the Holocaust, out of fear that his mood might change. Speer knew his best chance to survive was to cooperate and seem indispensable to the Americans, and his cooperation had a strange effect on his interrogators. One of them said he “evoked in us a sympathy of which we were all secretly ashamed.”
He demonstrated an unparalleled understanding of the Nazi war machine. He told Nitze how he had reduced the influence of the military and the Nazi Party in decision-making, and how he had followed Henry Ford’s manufacturing principles to run the factories more efficiently. He told his interrogators why certain British and American air attacks had failed and why others had been effective. He explained how he’d traveled around Germany to urge his workers on in speeches he later termed “delusional,” because he already knew the war was lost.
In March 1945, he said, with the end in sight, Hitler had called for a “scorched earth” plan (his “Nero Decree”) to destroy any industrial facilities, supply depots, military equipment or infrastructure that might be valuable to advancing enemy forces. Speer said he was furious and disobeyed Hitler’s orders, transferring his loyalty from der Fuhrer to the German people and the future of the nation.
After a week, Nitze received a message from a superior: “Paul, if you’ve got any further things you want to find out from Speer you’d better get him tomorrow.” The Americans were planning on arresting the former minister of armaments and war production, and he would no longer be available for interrogation. Nitze did have something else he wanted to find out from Speer: He wanted to know all about Hitler’s last days in the bunker, since Speer was among the last men to meet with him. According to Nitze, Speer “leaned over backwards” to help, pointing the Americans to where they could find records of his reports to Hitler—many of which were held in a safe in Munich. Nitze said Speer “gave us the keys to the safe and combination, and we sent somebody down to get these records.” But Speer was evasive, Nitze thought, and not credible when he claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust or war crimes against Jews laboring in his factories.
“It became evident right away that Speer was worried he might be declared a war criminal,” Nitze later said. On May 23, British and American officials called for a meeting with Flensburg government cabinet members aboard the ship Patria and had them all arrested. Tanks rolled up to Glucksburg Castle, and heavily armed troops burst into Speer’s bedroom to take him away. “So now the end has come,” he said. “That’s good. It was all only kind of an opera anyway.”
Nitze, Galbraith and the men from the bombing survey moved on. In September 1945, Speer was informed that he would be charged with war crimes and incarcerated pending trial at Nuremberg, along with more than 20 other surviving members of the Nazi high command. The series of military tribunals beginning in November 1945 were designed to show the world that the mass crimes against humanity by German leaders would not go unpunished.
As films from concentration camps were shown as evidence, and as witnesses testified to the horrors they endured at the hands of the Nazis, Speer was observed to have tears in his eyes. When he took the stand, he insisted that he had no knowledge of the Holocaust, but the evidence of slave labor in his factories was damning. Speer apologized to the court and claimed responsibility for the slave labor, saying he should have known but did not. He was culpable, he said, but he insisted he had no knowledge of the crimes. Later, to show his credentials as a “good Nazi” and to distance himself from his co-defendants, Speer would claim that he’d planned to kill Hitler two years before by dropping a poison gas canister into an air intake in his bunker. On hearing that, the other defendants laughed in the courtroom.
In the fall of 1946, most of the Nazi elites at Nuremberg were sentenced either to death or to life in prison. Speer received 20 years at Spandau Prison in Berlin, where he was known as prisoner number 5. He read continuously, tended a garden and, against prison rules, wrote the notes for what would become bestselling books, including Inside the Third Reich. There was no question that Speer’s contrition in court, and perhaps his cooperation with Nitze, saved his life.
After serving the full 20 years, Speer was released in 1966. He grew wealthy, lived in a cottage in Heidelberg, West Germany, and cultivated his image as a “good Nazi” who had spoken candidly about his past. But questions about Speer’s truthfulness began to dog him soon after his release. In 1971, Harvard University’s Erich Goldhagen alleged that Speer had been aware of the extermination of Jews, based on evidence that Speer had attended a Nazi conference in 1943 at which Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s military commander, had spoken openly about “wiping the Jews from the face of the earth.” Speer admitted that he’d attended the conference but said he had left before Himmler gave his infamous “Final Solution” speech.
Speer died in a London hospital in 1981. His legacy as an architect was ephemeral: None of his buildings, including the Reich Chancellery or the Zeppelinfeld stadium, are standing today. Speer’s legacy as a Nazi persists. A quarter-century after his death, a collection of 100 letters emerged from his ten-year correspondence with Helene Jeanty, the widow of a Belgian resistance leader. In one of the letters, Speer admitted that he had indeed heard Himmler’s speech about exterminating the Jews. “There is no doubt—I was present as Himmler announced on October 6 1943 that all Jews would be killed,” Speer wrote. “Who would believe me that I suppressed this, that it would have been easier to have written all of this in my memoirs?”
Books: Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, Simon & Schuster, 2006. Dan Van Der Vat, The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997.
Articles: “Letter Proves Speer Knew of Holocaust Plan,” By Kate Connolly, The Guardian, March 12, 2007. “Wartime Reports Debunk Speer as the Good Nazi,” By Kate Connolly, The Guardian, May 11, 2005. “Paul Nitze: Master Strategist of the Cold War,” Academy of Achievement, http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/nit0int-5. ”Speer on the Last Days of the Third Reich,” USSBS Special Document, http://library2.lawschool.cornell.edu/donovan/pdf/Batch_14/Vol_CIV_51_01_03.pdf. “The Long Arm of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey,” by Rebecca Grant, Air Force Magazine, February, 2008.
Film: Nazi Hunters: The Real Hunt for Hitler’s Henchmen, The “Good” Nazi? History Channel, 2010, Hosted by Alisdair Simpson