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
December 25, 2012
For nearly four decades, anyone driving down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the grainy images of five children, all dark-haired and solemn-eyed, their names and ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath, along with speculation about what happened to them. Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumors always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive. What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again.
George had tried to save them, breaking a window to re-enter the house, slicing a swath of skin from his arm. He could see nothing through the smoke and fire, which had swept through all of the downstairs rooms: living and dining room, kitchen, office, and his and Jennie’s bedroom. He took frantic stock of what he knew: 2-year-old Sylvia, whose crib was in their bedroom, was safe outside, as was 17-year-old Marion and two sons, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., who had fled the upstairs bedroom they shared, singeing their hair on the way out. He figured Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty still had to be up there, cowering in two bedrooms on either end of the hallway, separated by a staircase that was now engulfed in flames.
He raced back outside, hoping to reach them through the upstairs windows, but the ladder he always kept propped against the house was strangely missing. An idea struck: He would drive one of his two coal trucks up to the house and climb atop it to reach the windows. But even though they’d functioned perfectly the day before, neither would start now. He ransacked his mind for another option. He tried to scoop water from a rain barrel but found it frozen solid. Five of his children were stuck somewhere inside those great, whipping ropes of smoke. He didn’t notice that his arm was slick with blood, that his voice hurt from screaming their names.
His daughter Marion sprinted to a neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department but couldn’t get any operator response. A neighbor who saw the blaze made a call from a nearby tavern, but again no operator responded. Exasperated, the neighbor drove into town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris, who initiated Fayetteville’s version of a fire alarm: a “phone tree” system whereby one firefighter phoned another, who phoned another. The fire department was only two and a half miles away but the crew didn’t arrive until 8 a.m., by which point the Sodders’ home had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash.
George and Jeannie assumed that five of their children were dead, but a brief search of the grounds on Christmas Day turned up no trace of remains. Chief Morris suggested that the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies. A state police inspector combed the rubble and attributed the fire to faulty wiring. George covered the basement with five feet of dirt, intending to preserve the site as a memorial. The coroner’s office issued five death certificates just before the new year, attributing the causes to “fire or suffocation.”
But the Sodders had begun to wonder if their children were still alive. (More…)
December 19, 2012
With powerful engines, extensive firepower and heavy armor, the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia in August of 1942 spoiling for a fight. The crew was made up of “green boys”—new recruits who enlisted after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor—who had no qualms about either their destination or the action they were likely to see. Brash and confident, the crew couldn’t get through the Panama Canal fast enough, and their captain, Thomas Gatch, made no secret of the grudge he bore against the Japanese. “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific,” one naval historian wrote.
In less than four months, the South Dakota would limp back to port in New York for repairs to extensive damage suffered in some of World War II’s most ferocious battles at sea. The ship would become one of the most decorated warships in U.S. Navy history and acquire a new moniker to reflect the secrets it carried. The Japanese, it turned out, were convinced the vessel had been destroyed at sea, and the Navy was only too happy to keep the mystery alive—stripping the South Dakota of identifying markings and avoiding any mention of it in communications and even sailors’ diaries. When newspapers later reported on the ship’s remarkable accomplishments in the Pacific Theater, they referred to it simply as “Battleship X.”
That the vessel was not resting at the bottom of the Pacific was just one of the secrets Battleship X carried through day after day of hellish war at sea. Aboard was a gunner from Texas who would soon become the nation’s youngest decorated war hero. Calvin Graham, the fresh-faced seaman who had set off for battle from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the summer of 1942, was only 12 years old.
Graham was just 11 and in the sixth grade in Crockett, Texas, when he hatched his plan to lie about his age and join the Navy. One of seven children living at home with an abusive stepfather, he and an older brother moved into a cheap rooming house, and Calvin supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school. Even though he moved out, his mother would occasionally visit—sometimes to simply sign his report cards at the end of a semester. The country was at war, however, and being around newspapers afforded the boy the opportunity to keep up on events overseas.
“I didn’t like Hitler to start with,” Graham later told a reporter. When he learned that some of his cousins had died in battles, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to fight. “In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent, but they preferred 17,” Graham later said. But he had no intention of waiting five more years. He began to shave at age 11, hoping it would somehow make him look older when he met with military recruiters. Then he lined up with some buddies (who forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp from a local hotel) and waited to enlist.
At 5-foot-2 and just 125 pounds, Graham dressed in an older brother’s clothes and fedora and practiced “talking deep.” What worried him most was not that an enlistment officer would spot the forged signature. It was the dentist who would peer into the mouths of potential recruits. “I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth,” Graham recalled. He lined up behind a couple of guys he knew who were already 14 or 15, and “when the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17.” At last, Graham played his ace, telling the dentist that he knew for a fact that the boys in front of him weren’t 17 yet, and the dentist had let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go.” Graham maintained that the Navy knew he and the others on line that day were underage, “but we were losing the war then, so they took six of us.”
It wasn’t uncommon for boys to lie about their age in order to serve. Ray Jackson, who joined the Marines at 16 during World War II, founded the group Veterans of Underage Military Service in 1991, and it listed more than 1,200 active members, including 26 women. “Some of these guys came from large families and there wasn’t enough food to go around, and this was a way out,” Jackson told a reporter. “Others just had family problems and wanted to get away.”
Calvin Graham told his mother he was going to visit relatives. Instead, he dropped out of the seventh grade and shipped off to San Diego for basic training. There, he said, the drill instructors were aware of the underage recruits and often made them run extra miles and lug heavier packs.
By the time the USS South Dakota made it to the Pacific, it had become part of a task force alongside the legendary carrier USS Enterprise (the “Big E”). By early October 1942, the two ships, along with their escorting cruisers and destroyers, raced to the South Pacific to engage in the fierce fighting in the battle for Guadalcanal. After they reached the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, the Japanese quickly set their sights on the carrier and launched an air attack that easily penetrated the Enterprise’s own air patrol. The carrier USS Hornet was repeatedly torpedoed and sank off Santa Cruz, but the South Dakota managed to protect Enterprise, destroying 26 enemy planes with a barrage from its antiaircraft guns.
Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as a 500-pound bomb struck the South Dakota’s main gun turret. The explosion injured 50 men, including the skipper, and killed one. The ship’s armor was so thick, many of the crew were unaware they’d been hit. But word quickly spread that Gatch had been knocked unconscious. Quick-thinking quartermasters managed to save the captain’s life—his jugular vein had been severed, and the ligaments in his arms suffered permanent damage—but some onboard were aghast that he didn’t hit the deck when he saw the bomb coming. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship to flop for a Japanese bomb,” Gatch later said.
The ship’s young crew continued to fire at anything in the air, including American bombers that were low on fuel and trying to land on the Enterprise. The South Dakota was quickly getting a reputation for being wild-eyed and quick to shoot, and Navy pilots were warned not to fly anywhere near it. The South Dakota was fully repaired at Pearl Harbor, and Captain Gatch returned to his ship, wearing a sling and bandages. Seaman Graham quietly became a teenager, turning 13 on November 6, just as Japanese naval forces began shelling an American airfield on Guadalcanal Island. Steaming south with the Enterprise, Task Force 64, with the South Dakota and another battleship, the USS Washington, took four American destroyers on a night search for the enemy near Savo Island. There, on November 14, Japanese ships opened fire, sinking or heavily damaging the American destroyers in a four day engagement that became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Later that evening the South Dakota encountered eight Japanese destroyers; with deadly accurate 16-inch guns, the South Dakota set fire to three of them. “They never knew what sank ‘em,” Gatch would recall. One Japanese ship set its searchlights on the South Dakota, and the ship took 42 enemy hits, temporarily losing power. Graham was manning his gun when shrapnel tore through his jaw and mouth; another hit knocked him down, and he fell through three stories of superstructure. Still, the 13 year-old made it to his feet, dazed and bleeding, and helped pull other crew members to safety while others were thrown by the force of the explosions, their bodies aflame, into the Pacific.
“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Graham later said. ”It was a long night. It aged me.” The shrapnel had knocked out his front teeth, and he had flash burns from the hot guns, but he was “fixed up with salve and a coupla stitches,” he recalled. “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead. It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” In fact, the ship had casualties of 38 men killed and 60 wounded.
Regaining power, and after afflicting heavy damage to the Japanese ships, the South Dakota rapidly disappeared in the smoke. Captain Gatch would later remark of his “green” men, “Not one of the ship’s company flinched from his post or showed the least disaffection.” With the Japanese Imperial Navy under the impression that it had sunk the South Dakota, the legend of Battleship X was born.
In mid-December, the damaged ship returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for major repairs, where Gatch and his crew were profiled for their heroic deeds in the Pacific. Calvin Graham received a Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat, as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries. But he couldn’t bask in glory with his fellow crewmen while their ship was being repaired. Graham’s mother, reportedly having recognized her son in newsreel footage, wrote the Navy, revealing the gunner’s true age.
Graham returned to Texas and was thrown in a brig at Corpus Christi, Texas, for almost three months.
Battleship X returned to the Pacific and continued to shoot Japanese planes out of the sky. Graham, meanwhile, managed to get a message out to his sister Pearl, who complained to the newspapers that the Navy was mistreating the “Baby Vet.” The Navy eventually ordered Graham’s release, but not before stripping him of his medals for lying about his age and revoking his disability benefits. He was simply tossed from jail with a suit and a few dollars in his pocket—and no honorable discharge.
Back in Houston, though, he was treated as a celebrity. Reporters were eager to write his story, and when the war film Bombadier premiered at a local theater, the film’s star, Pat O’Brien, invited Graham to the stage to be saluted by the audience. The attention quickly faded. At age 13, Graham tried to return to school, but he couldn’t keep pace with students his age and quickly dropped out. He married at age 14, became a father the following year, and found work as a welder in a Houston shipyard. Neither his job nor his marriage lasted long. At 17 years old and divorced, and with no service record, Graham was about to be drafted when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He soon broke his back in a fall, for which he received a 20 percent service-connected disability. The only work he could find after that was selling magazine subscriptions.
When President Jimmy Carter was elected, in 1976, Graham began writing letters, hoping that Carter, “an old Navy man,” might be sympathetic. All Graham had wanted was an honorable discharge so he could get help with his medical and dental expenses. “I had already given up fighting” for the discharge, Graham said at the time. “But then they came along with this discharge program for [Vietnam-era] deserters. I know they had their reasons for doing what they did, but I figure I damn sure deserved [an honorable discharge] more than they did.”
In 1977, Texas Senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower introduced a bill to give Graham his discharge, and in 1978, Carter announced that it had been approved and that Graham’s medals would be restored, with the exception of the Purple Heart. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation approving disability benefits for Graham.
At the age of 12, Calvin Graham broke the law to serve his country, at a time when the U.S. military might well be accused of having had a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to underage enlistees. For fear of losing their benefits or their honorable discharges, many “Baby Vets” never came forward to claim the nation’s gratitude. It wasn’t until 1994, two years after he died, that the military relented and returned the seaman’s last medal—his Purple Heart—to his family.
Articles: “A Medal of Honor,” by Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1994. “Life Aboard ‘Battleship X’: The USS South Dakota in World War II,” by David B. Miller, South Dakota State Historical Society, 1993. “Calvin Graham, 62, Who Fought in War as a 12-Year-Old,” by Eric Pace, New York Times, November 9, 1992. “Congress Votes WWII Benefits For Boy Sailor,” Washington Post, October 23, 1988. “Underage Sailor Wins Recognition,” Hartford Courant, May 9, 1978. “U.S. Battleship’s Green Crew Bags 32 Planes, 4 Warships,” New York Times, January 4, 1943, “Civilian Seeks Navy Discharge,” Hartford Courant, April 12, 1977. “The Navy’s ‘Baby’ Hero Who Won the Bronze Star at 12 Now Wants Justice From the Nation He Served,” by Kent Demaret, People, October 24, 1977. “The USS South Dakota (BB-57) Battleship,” by J.R. Potts, MilitaryFactory.com, http://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=USS-South-Dakota-BB57 “USS South Dakota BB 57,” http://www.navysite.de/bb/bb57.htm “Decades Later, Military Veterans Admit Being Underage When They Enlisted,” Associated Press, November 3, 2003. “Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Turning Point in the Pacific War,” by David H. Lippman, World War II Magazine, June 12, 2006. “I’m Twelve, Sir: The Youngest Allied Soldier in World War Two,” by Giles Milton, http://surviving-history.blogspot.com/2012/07/im-twelve-sir-youngest-allied-soldier.html “Sailor Who Enlisted at 12 Seeks Help,” Washington Post, April 20, 1978.
Film: “Battleship X: The USS South Dakota,” Produced by Rich Murphy, 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1mX_K9lFbA
October 30, 2012
One of the greatest religious movements of the 19th century began in the bedroom of two young girls living in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. On a late March day in 1848, Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, 14, and Kate, her 11-year-old sister, waylaid a neighbor, eager to share an odd and frightening phenomenon. Every night around bedtime, they said, they heard a series of raps on the walls and furniture—raps that seemed to manifest with a peculiar, otherworldly intelligence. The neighbor, skeptical, came to see for herself, joining the girls in the small chamber they shared with their parents. While Maggie and Kate huddled together on their bed, their mother, Margaret, began the demonstration.
“Now count five,” she ordered, and the room shook with the sound of five heavy thuds.
“Count fifteen,” she commanded, and the mysterious presence obeyed. Next, she asked it to tell the neighbor’s age; thirty-three distinct raps followed.
“If you are an injured spirit,” she continued, “manifest it by three raps.”
And it did.
Margaret Fox did not seem to consider the date, March 31—April Fool’s Eve—and the possibility that her daughters were frightened not by an unseen presence but by the expected success of their prank.
The Fox family deserted the house and sent Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester. The story might have died there were it not for the fact that Rochester was a hotbed for reform and religious activity; the same vicinity, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, gave birth to both Mormonism and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism. Community leaders Isaac and Amy Post were intrigued by the Fox sisters’ story, and by the subsequent rumor that the spirit likely belonged to a peddler who had been murdered in the farmhouse five years beforehand. A group of Rochester residents examined the cellar of the Fox’s home, uncovering strands of hair and what appeared to be bone fragments.
The Posts invited the girls to a gathering at their home, anxious to see if they could communicate with spirits in another locale. “I suppose I went with as much unbelief as Thomas felt when he was introduced to Jesus after he had ascended,” Isaac Post wrote, but he was swayed by “very distinct thumps under the floor… and several apparent answers.” He was further convinced when Leah Fox also proved to be a medium, communicating with the Posts’ recently deceased daughter. The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and four hundred people came to hear the mysterious noises. Afterward Amy Post accompanied the sisters to a private chamber, where they disrobed and were examined by a committee of skeptics, who found no evidence of a hoax.
The idea that one could communicate with spirits was hardly new—the Bible contains hundreds of references to angels administering to man—but the movement known as Modern Spiritualism sprang from several distinct revolutionary philosophies and characters. The ideas and practices of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century Australian healer, had spread to the United States and by the 1840s held the country in thrall. Mesmer proposed that everything in the universe, including the human body, was governed by a “magnetic fluid” that could become imbalanced, causing illness. By waving his hands over a patient’s body, he induced a “mesmerized” hypnotic state that allowed him to manipulate the magnetic force and restore health. Amateur mesmerists became a popular attraction at parties and in parlors, a few proving skillful enough to attract paying customers. Some who awakened from a mesmeric trance claimed to have experienced visions of spirits from another dimension.
At the same time the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher and mystic, also surged in popularity. Swedenborg described an afterlife consisting of three heavens, three hells and an interim destination—the world of the spirits—where everyone went immediately upon dying, and which was more or less similar to what they were accustomed to on earth. Self love drove one toward the varying degrees of hell; love for others elevated one to the heavens. “The Lord casts no one into hell,” he wrote, “but those who are there have deliberately cast themselves into it, and keep themselves there.” He claimed to have seen and talked with spirits on all of the planes.
Seventy-five years later, the 19th-century American seer Andrew Jackson Davis, who would become known as the “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism,” combined these two ideologies, claiming that Swedenborg’s spirit spoke to him during a series of mesmeric trances. Davis recorded the content of these messages and in 1847 published them in a voluminous tome titled The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. “It is a truth,” he asserted, predicting the rise of Spiritualism, “that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres…all the world will hail with delight the ushering in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communication will be established.” Davis believed his prediction materialized a year later, on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits in their bedroom. “About daylight this morning,” he confided to his diary, “a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying ‘Brother, the good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration is born.’”
Upon hearing of the Rochester incident, Davis invited the Fox sisters to his home in New York City to witness their medium capabilities for himself. Joining his cause with the sisters’ ghostly manifestations elevated his stature from obscure prophet to recognized leader of a mass movement, one that appealed to increasing numbers of Americans inclined to reject the gloomy Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and embrace the reform-minded optimism of the mid-19th century. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, Americans who adopted Spiritualism believed they had a hand in their own salvation, and direct communication with those who had passed offered insight into the ultimate fate of their own souls.
Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox embarked on a professional tour to spread word of the spirits, booking a suite, fittingly, at Barnum’s Hotel on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, an establishment owned by a cousin of the famed showman. An editorial in the Scientific American scoffed at their arrival, calling the girls the “Spiritual Knockers from Rochester.” They conducted their sessions in the hotel’s parlor, inviting as many as thirty attendees to gather around a large table at the hours of 10 a.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., taking an occasional private meeting in between. Admission was one dollar, and visitors included preeminent members of New York Society: Horace Greeley, the iconoclastic and influential editor of the New York Tribune; James Fenimore Cooper; editor and poet William Cullen Bryant, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who witnessed a session in which the spirits rapped in time to a popular song and spelled out a message: “Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.”
Leah stayed in New York, entertaining callers in a séance room, while Kate and Maggie took the show to other cities, among them Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, where one visitor, explorer Elisha Kent Kane, succumbed to Maggie’s charms even as he deemed her a fraud—although he couldn’t prove how the sounds were made. “After a whole month’s trial I could make nothing of them,” he confessed. “Therefore they are a great mystery.” He courted Maggie, thirteen years his junior, and encouraged her to give up her “life of dreary sameness and suspected deceit.” She acquiesced, retiring to attend school at Kane’s behest and expense, and married him shortly before his untimely death in 1857. To honor his memory she converted to Catholicism, as Kane—a Presbyterian—had always encouraged. (He seemed to think the faith’s ornate iconography and sense of mystery would appeal to her.) In mourning, she began drinking heavily and vowed to keep her promise to Kane to “wholly and forever abandon Spiritualism.”
Kate, meanwhile, married a devout Spiritualist and continued to develop her medium powers, translating spirit messages in astonishing and unprecedented ways: communicating two messages simultaneously, writing one while speaking the other; transcribing messages in reverse script; utilizing blank cards upon which words seemed to spontaneously appear. During sessions with a wealthy banker, Charles Livermore, she summoned both the man’s deceased wife and the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, who announced his identity by writing his name on a card. Her business boomed during and after the Civil War, as increasing numbers of the bereaved found solace in Spiritualism. Prominent Spiritualist Emma Hardinge wrote that the war added two million new believers to the movement, and by the 1880s there were an estimated eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe. These new practitioners, seduced by the flamboyance of the Gilded Age, expected miracles—like Kate’s summoning of full-fledged apparitions—at every séance. It was wearying, both to the movement and to Kate herself, and she, too, began to drink.
On October 21, 1888, the New York World published an interview with Maggie Fox in anticipation of her appearance that evening at the New York Academy of Music, where she would publicly denounce Spiritualism. She was paid $1,500 for the exclusive. Her main motivation, however, was rage at her sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who had publicly chastised Kate for her drinking and accused her of being unable to care for her two young children. Kate planned to be in the audience when Maggie gave her speech, lending her tacit support.
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” Maggie said. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.” The sisters graduated from apple dropping to manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes to make rapping sounds. “A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” she explained. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”
She offered a demonstration, removing her shoe and placing her right foot upon a wooden stool. The room fell silent and still, and was rewarded with a number of short little raps. “There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow,” the New York Herald reported, “working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.” Maggie insisted that her sister Leah knew that the rappings were fake all along and greedily exploited her younger sisters. Before exiting the stage she thanked God that she was able to expose Spiritualism.
The mainstream press called the incident “a death blow” to the movement, and Spiritualists quickly took sides. Shortly after Maggie’s confession the spirit of Samuel B. Brittan, former publisher of the Spiritual Telegraph, appeared during a séance to offer a sympathetic opinion. Although Maggie was an authentic medium, he acknowledged, “the band of spirits attending [her] during the early part of her career” had been usurped by “other unseen intelligences, who are not scrupulous in their dealings with humanity.” Other (living) Spiritualists charged that Maggie’s change of heart was wholly mercenary; since she had failed to make a living as a medium, she sought to profit by becoming one of Spiritualism’s fiercest critics.
Whatever her motive, Maggie recanted her confession one year later, insisting that her spirit guides had beseeched her to do so. Her reversal prompted more disgust from devoted Spiritualists, many of whom failed to recognize her at a subsequent debate at the Manhattan Liberal Club. There, under the pseudonym Mrs. Spencer, Maggie revealed several tricks of the profession, including the way mediums wrote messages on blank slates by using their teeth or feet. She never reconciled with sister Leah, who died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking spree. Maggie passed away eight months later, in March 1893. That year Spiritualists formed the National Spiritualist Association, which today is known as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.
In 1904, schoolchildren playing in the sisters’ childhood home in Hydesville—known locally as “the spook house”—discovered the majority of a skeleton between the earth and crumbling cedar walls. A doctor was consulted, who estimated that the bones were about fifty years old, giving credence to the sisters’ tale of spiritual messages from a murdered peddler. But not everyone was convinced. The New York Times reported that the bones had created “a stir amusingly disproportioned to any necessary significance of the discovery,” and suggested that the sisters had merely been clever enough to exploit a local mystery. Even if the bones were that of the murdered peddler, the Times concluded, “there will still remain that dreadful confession about the clicking joints, which reduces the whole case to a farce.”
Five years later, another doctor examined the skeleton and determined that it was made up of “only a few ribs with odds and ends of bones and among them a superabundance of some and a deficiency of others. Among them also were some chicken bones.” He also reported a rumor that a man living near the spook house had planted the bones as a practical joke, but was much too ashamed to come clean.
Books: Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rose of Spiritualism. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004; Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America. Boston: Beacon University Press, 1989; Nancy Rubin Stuart, The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox. Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, 2005; Reuben Briggs Davenport, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism. New York: G.W. Dillingham, 1888; Andrew Jackson Davis, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. New York: S.S. Lyon and William Fishbough, 1847.
Articles: “The Origin of Spiritualism.” Springfield Republican, June 20, 1899; “Gotham Gossip. Margaretta Fox Kane’s Threatened Exposure of Spiritualism.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 7, 1888; “Fox Sisters to Expose Spiritualism.” New York Herald Tribune, October 17, 1888; “The Rochester Rappings.” Macon Telegraph, May 22, 1886; “Spiritualism Exposed.” Wheeling (WVa) Register, October 22, 1888; “Spiritualism in America.” New Orleans Times- Picayune, April 21, 1892; “Spiritualism’s Downfall.” New York Herald, October 22, 1888; “Find Skeleton in Home of the Fox Sisters.” Salt Lake Telegram, November 28, 1904; Joe Nickell, “A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism”: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/skeletons_tale_the_origins_of_modern_spiritualism/.