MOUNT VERNON -- Whether it's a matter of choice or fate, some people collect drama the way others collect knick-knacks.
If there's any better example of this than Sergeant David Columbus Ralston, I'd like to meet him or her. From a safe distance, of course.
Born quietly enough near Steubenville, Ohio, in 1848, Ralston would end up traveling the northern hemisphere extensively, leaving loose ends behind him that include a spouse in a Boston asylum, a daughter in a Home for the Friendless in Chicago, and scientific data still in play today, as his observations are being used to shed light on global warming.
All that, plus starving to death in the Arctic at age 35. David Ralston was simply not interested in living a safe, boring life. And he didn't.
The first jump in Ralston's story is the move from Steubenville, Ohio, to Union County, Iowa, before the boy was even old enough to walk. In Iowa, the boy known as “Clum” to his friends was a “bright, brave, black-eyed boy,” according to a schoolmate who eulogized Ralston years later after his death.
His father, Lewis Ralston, served as postmaster in Columbia, Iowa, south of Des Moines. But a bucolic small-town life wasn't enough for this youth. In 1864, the 15-year old attempted to join the army and fight in the Civil War.
In a sense, he partially succeeded. The enrolling officials didn't catch his lie, and he was enlisted. It was only after a few weeks that the army realized Ralston was underage and sent him home, though he wasn't officially removed from the rolls until he was mustered out at the end of the war, making him, technically, a Civil War veteran.
Lewis Ralston took the ambitious David and the other children he and his wife Nancy had accumulated by then, and moved back to Ohio, settling in Knox County, where other relatives lived.
Lewis set up shop, literally, first in Martinsburg, then later in Monroe Mills, just west of Howard. Later his son, William Henry Ralston, was to serve both as postmaster for Howard and as a Knox County commissioner.
David Columbus Ralston tried small-town life for a bit, but it evidently didn't satisfy his urge for excitement because he left Knox County and went to Boston, Massachusetts, around 1874. There he fell in with a woman named Matilda Fisher, something of a specialist in excitement.
She was born Matilda (or Nellie) McHenry in Scotland (or perhaps Ireland) in 1850 (or maybe 1843) ((or even 1838)). And that's about how every attempt at nailing down the facts about this woman will go for the rest of this story.
What survives through the chaos that was to become her life was that, at one time, the young woman was surely a charmer. Unfortunately, she was an alcoholic and very possibly a chronic liar. But that may not have been immediately evident when Ralston first met her. Or if it was, he didn't care.
It would seem that David C. Ralston and Matilda Fisher became an item in late 1874 or early 1875.
This was a problem, considering Matilda's husband was still alive — though just barely — and her four children were being taken care of by other people. Her husband Abelard was a German immigrant almost 30 years older than his wife. Though they started poor, his Court Street bakery (near the Old State House) was a huge success and by 1875, his estate was worth $50,000.
Matilda, unfortunately, lost interest in both business and children and instead devoted herself to a life of parties drenched in alcohol.
Mr. Fisher dragged himself from his sickbed in a futile attempt to find his wife and bring her home. Instead he caught a fever which accelerated his decline.
Abelard Fisher died in February of 1875, leaving half of his estate to his estranged wife. David and Matilda were married in May of that year, after they realized she was already a few months pregnant.
Matilda Amanda Ralston was born in November.
David attempted to make a go of it in the business world, no doubt with financial support from Matilda. But he found that, unlike his father, he did not care for operating a business, and it didn't take off.
Matilda apparently attempted to do some wheeling and dealing with property in Boston and Chicago, and found herself in trouble. One Boston building owner rented her space to open a saloon (she did have her preferences, after all), but resorted to suing her when she didn't pay.
Matilda's defense was that the place had a bad reputation, preventing her from securing an operating license. She lost the case. Interestingly, places with bad reputations keep cropping up again and again in Matilda's story.
Less than a year after his daughter's birth, David Ralston had apparently had enough of Matilda and her world of constantly changing stories and bad reputations. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and left.
Matilda later claimed that she followed him to his post in Smithfield, South Carolina, taking with her “the best of my furniture, including a new grand square piano.”
Her emphasis on the status symbol of wealth is interesting, considering that at the time she made that statement to a reporter in 1884, she was living in the Charlestown Almshouse for homeless people in Boston. She further claimed that her husband had even then expressed an interest in polar exploration:
“During our life at this place my husband often expressed a great desire to visit the far North and he once told me not to be surprised if he suddenly made up his mind to go if an opportunity presented itself. I always thought, however, that he was simply joking, but when I seriously asked him, he said that he was thoroughly infatuated with the idea, and would risk his life to reach the North pole.”
That's quite a statement, if Ralston ever actually made it. But, as we shall see, it might do well to cast a skeptical eye on everything Matilda says.
Ralston went first west, to Montana, then south to Key West, Florida, while he was in the Signal Corps, achieving the rank of sergeant, and becoming an expert on weather observations that were being tracked across the United States for the first time by the Signal Corps, which was stringing telegraph lines nationwide.
It was the birth of the modern science of weather forecasting, and Sgt. Ralston was in the thick of it. One of the friends he made in Key West was Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, who was to come back into his life in a fateful way just a few years later.
Matilda meanwhile headed to Chicago with her youngest and oldest children in tow, and proceeded to become a notorious figure over the next few years, indulging in bad investments and then claiming that her co-investors robbed her blind. And perhaps they did.
The shady people she was doing business with included a corrupt former constable who still sometimes posed as a lawman. Other people were involved in running saloons and reputed houses of prostitution — at least one of which Matilda and her daughters lived in at one point.
One of her cronies was even known as Mike “The Canary” Mahoney. In some of the stories that emerge from the Windy City in the late 1870s, Matilda is going toe-to-toe with these characters. Then in the next moment, she is filing lawsuits, claiming they bilked her out of money.
By 1878, the Chicago newspapers are calling her “The Modern Jezebel,” which carries more than a whiff of bad reputation about it, and referring to her as a notorious litigator whose suits never amount to anything.
In some cases, her cohorts sued her back. There were “he said/she said” allegations back and forth about stolen jewelry. Before long, it was clear that whether it was stolen from her, lost in bad investments, or just spent profligately, Matilda Ralston (who had reverted to calling herself Matilda Fisher by this point) was flat broke.
In and amongst the lawsuits were periodic arrests. On Jan. 22, 1878, the Chicago Tribune ran a
brief but startling arrest notice: “Matilda Fisher, of Anderson-Gifford lawsuit notoriety, (was) brought into the Madison Street (Police) Station in a beastly state of intoxication.”
A week later, her farce reached its peak of absurdity when she stumbled into a Detroit, Michigan, police station claiming that she'd been drugged in Chicago, taken on a train to Windsor, Canada, and robbed of her last jewelry and money by her former business partners Joseph Hayes, George Gifford, and Mark Maloney. Not surprisingly, the Detroit police elected to pay for a ticket to send her raving self back to Chicago.
When she brought the case to court, her oldest daughter, decribed by one reporter as “plump, rosy, and fashionably dressed,” roundly abused her mother in court for telling lies and arresting one of the men, who had become the daughter's paramour.
By this point, Matilda was sending Chicago reporters on poetic flights of verbiage:
“At the end of the forenoon session of the Armory Police Court yesterday, Justice Summerfield was approached by a weeping woman: a prematurely old wreck of somewhat graceful carriage, but something in nondescript attire, the pompous rustle of a once elegant brown silk dress, contrasting strangely with a small, cheap shawl, and a mean velvet hat. It was Matilda Fisher: she who has been known as 'the $30,000 woman;' she who came here two years ago, wealthy but abandoned, and fell among a gang of harpies, who have robbed her of everything, even to a change of clothing.”
Was she really robbed? Granted, Chicago was then, as ever, notoriously corrupt. And that former constable may well have had connections. But it is interesting that not one of her lawsuits pans out and she gradually becomes regarded with humor in the press.
In March of 1878 her infant daughter Matilda Amanda Ralston is taken away from her and put into the Home for the Friendless on Wabash Street.
The mother is sentenced a steep fine of $100 for continued drunkenness. Since she was unable to pay it, she was sentenced to a stay in Chicago's notorious Bridewell Prison. By the time she got out, her child had been adopted.
Over the next few years, Matilda pops up in various locales around the nation, telling her tale of woe. The amount of money she supposedly took with her to Chicago varies with the retellings. In Chicago, it varied between $20,000 and $30,000.
In New York, she said it was $30,000.
In Memphis, she claimed $40,000.
In Rochester, she collapsed on a train from illness. In New York City, she twice attempted suicide jumping from a ferry boat.
The fact is, if Matilda was in fact suffering from early-onset dementia from Korsakov's syndrome brought on by chronic alcoholism, it's possible that she actually believed her own stories and did not realize that she wasted huge sums of money.
It's also equally possible that in her state of diminished capacity brought on by frequent intoxication, shady characters could have relieved her of even more of it. And some of it must have been initially lost by David Ralston himself, in his failed attempt at business in Boston.
Matilda's most profound loss of all was her 2-year old daughter.
What is clear is that Matilda McHenry/Fisher/Ralston never crossed paths with David C. Ralston again. For his path was soon to dead end on the frozen wastes of Cape Sabine, in the Arctic.
(TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK)