Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Dark Horse? The Tale of Midy Morgan

Maria "Midy" Morgan (undated photo)

Midy Morgan is young and energetic, six feet tall with kind blue eyes and a swinging gait.  Born in 1828, she has grown up on her family’s estate in County Cork. She is a superb horsewoman who loves to foxhunt. 

But now it’s 1865 and Midy’s down and out, having been banished from home because she isn’t a man.

Rallying, she sails off to Rome with her mother and sister, an aspiring artist.  “Clad in deepest mourning, with a heavy heart and an extremely light purse,” Midy would later describe herself. 

She already speaks French and now she learns Italian. Segueing into society, she takes up foxhunting “on the Campagna,” according to an American newspaper. Her fearless riding draws admiration.

Before long it’s 1868 and Midy’s accepting a gold hunting watch and diamond brooch from the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II.  The portly monarch with a ridiculous mustache is a horseman himself, and very grateful for her completion of a challenging mission.

He had asked her to purchase for him six fine mares, so she traveled back to Ireland and spent several months looking and negotiating.  Prizes in hand, she valiantly accompanied the horses across the Channel and led them over the Alps to their new home in the Royal Stables at Florence.

King Victor Emmanuel II

America was yet to come.  There Midy would become one of the nation’s first woman journalists, covering horse-racing, the stockyards, the market, husbandry, and the transportation of livestock for the New York Times for more than 25 years.

Midy’s life had the quality of a fairy-tale. After the death of her county squire father, she managed the farm while her older brother fought in the Crimean War.  Midy turned out to be a brilliant manager who coaxed large crops of wheat and vegetables from the brown soil and claimed high prices for her cattle and thoroughbred horses. She also studied veterinary medicine with one of the Queen’s surgeons who examined all domestic animals that arrived at the port of Cork.

It was fortuitous that her brother kicked her off the farm.  She got to see the world and succeed on her own terms.

Born Maria Morgan, Midy never boasted about her many triumphs.  Perpetually facing hostile men who felt threatened by her competence and knowledge, she won them over with her wit and honesty. She nearly always dressed in black, sported a felt hat, and strode around in brown brogans.   

Midy loved Italy, but the American consul – T.B. Lawrence, heir to a New England textile manufacturing fortune – persuaded her to move to the United States.  She arrived in 1869 armed with letters of introduction to Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times; Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Herald, and Leonard Jerome, a financier who built the Jerome Park Racetrack (with August Belmont, Sr., a banker who invested the Rothschild fortune and founded the Belmont Stakes).  Jerome would become the grandfather of Winston Churchill. 

Scandals and corruption swirled
around the business of transporting
cattle throughout the 19th century.

Unfortunately, Henry Raymond had died recently.  His replacement, the well-whiskered John Bigelow, told Midy that the only opening at the Times was for a cattle and livestock reporter.  Of course, she took it and never looked back.  She became a respected authority, especially about cruelty to animals.  Her writing inspired reforms.  And she never minded kicking back in a barroom along the road.

Over time, Midy became friendly with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, former presidents Grant and Arthur, and longtime Senator Chauncey M. Depew.  They made her a member of the American Jockey Club. 

Newspaper Row, Manhattan, mid-1870s:  Times Building (left);
U.S. Post Office (center right)

Jerome Park Racetrack; first race, 1872

In 1873 the New York State Legislature invited Midy to speak about the need for skilled agricultural workers.  Advocating reformatory schools where vagrant girls and boys would receive an “agricultural education,” she said:

To me it matters not whether a man dies worth $5000 or $100,000, so that he has spent a useful, valuable life.  Better does it appear to me to own stock on the boundless prairies, to own flocks and herds, than to own stocks in Wall Street.  There is to me a woeful love of city excitement in young Americans; therefore, any system that would turn the current of youthful life into free and pure channels of agricultural pursuits would be a blessing to society at large.  

In fact, within two decades farming would start to lose its luster for young people.  In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the Country Life Commission to advise on how to stem the exodus from farms to cities.  Improved agricultural education was a centerpiece of the proposals, but the trend was never reversed.

Images of the Union Stockyards in Chicago, 1880s

Midy remained a reporter until her death in 1892.  She had been ill since falling on the ice at the Jersey City stockyards one year earlier.  Anxiety plagued her as well.  Having lost money in a real estate deal, she supplemented her reporter’s salary by working part-time as a station agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In 1885, Midy launched her dream of a house in the Staten Island neighborhood of Livingston along its fashionable north shore.  Perversely, she worked with neither a contractor nor an architect.  Over a period of seven years arose a three-story brick building with a mansard roof.  A chimney ran through the center of each floor, which consisted of one large room, and an iron staircase led to the top.  The dining room walls were covered with painted seashells.  The bathrooms contained plunge baths, which were akin to small pools.

Midy’s sister, the artist, took charge of the decoration.  She lived in the house although Midy never did.  The house no longer exists but Midy endures somewhere, a daring rider of the Gilded Age.

"Cupid with a Dog," bracelet by Luigi Saulini,
parting gift from King Victor Emmanuel to 
Midy Morgan when she left Italy for the U.S. in 1869.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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July Night