A life in piecemeal

Hey, it’s Reading Roulette! Remember Reading Roulette?

Wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. The latest selection, A Duchess And Her Daughter by Alfred Bishop Mason, from 1929, proved frustratingly hard to get hold of, albeit that copies were out there. (And a big shout-out to my friend Will, for facilitating my belated acquisition.) The author of A Duchess And Her Daughter is also proving a bit elusive—likewise out there, but not in any comprehensive way.

Alfred Bishop Mason was born in 1851, the son of Roswell B. Mason, who was mayor of Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. He attended Yale Law School (and was a member of Skull and Bones), and subsequently wrote and translated various works on law, political economy and history. Otherwise, Mason is best known for his “Tom Strong” series, historical stories written for boys, in which a namesake representative of each succeeding generation of the Strong family manages to be present for the most important events in America’s history. A Duchess And Her Daughter seems to be Mason’s only other work of fiction.

In 1893 Mason pops up in the case of Harriet Hubbard Ayer, the cosmetics entrepreneur whose family took advantage of her depression to have her institutionalised. At that time people were compelled to pay for their own incarceration (even if it was involuntary), and Mason was court-appointed to manage the sale of Ayer’s assets. In 1889 he was the guest of Grover Cleveland at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St Augustine, Florida. He must have enjoyed his trip to Florida, because according to the New York Herald Tribune he returned to the Ponce de Leon four years later: “At St. Augustine the weather has been perfect and there have been innumerable sailing parties and picnics besides the usual round of receptions and dances. Mr and Mrs Alfred Bishop Mason recently arrived with a party of guests aboard their private car…”

The same 1889 article refers to Mason as “Vice-President of the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad”; by 1895, he was President of the company. In 1903 we hear of him in association with the Vera Cruz and Pacific Railway. Mason was granted a concession by the Mexican government for the building of a railway line between Cordoba and Santa Lucretia. In an article published by Mason himself on “Mexico And Its People“, he speaks paternally of “my railway”. Evidently the project came to grief, however: William Schell’s study, Integral Outsiders: The American Colony In Mexico City, 1876-1911 reports that, “In 1904, when his road ran into financial difficulties and was taken over by the government, Mason became a promoter of coffee and rubber plantations.” It also refers to Mason as a member of, “This tropical mafia camarilla.”

Mason was married twice. His first wife – who annoyingly I can only find referred to as “Mrs Alfred Bishop Mason” – sounds like a bit of a firecracker. Towards the end of the 19th century she was active in anti-Tammany politics in New York, urging women to use their “influence” on their menfolk and working to galvanise the immigrant population into political action. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Call reports that, having always been interested in machinery, in 1895 she took advantage of her husband’s presidency of the Florida railroad company and learned how to drive a steam train. Eventually, “She could take an engine from the Atlantic to the gulf of Mexico as well as an old engineer.” Mason’s second wife – who earned recognition in her own right and therefore got to keep her name – was Mary Knight Wood, a pianist, composer and song-writer.

And – to bring this blather back to something resembling “the point” – it was Mary to whom Mason dedicated A Duchess And Her Daughter

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2 Comments to “A life in piecemeal”

  1. Do you have any idea what happened to the first wife? Both of his wives sound rather unconventional.

    • That’s a fair observation. No, I don’t know – the last mention I found of her was towards the end of the 19th century; Mason remarried in 1914.

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