The Wild West, feuds, violence, a mysterious French woman with a temper and hot-headed Irish brothers – it’s a story which could have come straight out of Hollywood, but Hollywood was still very much in its infancy as this tale played out 175 miles away in Ludlow, California.
Today Ludlow is little more than a brief stop on Route 66, the largest remaining structure the Ludlow Mercantile building which was decaying long before it was damaged in an earthquake in 2006. But, almost a century ago, that very store was the centre of a feud between an Irish family and a large feisty French lady, a feud that rolled on for years.
Mathilde Pascaline Vigneron was born in Oise, east of Paris, in France in 1850. Very little is known of her early life except that she was married to Gustave Jacques Masquelier, despite the fact that Monsieur Masquelier was already married to someone else. He and Mathilde moved to London and then to America where Gustave became manager of the Los Angeles Steam Dyeing & Cleaning Company. However, shortly after, Mathilde had moved to a mining town where she became a ‘widow’ – despite the fact that Gustave didn’t die until 1919 (although he too had been calling himself a widower for many years previously!). In 1888, Mathilde married a Calico miner, one Thomas Jefferson ‘TJ’ Preston, and took his name.
By now, Mathilde had established herself as a successful saloon owner, always willing to provide a glass of whiskey and a hand of poker, a game at which she excelled. The couple moved to Daggett and then, around 1900, on to the prosperous railroad town of Ludlow. There TJ started a delivery service but the couple’s money came from the saloon which his wife started. She had been known in the mining towns as ‘Big Mary’, an epithet which reflected both her build and her general demeanour, although I’m not sure whether people would have used that name to her face. Described in accounts of the time as ‘a physical giant’, she thought nothing of helping herself to the odd wooden tie stored by the railroad opposite her saloon, carrying one back to her place on her shoulder. The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad never billed her for the wood; it did, however, move its ties…
Within a short time, ‘Ma’ or ‘Mother’ Preston (as she had become known in the town) owned a saloon, pool room, hotel, restaurant and store. Although she was a tough businesswoman, she was also famous for her generosity in helping people, if often on a business footing. She loaned money to John Denair to build the Ludlow Mercantile Company building in 1908 but foreclosed on the store when he was unable to meet the payments, and then continued to operate it herself. For a few years, Ma Preston was very much the queen of Ludlow … and then the Murphy brothers came to town. They opened their own store, which was a bearable situation for Mathilde – until Thomas and Mike Murphy bought the building right next door to the Mercantile. From that moment, a feud began which would erupt into violence and end in court.
Mathilde resented the newcomers’ store and they, for their part, had no love for this large foreign woman. She was accustomed to bathing in a large barrel in her yard and, according to one story, one night a group of youths turned over the barrel, tipping out Ma Preston in all her glory. She blamed the Murphys and loudly harangued them outside their store, calling them every name under the sun. Mike’s Irish temper snapped and, Ma Preston alleged, he ran out and whipped her with a length of rubber hose. She didn’t wear drawers in summer and was happy to lift up her long dress and show the resulting welts to just about anyone. Then she sued for $10,000, although the resulting settlement was a fraction of that sum.
Things went from bad to worse. In 1915, hearing that someone had jumped her claim upon a valuable mine east of Ludlow, Ma Preston rode her horse out to the claim where a tent had been erected. She later said that she had tripped on a guy rope, propelling her into the tent, whereupon a man – who just happened to be Thomas Murphy – leapt up and beat her severely with a railroad air coupler around the head and body. She immediately issued a claim for damages of $20,000, which included $10,000 for what she said was a permanently crippled right leg, stating that Murphy, who was almost half her age (she was then 66 years old), intended to kill her. The case kept the newspapers busy through the winter of 1915 but, rather disappointingly, appears to have been settled before it reached a courtroom. It would have made quite a case.
So, where was Thomas Preston while his wife was off fighting hand to hand with local rivals? Well, he might have been locked in the chicken coop behind her hotel as she was known to do when he stepped out of line. It was in TJ’s interests to toe whatever line his wife set; the money all belonged to Ma Preston; every building was in her name and she was registered as a sole trader. TJ was, it seems, kept busy running errands and chores for his wife. He was named as ‘head of household’ in the regular state census, but he was anything but.
Peace seemed to descend for a few years and then, out of the blue, Mother Preston announced in 1920 that she and TJ were moving to France to see her relatives – and, more remarkably, she had sold her store, cottages and real estate for $18,000 to her hated rival, Thomas Murphy. It seems that TJ didn’t have much say in this decision – as he had his photograph taken for the very first time in his life, he said wistfully that they were only applying for passports for a year, adding “but I don’t hardly think we will stay that long … I don’t imagine how long ‘Ma’ will want to stay in France, but I imagine that she won’t care for it in a year. She will want to see the folks and look around, but then we’ll probably be coming home.”
It wasn’t to be. Ma Preston bought a small tobacconist shop which the couple ran for a handful of years before TJ died in 1926. Mathilde followed him to the grave just four months later, dying at the age of 76, of heart disease in the American Hospital in Paris. Her closest relative, a nephew, was informed by mail. She left an estate of $70,000 which was dispersed among nieces and nephews who, no doubt, had never heard of Ludlow. Ironically, her arch rival, Thomas Murphy, only survived her by less than five years, dying of cancer in Los Angeles. He had married less than a year before. His widow’s name? Matilda.