Filed Under Conflict

The William F. Cody Lawsuit

Buffalo Bill's Failed Attempt to Recover His Grandfather's Euclid Avenue Property

He hunted buffalo on horseback. He was a top scout for the United States Army. He created and starred in his own magnificent Wild West Show which played to huge crowds all across America and before the crowned heads of Europe. However, in 1882, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was simply no match for Cleveland's justice system.

Philip Cody, the grandfather of Buffalo Bill Cody, was one of Cleveland's pioneer settlers. A Massachusetts native, he lived much of his life in Toronto, Canada, where he became wealthy operating a tavern and speculating in real estate. In about 1830, when he was 60 years old, Cody, his wife Lydia, and nine of their 11 children, moved to Cleveland, then a small village on the south shore of Lake Erie. According to Cody family tradition, they moved here because of political unrest in Canada and because of business opportunities in Cleveland, which was beginning to boom as the result of the construction from 1825 to 1832 of the Ohio and Erie Canal . Cody settled on a 55-acre farm in what was then Cleveland Township. (It became East Cleveland Township in 1845, and in 1872 was annexed to the City of Cleveland.) The farm had 342 feet of frontage on the south side of Euclid Avenue just west of what is today East 86th Street, and stretched all the way south to Quincy Avenue in what is today Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood. Philip Cody lived on this farm for almost twenty years, continuing to engage, as he had in Canada, in real estate transactions, many of them with members of his family who lived nearby. In or about 1847, the year Lydia died, he moved in with his daughter Sophia, whose husband Levi Billings operated a tavern near Doan's Corners, just a half mile or so east of the Cody farm. A few years later, on January 2, 1850, at the age of 80, Philip Cody died.

And that might have been the end of this story except for two developments which occurred in the Cody family almost three decades after Philip's death. First, according to newspaper accounts, in October 1878, Joseph A. Cody, a son of Philip Cody who had lived with or nearby his father during the 1840s, confessed on his deathbed to his nephew Lindus Cody that he had forged deeds and swindled his siblings and their descendants out of their share of Philip's farm. And second, the story about Joseph Cody's deathbed confession eventually reached the ears of Lindus' cousin, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who by this time had become one of the most famous celebrities in late nineteenth century America.

"Buffalo Bill" Cody was born near LeClaire, Iowa in 1846. His father, Isaac, was one of Philip Cody's 11 children. Isaac had come to Cleveland with the rest of the family, but had left the area around 1840, following his brothers Elijah and Philip Jr. west to Iowa, before eventually moving to Kansas in 1854. Shortly after his arrival there, Isaac was stabbed twice in the chest while giving a speech opposing the extension of slavery in the state, suffering injuries from which he never fully recovered. When he died in 1857, his 11-year old son Bill had to go to work, according to biographers, in order to help his mother and four sisters. He became a wagon train messenger, a pony express rider, a buffalo hunter, and finally a scout for the U.S. Army. By 1870, his western exploits caught the attention of Edward Judson, who, under the pseudonym "Ned Buntline," began writing a series of dime novels about "Buffalo Bill" Cody which soon made him a household name in America. Capitalizing on his newfound fame, Cody, when he was not scouting for the Army, began starring in plays (called "combinations"). His performances in these plays, which were based upon his reputed feats in the Wild West, further enhanced his fame, especially back East. Then, in 1883, Cody, with the assistance of his publicist John Burke and others, created Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a show, which, unlike the plays in which he appeared, featured real cowboys engaged in rodeo events, reenactments of buffalo hunts, feats of marksmanship (starring, among others, Ohio's Annie Oakley), and amazing tricks performed on horseback (some by Adele von Ohl Parker, who later created her own Wild West Show on Parker Ranch in Norh Olmsted, Ohio), all performed in outdoor venues. The performances of these shows over the next three decades would cement Cody's fame for several generations of Americans, and was a major influence on the development of twentieth century western films, rodeos and circuses in this country.

In 1880, just three years before Buffalo Bill Cody launched his Wild West Show, his Aunt Margaret, the widow of his father's brother Elijah, learned about the alleged fraudulent acts of Joseph Cody and, according to news accounts, launched her own two-year long personal investigation into the matter, traveling around the country, examining deeds, identifying heirs, and talking to family members and others with knowledge of Joseph Cody and the mental condition and business acumen of Philip Cody in the 1840s. In early 1882, she contacted her nephew Buffalo Bill about the matter, not just because he was a celebrity, but also likely because she needed money to file a lawsuit. According to one source, Buffalo Bill, who agreed to bankroll the effort--in large part, he later claimed, in order to help his four sisters--paid $5,000 to retain Hutchins, Campbell, and Johnson, a prominent law firm in Cleveland with offices in the Blackstone Building, located just a block or so from the old County Court House on the northwest quadrant of Public Square. It was there that the Cody lawsuit would be heard before Judge Gershom Barber, a reputedly able jurist who had served as a brigadier general during the Civil War. It wasn't long before Cleveland's major newspapers--the Plain Dealer, the Leader, and the Herald, as well as major newspapers across the country, were abuzz with articles claiming that a lawsuit was about to be filed here in Cleveland against a number of wealthy Euclid Avenue residents and that the famous Buffalo Bill Cody was a plaintiff in the suit. Estimates of the value of the land which Cody was trying to recover for his sisters and the other heirs ranged, according to different articles, from $300,000 to $3,000,000.

The Cody lawsuit was filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on July 22, 1882. Named as plaintiffs were 14 heirs of Philip Cody representing six of his 11 children, led by William F. Cody. (Of Philip Cody's remaining five children, one had died without children, two were alleged to have participated in the fraud against the heirs, and the heirs of the remaining two, Elizabeth Custead and Lydia O'Dell, apparently--as intimated in a letter to the editor which appeared in the Cleveland Leader on March 17, 1882--declined to participate in the lawsuit). Named as defendants were 104 Clevelanders who were alleged to be at the time of the filing of the suit the owners of the land that had constituted Philip Cody's 55-acre farm at the time of his death in 1850. The defendants included four upper class Cleveland families who lived or owned land on Euclid Avenue, by then one of the most famous residential streets in America, if not the world. The vast majority of the remaining defendants were middle class or working class Clevelanders, most owning or living in houses on Lincoln Avenue (today, East 83rd Street), between Cedar and Quincy Avenues. The southernmost part of this section of the street was fast becoming an ethnic enclave for Cleveland's Czech immigrants who would just one year later organize St. Adalbert Catholic Church on Lincoln Avenue, between Garden (today, Central) and Quincy Avenues.

The plaintiffs' theory of liability in the Cody Lawsuit was that the 104 defendants had purchased their land, either directly or indirectly, from, in essence, thieves--the petition claiming that Philip Cody, Jr., as well as his brother Joseph, had fraudulently acquired their father's farm in the 1840s--and that the law does not recognize the validity of even a bona fide purchaser's title when it is obtained from a thief. The petition further claimed that the fraud was committed by Joseph Cody and Philip Cody, Jr., when they took advantage of their father's diminished mental condition and either forged deeds in his name or induced him to sign deeds, conveying half of Philip Sr.'s farm, in trust, to Joseph Cody's wife, and the other half to Philip Cody Jr.'s wife. For their remedy, the plaintiffs asked the court to convey to them a six-tenths interest (because only six of the ten Cody children or their descendants were participating in the suit) in each defendants' property, subject to adjustments for improvements made and for rents collected.

The Cody lawsuit plaintiffs never were allowed an opportunity to proceed to trial and present evidence in support of their petition's allegations in open court. Instead, their petition was subjected to a number of formulaic nineteenth century procedural motions by attorneys representing various individual defendants and groups of defendants, including several filed by Ephraim J. Estep, a well known member of the Cleveland bar and former resident of Euclid Avenue (see Allen-Sullivan House story), who represented 62 of the defendants, including Darius Cadwell, one of Judge Gershom Barber's colleagues on the Common Pleas Court bench. Essentially, the defendants complained that plaintiffs' petition did not allege sufficient specific facts from which the court could legally find for the plaintiffs. Judge Barber, who appears to have agreed with the substance of the defendants' motions, gave the plaintiffs two opportunities to correct the alleged legal deficiencies in their petition and, when they failed to do so to his satisfaction, dismissed their petition in May of 1883. It is difficult today--even for a retired lawyer--to determine the exact grounds upon which the court based its decision. However, the plaintiffs' attorney, John Hutchins, in an interview he gave which appeared in the Plain Dealer on July 23, 1889, stated that the judge's decision was based on a statute of limitations argument. This essentially means that the time within which the plaintiffs were legally required to bring such an action based on fraud had expired before the suit was filed. The Cody heirs filed an appeal from Judge Barber's judgment to the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals (then called the District Court), which affirmed the lower court's judgment in October 1885. An appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court was dismissed in November 1887 "for failure to file printed record," an indication that Buffalo Bill Cody had, by this time, tired of the case and was no longer willing to throw good money after bad.

In addition to the Plaintiffs not getting their day in court, it should be noted that neither did Joseph Cody and Philip Cody, Jr., both of whom had died before the lawsuit was filed. While the dismissal of the case was a victory for the defendants, it left unanswered the question of whether Joseph and Philip Cody, Jr. did, in fact, commit fraud and deprive the other children and their heirs out of a share of the Cody farm. On that question, it must be emphasized, as noted above, that Philip Cody engaged in a number of real estate transactions in the 1840s wth members of his family, including his sons-in-law William Custead, John Odell, and Levi Billings. And yet none of these individuals, or the Cody daughters that they married, were ever charged with fraud.

Over 130 years have passed since William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody came to Cleveland in a failed effort to recover his grandfather's 55-acre farm on Euclid Avenue. Unlike other Cleveland Historical stories that are about people or places, little is left standing in Cleveland to commemorate or otherwise remind us of Buffalo Bill's 1882 lawsuit. But there are some places which can serve to do so. You can make a trip to East Cleveland Township Cemetery and there view the weathered gravestone of Buffalo Bill's grandparents, Philip and Lydia Cody. Or you can take a drive down East 83rd Street, just south of Cedar Avenue, and see three houses at 2202, 2208 and 2210 East 83rd that were standing in 1882 and were owned and/or occupied by defendants in the Cody Lawsuit. And finally, you can visit the website of the International Cody Family Association, formed shortly after the death of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody in 1917, to travel back to a time when Buffalo Bill Cody was a household name in America, when Euclid Avenue was one of the grandest residential avenues in the United States, and when a trip by Buffalo Bill to Cleveland for the purpose of bringing a lawsuit against wealthy Euclid Avenue residents was an event which captured the attention and interest not only of Clevelanders, but of people all across the country.


Images

Meeting with his Cleveland family. On September 9 and 10, 1914, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody and his Wild West Show appeared in Cleveland at the Scranton Road show grounds. In this photo, taken in front of one of the show's tents, Buffalo Bill poses with his Cleveland relatives, most of them members of his first cousin Lindus Cody's family. The people in the photo are: from left to right (back row) - Arthur Philip Cody, Sr., William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Harry Cody, Marie Cody (wife of Arthur), Sam Higginbottom (holding baby Henry Higginbottom), Ethel Cody Higginbottom, and Frank Cody; and (front row ) - Roy Marsh, Elizabeth Higginbottom, Betty Cody, Sam Ashton Higginbottom, and Gertrude Cody. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
Great Bargains in Real Estate. So Joseph A. Cody, son of Philip Cody, advertized his father's farm land in this December 19, 1850 Plain Dealer advertisement, placed the same year of his father's death. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Locating the Cody Farm There are no known maps of the section of Euclid Avenue where Philip Cody's 55-acre farm was located that predate his death in 1850. This 1858 Cuyahoga County map shows the frontage of his farm--the two lots circled in red--as well as black squares that represent the two farm houses that stood on the land when Philip Cody was alive. The house on the DeWolf property was prior to 1850 the home of Joseph A. Cody, Philip's son. The house on the H.M. Cody property was the home of Philip Cody. In 1858, this section of the farm was part of East Cleveland Township. It was annexed to Cleveland in 1872. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Garnering National Attention. When word leaked out in the spring of 1882 that William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was preparing to bring a lawsuit against wealthy residents of Cleveland's famed Euclid Avenue, it became newsworthy across the United States. The above article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on March 18, 1882. (The article mistakenly states that Buffalo Bill's grandfather died in 1830, instead of the actual year he died, 1850.) Source: Newspapers.com
The Contested Acreage. The approximate property lines of the 55 acres of land which at one time were owned by Philip Cody and which were the subject of the 1882 lawsuit brought in Cleveland by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody and other heirs, are shown in red on this plate of the 1881 Cleveland Atlas. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Philip and Lydia Cody Gravestone When he died in 1850, Philip Cody was, according to an April 8, 1937 Plain Dealer article written by S. J. Kelly, buried with his wife Lydia in the cemetery of the "old" Congregationalist Church located on Euclid Avenue near East 105th Street. When the Alhambra Theater and other commercial buildings went up on Euclid Avenue near East 105th in the early twentieth century, the cemetery was closed and Arthur Cody, one of Philip and Lydia Cody's great grandsons, according to the Kelly article, arranged for their remains to be removed and re interred at East Cleveland Township Cemetery. The records of that cemetery indicate that their bodies are still buried there. However, for many years their gravestone was at Lake View Cemetery near other Cody family graves. It is somewhat of a mystery as to how that occurred. In 2019, the East Cleveland Township Cemetery Foundation reached an agreement with Lake View Cemetery Foundation regarding the gravestone. In 2020 it was returned to East Cleveland Township Cemetery. The above photo of the gravestone was taken there in July 2020. It now waits to be set above the graves of Philip and Lydia Cody. Source: Nancy L. Adams
Key Cleveland Buildings. The historic Cleveland buildings shown above--none of which are still standing--all played a key role in the Cody Lawsuit. Starting at the top and then proceeding clockwise: (1) The "old" County Court House that sat on the northwest quadrant of Public Square where the 55 Public Square Building (formerly, the Illuminating Building) stands today. This is where the Cody Lawsuit was litigated. (2) The Clarendon Hotel, which sat on the northeast corner of St. Clair Avenue and Ontario Street where the Medical Mart stands today. This was where Margaret Cody and Sophia Decker, the two women who conducted the investigation for the Cody Lawsuit stayed when they were in Cleveland, and where Buffalo Bill Cody met them when he was in Cleveland. It was within walking distance of both the Court House and their attorney's offices. (3) The Blackstone Building which sat on the southwest corner of Frankfort and West 3rd Streets was where the law offices of Hutchins, Campbell and Johnson,the attorneys for the plaintiffs, were located. From their offices to the old Court House was just a few minutes walk. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection for (1) and (2). Western Reserve Historical Society for (3).
Cody and his Sisters In bringing his lawsuit against 102 innocent purchasers of land once owned by his grandfather, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody claimed that he was doing it, not for himself--that he had more than enough money--but for his sisters. Cody had felt an obligation to take care of his sisters ever since their father died in 1857 when Cody was just 13 years old. This photo is of Cody with four of his sisters. From left to right are: Eliza, Helen, May and Julia. The photo was taken some time prior to the death of Eliza on June 28, 1902. Source: Courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming; McCracken Research Library; MS006-William F. Cody Collection; P.6.0870.23.
The Deathbed Confession. Lindus Cody (center), shown here in this 1923 photo taken in Cleveland with his brother Darwin (left) and his cousin Ida Nichols (right), was the person who started the chain of events leading to the 1882 Cody lawsuit. In about 1880, he had told his Aunt Margaret Cody that he witnessed Joseph Cody, on his deathbed in 1878, confess to having defrauded his brothers and sisters, and their descendants, out of their share of Philip Cody's 55-acre farm on Euclid Avenue. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
1926 Cody Family Reunion Following the death of their famous relative, William F. Cody, in 1917, the members of the Cody family formed an association and began holding annual reunions, many of them in Cleveland. The 1926 reunion was held here. Meetings were held in the Statler Hotel in downtown Cleveland, and more informal gatherings were held in the Willowick home of Lindus Cody, Buffalo Bill Cody's first cousin. Lindus is the very old man in the second row, sitting in a chair, to the left of the middle of the photo. To his left is his wife. Also in the photo, three women to the right of Lindus is 83-year old Julia Goodman, the last surviving sister of Buffalo Bill Cody. She died two years later in 1928. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
A Continued Cleveland Presence. Philip Cody, his wife Lydia, and 9 of their 11 children came to Cleveland in 1830. While Philip's son Isaac, the father of Buffalo Bill Cody, and several other of his children and grandchildren left Cleveland, many stayed. For almost two centuries, various members of the family have made contributions to the growth and development of Cleveland. One of those was Sarah I. Cody (1920-2010), longtime Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library Director. Sarah was a granddaughter of Lindus Cody, and a great-great granddaughter of Philip Cody. She is shown in the 1976 photo above, two years before her retirement from the Library. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Now and Then. According to local architectural historian Craig Bobby, the houses at 2202, 2208 and 2210 East 83rd Street have been standing on that street since the 1870s. Their owners in 1882 were among the 104 defendants sued by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who was attempting to recover his grandfather's 55-acre farm on Euclid Avenue. The photos above are of the house at 2208 East 83rd Street. The photo on the left, taken in 1963, reveals, according to Bobby, many of the house's nineteenth century architectural features still in place in that year. However, they were largely removed in subsequent modernizations of the house as is evident in the 2019 Google Map photo on the right of the same house. Source: Left photo: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection; Right photo: Google Maps

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “The William F. Cody Lawsuit,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 28, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/873.