- Historic Sites
The Commodore Left Two Sons
—and America’s greatest fortune up to that time, some $100,000,000. The legal battle that followed, full of tarts and torts and turnabouts, might have been plotted by Dickens
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
When Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt expired in New York City on January 4, 1877, with members of his family gathered about his bed singing “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” he was by far the richest man who had ever died in the United States of America. He had gone to bed for the last time early in May of the previous year. After nearly eighty-three years of strenuous living, his staunch body was finally exhausted by a multitude of ailments, any one of which might have killed an ordinary person. The doughty old Commodore has had his less fervent admirers both before and since his demise, but no one has ever accused him of having been an ordinary person. He fought on through the summer and fall, stubborn and irascible and profanely contemptuous of those whose great expectations were being so maddeningly prolonged by his reluctance to become a decedent.
His residence at 10 Washington Place, then a quiet backwater between the gilded flow of fashion northward from Washington Square and the swirl of commerce up Broadway, was shabby by comparison with the great mansions soon to be built by his favored heirs, and it swarmed with relatives and friends speaking in appropriately hushed voices all through the months of his illness. It must have resembled one of those scenes so relished by writers of popular Victorian novels, with only the favorites permitted to hover solicitously about the deathbed. The aging daughters, who had disapproved of the young wife of their lather’s declining years and whose mere presence now provoked him into violent rages, were relegated to the hallway outside his chamber, from which they could peek in at him reproachfully whenever the door was opened. At an even farther remove from parental favor, downstairs on the parlor floor, a truly classic example of the wastrel and debt-ridden younger son paced fitfully to and fro, still hopeful of winning a last-minute reprieve.
Down on Wall Street the Commodore’s old playmates in the game of swallowing railroads waited ravenously. Their mouths already watered in anticipation of the luscious pickings which would be theirs when the old man’s controlling interest in the New York Central was divided among a do/en mutually antagonistic heirs. For some of them the strain was too much; premature announcements of his death were frequently circulated in an effort to drive down the price of Central stock, but the great railroad empire that the Commodore had wrested from the wolves of the Street was impervious to such petty chicanery.
Beyond these financially expectant inner circles was the general public, motivated by nothing more tangible than curiosity as to how the richest man in America, having died, would leave his fortune. This curiosity was considerably whetted by the newspapers, which used relays of reporters to maintain a twentyfour-hour vigil about the house and which printed daily bulletins spiced with assorted rumors and conjectures. Even allowing for this journalistic incitement, ihe extent of general interest in the imminent demise of a private citizen from natural causes seems hardly credible today. But wealth on such a vast scale as Cornelius Vanderbilt’s seemed less credible then. William B. Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor, had died two years earlier leaving forty million dollars, but the Astor fortune had been the product of two lives spanning nearly a century, and it was not nearly so impressive as Vanderbilt’s one hundred-odd millions, which he alone had accumulated—and mostly in the last fifteen years of his life. Most of the rich men of the time were worth only a few hundred thousand dollars, but in the extremely solid dollars current in those days, one hundred thousand was a tidy fortune. For a man born poor to amass such a fortune as the Commodore’s was a phenomenon so baffling to the imagination that even the rumors grossly underestimated its extent.
The funeral took place on Sunday, January 7. It was described as unostentatious but impressively solemn. After a brief service at the Church of the Strangers around the corner on Mercer Street, the cortege proceeded down Broadway to the Battery, crossed by ferry to Staten Island, and there in the old Moravian burying ground at New Dorp, among generations of humble ancestors, Cornelius Vanderbilt was laid to rest.
The next day, promptly at noon, the bereaved family gathered in the home of William K. Thorn, a sonin-law of sufficient independent wealth to be on reasonably good terms with all factions, to hear Judge Charles A. Rapallo read decedent’s last will and testament. In the macabre gloom customary in the parlors of that era, with the austere and venerable Judge Rapallo presiding, it must indeed have been a grimly momentous occasion in the lives of the two sons and eight daughters who had grown old awaiting it. Phoebe Jane, the eldest, who was sixty-two, barely survived it.
“I Cornelius Vanderbilt, of the City of New York, do make and publish my last will and testament as follows …” Thus commenced the document which would dispose of all the vast accumulation of worldly goods of which decedent had died possessed. First, he gave to his beloved wife, Frank A. Vanderbilt, the sum of !$500,000 in five per cent bonds of the United States of America, with the stipulation that this bequest was in fulfillment of an antenuptial contract in which Mrs. Vanderbilt had agreed to waive her dower rights. He also gave to said wife the house and lot at H) Washington Place, complete with stables and all appurtenances thereto, two carriages, and one pair of carriage horses.