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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
And now came one of the most eagerly awaited moments of the trial—the ordeal by cross-examination of young Corneel. Mr. Clinton, making no effort to conceal his impatience with filial grief, went to work immediately. There were, as he put it, a few things he was confused about and would like to have cleared up. For instance, had Mr. Vanderbilt ever been in Bloomingdale before his visit there in 1854? Well, yes, he had been there once before—in 1850, when he was about nineteen. Could he tell them a little more about it? Well, he had been down in Washington and he had drawn some money on his father, but his father hadn’t paid it. So the authorities, or whoever it was, communicated with his father and he came on and settled it. Cornelius went back to New York with his father and went into Bloomingdale of his own volition. He did not think he was insane, nor did anyone else. How long had he stayed there? About six months, more or less. Well, he must have liked it then, more or less. What did he do next? After some difficulty the witness recalled that he had gone to work in the law office of Horace Clark, his brother-in-law. In what capacity? “I could not tell,” Cornelius replied languidly, and Mr. Clinton suggested that possibly he had not been there long enough for it to be determined. And then what did he do? He went into the leather business with William F. Miller 8c Co. at the head of Gold Street. How long had he lasted there? About three months. Why had he left? He did not care to stay. No, he was not requested to leave. He had left voluntarily. He simply did not relish the business very much. And then what? Well, after his marriage, he had run the farm his father had given him. But that was five or six years later, wasn’t it? He supposed it was, more or less.
Mr. Clinton seemed quite perplexed about the witness’ name. Hadn’t he been christened Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt and not Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.? Inasmuch as he was only a few weeks old at the time, the witness said he really couldn’t recollect whether he had or not. It got quite a laugh from the spectators, but Mr. Clinton, who was not amused, persisted. What was his real name? Well, his mother said it was Cornelius, Jr., and his father said it was Cornelius Jeremiah. To save any trouble about the matter he used both of the names.
Mr. Clinton now undertook to set the record straight as to the number of times the witness had been arrested. Mr. Vanderbilt thought three times sounded about right. That is, three times in civil suits charged with fraud. Mr. Clinton was not satisfied and the following exchange took place:
Q: Haven’t you been arrested four times by Deputy Sheriff McCulligan?
A: I don’t know the man.
Q: Would you know him if you saw him?
A: I don’t think I should. They are a class of people I don’t particularly fancy.
Q: Isn’t it true that you have been arrested thirty times?
The witness thought not, but he was rather vague about it, and when Mr. Clinton confronted him with the names of some thirty-five creditors to whom he had allegedly given checks on banks where he had no accounts, he was hazier than ever. He could not recollect, he did not remember, he had forgotten, or he would not swear either way. His arrangements with banks, it developed, were somewhat unusual. He had never in his life bothered to keep a regular account in any bank. As the occasion arose he simply drew checks on whichever bank was most convenient and then deposited sufficient funds to cover them. For instance, he had a standing arrangement with the teller of the Hartford County Bank to pay such checks as might come in and then to notify him of the amount needed to cover them. Of course, this method might be a bit disconcerting to banks that were unfamiliar with it, and sometimes, too, he forgot to deposit the money or found it inconvenient to do so for one reason or another.
Mr. Clinton seemed fascinated by Mr. Vanderbilt’s extraordinary talent for borrowing money and not paying it back. Under prolonged questioning the witness admitted borrowing and not paying in Utica, Rochester, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, but he could not recollect as to Buffalo, Toledo, Chicago, St. Louis, or Baltimore. Finally Mr. Clinton thought it would be simpler if the witness could name one city in which he had not borrowed money. He claimed he could mention several, but he would need time to think; Mr. Clinton decided to spare him the effort. All in all the witness thought he owed about $90,000.