- 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
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.
Mr. Clinton professed to be highly mystified by all this, particularly as to how the witness had managed to incur such a large indebtedness, living as he did on a small farm in the country. Mr. Vanderbilt explained that he needed four or five servants, as he frequently entertained prominent men in his home; that he had to have an attendant at all times; and that his expenses were very large generally, inasmuch as he was expected to sustain the family name and his father’s honor. Mr. Clinton found it most difficult to understand how he had sustained the honor of his father’s name by borrowing money from his guests, which he had done. Mr. Vanderbilt did his best to explain that although he may have borrowed money from men in Hartford who had been guests in his house, he had never done so while they were guests. It was a fine distinction that only a highly cultivated person could appreciate, and he seemed quite proud of it. He did admit making one exception to this rule, but he felt that the circumstances warranted it. A man was invited for a few days and stayed several months. He was quite a bore, really, so the host borrowed a little money from him to get rid of him. Of course he had never paid it back. Had he ever paid back any of the money he had borrowed from those who were not bores? He thought he had, but he couldn’t recollect their names or the amounts offhand.
He firmly denied that the greater part of his indebtedness had been caused by gambling—his total losses for his whole life did not exceed $10,000. In fact, he seemed to feel quite keenly that it was a shameful reflection both on his father’s honor and his own manhood to confess that he had never lost even as much as $500 at a sitting. Possibly he had borrowed money from gamblers, but not for gambling. And, no, he didn’t think he had ever assigned his monthly allowance to anyone except John Daly, a very good friend of his who merely happened to be a professional gambler. He didn’t even know Alex Howe, who ran a place on Twentyninth Street; he knew of George Thompson only by hearsay, although he would not swear he had never met him. A man in his position meets so many people. Of course he had often been in Matthew Danser’s place at 8 Barclay Street. Danser ran a downtown day game patronized by the Wall Street crowd. And it went without saying that he had been in George Beers’ elegant establishment at University Place and Thirteenth Street. The late Mr. Beers had been a gentleman and scholar who had catered to the town’s young bloods.