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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
Mr. Clinton himself, during cross-examination, had already demonstrated that Cornelius was a prolific letter writer with an addiction to high-flown phrases. He had put in evidence a series of letters Cornelius had written to William in 1867 during another period of remorse and good resolutions—and incidentally, of acute financial embarrassment. “If you think proper,” he had written from an institution in Northampton, Massachusetts, in his rich epistolary style, “to reciprocate the warm and liberal views which I have fully determined shall hereafter form the nucleus of my future relations towards yourself, I shall be most happy to receive such an assurance, and I doubt not that the line of policy which I have likewise laid down as regards the regulation of my general behavior will in a short time cause the many stigmas that now hover around my name to vanish like the morning dew, and that the insane, disgraceful tendencies of the past will soon be forgotten, and in lieu thereof the honorable workings of a subdued spirit and an expanded brain be promptly acknowledged and handsomely proclaimed.” William, alas, had not thought proper to reciprocate even to the trifling extent of $150, the amount Corneel was requesting.
Mr. Lord now tried to put in evidence letters from Cornelius to his father, composed in the period of allegedly unblemished behavior in the fall of 1874. In these Cornelius alluded to similar promises of reformation and demanded to know if such promises had not now been fulfilled. Should his father fail to reply, he warned in language of suitable grandeur, his silence would be taken for assent. Counsel for the proponents objected strenuously, both to the admission of these letters as evidence, and to the assumption that the witness, lacking an answer from his father, had thereby been judged a reformed character. Judge Comstock summed up their argument with merciless logic. “Here,” he said, “was a son worthless and dissipated. He writes to his father and tells him that he has been good, and says to him, now answer and tell me if you are satisfied with me, or else I will hold you to strict accountability for your silence. Why, the father had no means of knowing whether he had been good or not, and so he did not answer the letter.” Mr. Lord took violent exception to the phrase “worthless and dissipated” and called Judge Comstock a liar. Judge Comstock replied in kind and the courtroom was in an uproar. Surrogate Calvin banged his gavel for order, and excluded the letters as evidence.
While young Corneel may not have been an ideal witness, he had borne up fairly well under the embarrassment of having his personal peccadilloes so harshly exposed to the public eye. His testimony, while far from conclusive, did lay the groundwork for evidence as to the great conspiracy allegedly hatched by William Henry to discredit Corneel’s reformation of late 1874. Furthermore, the Surrogate had in effect ruled that proof of such a conspiracy would invalidate the entire will. Thus, if William’s accomplices could be produced in court, as Mr. Lord seemed confident they could, and if their testimony stood up, it would not matter that the contestant had been unable to show that the testator was of unsound mind. In a day when the courts abounded with professional witnesses who would swear to anything for a reasonable fee, it must have been a harrowing time for William, too, even if he were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.
In fact, it was a bad time for both sides. A month’s adjournment was called to enable Surrogate Calvin to get caught up with other business, but even after this lull, the star witnesses to the Great Conspiracy were still reluctant to make their entrance. Mr. Lord did his best to fill time by bringing a motley assortment of characters to the stand, most of whom were seeking personal publicity or had old grudges against the Commodore and his family. Surrogate Calvin refused to admit the testimony of most of them, but, of course, their stories got into the papers. John J. Ogden, for instance, a hitherto obscure stockbroker who had desk space in the offices of Woodhull, Claflin & Co., was anxious to tell how he had escorted the seductive Tennie Claflin, the spiritualist, to the Commodore’s office on numerous occasions and had once overheard the Commodore tell her that he would have kept his promise to marry her but for the interference of his family. (The best he had been able to do, according to contemporary gossip, was to set Wall Street on its ear by putting up the money for Tennie and her astonishing sister, Victoria Woodhull, to establish the only female brokerage firm in the world.) Mr. Ogden claimed that on another occasion he had heard the Commodore boast that many young ladies bought New York Central stock because of his picture on it. All of this showed, according to Mr. Lord, that the Commodore had had loose notions about marriage and a diseased mind generally. Whatever it showed, Surrogate Calvin ruled it irrelevant.
Daniel Drew, once a market manipulator rivalling Vanderbilt himself but now a tottering old bankrupt, Buckman (“Buck”) Claflin, the Micawberish father of Tennie and Victoria, along with magneticians and electrical healers, paraded through the courtroom without noticeably advancing the contestant’s case.