The Commodore Left Two Sons


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.

After several weeks in which the accomplices still did not appear, Mr. Clinton complained about the delay with bitter sarcasm. “Where is that cloud of devastating witnesses counsel promised to bring down upon us?” he demanded. As it turned out, that was exactly what Mr. Lord himself had been trying to learn. Finally, on March 19, at the insistence of the court, he reluctantly admitted that his key witnesses had been mysteriously detained in Chicago, where, of course, it was well known that anything might happen. He told a tale of threats, pursuit, bribery, and other “sinister influences at work to discourage” their appearance in court. In several formal affidavits requesting extensions of time, Mr. Lord revealed for the first time the identity of the witnesses—three private detectives—and details of the plot to discredit Cornelius in which they had allegedly been involved. Then, there had been a rash of ominous “Notices to Whom It May Concern” in the Personal Column of the Herald , a favorite medium, in those days before the telephone, for arranging assignations and other devious activities. The notices, Mr. Lord said, were unmistakably part of the plot.

The effect of these revelations on Surrogate Calvin was such that he decided, much to the disgust of counsel for the proponents, to adjourn the case until June 11 to give Mr. Lord ample time to assemble his elusive detectives.

According to his own sworn statements, Mr. Lord had first learned of what came to be known as The Great Conspiracy in June, 1877, nearly a month after his client’s contest of the will had formally commenced. Young Cornelius had turned over to him a letter he had received from one Franklin A. Redburn, relating how a certain “head detective” (Redburn himself) had been approached in the fall of 1874 by a “genteel-appearing stranger.” “A singular change,” the stranger was quoted as saying, “for which no one could account had come over Commodore Vanderbilt. The old gentleman had become affected with the delusion that his prodigal son had returned to the paths of virtue and honor and would yet shed glory on the family name, whereas in truth ‘young Corneel’ had never in his life been guilty of greater excesses and prodigality than he was now practising daily.” Even William shared his father’s delusion.