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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
Surrogate Calvin, striving for a compromise, decided to grant the adjournment, but to allow contestant only eight more days when the case was resumed in the fall. He pointedly warned Mr. Lord that there would be no more adjournments due to the nonappearance of witnesses. The lawyer, his confidence restored by the prospect of over two months’ grace, took the warning in stride; as the session closed, he was blandly promising to produce not only Redburn, Mason, and Clark but also a fourth man whom he said he would not name at that time for fear that proponents would, as he put it, “educate him as a witness.” Mr. Clinton was left frothing with rage and indignation.
When the case was resumed in the fall, it was at once apparent that something new and ominous for proponents was brewing in the camp of the contestant which had nothing to do with the missing witnesses (who were just as missing as ever). Mr. Lord and his cohorts, swelled to bursting with mystery and importance, ignored any reference to Redburn, Mason, and Clark as a matter too trifling to concern them. Counsel for proponents, now more wary and suspicious than ever, were reinforced by Joseph H. Choate, making his first appearance in court.
The testimony of contestant’s first important witness failed to fulfill the rumors of sensational disclosures with which the corridors of the courthouse had been buzzing. It did, however, reveal a rather subtle shift in Mr. Lord’s strategy which would, if successful, enable him to take advantage of decedent’s apparent belief in spiritualism. The witness, a Mrs. Mary L. Stone, appeared at first to be yet another of the seemingly endless procession of ladies in straitened circumstances who had visited the Commodore in search of financial aid. Mrs. Stone, a serious-minded lady of some refinement, was in her middle thirties; her deceased father, Henry Chapin, had been a friend and business associate of the Commodore. She testified that she had first approached the Commodore in his office on Fourth Street in October of 1874, a period on which Mr. Lord laid great stress since it was during this time that the last will was being drafted. She wanted help in starting a school. Mrs. Stone got no money, but she did get some advice. The Commodore solemnly told her, she said, that before going further with her enterprise she must seek communion with the spirits of her dear departed. He himself, he assured her, did nothing without advice from the spirits. For example, as a result of communications he had had with the spirit of his dead wife, he was going to leave most of his worldly goods to his son William. Mrs. Stone, alas, was so overwhelmed by the daily problems of her mundane existence that, as counsel for the proponents were to suggest later, the only spirits she was able to commune with successfully were those in a bottle. Nevertheless, she was back in the Commodore’s office again several months later, or, as it happened, not long after the final will had been executed, to see if she could get her brother a job as a conductor on one of the Vanderbilt railroads. William, who was hovering about in an officious sort of way, told her bluntly that his father could do nothing for her. With that the Commodore flared up. “You can’t have it all your own way,” Mrs. Stone quoted him as saying. “You are walking in my shoes now. I have made a will in your favor, and that ought to be enough.”
“The Spirits made the will in my favor, Father,” William said solemnly. “You said so yourself.”
“What if I did,” the old man grumbled. “It ought to be enough for you.”
Apparently it wasn’t enough for William, and Mrs. Stone’s brother did not get the job. Mr. Clinton objected to her testimony with all of his customary vigor. What it amounted to, he argued, was that Mr. Lord was trying to commence the case all over again even though he had had no case in the first place. The Surrogate, as even his worthy opponent should be able to recall, had already ruled that testator’s belief in spiritualism was of itself no indication of an unsound mind, and that evidence as to such belief was therefore irrelevant and immaterial. Mr. Lord, far from reacting with his usual violence to the gibes of opposing counsel, argued quite calmly—some thought even smugly—that, while he was by no means unaware of the Surrogate’s earlier ruling or even of the seeming validity of counsel’s objections, nevertheless, new evidence, which his conscience would not permit him to suppress, had dictated reopening this line of inquiry. Mrs. Stone’s testimony, he added, would lay the groundwork for showing that the will was the product of a foul conspiracy designed by William H. Vanderbilt to take advantage of his father’s belief in communication with the dead. Earlier Mr. Lord had contended that such belief would demonstrate that the Commodore was of unsound mind. Now, if as he claimed he could prove a fraudulent conspiracy, that indispensable ingredient of most successful will contests, the soundness of the testator’s mind, would not necessarily be at issue.
This shift in strategy was a little too subtle for Surrogate Calvin to grasp all at once. He decided to stick to his earlier ruling that testimony as to the influence of the spirits should be excluded, at least until the alleged conspiracy itself had been established. Getting a bit spritely himself, he proposed that communication be had with the testator in order to settle the whole question.