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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. Lord was not in the least amused by what he considered misplaced judicial facetiousness, but he remained undaunted. If he himself could not communicate directly with the Commodore, he was now ready to unveil a witness whose testimony about the influence of the spirits upon the old man would be no joke for the proponents.
The witness was a Mrs. Lilian Stoddard, and as soon as she had swished herself into the witness stand it was evident that the big moment had now arrived. For Mrs. Stoddard, to any discerning masculine eye, was obviously no ordinary woman. In her early thirties, with neither youth nor beauty to commend her, she still retained that sort of saucy girlish bounce which, piquantly mellowed by years of dissipation, inevitably inspires in men’s minds visions of all manner of delightfully accessible and deliciously depraved sexual activity. Her testimony, as well as her person, was to have an electrifying effect upon the courtroom. Even Mr. Clinton and his august colleagues, though prepared in advance for the worst, seemed dumbfounded and aghast at the story she had to tell—under, be it remembered, solemn oath.
Mr. Lord conducted his direct examination with a dignified reserve that did not permit unseemly prying into irrelevant and purely personal biographical details. Mrs. Stoddard was, she said, the widow of Dr. Charles Anderson Stoddard, a medical clairvoyant who had died in the spring of 1875; Commodore Vanderbilt had been among his patients. In the summer of 1874, Mrs. Stoddard testified, her late husband was using his supernatural powers to alleviate the aches and pains with which the Commodore’s aging body was afflicted. Mr. Lord, in his questioning, was careful to bring out that Mrs. Stoddard herself was invariably present at these treatments. While this may have been a trifle irregular, the manner of her testimony on this point rather suggested that the proximity of her person had such an exhilarating effect upon the patient that he regarded it as an essential part of the therapy.
The treatments had continued in this cozy fashion, two or three times a week over a period of several months, until one fine morning early in September, following a professional visit to the Commodore in his office, the witness and her husband were sitting in Washington Square Park resting from the ardors of their joint therapy when they were approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as William H. Vanderbilt. Accustomed as they were to being abused and persecuted by cynical relatives of their patients, they were quite overwhelmed by Mr. Vanderbilt’s cordiality. He told them how impressed he had been by the great faith which his father had in Dr. Stoddard’s remarkable powers, and, far from wishing them to cease their ministrations, his only thought was to suggest that a more intense application of those powers might prove beneficial to all concerned. Mr. Vanderbilt’s exact words were, according to the witness, “I want you to influence the old man and make him think more of me so that I can control him.”
In reply Dr. Stoddard had said that he would be glad to do what he could in his humble way if the circumstances were properly conducive. Thereupon Mr. Vanderbilt nodded his head understandingly and handed Dr. Stoddard a roll of bills which the latter calmly counted and put in his pocket. The witness admitted that she never did learn the exact amount of the fee, but she figured that the roll added up to at least $1,000. In any event, she could tell that her husband was pleased. “This is all right,” she quoted him as saying as he pocketed the bills. “I am now ready for business.” With the conducive circumstances thus established, Mr. Vanderbilt proceeded to dictate in a brisk, businesslike manner the exact words of the message which he wished to be transmitted from his mother in the world of the spirits to his father here on earth. Dr. Stoddard repeated the message word for word. Mr. Vanderbilt signified his approval, tipped his hat, and went on his way.
Thus inspired and with a prospect of more inspiration to come, Dr. Stoddard on their next visit to the Commodore was able to commune with the spirit of the deceased Mrs. Vanderbilt as soon as he went into his trance. “I seem to have a message for you from your dead wife in the world beyond the grave,” Dr. Stoddard whispered. “Are you ready to receive the message?” The Commodore, according to the witness, was a bit shaken, but he replied stoutly enough that he was always ready to hear from his dear Sophie. With that, the spirit of Mrs. Vanderbilt, speaking in the quavery tones of a voice from the sepulchre through the medium of Dr. Stoddard, could be heard to say, “I have a much clearer insight into the affairs of your world than I had before my departure from it, and I implore you, in memory of me, to make our son William your successor in all earthly things. Do this and you will make no mistake. The other children hate you. Only William loves you … only William …” And as the voice of the spirit faded away, the Commodore said solemnly, “I will do as you wish, Sophie. Billy shall have it all.”