—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
When Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt expired in New York City on January 4, 1877, with members of his family gathered about his bed singing “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” he was by far the richest man who had ever died in the United States of America. He had gone to bed for the last time early in May of the previous year. After nearly eighty-three years of strenuous living, his staunch body was finally exhausted by a multitude of ailments, any one of which might have killed an ordinary person.
When Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt expired in New York City on January 4, 1877, with members of his family gathered about his bed singing “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” he was by far the richest man who had ever died in the United States of America. He had gone to bed for the last time early in May of the previous year. After nearly eighty-three years of strenuous living, his staunch body was finally exhausted by a multitude of ailments, any one of which might have killed an ordinary person. The doughty old Commodore has had his less fervent admirers both before and since his demise, but no one has ever accused him of having been an ordinary person. He fought on through the summer and fall, stubborn and irascible and profanely contemptuous of those whose great expectations were being so maddeningly prolonged by his reluctance to become a decedent.
His residence at 10 Washington Place, then a quiet backwater between the gilded flow of fashion northward from Washington Square and the swirl of commerce up Broadway, was shabby by comparison with the great mansions soon to be built by his favored heirs, and it swarmed with relatives and friends speaking in appropriately hushed voices all through the months of his illness. It must have resembled one of those scenes so relished by writers of popular Victorian novels, with only the favorites permitted to hover solicitously about the deathbed. The aging daughters, who had disapproved of the young wife of their lather’s declining years and whose mere presence now provoked him into violent rages, were relegated to the hallway outside his chamber, from which they could peek in at him reproachfully whenever the door was opened. At an even farther remove from parental favor, downstairs on the parlor floor, a truly classic example of the wastrel and debt-ridden younger son paced fitfully to and fro, still hopeful of winning a last-minute reprieve.
Down on Wall Street the Commodore’s old playmates in the game of swallowing railroads waited ravenously. Their mouths already watered in anticipation of the luscious pickings which would be theirs when the old man’s controlling interest in the New York Central was divided among a do/en mutually antagonistic heirs. For some of them the strain was too much; premature announcements of his death were frequently circulated in an effort to drive down the price of Central stock, but the great railroad empire that the Commodore had wrested from the wolves of the Street was impervious to such petty chicanery.
Beyond these financially expectant inner circles was the general public, motivated by nothing more tangible than curiosity as to how the richest man in America, having died, would leave his fortune. This curiosity was considerably whetted by the newspapers, which used relays of reporters to maintain a twentyfour-hour vigil about the house and which printed daily bulletins spiced with assorted rumors and conjectures. Even allowing for this journalistic incitement, ihe extent of general interest in the imminent demise of a private citizen from natural causes seems hardly credible today. But wealth on such a vast scale as Cornelius Vanderbilt’s seemed less credible then. William B. Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor, had died two years earlier leaving forty million dollars, but the Astor fortune had been the product of two lives spanning nearly a century, and it was not nearly so impressive as Vanderbilt’s one hundred-odd millions, which he alone had accumulated—and mostly in the last fifteen years of his life. Most of the rich men of the time were worth only a few hundred thousand dollars, but in the extremely solid dollars current in those days, one hundred thousand was a tidy fortune. For a man born poor to amass such a fortune as the Commodore’s was a phenomenon so baffling to the imagination that even the rumors grossly underestimated its extent.
The funeral took place on Sunday, January 7. It was described as unostentatious but impressively solemn. After a brief service at the Church of the Strangers around the corner on Mercer Street, the cortege proceeded down Broadway to the Battery, crossed by ferry to Staten Island, and there in the old Moravian burying ground at New Dorp, among generations of humble ancestors, Cornelius Vanderbilt was laid to rest.
The next day, promptly at noon, the bereaved family gathered in the home of William K. Thorn, a sonin-law of sufficient independent wealth to be on reasonably good terms with all factions, to hear Judge Charles A. Rapallo read decedent’s last will and testament. In the macabre gloom customary in the parlors of that era, with the austere and venerable Judge Rapallo presiding, it must indeed have been a grimly momentous occasion in the lives of the two sons and eight daughters who had grown old awaiting it. Phoebe Jane, the eldest, who was sixty-two, barely survived it.
“I Cornelius Vanderbilt, of the City of New York, do make and publish my last will and testament as follows …” Thus commenced the document which would dispose of all the vast accumulation of worldly goods of which decedent had died possessed. First, he gave to his beloved wife, Frank A. Vanderbilt, the sum of !$500,000 in five per cent bonds of the United States of America, with the stipulation that this bequest was in fulfillment of an antenuptial contract in which Mrs. Vanderbilt had agreed to waive her dower rights. He also gave to said wife the house and lot at H) Washington Place, complete with stables and all appurtenances thereto, two carriages, and one pair of carriage horses.
The second clause, consisting of one brief paragraph, rapidly disposed of five of his eight daughters by giving to each of them outright 3250,0Oo in bonds of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad Company. These were nice bonds to own, even without the picture of the Commodore which adorned them, but there may have been outbursts of filial indignation from the recipients, two of whom were already widows, when they and those husbands who were still living realized that this was all they were going to get.
The third clause took care of the three remaining daughters, and though they fared somewhat better than their sisters, they could well have been even more indignant. Their bequests of $300,000, $400,000, and $500,000, respectively, in five per cent government bonds, were securely tied up in trusts from which they were to receive only the income during their lives. Should they die without surviving issue, the principal would revert to the estate and thence to the residuary legatee “hereinafter named.” Not a penny would remain to console a surviving husband in his old age.
With the expectations of the daughters and their husbands written oft so neatly, the Commodore, without even deigning to start a new clause, proceeded to the seemingly more delicate and complex problem of deflating the hopes nourished for a lifetime by his younger son. Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, then in his late forties, had long been in disfavor with his father. The primary reason was not, perhaps, that he was a frequenter of the plush gambling houses and elegant brothels which flourished in that era of extreme feminine prudery, but probably because he had not inherited his parent’s zeal for making and holding money. Ever since young Cornelius could remember, he had been afflicted by a sense of the futility of financial enterprise. The insignificant positions he could obtain and the paltry sums he could earn by his own merits should, he felt, have been as embarrassing to his father as to himself. During the Commodore’s lifetime he had avoided such embarrassment by struggling manfully along on an allowance from home so miserably inadequate that he was frequently forced to borrow money from friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. But now, after his life had been irrevocably blighted by his father’s money, it seemed only fair that he share abundantly in the source of his misfortunes.
Alas, if the old Commodore had had any sympathy for this viewpoint, it was made apparent in his will only to the extent of preventing his son’s life from being further blighted by too much money. After setting up a comparatively modest trust fund of $200,000 in five per cent government bonds, he sternly cautioned his trustees that the income thereof was not to be paid over freely but was to be “applied” by them solely “to the maintenance and support of my son, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, during his natural life.” Even this miserable pittance was hedged with restrictions, ft was only to be doled out if Cornelius’ behavior was exemplary. Furthermore, any attempt on the son’s part to anticipate, assign, or otherwise encumber this income would result in its being withdrawn from his use entirely. It would “thenceforth, during the residue of his natural life, belong to my residuary legatee.” But the crowning indignity was yet to come. “Upon the decease of my said son, Cornelius J.,” the will continued, “I give and bequeath the last mentioned $200,000 of bonds to my residuary legatee.”
The residuary legatee, as everyone could guess by now, was none other than Cornelius’ elder brother, William Henry. This industrious plodder, who scrupulously avoided the haunts of gentlemen, had impressed his father with his reverence for money and his real talent for holding on to it. Cornelius detested him. But he was to be one of the trustees to whom Cornelius would be accountable for his behavior, and this was utterly intolerable.
Next were several clauses devoted to minor bequests to twenty-two assorted relatives and friends of sums ranging from $4,000 to $50,000, and totalling less than $300,000. Then came the grand climax in the eighth clause, which in its entirety reads as follows: All the rest, residue, and remainder of the properly and estate, real and personal, of every description, and wheresoever situated, of which I may be seized or possessed, and to which I may he entitled at the time of my decease, I give devise, and bequeath unto my son, William H. Vanderbilt, his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, to his and their own use forever.
Perhaps the full majesty of these redundant legal phrases cannot be properly appreciated without the knowledge that the “residue and remainder” to which they refer was still a little more than one hundred million dollars. The will was dated January 9, 1875, and it was signed, with an awesome abbreviation of testator’s Christian name, “C. Van Derbilt,” a variation of the old Dutch spelling that he favored.
In a codicil made six months after the original will was written, the Commodore took some $11,000,000 worth of New York Central stock away from his residuary legatee, but that step brought no comfort to his eight daughters and his wayward son. If anything, it was the touch needed to complete their humiliation, for this quite significant little bundle of stock was divided among four of ths testator’s sixteen grandsons. Five million went to his namesake and favorite, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and two million to each of the other three. All were sons of the residuary legatee, William Henry Vanderbilt.
We do not know what went on in Mr. Thorn’s parlor when Judge Rapallo finished reading the will, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that there were bitter outbursts from the “girls” and that Cornelius must have stalked ominously from the premises leaving a trail of threats about seeing his lawyer. All we know for certain is that William, in his capacity as one of the executors, gathered the precious document to his bosom and departed at once for the surrogate’s office on Chambers Street to set in motion probate proceedings that would make him the richest man in America. In any event, rumors that the will would be contested spread quickly.
Disputes over the distribution of a decedent’s worldly goods have never been uncommon. They were particularly evident in the United States during the late nineteenth century, when there was a bumper crop of parvenu testators, and the records of surrogates’ courts of the period arc filled with will contests of sensational bitterness. Like other successful men of the time, Cornelius Vanderbilt was proud of his fortune, and he wanted it preserved intact as long as possible. He figured that the most likely way to insure the continuity of both his name and railroad was to leave as much of his money as possible to his ablest son, who had himself produced male offspring, and the devil take the rest. Undoubtedly his lawyers must have advised him that such an inequitable distribution would incur the risk of a will contest and would create a good deal of unhappiness as well. But this was probably the sort of reasonable business risk which would have appealed to the Commodore, and there is no evidence to show that he ever gave a rap about making everybody happy.
During the following weeks, William denied publicly and solemnly that there was any ill feeling among the heirs. No one could have been very much surprised, however, when late in February, nearly two months after the testator’s death, Cornelius and two of his dissatisfied sisters—Mrs. Ethelinda Alien, beneficiary of a $400,000 trust fund, and Mrs. Marie Alicia La Bau, recipient of $250,000 of Lake Shore bonds—informed Surrogate Delano Calvin that they most certainly did intend to contest the validity of their father’s will. The Surrogate put the case on his calendar for March 13. In the meantime, formal objections were filed with the court. The contestants charged that the will was obtained by fraud, circumvention, and undue influence pressed against and upon the decedent by William H. Vanderbilt and other persons as yet unnamed.
On the appointed day, Surrogate Calvin’s courtroom in the county courthouse in Chambers Street buzzed with rumors: Jay Gould, the sinister financier, was backing the contestants’ suit in the hope of winning a ghoulish postmortem victory over his old adversary and eventually gaining control of the New York Central; gamblers, equally sinister, to whom young Cornelius was hopelessly indebted, were threatening his life if he did not go through with the suit; most sinister of all, unknown parties were threatening his life if he did go through with it. There were even a few kill-joys who spread the word that William had finally settled everything by giving each contestant half a million dollars. Surely, it was argued, William would not allow the family skeletons to be rattled in public for the sake of a few paltry millions.
The crowded courtroom, tense with anticipation of the degrading arts that would be revealed, was stunned into glum silence when ex-Congressman Scott Lord, chief of counsel for the contestants, rose to his feet and abruptly announced that he had been instructed by his clients to withdraw their objections to the probate of the will. Although apparently quite as bewildered as the spectators, Surrogate Calvin recovered sufficiently to admit the will to probate. Mr. Lord told reporters later that he knew nothing of any settlement. All he knew was that late on the previous day he had received a note from his clients ordering him to withdraw the objections. It had come as a complete surprise to him, he said, and, judging from his manner, as a considerable shock. After all, as one indignant but anonymous member of the bar exclaimed to reporters, “It’s highway robbery. It robs the profession of a million dollars!”
The contestants themselves were not in court when Mr. Lord made his devastating announcement. William, already launched on the career of bad relations with the press that was to culminate some years later in his famous misinterpreted remark, “the public be damned,” hastily retreated to his private office in Grand Central Depot and refused to issue any statement whatsoever. There were, of course, the usual “friends of the family and other reliable sources” who scoffed at the idea of any compromise settlement but were confident that William would treat his brother and sisters munificently once the will was probated and the fortune was legally clenched in his fist. The real reason for the last-minute withdrawal, they insisted, was simply and obviously Cornelius’ reluctance to expose the lurid details of his private life to public scrutiny. Cornelius himself, when finally tracked down, was not in the mood to see reporters either. A friend quoted him as insisting that he had absolutely nothing to say regarding a settlement.
Two months went by in which rumors of a compromise settlement mounted. Finally, on May 14, the rumors seemed substantiated when Cornelius went into state supreme court and filed a complaint against his brother for failure to keep an agreement allegedly made on March 12, the day before the anticlimax previously enacted in Surrogate Calvin’s courtroom. Cornelius claimed that he had been promised one million dollars if he withdrew his objections to the will. Spokesmen for William refused to comment, pointing out how improper it would be to do so now that the matter was in litigation. William himself was not available. He was on the high seas bound for England when Cornelius filed his complaint. According to some of the usual informed sources, the purpose of the trip was to pacify two of his sisters living abroad, who were now claiming that they had not been properly represented at the probate proceedings. Whatever the reason for the trip, before William could return, Mrs. La Bau was back in surrogate’s court, demanding (as was her right within a year) that probate be reopened and the will proved anew. Mrs. Alien, the other of the three original contestants, had dropped out, apparently feeling that she could rely on her brother’s munificence. Cornelius Jeremiah could not be a legal party to Mrs. La Bau’s action because of his pending suit in supreme court, although he undoubtedly gave her all the moral support he could muster. Surrogate Calvin put the case on his calendar for July 12, and the expectations of press and public again ran high.
Interest in the case as a public spectacle became even greater when the rosters of opposing counsel were made known. In those days, when the county courthouse still provided the nation with one of its staple brands of popular entertainment, legal luminaries enjoyed a public renown somewhat comparable to that accorded today to ballplayers, prizefighters, and television performers. Their strategy in conducting a case, their skill in cross-examination, and their forensic ability were all highly and learnedly appreciated by large numbers of courtroom buffs. Among connoisseurs of legal form, counsel for the proponents of the will (William, two of his sons, and a nephew) were generally rated the pretrial favorites. Henry L. Clinton, their field captain, had distinguished himself for many years in the criminal courts of New York State by an uncanny ability to obtain acquittals for unfortunately situated defendants. A client seen with blood on his hands in the immediate vicinity of the corpus delicti did not daunt Mr. Clinton, and his talent for confusing prosecution witnesses and discrediting their testimony was expected to be useful to William H. Vanderbilt in this case.
The master strategist of William’s defense of the will was George F. Comstock, a former chief justice of New York State’s highest tribunal, the court of appeals, whose opinions are still quoted. Less spectacular than Mr. Clinton, Judge Comstock was a lawyer’s lawyer, ranked by many of his contemporaries as the greatest legal mind of his day. What was more, he looked the part. He was tall and spare, with an impressive mane of silvery hair; his mere presence in a courtroom was said to give weight to his client’s case.
Joseph Hodges Choate was the reserve force of proponent’s legal team. He was somewhat younger and less experienced than his two illustrious colleagues but was already renowned for the role he had played a few years earlier in liberating New York from the grip of Boss Tweed.
Although the odds were against them, counsel for the contestant were not without their backers. Scott Lord, fresh from a term in Congress, had been the law partner of Senator Roscoe Conkling and was an experienced infighter. Uninhibited by legal niceties, he was a particularly good man in a will contest. His colleague, Ethan Alien, had served for a number of years earlier in his career as a United States district attorney.
As a pinch hitter of formidable endowment when legal eloquence was in order, the contestant had retained the services of Jeremiah S. Black, a former chief justice of the supreme court of Pennsylvania and a Cabinet member under both Buchanan and Lincoln. Judge Black had the reputation of being the most magnificent orator at the American bar. His snow-white, shaggy eyebrows belied the bright auburn wig he customarily wore. Twirling a silver tobacco box on the end of an enormous chain and followed by a Negro valet, Judge Black was a familiar figure in courtrooms throughout the nation. The power of his argument was said to rise with the number of spittoons he filled.
There are three grounds on which to break a will, assuming it has been properly drawn and attested, and when the case finally got under way in earnest on November 12, 1877, before Surrogate Calvin, Mr. Lord made it clear in his opening that he was not going to overlook any of them. The contestant would offer evidence to show, first, that the testator had been of unsound mind at the time he made his will; second, that he had been subjected to undue influence; and, third, that the will was the product of a fraudulent conspiracy. “Undue influence” and “fraudulent conspiracy” are, in practice, virtually synonymous. The usual tactic is to demonstrate that the unsound condition of the testator’s mind, weakened by physical disability and insane delusions, made him readily susceptible to a fraudulent conspiracy designed to influence him unduly. In addition to the lurid charges that Mr. Lord alleged would prove the will invalid on strictly legal grounds, he embellished his opening remarks with lofty rhetorical effects of a moral nature. The division of the estate under the terms of the will was, he declaimed, contrary not only to the spirit of the law but to the morals of a democracy. This may have impressed the public but hardly Surrogate Calvin, who was undoubtedly aware that, in the words of one of his contemporaries, “a will may be mean, unjust and inequitable … [and] public sentiment and the moral sense of the community may condemn the instrument and its author to no avail.”
Mr. Lord himself, of course, was fully aware of the formidable task confronting him. Not only did he have to battle great wealth and impressive legal talent, but he also had to demonstrate that the testator’s mind was of questionable soundness, if he hoped to win his case. That would be tremendously difficult. The mere ability to perform an ordinary business transaction was, and still is, considered sufficient proof of testamentary capacity, regardless of aberrations and debilities of the most startling sort. Surrogate Calvin himself was fond of citing the case of a testator who believed that in order to go to Heaven he had to eat Boston crackers every morning; nevertheless, his will was duly probated. Judged by this criterion, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was still juggling railroads successfully in the closing years of his life, was perhaps the sanest of men. Thus, Mr. Lord served notice that contestant’s case would reveal the diabolical conspiracies William H. Vanderbilt had been carrying out for years to influence his aging father. Mr. Lord admitted that many of the charges which would be proved were of a scandalous nature, but he laid the blame for making them public squarely on William himself. The press, of course, was in a dither, devoting columns of space to Mr. Lord’s “startling performance,” and his “amazing allegations.”
It was also apparent from this opening that Cornelius Jeremiah, though technically not a contestant in Mrs. La Bau’s suit, was to be the central figure in the case and was undoubtedly the moving spirit behind it. For it was primarily against him that the alleged undue influence had been exercised. As a direct consequence, Mr. Lord said, his voice quivering with righteous indignation, “his father subjects [young Cornelius] to a degradation unparalleled in the history of wills … in this will he puts the son bearing his Christian name under a vassalage so odious that every instinct of his manhood revolted against it.”
According to the press, popular sympathy was with Cornelius and his sisters, not so much, perhaps, because they got too little as because William and his family got too much. Nevertheless, the will had its supporters—solid, pillarof-society types who remained unmoved by the piteous spectacle of young Cornelius in his $10,000-a-year vassalage.
Mr. Lord then opened his assault. He called to the stand an impressive array of medical experts who had either attended Commodore Vanderbilt during his last illness or participated in the autopsy. Their testimony was intended to establish that the physical condition of the deceased had been such that he could not possibly have been of sound mind. What it did establish beyond question was that the old gentleman had suffered from a remarkable variety of afflictions and had had a truly remarkable constitution. The autopsy itself revealed in grisly detail that, except for the heart (which was found to be unusually small), there was hardly an organ in his vast cadaver which was not diseased. Yet it had been peritonitis of only several days’ duration which finally killed him. Mr. Clinton objected strenuously to most of this on the ground that it proved nothing about decedent’s mental condition when he made his will two years before his death and was, therefore, irrelevant.
In sum, the testimony of the medical experts, although it had shown the testator to be a man abundantly afflicted with the physical infirmities of old age, had failed to develop the picture of a doddering old fool. On the contrary, the more ailments the experts revealed, the more the Commodore stood forth as an exceptionally strong-willed old curmudgeon rising triumphantly above his bodily ills.
Contestant’s real hope of establishing that the Commodore was of unsound mind lay in demonstrating that he was subject to various insane delusions. Mr. Lord proposed to do this by proving, first, that the decedent had believed in clairvoyance and spiritualism, and, second, that the Commodore had had a mania, amounting to insanity, for wealth and personal fame.
The key witness to the influence of the spirits on the testator was Mrs. Jennie W. Danforth. She was a sprightly little woman, who said she was a “magnetician” or “magnetic healer.” Magnetic healing, a heady mixture of spiritualism, hypnotism, and electricity, generously spiked with pure hokum, was one of the numerous branches of the nonmedical healing arts which flourished in that era of bemused wonder at the apparently limitless marvels of science. Some of its practitioners may have been sincere in the sense that they were merely as naïve and gullible as their patients; many, however, were unmitigated frauds. The notorious Claflin sisters, Tennessee and Victoria, for example, made their debut in New York as versatile practitioners of the occult arts. They then went on to greater things, including blackmail, free love, and a friendship with Commodore Vanderbilt that was, according to contemporary gossip, not entirely devoted to communion with the spirits (see “Dynamic Victoria Woodhull” in the June, 1956, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). During the contest over the will, the Claflin sisters were frequently mentioned as star witnesses for the contestant, and, when they departed suddenly for England, it was widely rumored that they had been bribed by William’s faction to put themselves beyond the jurisdiction of the court. In any event, in lieu of Tennie and Victoria on the witness stand, Mr. Lord had to manage with Mrs. Danforth and her far less alluring magnetic arts.
According to her testimony, the Commodore had frequently sent for her in the spring and summer of 1876, during the early stages of his last illness. These were evidently memorable occasions in her career, and she would drop everything to bring the great financier the solace of her miraculous healing powers. She was equally co-operative on the witness stand with Mr. Lord. She recalled with enthusiastic alacrity that the Commodore had absolutely assured her that he believed in clairvoyance and communication with the dead. In fact, on one occasion he had asked her to communicate with his first wife, Sophia, who had died in 1868. Mrs. Danforth had promptly done so. Unfortunately, however, it had been her sad duty to report that Sophia’s spirit was in a very distressed state indeed. To this the Commodore said he knew why and that he would certainly have to make another will to set things right with his wife’s spirit. At this, Mr. Clinton finally erupted with violent objections to admitting Mrs. Danforth’s testimony, in whole or in part. It was, he said, entirely irrelevant. Some courtroom observers felt it was entirely too relevant to be credible. Surrogate Calvin, for his part, said he would like to listen to arguments from both sides before making his decision.
There was very little legal precedent by which to judge the effects of a belief in spiritualism on testamentary capacity. Isaac Redfield, one of the few legal authorities who had commented on the subject, had written in his treatise “The Law of Wills,” published in 1876, ”… [Spiritualism] may be a species of religious belief … but [we] can scarcely dignify [it] by the name of science … We believe the courts fully entitled to assume, as matter of law, that what is contrary to the acknowledged laws of nature cannot have any standing in a court of law … and that a will which is the off-spring of such assumptions cannot be maintained.”
Mrs. Danforth’s testimony, of course, did not show that the will was the offspring of the spirits, and Mr. Lord did not intend it to do so. Its purpose was to show that the testator had been a true believer in the spirits and in the possibility of communicating with them. This in itself, Mr. Lord contended, was evidence of a state of mental weakness which would render him susceptible to a fraudulent conspiracy designed to influence him unduly.
Arguing for the proponents, Mr. Clinton stated vehemently that Mrs. Danforth’s testimony was irrelevant simply because her visits to the Commodore did not take place until more than a year after he had drawn his will. Furthermore, if belief in clairvoyance was to be admitted as proof of insanity, then the witness herself was insane and her testimony was void. Judge Comstock, Mr. Clinton’s learned associate, did not much care whether the witness’ testimony was relevant or not; it was worthless in any case. The idea that belief in clairvoyance and spiritualism was in itself any proof of mental weakness was, he said, ridiculous. Thousands of intelligent people believed in it. He also pointed out, with remorseless logic, that there were supernatural elements in all religions.
At this crucial point, when it appeared that the evidence of testator’s senility was either irrelevant or untenable, or both, Mr. Lord hastily called for reinforcements. Judge Black, rumbling into position beside a convenient spittoon, commenced his argument by brushing aside the question of the relevance of Mrs. Danforth’s testimony as of minor importance. Instead, he launched a vigorous attack on the character of the deceased.
“Commodore Vanderbilt was the weakest of living men,” Judge Black declaimed. “He was one who more completely misunderstood all the duties he owed to his own family and himself, and was more utterly ignorant of those principles of natural justice which he ought to have thought of and understood and applied to this transaction, than any other man that ever lived or ever died. And the evidence shows that he was so.”
Surrogate Calvin, obviously annoyed and, also, a bit bewildered by this highly nonlegal approach to the question at issue, interrupted sharply to ask what there was in the evidence to show the decedent to have been of weak mind.
“His whole life shows it,” Judge Black thundered. “All he has ever done or said about the disposal of his property. He had one faculty that was preternaturally enlarged, and that was for accumulating property. It was so enlarged that it dwarfed every other moral sentiment and every intellectual power. Sanity depends upon the balance that has been preserved between the different intellectual faculties and moral sentiments so that all of them bear their proper proportions to one another. Suppose a man’s liver to be enlarged beyond what it ought to be, is that man a healthy man? Cornelius Vanderbilt’s bump of acquisitiveness, as a phrenologist would call it, was in a chronic state of inflammation all the time. [Phrenology was another of the new “sciences” popular at this period.] It grew wonderfully. And he cultivated it, and under his cultivation all the intellectual faculties that ministered to the gratification of that passion at the expense of everything else. Morally and intellectually his mind was a howling wilderness. He did not content himself by worshipping Mammon alone, though certainly he was a very zealous devotee of that meanest and least erect of the spirits that fell, whose worship is most sure to demoralize the mind and to corrupt while it weakens the understanding. When this is carried to a very great extent, unquestionably its victim cannot be considered a sane man. His love of money amounted to a mania, which would render any act of his void if it could be shown to be the offspring of the delusion under which he labored.”
Judge Black’s phrenological approach might have beguiled a nonlegal mind, but it failed to impress Surrogate Calvin. He simply ignored it. In order for Mrs. Danforth’s testimony to be acceptable as indirect evidence of insanity, the Surrogate ruled that the contestant must first get in evidence something to show that Commodore Vanderbilt was actually insane at the time his will was drawn. This had not been done. Therefore, the witness’ testimony was irrelevant and Mr. Clinton’s objection was sustained.
“What it amounts to,” Mr. Clinton had said in winding up his own argument, after commenting on the fact that Mrs. La Bau had also been a patient of Mrs. Danforth, “is that counsel seeks on behalf of a crazy client and through a crazy witness to influence this court to let in all kinds of crazy testimony.”
Deprived of help from the spirits, Mr. Lord put on the stand a number of witnesses whose testimony was supposed to prove the testator’s mania for wealth and personal fame. E. D. Worcester, an official of the New York Central and hardly a friendly witness, told of an employee who had stolen twenty dollars from the railroad. It had troubled his conscience so much that he had given the money to his priest to return to the Commodore. His mission accomplished, the priest took the opportunity to mention the poverty and need of his church, but the Commodore was not moved. He turned the money over to Mr. Worcester for credit to the proper account, saying, “There is considerable good in religion after all.”
Oakey Hall, the debonair ex-mayor who turned his varied talents to playwrighting after his political career had been brought to an untimely end by the disclosure that he was a member in good standing of the Tweed Ring, came to the stand to tell the inside story of how the heroic statue of the Commodore, which then decorated the façade of the St. John’s Park freight terminal and which now graces the southern approaches to Grand Central Terminal, had been paid for. It had cost $100,000 which ostensibly had been raised by public subscription; actually, according to Mr. Hall, the decedent had had to foot the entire bill himself. These two incidents, Mr. Lord contended, were proof of the old man’s mania for fame.
In mid-December, with the trial more than a month old and with public interest commencing to languish, Mr. Lord, like a good showman, suddenly shifted his attack from the public to the private life of the deceased and his family. He sought permission to add the names of Mrs. Frank Vanderbilt, the bereaved widow, and her mother, Mrs. Crawford, to that of William Henry Vanderbilt as parties to the alleged conspiracy to influence the testator. In support of his motion, Mr. Lord revealed that the two ladies had actually been named in the original allegation when it was first prepared but that their names had been stricken out by Mrs. La Bau from motives of delicacy. Since then, however, such strong evidence of their complicity had been obtained that his client was forced to suppress any such sentiments in the interests of justice. Public interest was revived, and Mr. Clinton was more infuriated than ever. He denounced the motion as “an effort to build up a case by defamation of the living and the dead.” It was another attempt, Mr. Clinton said, “to prove impossible facts by incredible witnesses.” But it was to no avail. Surrogate Calvin said he would have to grant the motion as he must assume it to be in good faith. The idea of assuming anything good on the part of opposing counsel was more than Mr. Clinton could bear. He was so incensed that he defied the Surrogate’s admonishments to temper his remarks. He openly accused Mr. Lord of trying his case in the newspapers by scurrilous allegations because his witnesses were either nonexistent or so worthless that he did not dare to call them.
This was not a nice thing to say of a fellow member of the bar, and Mr. Lord was, to all appearances, genuinely indignant. Nevertheless, it was hard to deny that very little evidence had thus far been produced that would invalidate the will. The contestant’s lawyers seemed simply to be piling one scandalous allegation upon another until William Henry should capitulate in order to save the family name. For a legalized blackmailing operation of this sort, the offers of counsel to prove an allegation were just as effective as the sworn testimony of reputable witnesses. The press could be relied upon to publish the sordid details in its news columns as it salved its conscience with pious editorials defending “the sanctities of private life” and castigating those who violated them. William Henry himself was accused of unnatural greed in permitting the family name to be dragged through the mire. But, in spite of it all, William showed no sign of loosening his grasp on all his “rest, residue and remainder.”
In the light of later events it would seem that Mr. Lord had really been conducting a delaying action until his star witnesses either could be found or, having been found, could be prevailed upon to appear. But now, apparently goaded beyond endurance by Mr. Clinton’s unkind accusations, he unlimbered his heavy artillery. The opening barrage was the testimony of Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, the chief victim of the alleged conspiracy engineered by his brother William. When his name was called by Mr. Lord, there was a ripple of excitement in the crowded courtroom. Now, surely, the skeletons supposedly rattling in the family closet would dance merrily into public view.
“Young Corneel,” as he was familiarly known, was, alas, one of the skeletons himself. From contemporary accounts, he must have looked the part. He was tall and gaunt and badly stooped, and a dank goatee added a satanic touch to his cadaverous features. Even the languid manner which he affected, and which was then de rigueur for men about town and scions of wealth, was impaired by a disjointed twitchiness of movement. For him to take the stand was either an act of considerable moral courage or irrefutable evidence that he was every bit the fool his father had thought him to be.
Piloted by Mr. Lord’s gentle questioning, Cornelius skimmed blithely over and around the shoals of his misspent life. He’d always been told that he’d been born in 1831, so that would make him about forty-six years old. He had lived at home, more or less, until he was eighteen, when he had gone out on his own, more or less. There was no special reason for his leaving home, although his father was rather rough in his treatment and it was not very agreeable to be at home. He simply preferred it outside, and he supposed his father preferred it too. His father gave him an allowance of about $100 a month, and he had boarded around in New York. This arrangement had continued for six or seven years until in 1856, at the age of twenty-five, he had married Ellen Williams of Hartford, Connecticut, a girl of modest circumstances, and the allowance was increased to $150. They had lived near Hartford on a farm his father had given him. He didn’t care much for farming. After about a year, on the plea of his wife and her family, the allowance was increased to $200, and there it remained until her death in 1872. Since then young Corneel had been boarding around in New York again, or travelling, or staying with friends, and the allowance had been increased to $250, for no apparent reason that he could think of except that his father was much richer in 1872 than he had been in 1856 and he supposed it cost more for a single man in his position to live in the city.
With the vital statistics filled in, more or less, Mr. Lord got down to the real business at hand. Did Mr. Vanderbilt remember being arrested and taken to a lunatic asylum in January of 1854? He should say he did remember it. In fact, he would never forget it. It was early of a Sunday evening, just as he was dressing to keep a supper engagement, when, without the slightest warning or explanation, he had been rudely arrested and hauled off to the Bloomingdale Asylum away up on 117th Street and Morningside Heights. It had been rather an upsetting experience at the time, of course, and he had not been very amiable about it. His lack of co-operation had induced Dr. D. Tilden Brown, the director of the institution, to admit that the commitment papers were insufficient to hold him against his will, and early the next morning he and Dr. Brown had driven into the city and gone before Judge Ingram to swear out a writ of habeas corpus. William H. Vanderbilt and Judge Charles A. Rapallo, who had signed the commitment papers, had appeared in court to oppose the writ. William, in a most unbrotherly fashion, had told Cornelius that he had better withdraw his writ and return quietly to the asylum. Otherwise, he would be arrested on a forgery charge brought by a downtown merchant, and his father, who lay desperately ill at the time, would surely disinherit him. Cornelius had indignantly refused. He was innocent of any forgery, and, in any event, he would rather be considered a damned rascal than a damned lunatic. There was great laughter at this, and to restore order Surrogate Calvin had to threaten to clear the courtroom.
Judge Ingram had granted Cornelius’ writ and released him, and he had gone directly to see the merchant. The merchant had denied any intention of charging him with forgery for what was, after all, merely another unpaid bill. So far as Corneel was concerned, that would have been the end of the matter. But sometime later that year, while he was paying one of his infrequent visits to his parents on Washington Place, the subject of the Bloomingdale episode had come up again. One word had led to another, as it usually did, and his father had commenced one of his tirades of abuse. Corneel had been about to leave when suddenly, much to the astonishment of both his father and himself, his mother had turned on his father and told him to stop being such a fool. Then, of course, she had burst into tears at her audacity, but finally managed to calm down enough to tell his father that it was William who had planned the whole thing. It was not the first time, either. She hated to say it because she loved all her children, but William had always been scheming and telling lies to cause trouble between the witness and his father. Even more surprising than his mother’s outburst, however, had been his father’s reaction to it. He had hung his head sheepishly and maintained a glum silence, as though saddened by the realization that no man as rich as he was could ever really trust anyone, not even his first-born son. The witness himself, more than twenty years later, was still saddened by his memory of that unhappy scene. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. William, for his part, appeared unaffected by his brother’s testimony, or by the suffering visible on the faces of his lawyers.
Mr. Lord, with appropriate hems and haws, now broached a rather delicate subject. Had the witness ever been afflicted in any way? With head bowed and voice trembling, Cornelius replied that he had been afflicted with epilepsy in its severest form from childhood until he was about thirtyeight. Since then the attacks had become less frequent and less severe, but it was still necessary for him to be accompanied by a friend at all times. This led into Mr. Lord’s next question. Did he recall where he was during October and November, 1874? Yes, he certainly did. He was with Mr. George Terry, his friend and constant companion, travelling about from one place to another. His memory was so good on this point because he had consulted a diary which he had kept then and which he kept now.
“During those months, or at any other time,” Mr. Lord asked, “were you in the habit of frequenting the Fifth Avenue Hotel every morning?”
No, he certainly was not. Of course, he may have been there once or twice during the summer and three or four times during the winter. After all, it would have been quite impossible to avoid it entirely.
In those days, in the seventies and on into the early eighties, the original Fifth Avenue Hotel played a role in New York City that no single hotel was ever to enjoy again. Standing at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue at Twenty-third Street, in the days when the city’s life was centered at the crossing of those avenues, it was the Plaza and the Ritz of the fashionable, the Astor and the Knickerbocker of the theatrical and sporting set, the Algonquin of the literary, and the old Waldorf of the nouveaux riche.
With a weather eye on Mr. Clinton, who was commencing to fret and fume in his seat, Mr. Lord launched his next question. During those two apparently unique months of October and November, 1874, did the witness visit any gambling house, or gambling hell, as it is called? Before Cornelius could reply, Mr. Clinton was on his feet with a strenuous objection. The witness was not a party to the contest of the will and his habits or whereabouts, good, bad, or indifferent, were entirely irrelevant and immaterial. Surrogate Calvin seemed inclined to agree and requested Mr. Lord to reveal where his line of questioning would lead. Counsel for contestant was delighted to explain. Such testimony, he said, was directly related to the foul conspiracy which William H. Vanderbilt, desperate because of his brother’s long abstention from gambling, whoring, and drinking, had cunningly devised in October and November, 1874, in order to hoodwink his aging father. It did not matter that the victim of this vicious plot was the much-maligned Cornelius rather than Mrs. La Bau, the actual contestant. If any part of the will was fraudulently produced, then the whole was a fraud. Surrogate Calvin, after some deliberation, ruled in Lord’s favor. It was the first important victory for Mrs. La Bau’s side, and a murmur of gratification welled up from the section of the courtroom where the contestant’s partisans were gathered. Cornelius returned at once to the stand to answer Mr. Lord’s question triumphantly. No, he had not been in the habit of frequenting gambling houses, or hells, in October and November of the year 1874.
“Or houses of ill-fame?”
“Or of drinking to excess?”
For his last question Mr. Lord lowered his voice to the hushed tone reserved for speaking of the dead to their bereaved ones. How many times had he seen his father during his last illness? He had called at the house two or three times every day during the last three or four months, he replied sorrowfully, but his stepmother had permitted him to see his father only once in all that time.
And now came one of the most eagerly awaited moments of the trial—the ordeal by cross-examination of young Corneel. Mr. Clinton, making no effort to conceal his impatience with filial grief, went to work immediately. There were, as he put it, a few things he was confused about and would like to have cleared up. For instance, had Mr. Vanderbilt ever been in Bloomingdale before his visit there in 1854? Well, yes, he had been there once before—in 1850, when he was about nineteen. Could he tell them a little more about it? Well, he had been down in Washington and he had drawn some money on his father, but his father hadn’t paid it. So the authorities, or whoever it was, communicated with his father and he came on and settled it. Cornelius went back to New York with his father and went into Bloomingdale of his own volition. He did not think he was insane, nor did anyone else. How long had he stayed there? About six months, more or less. Well, he must have liked it then, more or less. What did he do next? After some difficulty the witness recalled that he had gone to work in the law office of Horace Clark, his brother-in-law. In what capacity? “I could not tell,” Cornelius replied languidly, and Mr. Clinton suggested that possibly he had not been there long enough for it to be determined. And then what did he do? He went into the leather business with William F. Miller 8c Co. at the head of Gold Street. How long had he lasted there? About three months. Why had he left? He did not care to stay. No, he was not requested to leave. He had left voluntarily. He simply did not relish the business very much. And then what? Well, after his marriage, he had run the farm his father had given him. But that was five or six years later, wasn’t it? He supposed it was, more or less.
Mr. Clinton seemed quite perplexed about the witness’ name. Hadn’t he been christened Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt and not Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.? Inasmuch as he was only a few weeks old at the time, the witness said he really couldn’t recollect whether he had or not. It got quite a laugh from the spectators, but Mr. Clinton, who was not amused, persisted. What was his real name? Well, his mother said it was Cornelius, Jr., and his father said it was Cornelius Jeremiah. To save any trouble about the matter he used both of the names.
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.
Mr. Clinton was particularly interested in the witness’ relations with one Zachariah Simmons. Mr. Simmons in his day was widely famed as a lottery man (lotteries were a forerunner of what we know as the “numbers racket” and were equally lucrative for their operators). Did Mr. Vanderbilt owe Mr. Simmons any money? Well, he supposed he did, but he could not be certain of the amount. Possibly $10,000 or so, more or less. When had he last seen Mr. Simmons? The witness said he couldn’t recall exactly, offhand. He saw so many people, you understand. Mr. Clinton did not understand, and said he wanted an answer to his question. Well, it was fairly recently. How recently? Yesterday? No, he was sure it wasn’t yesterday. What about the day before yesterday? He wasn’t so sure about that. Before the witness could make up his mind, Mr. Lord bounced up with a vigorous objection to this line of questioning as being entirely irrelevant. Surrogate Calvin directed Mr. Clinton to explain where it was leading. The latter said he could not reveal his purpose at this time. He would say, however, that at the proper time, and in direct relation to his question, there would be disclosed one of the rankest conspiracies ever encountered in the history of jurisprudence. The Surrogate said he might continue and directed the witness to answer the question. Mr. Vanderbilt now admitted that he had indeed last seen Mr. Simmons on Monday. If this was Wednesday, that would make it the day before yesterday. After further cross-examination Mr. Clinton finally got the witness to concede that he had probably borrowed money from Simmons within the last six months but he could not tell the amount without referring to his books. He did not think he had borrowed money from Simmons to finance the trial, but he did concede that he might have used some of the loan for one thing or another connected with the trial. It was another of those fine distinctions that Mr. Clinton was incapable of appreciating.
“The harrowing ordeal of young Corneel,” as one overwrought journalist called it, lasted nearly four days, but he still had some fight left in him when Mr. Clinton gave him back to Mr. Lord for re-direct examination. Where did he expect to get the money to pay his debts? Why, from the same source that his brother William expected to get his, naturally. It got quite a laugh from the spectators and it seemed to restore Corneel’s own morale, too. As to his gambling habits, Cornelius claimed, after consulting his diary, that he had gambled only sixteen times in all of 1876, in spite of the strain imposed on him by his father’s last illness. The fact that he had gambled at all was due entirely to the disheartening indifference with which his father had received his exemplary behavior of 1874. At this point Mr. Lord attempted to put in evidence two letters which Cornelius had written to his father in the fall of 1874 and which his father had not deigned to answer.
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.
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.
As a result the stranger, whom Redburn later revealed to be none other than Chauncey M. Depew, felt dutybound, as a devoted family friend and a responsible officiai of the New York Central Railroad, to undertake whatever action might be required so that the Commodore and William would be convinced of their error. In short, he wanted Head Detective Redburn to have Cornelius followed until the evidence needed to set matters straight could be obtained. Redburn readily agreed to undertake the job. They arranged to meet the next day at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Redburn to bring with him one of his most reliable operatives, who would do the actual work of trailing young Vanderbilt. As it turned out, and as Redburn said he realized later, there was something extremely “providential” about this meeting. Neither he nor his subordinate knew the intended quarry by sight, and they so informed Mr. Depew. While the three of them were still conferring at the hotel, however, who should saunter through the lobby on his way to the bar but a man whom Mr. Depew promptly pointed out as young Corneel himself. At once Redburn’s reliable operative, George A. Mason, went into action.
Detective Mason’s technique, as revealed in a sworn statement he gave Mr. Lord in August of 1877, was simple but effective. Mornings he would loiter about the Fifth Avenue Hotel, a pastime so pleasant that many young blades engaged in it by choice, until his man appeared. It was not difficult to keep track of him after that. According to Mason’s deposition, Corneel’s day would go like this: Arriving at the hotel between 10 and 11 A.M. , he would proceed directly to the bar, where he would indulge in a few drinks with various friends and acquaintances. Then, with the morning gone and well aglow with spirits, said Cornelius together with several of his boon companions would leave the hotel and journey down to Ann Street aboard a Broadway stage. There, in the shadow of St. Paul’s Church, they had their choice of several of those insidious institutions known as “day games.” These “day games,” which then abounded in the blocks off Broadway between Fulton and Chambers streets, were faro games operated primarily for the benefit of businessmen who worked in the area. They were also patronized by gentlemen of leisure like young Cornelius and his cronies, who found it irksome to wait until midafternoon for the uptown establishments to open their doors. These downtown excursions usually lasted two or three hours. Afterwards, they would return to the Fifth Avenue Hotel for more refreshments and for discussion of what to do next. Would they saunter across Twenty-fourth Street to John Morrissey’s luxurious parlors, where they could enjoy a sumptuous free meal before settling down to an afternoon of serious gambling? Or would they pay their respects to the charming ladies to be found in certain elegant, if notorious, establishments along West Twenty-fifth Street? It was not always an easy decision to make. On occasion it took so long to make it that they were in no condition to carry it out.
Once or twice a week said Cornelius would desert his cronies after the return from Ann Street and proceed purposefully down Fifth Avenue to Fourteenth Street, where, as if by chance, he would meet a lady. She would accompany him for a seemingly casual stroll down University Place to Eleventh Street. There they would suddenly vanish into Solari’s, a restaurant discreetly and cozily equipped with private rooms, and there would remain until evening. Upon emerging, said Cornelius would be so much the worse for wear that it would be all he could do to crawl into a cab and be driven home.
So it went day after day until Detective Mason commenced to have difficulty keeping up with his man, who was by now growing suspicious. Mason decided, therefore, that what he needed was an assistant to enable him, as he put it, to follow said Cornelius into dens of vice into which Mason could not always obtain admission alone or into which he did not deem it advisable to venture unaccompanied. For this purpose he selected one William H. Clark, an old and experienced colleague who had entree even into the exclusive establishments on Twenty-fifth Street to which Cornelius was so devoted. The intimate and revealing nature of the report produced by this double coverage was such that Mr. Depew, already bubbling with enthusiasm over Mason’s solo efforts, could now no longer contain himself. He hustled the two detectives over to William’s office in Grand Central Depot for a repeat performance. William, according to Mason’s somewhat pedestrian account, professed much sorrow on learning of his brother’s behavior but made only a feeble objection when Mr. Depew suggested that the report be given to the Commodore.
Detective Clark’s account of this occasion, in the affidavit he gave Mr. Lord, reveals him as a much more acute observer than the matter-of-fact Mason, quite capable of penetrating beneath the deceptive surfaces of human behavior. Here is his version: ”… That said William H. Vanderbilt, as he listened to Mason’s report, professed to be disappointed and distressed at the intelligence of his brother’s delinquencies, but that deponent [Clark] insists on saying herein that there was something in the manner and looks of said William H. Vanderbilt and in the glances he exchanged with his ‘soi-disant’ friend that constrained deponent to believe, and a little later in the day to remark to said Mason, that notwithstanding William H. Vanderbilt’s ostensible grief, deponent was confident that he was delighted with the reports of his brother’s infamy, and that said Mason replied that he did not like to think, much less to say so, but that, nevertheless, he had received the same impression as deponent. That deponent afterward accompanied the said ‘soi-disant’ friend and said Mason to the office of Commodore Vanderbilt. That the moment the Commodore understood the nature of their visit he exclaimed, addressing himself to said self-styled friend, ‘I suppose you have now come to kill me and make an end of it.’ Whereupon the person addressed declared that the business was not half so serious as that, and when the Commodore replied that he could see through it all, and that he wished to God he had never been born, that said self-styled friend remarked, ‘If you would stop, Commodore, to reflect what the country would have been out without you, you would never have made such an unpatriotic wish/ and that the Commodore then said, ‘No, I don’t wish that, but I wish that this son of mine had never been born; that’s what I do wish.” ”
His patriotism restored, the Commodore braced himself for the ordeal of listening to Mason’s report. He could not, however, conceal his true feelings from Detective Clark, who wrote in his affidavit “that the Commodore appeared to be half-suffocated with the intelligence of his son’s depravity; that it seemed to deponent that grief and indignation, love and hatred, and all the conflicting passions, had engaged in a battle royal in which his bosom was receiving the hardest blows. That a few expressions of anger seemed to relieve the Commodore when, after asking deponent a few questions, he cried, ‘Go away, go away, and never let me see you again.’ ”
A few days later Mason and Clark were informed by Redburn that their mission had been accomplished to the complete satisfaction of the “soi-disant” friend of the family, Mr. Depew. Young Corneel stood revealed for what he was. The case, so far as they were concerned, would have been closed forever but for an embarrassing incident which befell Detective Mason only a little more than two years later, or, as chance would have it, not long after the first rumblings of discontent over the Commodore’s will were heard. Late in the spring of 1877, according to the affidavit he gave Mr. Lord, Mason was taking a stroll along Broadway one day with an acquaintance. This acquaintance pointed out a person whom he claimed was none other than Cornelius J. Vanderbilt himself. Mason, who prided himself on an infallible memory for faces, promptly said that that was impossible; it was definitely not the person he had followed every day for nearly a month. But his friend insisted that the man they had seen was young Corneel. The upshot was a wager which, to his chagrin, deponent lost.
Bewildered but indignant, Mason communicated his discovery to Clark, and together they confronted Head Detective Redburn with the facts. Redburn, according to Mason, “seemed surprised and suggested that steps be taken to ascertain the truth.” Realizing that they had been the unwitting instruments of a nefarious plot, they quickly concluded that simple justice demanded they do all in their power to repair the damage they had wrought. Redburn therefore composed the letter dated June 22, 1877, to the wronged Cornelius which the latter had passed on to Mr. Lord. Mr. Lord must have grasped it eagerly. Here, if ever there was one, was a fraudulent conspiracy designed to influence a testator unduly. He could hardly have been blamed if he had commenced spending the fat fee which would be his for breaking the will of the richest man in America.
During the adjournment granted by Surrogate Calvin Mr. Lord finally succeeded in coaxing Redburn, Mason, and Clark to return to New York. They promised faithfully to appear in court when the case was resumed on June 11. Finally, all that remained to be done was a lastminute rehearsal of their testimony with Mr. Lord and Judge Black which was scheduled for June 10.
That was how matters stood on the afternoon of June 9, a Sunday, when Mr. Lord opened an envelope which had been slipped under his door at his hotel. It was a letter from Redburn stating that Clark and Mason had gone off together, ostensibly to check on dates and places, but that he would go after them immediately and bring them back. Alas, it had a familiar ring. Apparently those sinister influences of which Mr. Lord had previously complained were again at work. He still had faith in the doughty Redburn, but the testimony of the craven Mason and Clark was essential to his case. Moreover, the next day the most crushing blow of all fell on Mr. Lord. It came in the form of a letter dated June 9, written jointly by Mason and Clark. In it they said that they had discovered that everything to which they had previously sworn was the result of a plot concocted by Cornelius J. Vanderbilt himself, aided and abetted by his friend “Simpson,” a big wheel in the lottery racket with powerful political and underworld connections. It was only a few hours before writing the letter that they had finally become convinced of the truth. “We agree perfectly in everything,” they wrote, “except as to whether Redburn was one of the original conspirators. One believes he was, while one willingly gives him the benefit of the doubt … Finally, Judge Lord, we wish to say that when we made our statements to you, we fully believed them … and that you could never have had any reason to doubt them until now, when we give you this disclosure. With great respect, [signed] William H. Clark and George A. Mason.”
With two of his key witnesses reneging and all of them vanished, Mr. Lord might well have wished to vanish himself. He was left with a set of affidavits which were worthless as evidence, even if true, and which, in any event, were now apparently discredited. However, he went into court on June 11, bristling with indignation, and presented yet another affidavit of his own in support of a motion to continue the case. Annexed thereto were not only the original affidavits of Redburn, Mason, and Clark, but also (and this was perhaps his master stroke which at once demonstrated his own integrity and confounded his opponents) the joint letter of Mason and Clark in which they denied the truth of their own sworn statements. In his own affidavit, after relating the events of the past months during which he had labored to overcome the detectives’ fears, and to obtain sworn affidavits from them, Mr. Lord went on to say that he still believed the statements in those affidavits to be true; if the testimony of Mason and Clark could be taken, he said, the affidavits would be sustained. He did not believe that they could be bribed, or otherwise persuaded, to appear upon the stand and perjure themselves, but he did believe that they could have been induced to write their letter of June 9 and then to put themselves beyond the jurisdiction of the court. The close of Mr. Lord’s new affidavit summarized the confusion. “Deponent further says,” Lord wrote, “that the communication received by him from said Mason and Clark leads him to believe that they have been in communication with some person or persons in the interest of the proponents, and have been induced by them to put themselves beyond the jurisdiction of this court to avoid testifying, and that this also leads him to believe that had they not refused to testify under oath to the statement of their letter, they would have been allowed to appear in court and testify; and that counsel for the contestant, under all these circumstances, deem it their duty to ask the court for a continuance, so that in a matter of such vital importance the truth may be ascertained.”
Mr. Clinton objected strenuously to the reading in court of the Redburn-Mason-Clark affidavits, on the grounds that they were entirely extra-judicial. Every word might be false and yet the authors could not be held for perjury. “It comes to this,” he declaimed heatedly, “whether this court is to be used only for the purpose of scandal … [and] for getting into the newspapers statements which they have already refused to print.” Surrogate Calvin said he did not think reputable counsel would resort to such tactics and permitted the reading to continue, although he made it clear that the affidavits themselves could have no bearing on the outcome of the case.
There was a tense silence in the courtroom as the reading proceeded, broken only by occasional gasps of astonishment from the spellbound audience and by snorts of disgust from counsel for the proponents. William H. Vanderbilt sat with his eyes fixed rigidly upon the ceiling, thus avoiding the fierce glare of his sister, Mrs. La Bau, and the sight of the angry fist which, from time to time, she shook at him. Contestant’s counsel also read a statement by Cornelius J. Vanderbilt flatly denying the charge made against him by Mason and Clark in their joint letter of confession, and another by “Zach” Simmons stating that if he was the “Simpson” referred to therein, which he was, he denied all charges.
Counsel for proponents came into court the next day armed with their own affidavits. In sworn statements read by Mr. Clinton, Chauncey M. Depew and William H. Vanderbilt categorically denied everything of which they had been accused by Mr. Lord and his reluctant witnesses. Mr. Clinton then went to work in earnest on the affidavits offered by Mr. Lord. He dealt very harshly with young Cornelius, quoting with caustic relish some of the riper passages which contained the preposterous notion that Cornelius could ever amount to anything, and, most preposterous of all, that the canny old Commodore would ever have been foolish enough to think that he would. Almost equally absurd, Mr. Clinton said, was the story of Chauncey Depew concocting a conspiracy in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Depew may have had his less fervent admirers, but no one ever set him down for a natural-born fool.
“The falsity of these papers is apparent on their face,” Mr. Clinton stormed. “They were all written by the same person, and that person is a lawyer.”
Counsel for contestant were on their feet screaming in outrage, and Mr. Clinton conceded that he was not referring to any known member of contestant’s counsel. This did not exactly mollify Mr. Lord and his associates, but Mr. Clinton refused to retract the suggestion that they were being used as cat’s-paws by some sinister legal mind in the employ of young Corneel and his underworld crony, Simmons. Surrogate Calvin himself objected to so grave an accusation. He asked Mr. Clinton if he could suggest an explanation for the motives behind such affidavits.
“Certainly,” came the reply. “For the purposes of blackmail. Anyone who knows anything of private detectives understands how ready they are to seize upon anything that promises money. … These detectives are too keen to swear to anything for which they can be held responsible … They have disappeared just at the time for them to appear in court because they never intended to appear. They thought us weak-kneed, and that we would yield to their demands.”
Although it may seem now that Mr. Clinton was being rather harsh in his treatment of private detectives, actually his remarks were quite mild. The profession had a most unsavory reputation at this period. In a time when moral hypocrisy was common, when suspicion flourished, its services were in great demand. Nevertheless, it had become an overcrowded field, and its practitioners, in order to survive, had to promote new business aggressively. As a matter of policy, the customer was always right, and their reports were tailored to fit his needs. Blackmail was an obvious and lucrative sideline, and private detectives had been known to prey upon the guilty and the innocent alike.
Mr. Clinton wound up his argument with a few words for opposing counsel. “Why were not these witnesses subpoenaed?” he demanded. “The affidavits are of no value except to excuse counsel for being humbugged for six months. The whole story is a fabrication.”
Surrogate Calvin closed the hearing with some remarks that left the whole affair more confused than ever. “What seems extraordinary to the court,” he said, somewhat wistfully, “is that if these detectives were honest men and found they had been deceived by Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, they did not make known their discoveries to the other side. The fact that they have departed in this way is full of suspicion.”
In spite of his bewilderment, the Surrogate was not quite willing to give up hope of seeing with his own eyes whether such fantastic witnesses actually existed. He granted Mr. Lord an adjournment of two weeks, urging him to spare no effort to produce at least Redburn, who seemed fairly available, or, at any rate, less mythical than Mason and Clark. Mr. Lord, unabashed by the sneers of opposing counsel, resolutely promised to do his utmost. Two weeks later, alas, he came back into court with the air of a man to whom the fates had been malignantly unkind. Redburn was seriously ill and confined to his home. (He lived in New Jersey, so he was not within the jurisdiction of the court.) Mason and Clark had not returned from wherever it was they had gone, and no one knew where that was. Their existence was becoming very mythical indeed. Mr. Lord endeavored to offset this impression with another of his garrulous lady witnesses whose testimony was discredited by Mr. Clinton on cross-examination.
On July 2, 1878, court adjourned early to allow the participants to attend the funeral of Phoebe Jane Cross, the Commodore’s eldest daughter, who had grudgingly accepted her $250,000 worth of Lake Shore bonds; Mr. Clinton wryly remarked that it was “the first time he would not oppose a motion to adjourn.” But the next day he was back in action again when Mr. Lord suggested that it might be a good time to adjourn for the summer. It would be very unpleasant in the little courtroom during July and August, and Redburn, suffering from what was described as “intermittent fever,” would certainly be unable to appear under such unfavorable conditions. Mr. Clinton, by now running a very high temperature himself, objected violently not only to a summer’s adjournment but to allowing the contestant any more time whatsoever; if the case were permitted to drag on indefinitely, Surrogate Calvin’s term in office might expire, and then it could be claimed his successor did not have jurisdiction and so it would go—forever.
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.
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.”
Variations of this message from the other world were repeated at appropriate intervals over a period of several months, or, to put it crassly, for as long as the fiscal inspiration from William H. Vanderbilt to Dr. Stoddard was maintained. Mrs. Stoddard could not recall exactly how many times her husband had transmitted Sophie’s message, but she was quite positive that the last visit had occurred early in January, 1875. She remembered it so well, she said, for two reasons: first, simply because it was, alas, the last visit, and, second, because the Commodore had been so cheerful. Instead of his usual solemn reply to the voice from beyond the grave, his answer had been, “Don’t fret about it any more, Sophie. It’s all been fixed so Billy will get it all.”
Mr. Lord laid particular stress upon the witness’ testimony about this final visit because, although of course the Stoddards presumably couldn’t have known it at the time, the date coincided remarkably well with the date of the formal signing and execution of the Commodore’s last will and testament. Thus, Mrs. Stoddard’s testimony, fantastic though it may have sounded, was a matter of grave concern to the proponents, and their lawyers were obviously most unhappy about it. There was no question of its being relevant: the best Mr. Clinton could do on that score was a niggling argument to the effect that actually the testator had disobeyed the spirits, for Billy did not get it all. Furthermore, it opened the door for the seemingly abundant evidence, which the Surrogate had previously refused to admit, that the Commodore had, in fact, been a true believer in spiritualism, even, or perhaps especially, as practiced by charlatans such as Dr. Stoddard and the Claflin sisters. It was, if true, the only material evidence thus far produced to show that in making his will the testator might have been unduly influenced by a fraudulent conspiracy. Even though the will itself might not have differed by so much as a single stray “hereinbefore” without the advice of the spirits, it raised a reasonable doubt; when one hundred million dollars is at stake even a most unreasonable doubt could loom very ominously indeed. Mrs. Stoddard’s testimony was of such a nature that it could not be conclusively refuted. Mere denials would not suffice. Before the proponents could again breathe easily, Mrs. Stoddard herself would have to be completely demolished.
Mr. Clinton commenced his cross-examination by asking the witness to tell the court just how her connection with the case had come about. Mrs. Stoddard said that about three weeks before she testified she had received a letter signed “A friend” asking her to call at Mr. Lord’s office in a matter of great importance. This “friend” turned out to be a man whom she had seen around, as she put it, but whom she did not know by name and had not seen again. She said that when she had been interviewed by Mr. Lord, she had told him she had nothing to tell but the truth. Mr. Clinton said he was very glad to hear that, and, if she would continue the same policy with him, things should work out splendidly. There were a few minor details in her direct testimony he wanted to clear up. For instance, she had said that she and her husband were living at 64 Charles Street when they had last seen Commodore Vanderbilt. A little later in her testimony, however, she had said they had left 64 Charles Street about six months prior to the death of her husband in May, 1875, which would indicate either that they had last seen the Commodore in November of 1874 instead of the following January, or that she was mistaken as to the date of her husband’s death. But of course she could hardly be mistaken about a thing such as that, could she?
Under this steady barrage of seemingly trivial questions about dates and places, Mrs. Stoddard snarled herself in a tangle of contradictions, and gradually it came out that she did not know to the day or even the week when her husband had died. Bit by bit, Mr. Clinton drew from her the admission that her husband had been dead and buried a month or more before she even knew about it. Asked to explain how such a thing could be, the harried witness said it was because her husband had died in Poughkeepsie. Mr. Clinton, now assuming that air of happy bewilderment which can be so exasperating to witnesses who have been driven into a corner, conceded that while Poughkeepsie might not be the best place in the world in which to have one’s husband die, surely it was not so bad as to deprive him of her presence. The witness, by now as irritated as she was confused, angrily denied that there was anything particularly strange about this. It just so happened that Dr. Stoddard lived in Poughkeepsie part of the time because he had an office there. A great light seemed to dawn on Mr. Clinton. “I see,” he said. “But you didn’t live in Poughkeepsie … not even part time?” And with the inference established that there was something peculiarly irregular in the relationship between the witness and the late Dr. Stoddard, Mr. Clinton suggested that it was time to call it a day. He had the scent he needed for his private bloodhounds—Poughkeepsie, only seventy miles away on the main line of the Vanderbilt railroad—and he had four days for them to track it down before the next session of court.
News of Mrs. Stoddard’s testimony created a sensation in Poughkeepsie. Even after an absence of some fifteen years, she was well remembered there, particularly by righteously indignant friends and relatives of the late Dr. Stoddard. Mr. Clinton’s research into the early phases of her career thus proved to be both simple and fruitful. When he resumed his cross-examination, he knew exactly what questions would unfold the saga of a country girl, originally known as “Nell,” who had not waited until she got to the big city to go astray.
While still in her early teens Nell had been adopted by a widower named Coe who lived across the river in Ulster County. After a year or so in this ambivalent situation Nell had come back across the river to “keep house,” as she called it—although that wasn’t what the neighbors called it—for a man named DeGroot near Poughkeepsie. It was during her DeGroot period that she first met Dr. Stoddard and took to calling herself Lilian. The Doctor had been deeply smitten by her charms, even then well-developed, and they were married at Kingston after a three-week courtship spent driving about the countryside in a horse and buggy making frequent stops in country hotels. Lilian might well have become a bit disenchanted at this point when she learned that Dr. Stoddard already had a wife and family living in Poughkeepsie, but, being both goodnatured and realistic, she tried to make the best of a difficult situation by moving into the Stoddard home in the role of general houseworker. This arrangement had lasted only a week.
From the formidable appearance of a lady whom Mr. Clinton asked to rise and be identified by the witness as the original, and only genuine, Mrs. Stoddard, it could not have been a very pleasarit week for Lilian. The Times carried a special dispatch from its Poughkeepsie correspondent which quoted the genuine Mrs. Stoddard as saying, “There was something about her when she came to my house that I did not like, and that was the reason I discharged her.” One thing Mrs. Stoddard had not liked was that Lilian called Dr. Stoddard “Charley,” although his name was really “Amasa.” There were other things, too, but Mrs. Stoddard did not wish to specify what they were. Dr. Stoddard, however, must have liked being called “Charley,” and liked the other unspecified things as well, for he now set Lilian up in rooms on Bridge Street in Poughkeepsie, not too far away from his official residence, where she could keep house to her heart’s content. This cozy arrangement went on for five or six years. Then, apparently, it had finally dawned on Lilian that Poughkeepsie afforded too limited a field for the full development of her talent for housekeeping, and, in the interests of her career, she had gone to New York. From that time on Dr. Stoddard divided both his professional and his domestic lives between New York and Poughkeepsie. He also had an office in Newburgh, but nothing was known of his domestic arrangements there. Lilian herself quickly developed a considerable talent for dividing her life into multiple compartments, and during the doctor’s absences she became widely acquainted in elite circles of the underworld as the consort of forgers, counterfeiters, and confidence men. At one time and another she had been known as Mrs. Benning, Mrs. Draper, and Mrs. Hall—all names of gentlemen renowned in their professions. Mr. Hall, perhaps, represented the pinnacle of her achievement to date, for he was Edward Hall, the celebrated forger. Having achieved such a position, it was little wonder that Lilian became quite incensed when Mr. Clinton asked her if she had ever been arrested for anything so crude as stealing a watch and chain.
“No, sir,” she replied haughtily, “I was never arrested, and I would like to see the one to say I was.”
Her “marriages” were usually dissolved by the departure of her current “husband” for prison and were not customarily renewed. This made her relationship with Mr. Benning rather unique, as it had been resumed, at least on a part-time basis, after he had been away for two years in New Jersey State Prison. Mr. Clinton was especially interested in the enduring nature of Lilian’s attachment to Mr. Benning, for Mr. Benning was a specialist in a highly specialized field. In the jargon of his profession he was what was known as a “straw-bail man.” In plain English, he was an expert in the manufacture and distribution of fake testimony for counterfeiters. Mr. Clinton’s line of questioning strongly suggested that Mr. Benning’s basic technique was readily adaptable to other types of enterprise.
On the whole, Lilian bore up remarkably well under Mr. Clinton’s barrage of embarrassing questions. She maintained right to the bitter end that the number of men she had lived with had nothing to do with the truth of her testimony. Nor could Mr. Clinton ever get her to admit that she had known what Benning and his associates were really up to. There were frequent sharp exchanges between the witness and the lawyer, and her saucy and defiant replies were vastly entertaining to the spectators who now filled the courtroom to capacity. When Mr. Clinton tried to get her to admit that she had visited Benning in prison, she rapped her fan emphatically on the railing of the witness stand and said, “I won’t answer any more about that State Prison, so there!”
Mr. Lord tried hard in his re-direct examination to refurbish her respectability. “Abraham,” he said, “found favor before the Lord although he had more than one wife.” He then tried to show that Lilian had received a wedding ring from Dr. Stoddard when they were “married” at Kingston and that she had entered into the ceremony in good faith. If she had acted in good faith, Mr. Lord argued, she had been more sinned against than sinning, and the facts of her later life, however unseemly, did not affect the credibility of her testimony. Surrogate Calvin was not at all impressed with this line of reasoning and promptly excluded the testimony offered to establish her good faith.
Mr. Choate, who had long been straining at the leash, now entered the fray for the first time with a scathing attack upon the witness, calling her “a woman of the town of the most infamous kind.” He demanded that she be taken into custody on a charge of willfully committing perjury. But that was not the worst of it. Steeped in crime though she was, such a woman was obviously incapable of constructing a story which “fit into the crevices of the case so cunningly.” Only some sinister legal mind lurking in the camp of the contestant could possibly have done that. There was the real criminal who should be brought to book.
This was indeed a serious accusation to make against the opposing lawyers. Counsel for contestant were on their feet seething with indignation. Judge Black was particularly incensed, loudly demanding that Mr. Choate either back up his accusation by naming the person who had concocted Lilian’s story so that he personally could withdraw from such an unholy fellowship, or else retract it entirely. Mr. Choate, for his part, refused to do either, although he did grant that Judge Black himself should be excluded from his aspersions at opposing counsel. Furthermore, he persisted in demanding that the witness be arrested at once for perjury, as he supposed there was no one so credulous as to believe a word of “that woman’s” testimony. Mr. Lord, of course, was not silent. He hotly denied that there was any evidence either of perjury or of wrongdoing on his part. Of course, he did not wonder that counsel for proponent were a trifle disturbed by such damaging testimony. Let them prove it false, if they could, before making such contemptible accusations.
Surrogate Calvin, trying to maintain a judicial calm, finally brought the wrangling to an end by ruling that it would be improper to allow the motion for perjury to be brought in his court. In spite of his skepticism, he patiently pointed out the great importance of Lilian’s testimony: It was, if true, the only conclusive evidence of undue influence thus far presented, and it opened the way for Mr. Lord to present his abundant evidence, originally excluded as irrelevant, of the Commodore’s belief in spiritualism.
Mr. Clinton was quite beside himself with frustrated rage as Mr. Lord now happily proceeded to put back on the stand Mrs. Mary Stone, to tell how her efforts to communicate nonspiritually with the Commodore to raise money for her school and to get her brother a job on the railroad had been so cruelly thwarted by William.
With Mrs. Stone’s testimony safely on record, Mr. Lord was obviously flushed with success. He then attempted to bring on a witness who would link Mrs. Frankie Vanderbilt, the bereaved widow, to her stepson William in a highly improper manner. Earlier, Surrogate Calvin had sternly excluded such testimony unless it had first been clearly shown that Mrs. Vanderbilt had actually conspired to influence her husband unduly. Mr. Lord’s attempt aroused a storm of protest among counsel for proponents; Surrogate Calvin, highly indignant himself, threatened to hold Mr. Lord in contempt if the offer were repeated. Mr. Lord accepted his reprimand with a sardonic bow. No one could do anything, however, to suppress the jeering remarks with which Mrs. La Bau greeted Mr. Choate’s references to the unblemished character of her stepmother.
The trial had now been in progress for nearly a year, and opposing counsel urged the Surrogate to instruct Mrs. La Bau’s counsel to bring their case to a close. Mr. Lord, of course, protested vociferously, repeating his stock arguments as to the magnitude of the case and the continued absence of vital witnesses. Surrogate Calvin suggested that he name his missing witnesses and the nature of their testimony in an affidavit to support a motion to continue. This Mr. Lord indignantly refused to do. Those whose names had been revealed heretofore, he argued, had been threatened and bribed, and he could not again permit himself to jeopardize his client’s interests by his own naïve innocence of the depths of infamy to which opposing counsel would stoop. Apparently touched by Mr. Lord’s impassioned plea, Surrogate Calvin ruled that contestant could continue if the names of future witnesses were submitted to him privately. Such an arrangement was not at all to the liking of counsel for the proponents, and they reacted to it with howls of genuine legal anguish. Not only would this arrangement deprive them of the opportunity to do their customary research into the lives of prospective witnesses. It could also mean the indefinite prolongation of the case.
Despite the comforting assurance that the identity of his cast of characters would be kept from opposing counsel, Mr. Lord’s long-threatened cloud of devastating witnesses still failed to materialize. And yet a curious air of complacency now seemed to prevail in the camp of the contestant, as of a cat who has finally devised a way to lure the canary from its cage whenever he chooses to do so. Lord’s smugness was all the more evident because it was in such marked contrast to the exasperated anxiety of counsel for proponents. Time seemed no longer of any moment to Mr. Lord as he leisurely proceeded, serenely indifferent to Mr. Clinton’s caustic comments, to bring forth more of his apparently endless array of medical experts whose testimony proved nothing except what had already been proved: that the testator was an old man more or less subject to the infirmities of his age. Even Mr. Lord himself seemed bored by them. Then, during the early part of November, 1878, Mr. Lord fired what proved to be his last shot.
It started out like another of his medical-expert duds. The expert was Dr. Salmon Skinner, a dentist who had obtained some notoriety by suing Henry Ward Beecher to recover the value of a set of false teeth he had made for Dr. Beecher’s father (and who possibly had discovered that being in the legal limelight increased the demand for his product). Dr. Skinner had come forward voluntarily and was prepared to testify that he had treated the Commodore in 1873 and found his mind in a state of such imbecility that he had thought him to be drunk. More careful examination, however, had disclosed that the imbecility arose simply from the natural decay of his faculties. Surrogate Calvin, scanning the private list of prospective witnesses Lord had given him, was shocked to find that it did not even contain the name of Dr. Skinner. The Surrogate refused to permit him to testify.
“Under those circumstances,” Mr. Lord announced, very quietly and deliberately, “the contestant closes her case.”
Mrs. La Bau clapped her hands and jumped with glee as the courtroom buzzed with excitement. But an astonishing pall of gloom seemed to descend upon William H. Vanderbilt and his counsel as they sat dumbfounded by the inexplicable suddenness with which the event they had been awaiting so impatiently had finally occurred.
“That is all wrong, Mr. Vanderbilt,” Sam F. Barger, a friend and himself a lawyer, was heard to say. “I’m afraid that will give them a new trial.”
Disinterested attorneys present in the courtroom expressed the opinion that Surrogate Calvin’s decision to refuse to allow Dr. Skinner to testify would not be upheld in the Appellate Court. Mr. Lord himself denied any intention of setting a legal snare for the Surrogate, but his manner rather indicated that he was not entirely displeased with himself. New and important evidence, he told reporters, was constantly being discovered, and it might be just as well to let the matter rest for a while. His client, motivated more by a desire for justice than by greed, had nothing to gain by undue haste. It was obvious, of course, that Mr. Lord was quite aware of the infuriating effect that the prospect of indefinite delay in distributing the estate would have upon those who were content with the will as it stood. Until the defense of the will was presented, and the case decided, they were being deprived of the use and enjoyment of the money they felt was rightfully theirs.
On November 19, 1878, nearly two long and galling years after the testator’s death, the favored heirs were at last permitted to commence their defense of the will. Mr. Clinton’s presentation of their case was simple, direct, and vigorous. Disdaining to make any sort of opening address whatever (much to the consternation of Surrogate Calvin, who felt that such an omission was highly irregular), Mr. Clinton at once set about calling to the stand a procession of gentlemen prominent in government, finance, and the professions, who testified briskly and unanimously to the Commodore’s business acumen, his staunch character, and his remarkable clear-headedness until the very end of his life. Ex-Governors E. D. Morgan and John T. Hoffman of New York, as well as Edwards Pierrepont and William E. Dodge, all gentlemen of distinction locally and even nationally, provided an impressive contrast to the magneticians and shady ladies who had testified for the contestant. Mr. Lord rarely bothered to cross-examine them. The only notable exception occurred when Bishop Holland N. McTyeire of the Southern Methodist Church was on the stand. He had been called as a witness primarily to establish the irreproachable character of the Commodore’s widow, whom he had known all of her life and through whom he had been able to cajole the great man into giving away $1,000,ooo for the purpose of founding Vanderbilt University. Mr. Lord rudely asked the Bishop to tell the court what he knew about an earlier husband of Frankie’s who was still living. Before the Bishop could reply, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Choate, and Judge Comstock were all on their feet vigorously protesting that the question was irrelevant, immaterial, and ungentlemanly. The spectators were in a dither. Mrs. La Bau hurried eagerly down the aisle to her lawyers’ table so that she could watch Judge Black more closely as he replenished his chewing tobacco and strode before the bench to present their argument. Even William H. Vanderbilt, usually as stolid as a stone, appeared affected for the first time since the trial had started.
“This is not a trifling matter,” Judge Black rumbled, speaking slowly and with apparent embarrassment. “Here is a man eighty years old marrying a woman fifty years his junior, who came here a stranger, after separating from a husband who is still living. That there should have been bitterness felt toward this woman by the Commodore’s daughters, some of whom were already grandmothers, and that this feeling should have turned the heart of the father against them, are natural results. But there was one exception in the family. William H. Vanderbilt encouraged the marriage, and continued to show as much regard for the woman as though she had not done the injury of marrying the Commodore in his dotage. But the aggravation is immense if, in addition to showing the distress and hatred that this marriage caused, we show that it was unlawful, and that, therefore, whatever influence Mrs. Vanderbilt exerted was not only undue, it was unholy. There are words struggling for utterance here that I am compelled to restrain, and I suppose I have made a bungle of it, but your Honor must understand what I mean.”
His Honor, however, apparently as stunned as everyone else in the courtroom, appeared to be beyond understanding. And so, in a voice choking with emotion, Judge Black went on to spell out exactly what he meant. “That a stranger should sell herself to this old man for his money, taking advantage of that weakness of his nature, is not a reason why a will made under such circumstances should be allowed to stand.”
When he had finished, Judge Black sat down and buried his flushed face in his hands. His apparently real embarrassment at what the necessities of the occasion had required him to say about a member of the fair sex was quite as moving as his argument. There was hardly a sound in the courtroom. Even counsel for proponents, though dark with rage, remained strangely silent. But it was all in vain. Surrogate Calvin, once he had regained his judicial poise, hastily sustained proponents’ objection to Mr. Lord’s question, and Bishop McTyeire was permitted to step down.
But the damage had been done, and there was no joy among counsel for proponents at the Surrogate’s decision in their favor. The witness they had called to establish the sterling quality of Mrs. Frankie Vanderbilt’s characterprobably at her own insistence and against their better judgment—had provided opposing counsel with an irresistible opportunity to tarnish it. Judge Black’s eloquent plea, illogical and irrelevant though it may have been, probed through the one weak link in proponents’ case to an excruciatingly sensitive spot. However great William’s reluctance to compromise with his brother and sister, whether from greed or, as seems more likely, from pure cussedness, he had also to consider the feelings of his stepmother. Her good will and co-operation were essential to him, and he did not dare to risk further aspersions upon the propriety of her marriage to his father. As a lady with social ambitions of her own for the future, this was a subject on which she was understandably touchy.
In retrospect it seems clear (as it must have been clear then to any reasonably astute observer of courtroom dramas) that, by the time Judge Black came to the end of his little discourse on the theme of young women who marry very rich and very old men, the contest was really over and that a compromise agreeable to the contestant would be arranged. Even Mrs. La Bau’s vindictive hatred of her stepmother seemed finally to have been appeased. Out of respect for judicial form, the last act had still to be played out, but no one seemed to mind when Surrogate Calvin adjourned the trial for two months in order to catch up with a backlog of other matters urgently demanding his attention. There was, for instance, a lady who had developed a penchant for beating her brother on the head with an umbrella in the corridor outside the Surrogate’s chambers in connection with the probate of their father’s will. In fact, it has been said that the calendar of the Surrogate’s Court in New York has never completely recovered from the effects of the Vanderbilt case.
Thus, it was not until March 4, 1879, that the essential legal buttress of proponents’ case was hammered solidly into place by Charles A. Rapallo, a jurist distinguished by his long service on the state of New York’s court of appeals, the Commodore’s confidential legal adviser for many years, and the man who had been drawing wills for the decedent since 1856. All the wills were substantially the same. William had always been named residuary legatee and Cornelius had always been left with a comparatively small annuity.
The next and final witness for the proponents was William H. Vanderbilt himself. Mr. Vanderbilt was calm and dignified as Mr. Choate conducted his examination in the impressively courteous manner for which he was noted. In reply to Mr. Choate’s respectfully couched questions the witness denied, briefly but emphatically, all the utterances attributed to him by contestant’s witnesses in regard to his influence over his father; he also disclaimed any design to prejudice the Commodore against Corneel or to turn to his own advantage his father’s alleged spiritualist beliefs.
Mr. Lord was scarcely less courteous in his cross-examination. After a few questions put with a most gingerly circumspection as to Mr. Vanderbilt’s relations with his stepmother (he seemed relieved when assured that they had always been entirely proper), Mr. Lord said quietly that that would be all.
There was a flurry of excitement as the significance of his words became apparent. After it subsided, Mr. Lord told the court that counsel for contestant would submit their case without summing up. Then, in a voice which betrayed repressed emotion, he asked to have stricken from the record everything reflecting upon the character of Mrs. Vanderbilt that had appeared there by their motion, offer, or allegation. To the bewilderment of the spectators, there was a general shaking of hands among opposing counsel, and Mr. Choate made a great point of thanking Mr. Lord for his words on behalf of Mrs. Vanderbilt.
Under the heading “ POSITIVE DETAILS OF THE COMPROMISE ,” the Tribune promptly gave its readers an inside version of why the trial had ended so abruptly. It claimed its facts came from a gentleman described as “one who has been intimately connected with the contestants, but who refuses to have his name mentioned.” This anonymous gentleman was quoted as saying that “the compromise was the result of a conversation between Judge Rapallo and the person who has all along been backing Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., in his suit. I don’t mean his sister, who has stood by him nobly when she might have pocketed her half million and avoided any trouble. This friend of young Vanderbilt told very plainly what it was proposed to show by numerous witnesses not yet examined, and the consequence was that it was agreed that Cornelius was to be paid $1,000,000 and costs of his suit in the Supreme Court, and Mrs. La Bau $1,000,000 plus her expenditures in the contest of the will; and that all testimony of a character derogatory to any member of the Vanderbilt family, past or present, was to be suppressed.”
As later events would show, the Tribune ’s version, though somewhat overly generous, was not too far removed from the truth. The proponents, for instance, acknowledged that William H. Vanderbilt stood ready to fulfill the promises he had made before the contest started, but this, of course, would not be a compromise. It would be simply a matter of “free gifts"—the same kind of gifts William had given to his other sisters on their refusal to contest the will. Even Mr. Lord, speaking for the contestant, maintained tartly that “I know nothing of any compromise.”
Surrogate Calvin gave his decision on March 19, 1879, two weeks after the end of the trial. While all element of doubt as to the outcome had pretty well vanished, it was, nevertheless, an interesting document. In it the Surrogate took considerable pains to castigate the contestant and her counsel severely for what he described as their “persistent effort to uncover to the public gaze the secrets of a parent’s domestic and private life; to belittle his intelligence and his virtues; to distort his providence into meanness; to magnify his eccentricities into dementia, his social foibles into immorality, his business differences into dishonesty and treachery; and to ascribe his diseases to obscene practices.”
In fact, the Surrogate said, the testimony showed the testator to have been a man of “very vigorous mind and strong nature, but lacking the amenities of education and culture and a delicate respect for the opinions of his fellowmen.” He also dismissed without exception, and with somewhat less rhetorical flourish, every phase of the contestant’s case. The only evidence of a fraudulent conspiracy to influence the testator unduly was the extraordinary testimony of the lady from Poughkeepsie, with her background of unusual domestic arrangements, and of the alcoholically inclined Mrs. Stone. In these cases, due to “the discreditable and fraudulent enterprises in which these two witnesses claimed to have been engaged, and their manner of testifying, their discreditable antecedents and associations, together with the intrinsic improbability of their story,” Surrogate Calvin reached the conclusion that their testimony was unworthy of credit and refused to accept it as a basis for judicial action. Furthermore, he urged those directly interested to pursue and bring the offenders to merited punishment, together with their guilty suborners, for, as he put it, “it is not to be believed that a mere fondness for an odious notoriety was sufficient to call these witnesses from their obscene associations unsolicited.” (Alas for justice and public expectations, the ladies were permitted to resume their accustomed ways unmolested. Any such stern pursuit would only have stirred up more of the unsavory publicity which the Vanderbilts were now so anxious to avoid, and would, in any event, have violated the terms of the treaty of peace.)
An editorial in the Times summed up the whole affair quite succinctly: “The most remarkable feature [of the contest] is the obtuse moral perceptions of the children who have uncovered the nakedness of their parent … The worst feature has been its vulgarity.”
Obtuse moral perceptions or not, these were happy days for Vanderbilts, even poor ones. Cornelius and his sister may have lost a legal battle, but, from their point of view, they had won the war. Although the fruits of their victory were not quite so abundant as was rumored in the press (the version favored by the Times gave $1,000,000 to each, plus $250,000 for counsel and expenses), they were still substantial. All we know definitely is that, in addition to the Commodore’s original bequests, young Corneel received a $400,000 trust fund and some $200,000 in cash. Mrs. La Bau undoubtedly received a comparable amount; and there must also have been considerable sums for legal fees and expenses, but the exact figures of the total settlement disappeared immediately behind the veil of secrecy with which the Vanderbilts now endeavored to conduct their affairs. Considering the general preposterousness of contestant’s case, these sums were munificent indeed. Even Cornelius conceded, in a letter to the Times indignantly protesting against the use of the word “compromise” to describe the settlement, that his brother “acted in a just and magnanimous manner … and displayed a liberality far beyond my expectations.” The rich Vanderbilts, William and his brood, were happily absorbed with the delightful problem of learning how to spend money as ostentatiously as only the Vanderbilts could now afford to spend it.
Happiest of all, perhaps, were the lawyers for both sides. Their combined fees exceeded by a vast margin all thenexisting world’s records for fat legal pickings. Mr. Clinton’s fee was reliably reported to have been at least $300,000; rumor put it as high as $500,000. Whatever it was, he was able to retire and devote the remaining twenty years of his life to writing books about the criminal cases which had been his first and true love. The exact amount of Mr. Lord’s fee has never been made public, but he did well enough to free himself from financial worries for the remainder of his life. Judge Black was said to have received $28,000, fair pay certainly for the few occasions on which he was called upon to display his eloquence. In the long run, however, perhaps it was young Corneel’s bête noire , Chauncey M. Depew, who, although not officially of counsel, topped them all. He entrenched himself so solidly with the Vanderbilt family that he went on to become president of the New York Central and, as a sort of fringe benefit frequently bestowed on prominent industrialists in the days before senators were chosen by popular vote, served two terms in the United States Senate.
The only people concerned with the settlement who seem to have been unhappy were Cornelius’ creditors in Hartford. Weeks went by and they were still anxiously waiting. According to a dispatch from Hartford there were 217 claimants to whom Corneel allegedly owed an aggregate of $75,000. Most of them were paid eventually; luckily for them, payment of all outstanding debts was a condition of the settlement insisted upon by William.
By December of 1879 Cornelius himself was becoming unhappily restive in the humdrum security of his new existence. Besides, the mere fact of the inaccessibility of the principal of his new trust fund must have had a most disturbing effect upon anyone so sensitive in such matters. Predictably enough, Cornelius’ natural reaction to such frustration was to dash off a typical epistolary effusion, asking that half of the fund be released to him immediately. Alas, William replied that “it would not be a sound exercise of judgment to grant your request, however pleasing it might be to gratify your desire.” Unable or unwilling to grasp the idea that one of the chief purposes of trust funds is to protect beneficiaries against the use of their own judgment, Cornelius now petitioned the Supreme Court of New York to remove William as a trustee on some vague grounds of fiduciary incapacity. The court promptly denied the motion. When Cornelius insisted on appealing, against the advice of his counsel, the decision was affirmed with a severe rebuke for bringing an application having neither law nor facts to justify it. The brief era of good feeling between William and Cornelius had ended and was never to be revived.
For a thwarted ne’er-do-well, life without great expectations was a dismal, downhill affair. Soon Corneel was reappearing once more in his old haunts, where by the curious logic of finance his credit was not as good as it had been when he was scrounging along on an allowance from home, and he was again being harassed by creditors, particularly by Simmons, whose methods of collection could be rather unpleasant. He spent his last night on earth in a gambling house at 12 Ann Street, returning to his rooms in the Glenham Hotel at 6 A.M. of the morning after, worn and bedraggled. Early that afternoon, April 2, 1882, while Sunday crowds promenaded outside on Fifth Avenue, “young Corneel” shot himself to death. It seems now to have been an unnecessarily grim ending to a life which, from any rational point of view, should have continued happily along on a blithe and debonair course.
In his own will Cornelius treated his sisters just as badly as had his father. He left them each $1,000 to buy something in remembrance of him. The bulk of his estate consisted of the disputed $400,000 trust fund, the principal of which he was never able to touch during his life, but which he could dispose of as he wished in his will. Most of it went to his old friend and companion, in good times and bad, George N. Terry. Mrs. La Bau, his staunch comrade-at-arms during the long will contest, was so incensed by this unbrotherly treatment that she now rushed into court with objections to the probate of his will. Later, however, she withdrew them after what was described as “an understanding agreeable to all the parties.”
Early in the Great Will Contest, when Mr. Lord was developing some of his particularly scurrilous irrelevancies about the Commodore’s alleged weakness for assorted females, the Tribune , in an outburst of editorial righteousness, had predicted that “rivers of gold will not wash out the stain … The name Vanderbilt will disappear in shame and ignominy.” Alas for the prescience of editorial writers, the name Vanderbilt, far from disappearing, was transmuted with almost magical celerity into a national symbol of wealth and social status of such potency that later and far richer parvenu families, strive as they might, have never been able to displace it. Even now, when such things no longer really matter, its spell still lingers.
William more than doubled his inheritance, leaving, upon his death in 1885, an estate worth nearly $200,000,000. With twice as much to distribute, he had something for everyone, and there was nothing resembling a wayward son with great expectations to be prudently blighted. In dividing the kitty, William followed the general pattern set by his father. Each of his four daughters received $5,000,000 outright and $5,000,000 in trust, as did his two younger sons, Frederick and George. The two elder sons, Cornelius II and William K., divvied up the remainder, some $130,000,000.
Although this division did not exactly show equal regard for his offspring, there was not even a rumor of a dispute over the will. None of the eight appeared to feel disinherited, as most of the Commodore’s children had in their day. Indeed, it would have been difficult to feel disinherited with a legacy of $10,000,000 in a day when there was no income tax and when a dollar was really a dollar.