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The Commodore Left Two Sons
—and America’s greatest fortune up to that time, some $100,000,000. The legal battle that followed, full of tarts and torts and turnabouts, might have been plotted by Dickens
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
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.”