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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
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.