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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
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.