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