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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
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.