The Commodore Left Two Sons


Although the odds were against them, counsel for the contestant were not without their backers. Scott Lord, fresh from a term in Congress, had been the law partner of Senator Roscoe Conkling and was an experienced infighter. Uninhibited by legal niceties, he was a particularly good man in a will contest. His colleague, Ethan Alien, had served for a number of years earlier in his career as a United States district attorney.

As a pinch hitter of formidable endowment when legal eloquence was in order, the contestant had retained the services of Jeremiah S. Black, a former chief justice of the supreme court of Pennsylvania and a Cabinet member under both Buchanan and Lincoln. Judge Black had the reputation of being the most magnificent orator at the American bar. His snow-white, shaggy eyebrows belied the bright auburn wig he customarily wore. Twirling a silver tobacco box on the end of an enormous chain and followed by a Negro valet, Judge Black was a familiar figure in courtrooms throughout the nation. The power of his argument was said to rise with the number of spittoons he filled.

There are three grounds on which to break a will, assuming it has been properly drawn and attested, and when the case finally got under way in earnest on November 12, 1877, before Surrogate Calvin, Mr. Lord made it clear in his opening that he was not going to overlook any of them. The contestant would offer evidence to show, first, that the testator had been of unsound mind at the time he made his will; second, that he had been subjected to undue influence; and, third, that the will was the product of a fraudulent conspiracy. “Undue influence” and “fraudulent conspiracy” are, in practice, virtually synonymous. The usual tactic is to demonstrate that the unsound condition of the testator’s mind, weakened by physical disability and insane delusions, made him readily susceptible to a fraudulent conspiracy designed to influence him unduly. In addition to the lurid charges that Mr. Lord alleged would prove the will invalid on strictly legal grounds, he embellished his opening remarks with lofty rhetorical effects of a moral nature. The division of the estate under the terms of the will was, he declaimed, contrary not only to the spirit of the law but to the morals of a democracy. This may have impressed the public but hardly Surrogate Calvin, who was undoubtedly aware that, in the words of one of his contemporaries, “a will may be mean, unjust and inequitable … [and] public sentiment and the moral sense of the community may condemn the instrument and its author to no avail.”

Mr. Lord himself, of course, was fully aware of the formidable task confronting him. Not only did he have to battle great wealth and impressive legal talent, but he also had to demonstrate that the testator’s mind was of questionable soundness, if he hoped to win his case. That would be tremendously difficult. The mere ability to perform an ordinary business transaction was, and still is, considered sufficient proof of testamentary capacity, regardless of aberrations and debilities of the most startling sort. Surrogate Calvin himself was fond of citing the case of a testator who believed that in order to go to Heaven he had to eat Boston crackers every morning; nevertheless, his will was duly probated. Judged by this criterion, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was still juggling railroads successfully in the closing years of his life, was perhaps the sanest of men. Thus, Mr. Lord served notice that contestant’s case would reveal the diabolical conspiracies William H. Vanderbilt had been carrying out for years to influence his aging father. Mr. Lord admitted that many of the charges which would be proved were of a scandalous nature, but he laid the blame for making them public squarely on William himself. The press, of course, was in a dither, devoting columns of space to Mr. Lord’s “startling performance,” and his “amazing allegations.”

It was also apparent from this opening that Cornelius Jeremiah, though technically not a contestant in Mrs. La Bau’s suit, was to be the central figure in the case and was undoubtedly the moving spirit behind it. For it was primarily against him that the alleged undue influence had been exercised. As a direct consequence, Mr. Lord said, his voice quivering with righteous indignation, “his father subjects [young Cornelius] to a degradation unparalleled in the history of wills … in this will he puts the son bearing his Christian name under a vassalage so odious that every instinct of his manhood revolted against it.”

According to the press, popular sympathy was with Cornelius and his sisters, not so much, perhaps, because they got too little as because William and his family got too much. Nevertheless, the will had its supporters—solid, pillarof-society types who remained unmoved by the piteous spectacle of young Cornelius in his $10,000-a-year vassalage.