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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
The key witness to the influence of the spirits on the testator was Mrs. Jennie W. Danforth. She was a sprightly little woman, who said she was a “magnetician” or “magnetic healer.” Magnetic healing, a heady mixture of spiritualism, hypnotism, and electricity, generously spiked with pure hokum, was one of the numerous branches of the nonmedical healing arts which flourished in that era of bemused wonder at the apparently limitless marvels of science. Some of its practitioners may have been sincere in the sense that they were merely as naïve and gullible as their patients; many, however, were unmitigated frauds. The notorious Claflin sisters, Tennessee and Victoria, for example, made their debut in New York as versatile practitioners of the occult arts. They then went on to greater things, including blackmail, free love, and a friendship with Commodore Vanderbilt that was, according to contemporary gossip, not entirely devoted to communion with the spirits (see “Dynamic Victoria Woodhull” in the June, 1956, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). During the contest over the will, the Claflin sisters were frequently mentioned as star witnesses for the contestant, and, when they departed suddenly for England, it was widely rumored that they had been bribed by William’s faction to put themselves beyond the jurisdiction of the court. In any event, in lieu of Tennie and Victoria on the witness stand, Mr. Lord had to manage with Mrs. Danforth and her far less alluring magnetic arts.
According to her testimony, the Commodore had frequently sent for her in the spring and summer of 1876, during the early stages of his last illness. These were evidently memorable occasions in her career, and she would drop everything to bring the great financier the solace of her miraculous healing powers. She was equally co-operative on the witness stand with Mr. Lord. She recalled with enthusiastic alacrity that the Commodore had absolutely assured her that he believed in clairvoyance and communication with the dead. In fact, on one occasion he had asked her to communicate with his first wife, Sophia, who had died in 1868. Mrs. Danforth had promptly done so. Unfortunately, however, it had been her sad duty to report that Sophia’s spirit was in a very distressed state indeed. To this the Commodore said he knew why and that he would certainly have to make another will to set things right with his wife’s spirit. At this, Mr. Clinton finally erupted with violent objections to admitting Mrs. Danforth’s testimony, in whole or in part. It was, he said, entirely irrelevant. Some courtroom observers felt it was entirely too relevant to be credible. Surrogate Calvin, for his part, said he would like to listen to arguments from both sides before making his decision.
There was very little legal precedent by which to judge the effects of a belief in spiritualism on testamentary capacity. Isaac Redfield, one of the few legal authorities who had commented on the subject, had written in his treatise “The Law of Wills,” published in 1876, ”… [Spiritualism] may be a species of religious belief … but [we] can scarcely dignify [it] by the name of science … We believe the courts fully entitled to assume, as matter of law, that what is contrary to the acknowledged laws of nature cannot have any standing in a court of law … and that a will which is the off-spring of such assumptions cannot be maintained.”
Mrs. Danforth’s testimony, of course, did not show that the will was the offspring of the spirits, and Mr. Lord did not intend it to do so. Its purpose was to show that the testator had been a true believer in the spirits and in the possibility of communicating with them. This in itself, Mr. Lord contended, was evidence of a state of mental weakness which would render him susceptible to a fraudulent conspiracy designed to influence him unduly.
Arguing for the proponents, Mr. Clinton stated vehemently that Mrs. Danforth’s testimony was irrelevant simply because her visits to the Commodore did not take place until more than a year after he had drawn his will. Furthermore, if belief in clairvoyance was to be admitted as proof of insanity, then the witness herself was insane and her testimony was void. Judge Comstock, Mr. Clinton’s learned associate, did not much care whether the witness’ testimony was relevant or not; it was worthless in any case. The idea that belief in clairvoyance and spiritualism was in itself any proof of mental weakness was, he said, ridiculous. Thousands of intelligent people believed in it. He also pointed out, with remorseless logic, that there were supernatural elements in all religions.
At this crucial point, when it appeared that the evidence of testator’s senility was either irrelevant or untenable, or both, Mr. Lord hastily called for reinforcements. Judge Black, rumbling into position beside a convenient spittoon, commenced his argument by brushing aside the question of the relevance of Mrs. Danforth’s testimony as of minor importance. Instead, he launched a vigorous attack on the character of the deceased.
“Commodore Vanderbilt was the weakest of living men,” Judge Black declaimed. “He was one who more completely misunderstood all the duties he owed to his own family and himself, and was more utterly ignorant of those principles of natural justice which he ought to have thought of and understood and applied to this transaction, than any other man that ever lived or ever died. And the evidence shows that he was so.”