The Commodore Left Two Sons


Mr. Lord then opened his assault. He called to the stand an impressive array of medical experts who had either attended Commodore Vanderbilt during his last illness or participated in the autopsy. Their testimony was intended to establish that the physical condition of the deceased had been such that he could not possibly have been of sound mind. What it did establish beyond question was that the old gentleman had suffered from a remarkable variety of afflictions and had had a truly remarkable constitution. The autopsy itself revealed in grisly detail that, except for the heart (which was found to be unusually small), there was hardly an organ in his vast cadaver which was not diseased. Yet it had been peritonitis of only several days’ duration which finally killed him. Mr. Clinton objected strenuously to most of this on the ground that it proved nothing about decedent’s mental condition when he made his will two years before his death and was, therefore, irrelevant.

In sum, the testimony of the medical experts, although it had shown the testator to be a man abundantly afflicted with the physical infirmities of old age, had failed to develop the picture of a doddering old fool. On the contrary, the more ailments the experts revealed, the more the Commodore stood forth as an exceptionally strong-willed old curmudgeon rising triumphantly above his bodily ills.

Contestant’s real hope of establishing that the Commodore was of unsound mind lay in demonstrating that he was subject to various insane delusions. Mr. Lord proposed to do this by proving, first, that the decedent had believed in clairvoyance and spiritualism, and, second, that the Commodore had had a mania, amounting to insanity, for wealth and personal fame.

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.”