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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
Surrogate Calvin, obviously annoyed and, also, a bit bewildered by this highly nonlegal approach to the question at issue, interrupted sharply to ask what there was in the evidence to show the decedent to have been of weak mind.
“His whole life shows it,” Judge Black thundered. “All he has ever done or said about the disposal of his property. He had one faculty that was preternaturally enlarged, and that was for accumulating property. It was so enlarged that it dwarfed every other moral sentiment and every intellectual power. Sanity depends upon the balance that has been preserved between the different intellectual faculties and moral sentiments so that all of them bear their proper proportions to one another. Suppose a man’s liver to be enlarged beyond what it ought to be, is that man a healthy man? Cornelius Vanderbilt’s bump of acquisitiveness, as a phrenologist would call it, was in a chronic state of inflammation all the time. [Phrenology was another of the new “sciences” popular at this period.] It grew wonderfully. And he cultivated it, and under his cultivation all the intellectual faculties that ministered to the gratification of that passion at the expense of everything else. Morally and intellectually his mind was a howling wilderness. He did not content himself by worshipping Mammon alone, though certainly he was a very zealous devotee of that meanest and least erect of the spirits that fell, whose worship is most sure to demoralize the mind and to corrupt while it weakens the understanding. When this is carried to a very great extent, unquestionably its victim cannot be considered a sane man. His love of money amounted to a mania, which would render any act of his void if it could be shown to be the offspring of the delusion under which he labored.”
Judge Black’s phrenological approach might have beguiled a nonlegal mind, but it failed to impress Surrogate Calvin. He simply ignored it. In order for Mrs. Danforth’s testimony to be acceptable as indirect evidence of insanity, the Surrogate ruled that the contestant must first get in evidence something to show that Commodore Vanderbilt was actually insane at the time his will was drawn. This had not been done. Therefore, the witness’ testimony was irrelevant and Mr. Clinton’s objection was sustained.
“What it amounts to,” Mr. Clinton had said in winding up his own argument, after commenting on the fact that Mrs. La Bau had also been a patient of Mrs. Danforth, “is that counsel seeks on behalf of a crazy client and through a crazy witness to influence this court to let in all kinds of crazy testimony.”
Deprived of help from the spirits, Mr. Lord put on the stand a number of witnesses whose testimony was supposed to prove the testator’s mania for wealth and personal fame. E. D. Worcester, an official of the New York Central and hardly a friendly witness, told of an employee who had stolen twenty dollars from the railroad. It had troubled his conscience so much that he had given the money to his priest to return to the Commodore. His mission accomplished, the priest took the opportunity to mention the poverty and need of his church, but the Commodore was not moved. He turned the money over to Mr. Worcester for credit to the proper account, saying, “There is considerable good in religion after all.”
Oakey Hall, the debonair ex-mayor who turned his varied talents to playwrighting after his political career had been brought to an untimely end by the disclosure that he was a member in good standing of the Tweed Ring, came to the stand to tell the inside story of how the heroic statue of the Commodore, which then decorated the façade of the St. John’s Park freight terminal and which now graces the southern approaches to Grand Central Terminal, had been paid for. It had cost $100,000 which ostensibly had been raised by public subscription; actually, according to Mr. Hall, the decedent had had to foot the entire bill himself. These two incidents, Mr. Lord contended, were proof of the old man’s mania for fame.
In mid-December, with the trial more than a month old and with public interest commencing to languish, Mr. Lord, like a good showman, suddenly shifted his attack from the public to the private life of the deceased and his family. He sought permission to add the names of Mrs. Frank Vanderbilt, the bereaved widow, and her mother, Mrs. Crawford, to that of William Henry Vanderbilt as parties to the alleged conspiracy to influence the testator. In support of his motion, Mr. Lord revealed that the two ladies had actually been named in the original allegation when it was first prepared but that their names had been stricken out by Mrs. La Bau from motives of delicacy. Since then, however, such strong evidence of their complicity had been obtained that his client was forced to suppress any such sentiments in the interests of justice. Public interest was revived, and Mr. Clinton was more infuriated than ever. He denounced the motion as “an effort to build up a case by defamation of the living and the dead.” It was another attempt, Mr. Clinton said, “to prove impossible facts by incredible witnesses.” But it was to no avail. Surrogate Calvin said he would have to grant the motion as he must assume it to be in good faith. The idea of assuming anything good on the part of opposing counsel was more than Mr. Clinton could bear. He was so incensed that he defied the Surrogate’s admonishments to temper his remarks. He openly accused Mr. Lord of trying his case in the newspapers by scurrilous allegations because his witnesses were either nonexistent or so worthless that he did not dare to call them.