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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
Piloted by Mr. Lord’s gentle questioning, Cornelius skimmed blithely over and around the shoals of his misspent life. He’d always been told that he’d been born in 1831, so that would make him about forty-six years old. He had lived at home, more or less, until he was eighteen, when he had gone out on his own, more or less. There was no special reason for his leaving home, although his father was rather rough in his treatment and it was not very agreeable to be at home. He simply preferred it outside, and he supposed his father preferred it too. His father gave him an allowance of about $100 a month, and he had boarded around in New York. This arrangement had continued for six or seven years until in 1856, at the age of twenty-five, he had married Ellen Williams of Hartford, Connecticut, a girl of modest circumstances, and the allowance was increased to $150. They had lived near Hartford on a farm his father had given him. He didn’t care much for farming. After about a year, on the plea of his wife and her family, the allowance was increased to $200, and there it remained until her death in 1872. Since then young Corneel had been boarding around in New York again, or travelling, or staying with friends, and the allowance had been increased to $250, for no apparent reason that he could think of except that his father was much richer in 1872 than he had been in 1856 and he supposed it cost more for a single man in his position to live in the city.
With the vital statistics filled in, more or less, Mr. Lord got down to the real business at hand. Did Mr. Vanderbilt remember being arrested and taken to a lunatic asylum in January of 1854? He should say he did remember it. In fact, he would never forget it. It was early of a Sunday evening, just as he was dressing to keep a supper engagement, when, without the slightest warning or explanation, he had been rudely arrested and hauled off to the Bloomingdale Asylum away up on 117th Street and Morningside Heights. It had been rather an upsetting experience at the time, of course, and he had not been very amiable about it. His lack of co-operation had induced Dr. D. Tilden Brown, the director of the institution, to admit that the commitment papers were insufficient to hold him against his will, and early the next morning he and Dr. Brown had driven into the city and gone before Judge Ingram to swear out a writ of habeas corpus. William H. Vanderbilt and Judge Charles A. Rapallo, who had signed the commitment papers, had appeared in court to oppose the writ. William, in a most unbrotherly fashion, had told Cornelius that he had better withdraw his writ and return quietly to the asylum. Otherwise, he would be arrested on a forgery charge brought by a downtown merchant, and his father, who lay desperately ill at the time, would surely disinherit him. Cornelius had indignantly refused. He was innocent of any forgery, and, in any event, he would rather be considered a damned rascal than a damned lunatic. There was great laughter at this, and to restore order Surrogate Calvin had to threaten to clear the courtroom.
Judge Ingram had granted Cornelius’ writ and released him, and he had gone directly to see the merchant. The merchant had denied any intention of charging him with forgery for what was, after all, merely another unpaid bill. So far as Corneel was concerned, that would have been the end of the matter. But sometime later that year, while he was paying one of his infrequent visits to his parents on Washington Place, the subject of the Bloomingdale episode had come up again. One word had led to another, as it usually did, and his father had commenced one of his tirades of abuse. Corneel had been about to leave when suddenly, much to the astonishment of both his father and himself, his mother had turned on his father and told him to stop being such a fool. Then, of course, she had burst into tears at her audacity, but finally managed to calm down enough to tell his father that it was William who had planned the whole thing. It was not the first time, either. She hated to say it because she loved all her children, but William had always been scheming and telling lies to cause trouble between the witness and his father. Even more surprising than his mother’s outburst, however, had been his father’s reaction to it. He had hung his head sheepishly and maintained a glum silence, as though saddened by the realization that no man as rich as he was could ever really trust anyone, not even his first-born son. The witness himself, more than twenty years later, was still saddened by his memory of that unhappy scene. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. William, for his part, appeared unaffected by his brother’s testimony, or by the suffering visible on the faces of his lawyers.
Mr. Lord, with appropriate hems and haws, now broached a rather delicate subject. Had the witness ever been afflicted in any way? With head bowed and voice trembling, Cornelius replied that he had been afflicted with epilepsy in its severest form from childhood until he was about thirtyeight. Since then the attacks had become less frequent and less severe, but it was still necessary for him to be accompanied by a friend at all times. This led into Mr. Lord’s next question. Did he recall where he was during October and November, 1874? Yes, he certainly did. He was with Mr. George Terry, his friend and constant companion, travelling about from one place to another. His memory was so good on this point because he had consulted a diary which he had kept then and which he kept now.