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A Collection of Strange Wills

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Most wills are orderly dispositions of assets, but some people choose to make a statement from beyond the grave, punish an enemy, or just have a bit of fun.

Strange Will Requests

Hat maker Edward S. Sanborn (died 1871) was described by The New York Times as an “exemplary man and a moralist.” He gave money to churches and founded a seminary, but he had the misfortune to die in a “house of ill repute,” one of several he owned.

This unseemly information turned up when his will was contested on the grounds that some of the bequests were so loopy that they must have come from a man with an unbalanced mind. One of the clauses in his will directed that his skin be used on two drums that were to beat out “Yankee Doodle” on the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill every June 17.

John Bowman was a tanner in Vermont who believed in reincarnation. In his 1891 will he left a substantial trust fund that directed servants to set out dinner every evening so he and his family could eat when they came back from the other side. The terms of the will were followed until the money ran out in 1950. None of the meals were eaten by the non-returning Bowmans.

There are many more quirky wills that amuse and sometimes bewilder.

Revenge Wills

Some people harbour resentments that come out in their wills.

Toronto Lawyer Charles Vance Miller left shares in breweries to militant teetotalers; he bequeathed a stake in the Ontario Jockey Club to staunch opponents of racetrack gambling; and he gave the shared tenancy to a Jamaican getaway to three men who loathed each other.

A Californian named Robert Brett loved smoking cigars; his wife hated the things. When Brett died, his wife inherited everything but there was a condition: in order to cash in, she had to smoke five stogies a day.

Family Bliss

The bitterness of a marriage gone sour turns up in many wills, such as that of the Earl of Stafford, late in the 17th century. The illustrious peer wrote in his will “To the worst of women, Claude Charlotte de Grammont, unfortunately my wife, guilty as she is of all crimes, I leave five-and-forty brass halfpence, which will buy a pullet (chicken) for her supper.”

Lucy Mangan reports in The Guardian on the “terms of one Sara Clarke, late of Bournemouth, whose will read: ‘To my daughter, I leave £1―for the kindness and love she has never shown me.’ ”

Ms. Mangan also quotes a lawyer friend: “I had one client, a fireman, who just wrote ‘To the perfetic [pathetic] woman what was once my wife I leave the sum of 1p which she can shove up her arse.’ ”

The German poet Heinrich “Henry” Heine died in 1856. While leaving his entire estate to his wife Matilda, he added one proviso; to claim the money she had to remarry so that, as the poet put it, “there will be at least one man to regret my death.”

Robber baron Wellington Burt died in 1919, putting most of his considerable fortune into a trust fund. He made small bequests to his children, but his will stipulated that no member of his family should receive the bulk of his estate until 21 years after the death of his last grandchild. That death occurred in 1989, and 12 heirs have shared somewhere around $110 million. Nobody knows why Burt was ticked off with his immediate family.

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Entertainer’s Wills

Choreographer/director Bob Fosse left $400 apiece to 66 surprised beneficiaries but stipulated that the money be used to “go out and have dinner on me.” Among the grateful diners were Dustin Hoffman, Melanie Griffiths, Liza Minelli, and Roy Scheider.

Singer Dusty Springfield (below) willed money to ensure her ragdoll cat, Nicholas, was properly looked after. His care included being fed imported baby food and being serenaded by Dusty’s songs.

Dusty Springfield.

Dusty Springfield.

Singer Janis Joplin, a noted party girl, set aside $2,500 (about $16,000 in today's money) for a booze-up at one of her favourite pubs in San Anselmo, California, “so my friends can get blasted after I’m gone.”

Comedian Jack Benny, whose shtick was built, in part, on being tight with money, made a provision in his will for a single rose to be delivered to his wife, Mary Livingstone, every day for the rest of her life. That added up to 3,471 roses.

Lee Hays (died 1981), the bass player for the folk group The Weavers, willed that his ashes be mixed in with his compost pile. Shortly before he died Lee wrote a poem outlining his wishes with earthy humour. It is read here by Pete Seeger, leader of the ensemble.

Legacies for Animals

Quaker State heiress Eleanor Ritchey liked dogs―lots of them. When she died in 1968, she left $4.5 million to her 150 hounds. The will was contested and, by the time everything was sorted out, the dogs got a measly $9 million. The last of the woofers died in 1984 and the money that was left was used to fund research into animal diseases.

Doris Duke inherited a vast fortune from the American Tobacco Company that was founded by her father. She created a $100 million trust fund for the care of her dog, Minnie. A judge ruled the bequest was legal.

Austrian Countess Carlotta Liebenstein left her entire fortune of $80 million to her beloved German Shepherd, Gunter III. Unfortunately, the dog expired a month after his owner and Gunter IV, his puppy, got the lot.

Leona Helmsley, who was nicknamed the “Queen of Mean” for her tyrannical behaviour, lavished part of her fortune on her Maltese terrier, Trouble. The dog was left $12 million, subsequently reduced by a judge to $2 million, so that it could live out its days in the opulent luxury to which it had become accustomed. Trouble went to the great fire hydrant in the sky in 2011, aged 84 in dog years.

A long-haired Maltese terrier groomed for showing.

A long-haired Maltese terrier groomed for showing.

British Literary Giants

William Shakespeare died a relatively wealthy man in April 1616. He drew up a will a few months earlier, but then tinkered with it with scratchings out and additions. He left £150 to each of his two daughters, a sum that would be worth more than £380,000 today.

The first draft of his will makes no mention of his wife Anne Hathaway; seen as a reflection on the unhappy nature of their marriage. Grudgingly, perhaps, he later added: “I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”

When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he made an unusual request of those who mourned him: “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.”

His final wishes were ignored and a massive, national funeral was held with members of his funeral cortege draped in full mourning regalia.

Charles Dickens during the 1860s.

Charles Dickens during the 1860s.

Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame tried to leave his birthday to 12-year-old Annie H. Ide. He pointed out that she “was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore, out of all justice, denied the consolation and profit of a Proper Birthday . . . ” The author pointed out “that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description . . . ” So he gave his birthday, November 30, to Annie Hide.

George Bernard Shaw had issues with the language he used to make a living. He disliked that the English alphabet was based on Latin and left a hefty chunk of money to whoever could devise a better system of letters. In 1958, Kingsley Read shared the prize with three others to turn out the Shavian alphabet, which has 48 characters. It has been a complete flop.

An example of Shavian text.

An example of Shavian text.

Bonus Factoids

  • Portuguese aristocrat Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral da Camara was an unhappy man whose heavy drinking cost him his life in 2001. A bachelor with no children, he picked the names of 70 people at random from the Lisbon phone book. They were the lucky recipients of his entire fortune.
  • Cancer claimed the life of Roger Brown of Swansea, Wales in 2013. He left £3,500 to his seven regular companions at the Vivian Arms pub. They were to use the legacy for a weekend away together. They went to Berlin where, Roger Rees told The South Wales Evening Post, “We spent most of it on beer, the rest we wasted.”

Sources

  • “Edward S. Sandborn’s Life.” New York Times, January 1, 1872.
  • “Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament (1616).” Amanda Mabillard, Shakespeareonline.com, July 31, 2011.
  • “The Life of Charles Dickens.” John Forster, Nagoya University, undated.
  • “To you my Darling, I Leave very Little …” Lucy Mangan, The Guardian, July 28, 2006.
  • “10 Strangest Wills of all Time.” Felicity Hannah, The Guardian, August 25, 2015.
  • “Man Surprises Best Mates after his Death by Secretly Leaving them £3,500 in Will with Orders to go on Holiday.” Alicia Melville-Smith, Wales Online, May 7, 2015.
  • “$100 Million Finally to Be Split Between Descendants, 92 Years After Rich Relative's Death.” Susanna Kim, ABC News, May 10, 2011.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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