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The World of Wacky Wills

Updated on December 18, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

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

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Strange 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 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 to 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 returning Bowmans.

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

Humour from the Grave

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.

Revenge Wills

Some people harbour resentments that come out in their wills.

Toronto Lawyer Charles Vance Miller left shares in breweries to militant teetotallers; 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 one another.

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.

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.”

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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.”

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.


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And Janis Joplin, a noted party girl, set aside $2,500 for a booze-up at one of her favourite pubs in San Anselmo, California, “so my friends can get blasted after I’m gone.”

Legacies for Animals

Leona Helmsley, who was nicknamed the “Queen of Mean” for her tyrannical behaviour, lavished part of her considerable 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.

Quaker State heiress Eleanor Ritchey also 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 $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.

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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.
Charles Dickens. | Source

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.

Bonus Factoids

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.

Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny in 1939.
Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny in 1939. | Source

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 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.

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