Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary reminds us that humor can be a fun part of family history research by sharing seven strange bequests she ran across in old newspapers.
They say that in order to be remembered long after you’re gone, make an unusual bequest in your will.
Writers and editors love to feature oddities, and genealogists love to read them – so go ahead and enjoy these odd and unusual inheritances and bequests. Search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to find boatloads of these news stories to tickle your funny bone. You’ll be sure to have a good laugh.
Here are seven of my favorite funny “final requests.”
1) A Dollar in Four Monthly Payments
In 1908, the appropriately-named Catherine E. Heckler of Portland, Oregon, left her husband a dollar payable in four monthly installments of 25 cents. She didn’t call him her husband, but rather “the individual who married me in 1905 in San Diego, Cal., and who got from me thousands of dollars and when he could get no more deserted me.”
Hope Mr. Heckler didn’t spend his inheritance all in one place!
2) Home for Non-Smoking Clergymen
Philanthropist Ann Jane Mercer, who died in 1886, left her residence to establish a home for Presbyterian clergymen who were “decayed by age, or disabled by infirmity and who do not use tobacco in any form or shape.”
This wonderful cause doesn’t sound that odd, but as this 1909 newspaper article reports, there were some strange aspects to the bequest. For one, it says of Ann Mercer’s insistence that the home only be used by clergymen who were nonsmokers:
This provision was the more singular because the bulk of the Mercer fortune was made on raising tobacco.
Another thing: it turned out that nonsmoking clergymen were scarce.
In the twenty-one years since the institution’s foundation four clergymen have entered its portals.
By 1909 only one clergyman was using the home, and the board of managers decided to put him up in a hotel at their expense.
Finally Rev. Mr. Jones was left alone, so he was sent to the hotel, where thoughtless young men, summer visitors, have been blowing cigaret smoke around his aged head.
3) An Astronomical Challenge
Mrs. Gruzman was interested in the planets. Her big idea was to bequeath a prize of 100,000 francs to the Institute of France (science section) for the person who could discover interplanetary or astral communications.
A ten-year limit was set to collect the prize, with the other stipulation that a reply from outer space was necessary. If the Institute of France did not accept the legacy, the price would divert to the Institute of Milan or the Institute of New York.
What do you suppose happened to the money when nobody collected?
4) She Left Her Body to Favorite Nephew
One has to wonder what Charles Brower of Downingtown thought of his aunt’s will.
He was literally to inherit her body. By reading this newspaper article you’ll get her intent, but the wording was strange. Her will instructed the nephew to bring a double team of horses to Pottstown to fetch her. Apparently she didn’t want her estranged husband to bury her, so her nephew returned her body to Downingtown as requested.
Let’s hope she left some money for his corpse-carrying troubles.
5) Don’t Miss the Banquet
If your ancestors were heirs of Albert Karutz, let’s hope they attended his funeral when he passed in 1909. As an inducement, he offered in his will a $500 funeral banquet with “liquid refreshments” – but heirs who failed to show up were to be disinherited!
6) Dinner on the House
One has to wonder if Karutz’s 1909 bequest inspired Ratke Siedenburg in 1910. He set aside $500 for friends to dine together within three months after his death. The executor was to choose the location as well as the lucky dozen diners.
7) Delayed Support for Kitties & Puppies
This next bequest left $1,100 to found a homeless shelter for cats and dogs, but the money wasn’t to be touched until the year 2163. Wonder how much the trust is worth today, if it even still exists?
So there you have it. Strange and odd bequests are not that unusual. Have any of you encountered any funny or odd bequests in your ancestry research? If so, we’d love to hear about it; tell us in the comments section.