The Great Stork Derby and Other Unusual Wills

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Which wealthy prankster left their fortune to any woman who had the most children within ten years after his death, in a competition known as the “Great Stork Derby?” Did a man really leave his cigar-hating wife a stipulation in his will to smoke five cigars a day in order to receive a chunk of money? Did two different individuals—one famous and one not so much—really prepare for their rebirth in their wills by requiring that their respective spouses hold a séance for their return or that dinner be prepared every night just in case they returned from the afterlife hungry?

Maybe it’s because of the quirkiness of past celebrities and the eccentricities of the extremely rich, but for centuries, individuals have used their last will and testament to compensate their loved ones in often bizarre and outlandish ways. Below are 10 unusual will requests that were either adhered to by the heirs or passed upon because of their outrageous requests: 

10.  Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Benjamin Franklin had a will drawn to disperse his land and belongings to his loved ones. This included a picture of the king of France, set forth in 408 diamonds, which he bestowed to his daughter under one condition—she could not form any of those diamonds into ornaments for herself or any of her daughters, which he stated would “introduce or countenance the expensive, vain, and useless fashion of wearing jewels in this country.” This provision was meant to prevent her from removing any of the diamonds from the frame.  

9.  Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Writer Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and others, had an unusual request for his mourners—his last wish was that anyone attending his funeral would refrain from wearing a scarf, cloak, black bow, long hatband or “other such revolting absurdity.” He also requested a very inexpensive funeral and that it was not made public. Unfortunately, Dickens’ requests were ignored, and his funeral was a national event with a huge funeral cortege. In addition, mourners dressed in full funeral regalia, disobeying Dickens’ last wishes after his death.

8.  William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951)

William Randolph Hearst was a controversial American newspaper tycoon who is rumored to be the inspiration for Orson Welles’ critically acclaimed film, Citizen Kane. After Hearst’s death, his last wish was as extreme as his contributions to yellow journalism and politics—he stated that if anyone could prove that he or she was a child of his, the multi-millionaire would bequeath them one dollar, as he declared that any such asserted claim would have to be false.

7. Leona Helmsley (1920-2007)

Sometimes it’s not what’s left behind that’s controversial, but who—or what—it’s left to. Many may remember billionaire Leona Helmsley, nicknamed the “Queen of Mean” for her tyrannical behavior and her conviction of federal income tax evasion in 1989. However, she is probably best remembered for creating a $12 million trust for her Maltese terrier, Trouble, so that the dog could live out the rest of its life in the luxury in which it had become accustomed.

6. T.M. Zink (1858-1930) 

Iowa attorney T.M. Zink had such a strong hatred for women that he put this disdain forth in his will. Zink left more than $30,000 in a trust to establish the Zink Womanless Library. Not only were women prohibited from entering this library; no books, works of art, or decorations created by women were to be permitted in or about the premises. In his will, he stipulated that his “intense hatred of women is not of recent origin or development nor based upon any personal differences I ever had with them but is the result of my experiences with women, observations of them, and study of all literatures and philosophical works.” His family successfully challenged the will’s establishment of the womanless library, including Zink’s own daughter, who was left a mere $5.00.

5. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was tough on religion, so it probably wasn’t surprising that he ordered no religious service after his death and that his tombstone not “take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice.” A stipulation in his will that wasn’t granted, however, was his wish to replace the standard 26 letter alphabet with what he claimed would be a more efficient 40 letter phonetic alphabet that would make spelling much simpler. Shaw even left a sizeable portion of his estate to promote the new alphabet. This request was overruled and the monies were distributed to three organizations, The British Museum, The National Gallery of Ireland, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. A mere £8,300 was awarded to Shaw’s “Alphabet Trust,” but to this day there is still only 26 letters in the alphabet.

4. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Jeremy Bentham was a British philosopher, social reformer, and a proponent of utilitarianism and animal rights. Upon his death, Bentham bequeathed his entire estate to the London Hospital on the condition that his remains be preserved and allowed to preside over its board meetings. Not only was his wish that his body be completely dissected for the purpose of teaching anatomy to the public and medical students abided by; per his will, his bones were reassembled into a wax-coated skeleton that had his unexpressive face. This skeleton was outfitted with his original clothing and it sat in attendance, in a non-voting status, at the hospital’s board meetings for 92 years.

3. “Steady” Ed Headrick (1924-2002)

Frisbee innovator Ed Headrick earned his fortune by creating a flying disc that could be thrown with accuracy and control. Known as the “father of Disc Golf,” he also founded several organizations, including the International Frisbee Association and the Professional Golf Association. Because his life was devoted to the flying discs, Hedrick’s will stipulated that his remains be cremated and his ashes molded into discs. Per his wishes, several discs were made with his ashes and many were given to his family members, while others were sold and the proceeds were used to establish a nonprofit “Steady” Ed Memorial Disc Golf Museum.

2.  John B. Kelly (1889-1960)

John Kelly was not only a triple Olympic Gold Medal winner and a multimillionaire contractor, but also the father to infamous actress-turned-princess, Grace Kelly. His last will and testament contained several humorous provisos, including leaving all of his personal belongings to his son, John, because it seemed unnecessary to give him something of which he had already taken possession. This was in addition to his last wish that the clothing bills of his daughter, Princess Grace, not bankrupt the principality of Monaco. He did not leave anything to his daughter’s husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, stating that they would provide for their own families, and what he is able to give his daughters would help pay for their considerable dress bills.

1. Charles Vance Millar (1853-1927)

Although not quite as famous as Shakespeare or Houdini, Charles Vance Millar was well known amongst his friends for playing pranks that targeted the greed within individuals, such as leaving cash on a sidewalk then watching how passers-by cleverly pocketed the cash. The Canadian lawyer and investor’s last will and testament included numerous humorous bequests. Not only did he leave anti-gambling proponents shares of beer distilleries and race tracks, and a lifetime tenancy at a Jamaican vacation residence to three men who hated one another; the remainder of his large estate was to be given to any woman who gave birth to the most number of children in the ten years following his death. This competition became known as the Great Stork Derby, in which a handful of women participated. By 1938, Millar’s investment had then grown to $750,000, and these monies were equally bequeathed to four Toronto women who each produced nine children over the ten-year period. One of the women later declared her firm support for birth control for women. 

Though it’s often the rich and famous who are known for their quirks, unusual wills are not uncommon in all walks of life. However, when all’s said and done, having a will—even one with a few bizarre provisions—is still better than having none at all. At least with a will, it will be you deciding who gets what—not the court.