9 Ridiculous Requests People Made In Their Wills
Not to get morbid here, but who gets your stuff when you die? If you're young and your current possessions amount to four pairs of shoes and an expired box of snack cakes, this question probably doesn't seem particularly relevant. If you do have some savings or items of value, you may want to pick up a will-making kit. But either way, you probably haven'y devoted a lot of mental energy to answering this question.
However, for the wealthy, bonkers, famous or dedicated, the last will and testament can provide an opportunity to make a difference: to do something they've always wanted, make a political point, or just freak out some strangers. Death can become something of a show-off sport when you have enough resources (or just enough imagination) to make your bequests truly interesting.
The practice of disposing of your personal effects after your death via a directive in a document was likely founded by the ancient Greeks, but these days, wills make the headlines primarily when somebody is contesting them. Unfortunately, contesting a will is not the glamorous, dramatic experience it looks in Agatha Christie novels; will contestation is brutally expensive, and the process can last for years. Don't take your wealthy Aunt Agnes's threats to "cut you out of the will" lightly; if that's her decision, it may be hideously difficult to get it overturned.
Here are nine of the most bizarre and ridiculous bequests in wills in history, from a woman-hating library to a collection of strangers picked out of a Portuguese phone book. Some people only start having fun when they're dead.
1. Leave Money To A Stranger (Who's Great At Neuroscience)
Neuroscience hit the headlines this week for a reason entirely unrelated to research or the brain itself: an Italian accountant named Franco Fiorini made an apparently inexplicable decision to bequeath his entire fortune, estimated at roughly $1.7 million, to the neuroscientist Elena Cattaneo, whom he'd never met. Cattaneo is hardly an undeserving recipient; she's a hugely prominent pharmacologist, one of Italy's biggest scientific names, a politician, and a groundbreaker in the study of stem cell biology and neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's, all from her laboratory at the University of Milano in Italy. It's unclear if Fiorini was himself affected by a disease that could have been helped by Cattaneo's research, but Cattaneo herself is clear that she'd never heard of the man, and thought the bequest was a joke when she was first informed about it.
2. Give Shakespeare's Wife His Second Best Bed
This is one of the punchlines in many jokes about odd wills, but it's actually more complex than it first appears. The fact that William Shakespeare, in his last will and testament, bequeathed to his wife Ann Hathaway their "second best bed" and the furniture from their house — while giving the house itself and the rest of his property to his daughter Susanna — has led some people to think it was a sign of dismissal.
But interpretation differs on whether this was in fact a snub or some kind of loving gesture. Modern legal scholars don't know if Ann was given some kind of support for the rest of her life that didn't need to be mentioned in the will, and you've got to remember that the "best" bed was reserved for visitors; the second-best one is likely the one they shared. Interestingly, infra-red imaging done in March 2016 revealed that the bed section was likely added just before Shakespeare died.
3. Make Sure Leona Helmsley's Beloved Dog Has $12 Million
In one of the most infamous wills in history, the much-loathed American businesswoman Leona Helmsley left the entirety of her fortune, about $12 million, to her pet dog Trouble when she died in 2007, cutting off her family members. A judge later reduced Trouble's legacy to $2 million, which was sufficient to let the dog live in pampered luxury (with a full-time security guard to protect it against death and kidnapping threats) until 2011, when it died at the age of 12 with many health issues.
4. Split A Fortune Between 70 Strangers
If this hasn't been made into a film yet, it should be: a Portuguese aristocrat with no children or family decided to divide his fortune between 70 random strangers. The aristocrat astonished his collection of inheritors in 2007 when he died: he'd picked all 70 names at random out of a Portuguese phone book 13 years previously. In Portugal, where both wills and aristocrats are rare anyway, the case created a sensation.
5. Use Cremated Ashes In Comic Book Production
There are some bequests that are most likely the stuff of urban myth, but one of the most questionable of them all is actually true. Mark Gruenwald, the Marvel comic book artist and executive who played a large role in the comic empire's development in the 70s, 80s and 90s, really did have his ashes mixed with comic book ink in accordance with his will. The ash-ink was used to reprint the first trade paperback edition of Gruenwald's pet creation, Squadron Supreme, which is now one of the most highly sought-after collector's comics on the planet. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his death, but it's not likely there will be any re-issues of the ash comics.
6. Write A New Alphabet
The playwright George Bernard Shaw made a request in his will that was meant to change the face of written English: he wanted an entire new alphabet to replace the "conventional" Latin one. He himself asked for the alphabet to be designed by the shorthand expert Isaac Pitman, but instead, it was put out for worldwide competition, and four different winners were amalgamated to create the "Shavian alphabet". Shaw also asked that his play Androcles And The Lion be printed in the alphabet, which was dutifully done; but as you may have noticed, it never caught on seriously.
7. Create A Library Where Women (And Their Books) Are Banned
In these days of misogyny masquerading as egalitarianism — think Donald Trump's "woman card" comment — it can be weirdly refreshing to find some woman-hating that doesn't even pretend to be anything else. And Iowa lawyer T.M. Zink hated women. When he died in 1930, he disinherited his wife and daughter in favor of creating The Zink Womanless Library. It would, according to his will, not admit any women, contain "no book, work of art, chart, magazine, picture, unless some production by a man," and "forever exclude all women from the premises and having anything to say or do with the trust estate and library."
"My intense hatred of women," he assured posterity in his will," 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." The wife and daughter were unimpressed, had the will quashed, and the Womanless Library was never realised.
8. Stage A Not-Terribly-Good Opera
If you have money, ambition and not a lot of talent, you could be forgiven for believing that the first two could overcome the last one. However, in the case of McNair Ilgrenfritz, it proved to not be true. The opera lover and renowned pianist left $125,000 to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (in 1953, when he passed away, that was a gigantic amount of money) on one condition: that they staged an opera that he himself had written. The Metropolitan Opera declined, though they said the music was "workable." But several of Ilgenfritz's compositions have now been produced for player piano, which might have pleased him.
9. Hear A Message From Beyond The Grave
Houdini himself was both a famous illusionist and a profound skeptic: he clashed repeatedly with Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, over the existence of the spirit world, fairies and other otherworldly ephemera. (There's actually a television series about this profound disagreement currently airing on FOX.) He thought he could settle the idea once and for all: he apparently promised his wife that if it were possible, he'd contact her from the afterlife with a special code (it translated as "Rosabelle believe," one of their favorite songs) via seance. After he died in 1926, she attended seances on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, but eventually stopped trying in 1936, saying "Ten years is long enough to wait for any man."
Image: Schlesinger Library/Harvard