9 Strange Last Wills and Testaments

Harry Houdini left his wife a secret code.
Harry Houdini left his wife a secret code.

A will is supposed to help surviving family and friends dispose of your estate after you've passed away. Many people use it as an opportunity to send a message from beyond the grave, either by punishing potential heirs with nothing or perhaps by giving away something fun or unusual to remember them by.

Where there's a will, there's a way, so make sure you have a good will before you go away for good. Here's our list of 9 strange last wills and testaments.

1
Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini, born in 1874, was considered the greatest magician and escape artist of his era, and possibly of all time. When he died in 1926 from a ruptured appendix, Houdini left his magician's equipment to his brother Theodore, his former partner who performed under the name Hardeen.

His library of books on magic and the occult was offered to the American Society for Psychical Research on the condition that J. Malcolm Bird, research officer and editor of the ASPR Journal, resign. Bird refused, and the collection went instead to the Library of Congress.

The rabbits he pulled out of his hat went to the children of friends. Houdini left his wife a secret code -- ten words chosen at random -- that he would use to contact her from the afterlife. His wife held annual séances on Halloween for ten years after his death, but Houdini never appeared.

2
Marie Curie

Born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1867, Marie Curie moved to Paris at age 24 to study science. As a physicist and chemist, Madame Curie was a pioneer in the early field of radioactivity, later becoming the first two-time Nobel laureate and the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science -- physics and chemistry.

When she died in 1934, a gram of pure radium, originally received as a gift from the women of America, was her only property of substantial worth. Her will stated: "The value of the element being too great to transfer to a personal heritage, I desire to will the gram of radium to the University of Paris on the condition that my daughter, Irene Curie, shall have entire liberty to use this gram . . . according to the conditions under which her scientific researches shall be pursued." Element 96, Curium (Cm), was named in honor of Marie and her husband, Pierre.

Our list of strange last wills and testaments continues on the next page.

3
William Randolph Hearst

Multimillionaire newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was born in San Francisco in 1863. When he died in 1951, in accordance with his will, his $59.5 million estate was divided into three trusts -- one each for his widow, sons, and the Hearst Foundation for Charitable Purposes. Challenging those who claimed he had children out of wedlock, Hearst willed anyone who could prove "that he or she is a child of mine . . . the sum of one dollar. I hereby declare that any such asserted claim . . . would be utterly false." No one claimed it.

The book-length will included the disposition of his $30 million castle near San Simeon, California. The University of California could have had it but decided it was too expensive to maintain, so the state government took it, and it is now a state and national historic landmark open for public tours.

4
Jonathan Jackson

Animal lover Jonathan Jackson died around 1880. His will stipulated that "It is man's duty as lord of animals to watch over and protect the lesser and feebler." So he left money for the creation of a cat house -- a place where cats could enjoy comforts such as bedrooms, a dining hall, an auditorium to listen to live accordion music, an exercise room, and a specially designed roof for climbing without risking any of their nine lives.

5
S. Sanborn

When S. Sanborn, an American hatmaker, died in 1871, he left his body to science, bequeathing it to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., (then a professor of anatomy at Harvard Medical School) and one of Holmes's colleagues. The will stipulated that two drums were to be made out of Sanborn's skin and given to a friend on the condition that every June 17 at dawn he would pound out the tune "Yankee Doodle" at Bunker Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the famous Revolutionary War battle. The rest of his body was "to be composted for a fertilizer to contribute to the growth of an American elm, to be planted in some rural thoroughfare."

6
John Bowman

Vermont tanner John Bowman believed that after his death, he, his dead wife, and two daughters would be reincarnated together. When he died in 1891, his will provided a $50,000 trust fund for the maintenance of his 21-room mansion and mausoleum. The will required servants to serve dinner every night just in case the Bowmans were hungry when they returned from the dead. This stipulation was carried out until 1950, when the trust money ran out.

7
James Kidd

James Kidd, an Arizona hermit and miner, disappeared in 1949 and was legally declared dead in 1956. His handwritten will was found in 1963 and stipulated that his $275,000 estate should "go in a research for some scientific proof of a soul of a human body which leaves at death." More than 100 petitions for the inheritance were dismissed by the court. In 1971, the money was awarded to the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City, although it failed to prove the soul's existence.

8
Eleanor E. Ritchey

Eleanor E. Ritchey, heiress to the Quaker State Refining Corporation, passed on her $4.5 million fortune to her 150 dogs when she died in Florida in 1968. The will was contested, and in 1973 the dogs received $9 million. By the time the estate was finally settled, its value had jumped to $14 million but only 73 of the dogs were still alive. When the last dog died in 1984, the remainder of the estate went to the Auburn University Research Foundation for research into animal diseases.

9
Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on January 19, 1943. In her brief career as a rock and blues singer, she recorded four albums containing a number of rock classics, including "Piece of My Heart," "To Love Somebody," and "Me and Bobby McGee." Known for her heavy drinking and drug use, she died of an overdose on October 4, 1970.

Janis made changes to her will just two days before her death. She set aside $2,500 to pay for a posthumous all-night party for 200 guests at her favorite pub in San Anselmo, California, "so my friends can get blasted after I'm gone." The bulk of her estate reportedly went to her parents.

 

CONTRIBUTING WRITERS:

Helen Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz, Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi Stevens, and Steve Theunissen

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