Uncovering Unusual and Eccentric Wills

31 January 2024

A last will and testament is a legal document that tells who get what after someone dies. It’s usually pretty simple, but some people use it to show off their quirky side and leave behind a memorable impression. In this blog, we delve deeper into these fascinating tales of unconventional last wills, exploring the quirkier side of those who sought to leave a lasting impression on the world, even beyond their departure.

Wills Left in Strange Places

The Tractor Will:

Cecil George Harris was a farmer from Saskatchewan in 1948 who suffered an unexpected tragedy. One day, while working in his fields, he was trapped under his tractor for 10 hours during a heavy storm. Fearing for his life, Cecil used his pocket knife to carve a will into the tractor’s fender, leaving everything to his wife in case he did not make it out alive. Despite eventually being found and taken to hospital, Cecil died from his injuries the next day.

Cecil’s neighbours found the etched words on his tractor’s fender. The judge ordered the fender’s removal to determine if the writing was a valid holographic will. The court decided that the words constituted a valid will and admitted it to probate!

Cecil's etched words on his tractor creating a holographic will

The Ostrich Egg Will:

On November 23, 1926, an unusual will was presented in the Probate Court in London. The will was written by John Barnes, a boat pilot on the Manchester Ship Canal, who had passed away. In his will, he had let a portion of his estate to his second wife, Margaret, and the rest to his children from his previous marriage. Had this been the only will that Barnes had created, it would have likely been uncontested. However, after his death, Margaret discovered an eggshell on top of a wardrobe in his bedroom. The eggshell had the following words inscribed on it: 17-1925. Mag. Everything I posses. J. B.

There was no doubt that the handwriting on the eggshell belonged to Barnes, and he commonly referred to Margaret as Mag. However, the question remained whether Barnes intended for this unusual document to supersede his formally drawn-up last will and testament.

Lord Maryvale ruled against Mrs. Barnes in a court case where it was established that Barnes, a seaman, carried eggs in a small pouch often. Maryvale deemed Barnes ineligible as he was not a solider on active duty and the will’s wording was insufficient to prove John Barnes’ intention to leave all of his possessions to his wife.

Eccentric Last Wills

Some individuals leave unusual and eccentric requests in their will. We’ve gathered a few examples of these unique wills that go beyond the norm. Let’s take a look!

Leona Helmsley’s Canine Fortune:

Known as the Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley made headlines when she left a significant portion of her $12 million fortune to her pet Maltese, Trouble. While this may seem like a generous bequest, it also sparked controversy as she left a mere $12 million for her grandchildren, leading to a legal battle over the distribution of her wealth.

Leona Helmsley and her dog, Trouble

Harry Houdini’s Final Escape:

The legendary escape artist Harry Houdini was known for his death-defying stunts, and even in his will, he kept a sense of mystery alive. Houdini left a secret code to his wife, Bess, with the challenge that if she could communicate with him from the after life using the code, she would receive a substantial sum of money. Despite several attempts, the code remained unbroken, adding an air of mystique to the escape artist’s legacy.

The Houdini Code Mystery. A Spirit Secret Solved - A book written by William V. Rauscher

Napoleon Bonaparte’s Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow:

Napoleon Bonaparte, the famed military leader, left a rather unusual request in his will. He asked that after his death, his hair be cut off and distributed among his family and friends. Locks of his hair became cherished keepsakes, with various individuals receiving a piece of the historical figure’s mane.

Napoleon and a lock of his hair in a case

Charles Vance Millar’s Baby Boom:

Canadian lawyer Charles Vance Millar left an estate worth around $500,000 to be distributed to the woman in Toronto who could give birth to the most children within 10 years of his death. This bizarre bequest, known as the Great Stork Derby, led to a flurry of marriages and a spike as couples vied for a share of the unusual inheritance.

Image of a family and a newspaper article titled "Four Way Division Ends Stirk Derby: For mothers to share half million dollars offered in unique baby will"

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon:

Renowned philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham had a peculiar stipulation in his will. He requested that his body be preserved and displayed after his death, seated in a chair, wearing his favourite clothes, and equipped with a wax head. This auto-icon, as he called it, is currently displayed at University College London. Bentham’s eccentric will not only provided a unique post-mortem existence but also left a lasting impression on the study of his work and philosophy.

Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon dispalay

Unusual Family Wise Wills

Recently, on an heir hunting case, we came across an unusual will of a gentleman who had excluded his children from his will and instead left most of his possessions to The Horniman Museum The will contained a list of interesting artefacts that he had donated to the museum. Here’s an extract:

(d) I give to Horniman's Museum Forest Hill, London SE 23 one Burmese matchbox containing a set of ivory dice hand carved and presented to me by some members of the Naga Tribe I was at that point employing in Dimapur Assam in 1944.
(e) I give to the said Horniman's Museum one brass handbell comprising two elements the lower being a pagoda bell from war scarred Alon in Burma the upper being a brass representation of a Hindu god the whole being quite unique in composition and character and recovered by me from the ruins of Alon in April 1945 and retained by me with the full approval of the local thegyi
(f) I give to the said Horniman's Museum one Buddhist Bible hand inscribed in Burmese script on a set of dried palm leaves recovered from the ruins of Monywa in Burma in March 1945 and presented to me by my Burmese interpreter and constant companion.... of the Burmese Army

Another will from one of our staff’s personal family history research revealed a famous employer! His relative was Edith, born in 1910, who they were told used to work for Winston Churchill. Our team member thought it was plausible but might be a case of the family exaggerating. It turned out, when they got the will, that is was right…

I give to [redacted] two hundred and fifty pounds my China Cabinet and its contents and the letter written to me by Winston Churchill when I left his employ.

To Conclude…

Strange requests may raise eyebrows, but they also offer a glimpse into the diverse and often eccentric personalities of those who craft them. From ensuring the comfort of loved pets to the Great Stork Derby, these unusual requests add a touch of uniqueness to the otherwise solemn process of settling an estate. As we navigate the twists and turns of these peculiar final wishes, one thing remains clear – the departed continue to find creative ways to leave their mark on the world, even from beyond the grave.

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