"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Great Stork Derby



Canadian attorney and entrepreneur Charles Vance Millar did not appear to be a controversial sort of man. After his death, his best friend G. Clayton Anderson described him as "a great joker," with "a great sense of humor, but it was always kindly. He was a warm, generous-hearted man...a great giver." Millar had two main beliefs: his insistence that "every man had his price," and his reverence for the concept of motherhood. Anderson quoted Millar as saying, "The proper function of a woman is to raise a family."

No one knew how serious Millar was about these beliefs until after he died in 1926.

Millar was an extremely wealthy man, and, as those with money and property generally do, he left a will. It was, however, a very unusual will, one that was contested in the courts for a dozen years to come, generated many columns of newspaper commentary, and kept the ladies of Canada very busy indeed.

Millar introduced his last testament by stating, "This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime." He followed these words with some singular bequests: Shares in the Ontario Jockey Club went to two acquaintances who were fervently anti-gambling. Every prohibitionist Protestant minister and Orange Lodge in Toronto got shares in the O'Keefe Brewery Company--a Catholic-owned business. Every minister in three neighboring towns got shares in the Kenilworth Jockey Club. His home in Jamaica went to three friends who all detested each other. Millar enjoyed the thought of encouraging them to become roommates. And so on. The will was his way of trying to demonstrate that, given sufficient temptation, anyone could be bought. It must be said that the fact that nearly all his legatees pocketed their pride and their principles enough to keep their bequests seemed to prove the old devil right.

Millar ended this lengthy raspberry to the world with the will's most troublemaking clause: He left the rest of his considerable estate to whichever Toronto woman gave birth to the most children in the ten years following his death. The courts later ruled that each set of children had to have the same father, and they all had to be legitimate.

Millar's relatives did not appreciate the humor of it all. They made long and determined efforts to contest the will, arguing that it "encouraged immorality," and was "against public policy," but the dead man had been an excellent lawyer, and had made his curious document legally invincible. The courts had no choice but to unanimously rule that the will was valid. And so the "Stork Derby," as the press quickly dubbed the contest, was on.

This public festival of fecundity became a national sensation. For the next decade, Canadian newspapers published feature stories on the contenders and kept scorecards, while onlookers placed bets on the outcome. The bizarre will of a previously-unknown man became a much-needed bright spot to a nation that was greatly suffering from the Great Depression. In the words of Barbara Mikkelson's "The Great Stork Derby": "A bequest that had been little more than a curiosity during the halcyon days of the 1920s became the only beacon of hope for a brighter future to a few lucky families…In those dark, grim days, even those families not part of the baby race themselves cheered on those who were. For those few years, there was a way out; there was a fairy godmother to believe in."

The winners crossed the finish line on May 30, 1938, when a judge distributed Millar's estate--which had, by that point, grown to over $750,000--to Annie Smith, Kathleen Nagle, Lucy Timleck, and Isabel Maclean, who had each delivered nine children over the past decade. Several runners-up with more dubious claims got $12,500 each. Happily, the four winning families--all of them extremely poor--made wise use of their windfall: Thanks to Millar, the 36 "Stork Derby" children were all given comfortable homes, a good education, and a solid head start in life. They all grew up fondly thinking of Millar as practically their grandfather.

At the end of the contest, Mrs. Timleck told a reporter, "I think birth control is a wonderful thing."

1 comment:

  1. Happy endings all around. If Millar thought the best thing a woman can do is to raise a family (and if a family is raised well and wisely, it's probably the best thing anyone can do, man or woman), then he at least offered to provide for them. Even $12,500 in the 1930s was a huge amount. Lucky babies!

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