"...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, December 19, 2016

The Great Alexander Will Hunt

I have a fondness for Weird Wills. Sometimes, however, the Weirdest Will can be where there is no will at all. As Example A of that statement, meet Daisy Alexander.

Alexander was a daughter of Isaac Singer, he of the once-ubiquitous sewing machines. Mrs. Alexander died at the age of 80 in 1939, leaving behind a $15 million estate. Although she had promised to leave a generous sum to her lawyer, Barry Cohen, and she had often mentioned to friends how irresponsible it was for wealthy people not to bother with estate planning, after she died only one will of hers could be found--a document from 1909, when her fortune was considerably smaller than it was at the time of her death. This testament only addressed a small portion of her money, leaving minor bequests to a handful of relatives. Cohen, who not surprisingly felt he was being robbed, was certain that there was a later, more complete will out there somewhere. And he was determined to find it. Cohen had spent 20 years of his life drawing up various wills for Mrs. Alexander ("she changed her mind a great deal," the newspapers commented drily,) and it seemed impossible that she should have died intestate. The woman had been a veritable bequest machine.

He began with a minute search of Alexander's London mansion. Nothing. He then brought in mine detectors to sweep the house, (which was by then being used for government offices,) hoping to find a hidden safe. Nope. Not so much as a scrap of paper could be found.

Cohen then brought in a clairvoyant named Frederick Liston. The lawyer hopefully told the press that Liston "has given us some remarkable leads. He put us on the trail of a carpenter befriended by Mrs. Alexander whose virtue in her opinion seemed to be that he listened attentively. We did not have any idea that this workman knew anything about her. But now he has told us that she used to call him in for little tasks about the house, and that she would make him sit while she lectured him for an hour or more."

Unfortunately, this patient and attentive carpenter could not recall building any secret hiding places that could have been used for will storage, or any other clues where the document might be hiding, so this "remarkable lead" proved a bust.

Predictably, news reports of the search brought in a grand assortment of grifters, publicity-seekers, and kooks. There was the woman from Kent who had "visions" of the will's location. There was the witch doctor from West Afica. There was the dowser with a pendulum. There were those helpful souls ready to use their "sympathetic vibrations" to locate the document.

Cohen set out to find Bob, Alexander's former pet talking parrot. She used to spend hours at a time chatting to the bird. (He was an even more captive audience than the carpenter.) Perhaps Alexander had confided to her feathered friend where her will might be found? Alas, Bob's last known owner reported that he had given the bird away to a stranger years before.

Bob had "a nasty disposition," he explained.

Second-hand stores across London were searched in the hope of finding an old settee Alexander had owned. Perhaps she had used her furniture as a comfy safe-deposit box? Perhaps the will was hidden in a vase she had owned which contained a hollow base?

Perhaps by this point Lawyer Cohen was going a bit mad.

The Great Alexander Will Hunt ground to a standstill until 1949. In that year, Jack Wurm, a restaurant dishwasher from Palo Alto, California, announced to the world that he had discovered a bottle that had been washed up on a San Francisco beach. He stated that the bottle contained a piece of paper written by the late Mrs. Alexander. The document read: "To avoid confusion, I leave my entire estate to the lucky person who finds this bottle and to my attorney, Barry Cohen, share and share alike." The document was dated January 20, 1937.

A short, but--for Wurm and Cohen, at least--very sweet will. When the press reported on Wurm's amazing find, Alexander's friends recalled that the oh-so-madcap heiress had the playful habit of throwing bottled messages into the sea, and they acknowledged that staging a similar stunt with her will would be entirely in character.

It was looking as though this was one of the luckiest moments in beachcombing history. Or, at least, it would have been, if not for a couple of distressing drawbacks. For one thing, the will was not witnessed, which was a legal requirement for it to be honored in the British courts. And Wurm himself admitted that there was always a possibility that the paper he found was a hoax.

Although many modern-day accounts of the case state that Wurm's efforts to claim his half of Alexander's estate were successful, the British courts refused to acknowledge the "will in a bottle," and the heiress' 1909 will was granted probate instead. A niece and nephew of Alexander's were the main recipients of her estate.  Wurm pursued the matter in the courts for many years--the question of the dodgy document made it as far as Parliament--but apparently to no avail. It was never even established if the "bottle will" was genuinely written by Mrs. Alexander.

Where there's not a will, there's just no way.


  1. I chuckled at this part: "To avoid confusion...", she allegedly put her will in a bottle and threw it in the ocean. That was just about the same time Neville Chamberlain should have done the same to the Munich agreement...

  2. Ah but what happens when the bottle with the newer version of the will washes up somewhere?

  3. I don't know how many movies I've seen from the 1930s and 1940s, where an eccentric millionaire is murdered so a pack of fortune-hunters can squabble over a hidden treasure. I had no idea, these movies were fueled by contemporary news stories.


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