Some of us prepare for the afterlife by pondering the disposition of our worldly goods. Some of us, in fact, entirely overthink this grave (cough! cough!) matter. On the other hand, some of us give inheritance the merest passing thought. Over the years, Cincinnatians have filed some truly unusual wills at the Probate Court.
Losing His Head
W. Byrd Powell, a titan of the eclectic medical movement and a proponent of phrenology, left a most unusual bequest to his favorite student: his head. Powell, who died in 1866, was invested in studying how the inner essence of human beings was expressed through the shape of their heads, and it was rather common for phrenologists to donate their heads to science. It isn’t recorded to whom his student, Dr. Temperance Kinsey, one of Cincinnati’s first women doctors, passed the head on to at her death.
Eye of Newt
John D. Riemeier was a wealthy lumber dealer who owned a big farm in Colerain Township. He died in 1889 and left an estate valued by the newspapers at around $800,000, while also leaving a will that satisfied no one and kept the courts busy for a year. Most of the complainants cited Riemeier’s belief in witches. He had unwisely told several witnesses that he boiled a pig for 12 hours to entice a witch to emerge from behind his barn, foaming at the mouth. It was she, he asserted, who dictated the terms of his will. Judge Morris L. Buchwalter of the Court of Common Pleas was in no mood for hoodoo and set the bewitched document aside.
All We Are Is Dust in the Wind
Carl Schumann was a thrifty peddler who had accumulated an estate worth more than $2,000 when he died in 1910 at the Altenheim, Cincinnati’s Home for the German Aged. Herr Schumann bequeathed the bulk of his estate to that venerable institution but set aside $50 and an unusual request to the Herwegh Maennerchor (Herwegh Male Chorus). He wanted to be cremated and instructed the chorus to sing two German lieder while the flames consumed his earthly remains. The men of the chorus were to receive his ashes, say a few prayers, then toss the ashes into the wind from the crematory hilltop. The $50 would cover “sociability” afterwards.
If These Walls Could Talk
When she died in 1924, Nettie E. Chaffin of Washington Court House, Ohio, left the bulk of her substantial estate, estimated at $50,000, to Hyde Park’s Knox Presbyterian Church. In the fine print of the bequest, the church discovered a somewhat irregular condition attached to this generous gift. The donor demanded to be buried inside a wall of a new church, then under construction. Although her tomb was to be unmarked, she requested a plaque in the nave which would note her gift and her eternal presence “until the day break and the shadows flee away.” The church accepted the terms and immured Mrs. Chaffin as the walls of the new edifice arose.
Inspired by the Muse
Most wills are composed in formulaic legal jargon. Not so the 1946 last will and testament of Louis Henry Ernst Sommerkamp. An inspector for the Cincinnati Milling Machine Company, he picked up a yen for poetry and composed part of his final testament in verse:
“All my earthly goods I’ve in store.
To my dear wife I leave for evermore,
I freely give, no limit do I fix.
This is my last will and she the executrix.”
Legal obligations being what they are, there was a bit more prosaic verbiage to legalize the document, but that quatrain stands unique in Hamilton County’s probate archives.
Elmer J. Schantz owned an automotive garage on Madison Road in 1946. His doctor’s office was just down the street. One evening, he brought a curious document to his medical appointment. It was a check on which he apparently designated a diamond ring and $5,000 be provided to his girlfriend in the event of his death. Schantz’s doctor advised him that, if the check was intended as a will, it needed to be witnessed. The doctor signed, then called in a patient who knew Schantz from the waiting room, and she signed, too. A few months later, Schantz was dead and his check, although challenged in court, was accepted as a proper will. Unfortunately, on the back of the check, he asked not to be buried in Napoleon, Indiana. By the time all the legal challenges were dismissed, he’d already been buried in that Hoosier town.
Wing Yee operated a laundry on McMicken Avenue in Mohawk when he died in 1949. His will was very brief but presented a challenge to the Hamilton County Probate Court because it was written in Chinese characters. There being no official Chinese interpreter, another laundryman was contacted to provide a translation. The will was filed and accepted, allowing Yee to bestow his business upon his cousin.
Walk Like an Egyptian
Among the highlights of any visit to Spring Grove Cemetery is the Groff monument, a modest pyramid located a short walk from the Lawler sphinx, creating a sort of Egyptian neighborhood in the verdant graveyard. “Modest” was not Florence Groff’s intent. When she died in 1949, she decreed through her will and testament that a pyramid 20 feet on a side and approximately 20 feet tall occupy the entirety of the family plot. Spring Grove objected and a distant relative contested the will, and the compromise is a picturesque yet miniature version of the late Miss Groff’s vision.
Brevity, the Soul of Wit
Britton Austin was 72 when he died at General Hospital in 1955. Two days before his demise, he scribbled just eight words on a scrap of paper 2-inches-by-4-inches: “everything to my sister Frances and brother-in-law Ed.” Signed, dated, and witnessed by two doctors, this briefest of Hamilton County wills was accepted by the Probate Court.
Frank R. Gusweiler sat down on Valentine’s Day in 1957 and wrote his entire last will and testament on a standard index card, leaving everything to his wife (and law partner) Katherine, designating her as his executrix and requesting she not be required to post bond. Five months later, he was dead and his very brief legal handwritten Valentine was filed in court.
It isn’t uncommon for pets to be mentioned in wills, usually dogs and cats. Edna P. Schopper’s 1958 will is unusual only in that she provides $1,500 for the care of her pet dove, a species not often found in Probate Court. Julia G. Haley’s 1951 will provides for her two pet cats in a most unusual manner: “In the event of my death, there will be no one to care for them and as I would not want them to be turned out homeless upon the streets, it seems to me best to make some provision concerning their disposition. I do, therefore, give, will, devise and bequeath to my friend, Harry O. Porter, the sum of Four Hundred Dollars ($400.00) and request him, as soon after my death as possible, to visit my home and therein, in as humane and painless a way as advisable, put my pets to death and dispose of their remains in the cemetery provided for this purpose.”
Philip H. Goldsmith was only 61 when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1958. He was chairman of the board of the MacGregor Sports Products Company, and he certainly had some worldly goods to dispose of. His will, in essence, is fairly simple. He gave everything to his wife, with the remainder going to his daughter. However, it took 29 pages to say that, after Goldsmith outlined every single possible detail in baroque legalese. It is among the longest wills filed in the county.
The Generosity of the Dead
William Bloom was a professional gambler who gravitated to the Silver Slipper nightclub on Monmouth Street in Newport and apparently enjoyed the camaraderie. When he died in 1959, he identified bequests for “each waitress, each bartender, each porter, each shill, each dealer … the master of ceremonies, the doorman, and each person employed at the Silver Slipper, except showgirls.” He made a special gift to singer Bobby Linn to promote her career, plus allotments for various relatives. Problem was, Bloom’s will distributed more than $30,000, but he had less than $15,000 to his name when he died. Poor Probate Judge Chase M. Davies was left to sort out the mathematics.
Nuncupative Yet Valid
John N. Kinney wrote no will at all. A couple of days before he died in 1961, he was visited by his brother and one of his sisters. He told them that another sister, Claire, had visited him daily to make sure that he was fed and cared for and that he wanted her to inherit everything. The disinherited siblings appeared in court and swore to the statement made by their brother. This oral declaration, known as a nuncupative will, was accepted as valid by the court.
He Really Loved His Job
Charles A. Lackner was a teller at the Fifth Third Bank for 43 years, retiring in 1946. When he died in 1961, his former employer was surprised to discover that he’d bequeathed $8,000 to the bank “in appreciation for the kindnesses shown by bank officers and employees.” Rather than keep the inheritance (how would a corporation book that?), Fifth Third created the Charles A. Lackner Fund at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and added another $8,000 to sweeten the pot.