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Unusual Will Stories from History

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1) Shakespeare in Love was not reflected in the Bard’s last will and testament

William Shakespeare was the credited author of nearly forty plays (some authorship is disputed) more than 150 sonnets, epic poems, and other works, many of which are still being discovered from time to time. According to extant records he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, when she was 26 and he but 18 years of age. Six months later Anne was delivered of their first child together, Susanna, explaining the suddenness of the marriage which had surprised Shakespeare’s friends. Twins would later follow, a son and another daughter, though the son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11. The couple would have no further children, and lived together in London after Shakespeare began his career as an actor and writer there in 1592. Shakespeare died, somewhat suddenly, in 1616, just 52 years of age. How and from what remains unknown, he had described his health as perfect when signing his last will and testament just a month before. One rumor was that he died as the result of an extensive drinking binge. In his will Shakespeare left nearly all of his estate – which was large for its time – to his eldest daughter, Susanna, with instructions that it would pass to her firstborn son upon her death. His wife, Anne, was for the most part ignored in the document, though by English law she should have been entitled to a portion of the estate. Shakespeare did specifically bequeath her his “second best bed”. The strangeness of the phrasing by the man considered the father of the English language by many remains a subject of dispute among scholars.

2) Leona Helmsley left more money for her dog than for her grandchildren

When Leona Helmsley – known as the Queen of Mean for her tyrannical behavior to servants and employees – was on trial for income tax evasion in 1989, a former employee testified having heard her say, “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes”. Helmsley, over the course of her career, made a fortune through four marriages (two to Joseph Lubin, a wealthy garment executive) and finally through the hotel and condominium empire she ran with her husband, Harry Helmsley. When Harry’s son died in 1982, Leona had his widow evicted from the property which she (Leona) owned, and successfully sued the estate for money which she claimed to have lent the deceased. By the time the Helmsley’s were charged with tax evasion in the 1980s Harry was ruled to be too ill to stand trial. Leona was convicted and eventually served nineteen months in prison after the lengthy trial and appeals process was completed. Upon her release in 1994 she became a near recluse, withdrawing even further after Harry died in 1997. She died ten years later, and in her will most of her estate was left to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust (more than $4 billion) with the proviso that the money be used for the care of dogs. She left another $12 million for the care of her own dog, a Maltese named Trouble. In comparison, two of her four grandchildren received $10 million and the other two received nothing. Legal actions by various entities involved led to a finding in 2008 that Leona was not of sound mind when she executed her will, and the estate was adjusted by the court.

3) Houdini’s will specified that a séance be held on the anniversary of his death

Harry Houdini is well remembered as possibly the greatest escape artist of all time, a man who thrilled audiences in the early 1900s with his daring escapes and feats which cheated death. What is less well known was Houdini’s fascination with life after death. Houdini used his experience as a magician – the ability to deceive an audience into believing they had seen something other than what really happened – to debunk spiritualists and mediums who claimed to have connections with the afterlife. At the same time, Houdini sought legitimate contact with the dead, spurred on by the loss of his own mother. His efforts to debunk spiritualists became, as he was, internationally famous, and the subject of debate between spiritualists and non-believers. Houdini promised his wife that should there be a means for the dead to contact the living he would find it after his own death and provided her with a coded message to validate that it was in fact him making contact through a medium. The message was “Rosabelle believe”. Houdini also specified in his will that on the anniversary of his death a séance be held to attempt to contact him. He died, somewhat appropriately, on Halloween night in 1926. His widow, Bess, held a séance for the magician annually on Halloween night for a decade, and though in 1929 the code was revealed, Bess later claimed that it had been arrived at through a hoax. Harry apparently never contacted her, and after 1936 she discontinued the attempts. She later said that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man”.

4) Napoleon requested bracelets be made of his hair

The last will and testament of Napoleon is a lengthy document, including several codicils and inventories of his possessions, with specific instructions over how they should be distributed to his relatives, friends, and those who had served them. Among them is a direction to Louis Joseph Marchand, his personal valet and friend whom the Emperor made a Count while on his deathbed, a title later confirmed by Napoleon III. In his will, Napoleon directed Marchand to “preserve my hair, and cause a bracelet to be made of it, with a little gold clasp, to be sent to the Empress Maria Louisa”. Napoleon then listed several other recipients of his hair bracelets.

He directed that bracelets be sent, “to my mother, and to each of my brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, the Cardinal; and one of larger size to my son”. He did not, as is often erroneously recorded, direct that his hair be sent to his former generals and other friends. Whether Napoleon’s request was acceded to remains disputed; others of his last will and testament were not. He mentioned in more than one location that it was his wish that his ashes “may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well”. Instead the British buried him on the island of St. Helena, and he was later disinterred and placed in a tomb in the Hotel des Invalides in Paris.

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