originally published April 15, 2013
Those of us in the comedy writing game are always looking for a new medium through which we can impart our twisted view to the world, in hopes someone will laugh, maybe give us some kind of response, and perhaps even validate what we have gathered to be an otherwise directionless and futile existence. Tweak your Twitter feed to follow nothing but comedy writers and the site is a joy to visit. Some have channeled their talents into writing amazon.com reviews or witty Youtube comments.
But what about legal documents? Not a lot of opportunity to impart chuckles there. Not unless you’re a prank-loving lawyer like Toronto’s Charles Vance Millar.
Charlie was a well-known practical joker. When a fatal heart attack came a-knockin’ in 1926, Charlie also went to his grave a life-long bachelor with no children and no close relatives. He knew things would wrap up this way, so Charlie took special care to ensure his will would keep his name in the press for a while after his death.
First, there was the matter of the Ontario Jockey Club. Charlie left the club to three men – two upstanding members of the community who were vehemently opposed to horse racing, and one who was a ‘colorful’ character whose reputation would have barred him from being a member of the club. Then there was the Kenilworth Jockey Club. Charlie bequeathed one share of the club to every practicing minister in three towns in the greater Toronto area. These ministers agonized over the moral conundrum of accepting these shares. No doubt hushed debates over the implications of this ownership in a gambling facility circulated from pew to pew in each congregation.
The joke was on the ministers, of course. Each share was only worth a whopping half-cent.
(that’s 1/200th of a Loonie, for those keeping track)
Charlie owned a vacation home in Jamaica. He willed tenancy of that home to three of his lawyer associates – specifically three men who didn’t get along with one another. With this clause, it looks like Charlie was trying to single-handedly invent the wacky sitcom. Fortunately for those lawyers, he’d sold the house before he died, so this clause went into the null-and-void column.
Then there was the matter of the O’Keefe Brewery. Charlie willed his shares to every Protestant minister and Orange lodge in Toronto. O’Keefe was a Catholic company. These stocks were gone by the time Charlie passed away also, so we missed out on seeing Charlie’s experiment – whether those in the Protestant clergy would stain their pockets with Catholic earnings.
The most impressive clause in Charlie’s will, and the one that would ensure he’d live on in infamy, was Clause 9. This stated that the bulk of his estate was to be liquidated, and the cash was to be handed over to the Toronto-area mother who produced the most babies within the first ten years after Charlie’s death. Thus began the Great Stork Derby.
Needless to say, the Toronto media grabbed this puppy of a story and beat it to a bloody puppy-pulp. Here was a ten-year competition, and all you had to do to win was have lots of sex! Oh, and you’d need that sex to lead to the lifelong commitment of raising a human child, but so what? You’d have money!
Charlie’s distant relatives came seeping out of obscurity to challenge the will, but Charlie had taken care to ensure the wording was iron-clad. This race was declared legitimate. Even the Supreme Court of Canada needed to step in and evaluate whether a clause like this was legal. Small-print concepts needed to be ironed out – for example, what constituted “Toronto”? The city is made up of a handful of towns and mini-cities all crammed together into a giant sprawling urban mess – but did the winning mother have to come from Toronto itself? Also, what about stillborn children? What about illegitimate kids?
Then, two things happened which cranked the Great Stork Derby up a few ticks. First, there was the completion of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel under the Detroit River.
Charlie had dropped a two-dollar investment on the slab of land that would make the tunnel happen, and shortly after his death, that investment turned into a $100,000 profit. It was estimated that by the time the contest ended in 1936, the total prize money would be around $750,000. That’s over $12.4 million in today’s money.
The second big cymbal-crash that added a percussive urgency to the Great Stork Derby was the onset of the Great Depression. Now this prize had become a beacon of hope among a struggling nation in which one quarter to one third of all working-age folks were out of a job. The irony of people trying to spurt out more mouths to feed in hopes of winning a big payday is almost cruel.
But were these women actually procreating simply in hopes of winning the prize? Actually, a look at the front-runners in 1933 showed that this was probably not the case. The five women in the front of the race had 56 kids between them, but only 32 which could be counted under the time-span of the contest. These were simply families who wanted lots of kids and probably would have spurted them out anyway.
When the closing bell tolled in 1936, four families claimed victory. The winning mothers were Annie Katherine Smith, Kathleen Ellen Nagle, Lucy Alice Timleck and Isabel Mary Maclean. They had each injected nine new souls into the Toronto populace over the previous ten years, and they each received $125,000, or just over two million of today’s dollars. Another pair of women each received a $12,500 settlement: Lillian Kenney had given birth to two stillborn babies, which eliminated her from the win, and Pauline Mae Clarke had had several babies with a man who was not her husband. These settlements kept the women from suing, and allowed for a decisive end to Charlie’s mad race.
The media, who had made household names out of the front-runners in the years leading up to the end of the Derby, followed them afterwards for a little bit. The money was not spent foolishly – it mostly went into new homes, new cars and college educations for the kids.
And so Charlie’s last great joke made him one of the most famous names in Toronto for a few years after his death. Through the generosity attached to the joke, it also provided for four gigantic families who really benefited from the windfall in a financially tough time. In a sense, the rich lawyer with no children wound up as a benefactor to more than three dozen kids.
Talk about crafting the perfect punchline…