In 1871, Walter Garrett was a 40-year eligible bachelor. Very eligible.
His great-grandfather had built something of a snuff empire (snuff was a popular form of tobacco, powdered and then inhaled through the nose) and along with that, a large fortune.
But Walter didn’t choose a high society bride. Instead, he married Henrietta Schaeffer, a 22-year old 8th grade dropout he spotted scrubbing the stoop in front of her parents’ house in Philadelphia.
The Cinderella story continued after their marriage. Walter bought her a three-and-a-half story house in downtown Wilmington and the house next door for her family. He built her a 10-room “cottage” in Atlantic City too when she enjoyed a trip there.
Walter was so enamored with Henrietta that he dropped his personal interests for her’s so that he could spend all his time with her. Out went opera for the sentimental music Henrietta preferred and so on.
When Walter died in 1895, Henrietta inherited $6 million. She scaled back her spending and lived modestly, carefully tracking her spending and investments. In the 35 years following her husband’s death, Henrietta increased the estate to $17 million (and ultimately $30 million when it was distributed in 1951).
There was just one catch. Despite her husband’s repeated requests, Henrietta had never made a will. Before Walter died he had explicitly written in his own will:
“Don’t put if off, but leave your fortune to charitable institutions, mentioned by name, as I would not like it if what I have worked long and hard to accumulate should be squandered….”
Why Henrietta was so opposed to writing a will when she was thoughtful about every other aspect of her finances isn’t known. But when she died in 1930 at the age of 81-year old, she left no will.
More than 26,000 “heirs” came forward to claim the estate.The size of the inheritance, especially during the Great Depression, resulted in the enormous number of claimants to the estate.
Some “heirs” simply lied about their ancestry while others accused their parents of affairs or falsified official documents to appear as Garrett heirs.
In Germany, a man named Ludwig Schaefer, who shared Henrietta’s maiden name of Schaeffer, shot his aunt and uncle when they refused to fund his trip to America to claim the estate. After shooting them, he killed himself.
In Philadelphia, another “heir” managed to slip an entire forged page into the official record of death certificates in the vital records office.
Every claim had to be investigated and in 1937, Henrietta’s body was exhumed to make sure that no will had been hidden in her coffin. A guard was hired to protect the grave until the exhumation could take place.
Professional genealogists, meanwhile, created a three-volume family history that eliminated everyone but three cousins from Henrietta’s mother’s side; cousins she’d never met.
By the time they’d been identified, legal fees had eaten up much of the estate.
After fears that an estate sale would lead to buyers claiming to have a relationship to the family, workers went to Henrietta’s house and smashed everything to pieces. The fragments of her life were loaded into seven wagons, brought to a lot outside the city, and burned.