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The Most Famous Will Contest

The Howland Estate is a fascinating and now forgotten will contest.

The case involved a fortune made in the whaling industry by Edward Robinson. In 1865, he died leaving an estate worth almost $6 million. Almost immediately thereafter, his wife Sylvia Howland died. Her estate was $2 million. The niece, Hetty Robinson was a beneficiary under Edward’s will, from which she received $900,000, plus income from the remaining $5 million. Under Sylvia’s will, half the estate went to other individuals, and half as a life estate to Hetty Robinson.

Hetty Robinson was not satisfied with her aunt’s will. She sued and claimed that a true “second page” of the will left everything to her. While there were numerous legal issues, the case essentially hinged on the second page of the will. Hetty maintained it was authentic. The Howland Estate maintained it was forged.

The authenticity of the signatures was the core issue. Everyone agreed that the signature on the 1862 will was legitimate, having been witnessed by three people. The estate maintained that the copies of the second page, produced by Hetty, were forgeries. The signatures were all virtually identical.

This was the “All-Star” case of its time. Witnesses included John Quincy Adams, a grandson of the former president, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Louis Agassi. They testified that the signatures must be legitimate after examining them under a microscope.

Other famous individuals also testified on behalf of the estate. Benjamin Pierce testified that based on “up-stroke and down-strokes” in the signatures, the chance of an identical signature was greater than 2 trillion to 1.

In the end, after an extensive trial and substantial expenses, the case was decided on a technicality. Hetty Robison left town, and years later, upon her return from London, built an empire. Ultimately, she was referred to as the witch of Wall Street. She died in 1952, with an estate over $200 million. She was the wealthiest woman in the United States.