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The Most Famous Will Contest

The Howland will forgery trial is a fascinating and now forgotten will contest.

The case involved a fortune made in the whaling industry by Edward Robinson. In 1865, Edward died leaving an estate worth almost $6 million. Almost immediately thereafter, his wife Sylvia Howland died leaving an estate worth $2 million.

A niece, Hetty Robinson, was a beneficiary under the wills of both Edward and Sylvia. Edward’s will gave Hetty $900,000, plus income from the remaining $5 million. Sylvia’s will gave Hetty half of Sylvia’s $2 million estate while giving the other half to other individuals and institutions.

Hetty was not satisfied with her Aunt Sylvia’s will. Hetty sued and claimed that a true “second page” of the will left everything to her. Although there were numerous legal issues, the case essentially hinged on this second page of the will. Hetty maintained it was authentic. The others in line to inherit half of Sylvia’s fortune maintained the second page was forged.

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

This was the “all-star” case of its time. Witnesses including John Quincy Adams (a grandson of the former president), Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and scientist Louis Agassiz examined the signatures under a microscope and saw no evidence of forgery. Harvard mathematics professor Benjamin Peirce, however, testified that based on statistical analysis of the “up-strokes and down-strokes” in the signatures, the signatures were indeed likely forgeries.

In the end after an extensive trial and substantial expenses, Hetty lost her case on a legal technicality and left town. Years later, upon her return from London, Hetty built an empire. Ultimately, she was referred to as the “Witch of Wall Street.” Hetty died in 1952, with an estate worth of over $200 million. She was known as the wealthiest woman in the United States at that time.

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