Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Strange wills

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STRANGE WILLS.


Of course we ought to begin with Adam’s will, the father of all wills; and if we could produce that patriarchal document, we should undoubtedly find in it the germs of all the merits, faults, and eccentricities of wills to come. But, unfortunately, though a Testament of Adam does exist, it is a forgery; and nothing will convince us to the contrary,—not even the Mussulman tradition, which asserts that on the occasion of our great forefather beginning to make his bequests, seventy legions of angels brought him sheets of paper and quill pens, nicely nibbed, all the way from Paradise; and that the Archangel Gabriel set-to his seal as witness. What! four hundred and twenty thousand sheets of paper!—surely a needless consumption of material, when there was nothing to be bequeathed but a view over the hedge of an impracticable garden.

If we pass to Noah’s testament, we are again among the apocrypha. In it, Noah portions his landed property, the globe, into three shares, one for each son: America is not included in the division for obvious reasons. It was left for “manners” sake, and manners has never got it; though each of the three sons or their descendants has had a rubble, but Brother Japhet seems most likely to get it all, for he is bowing Brother Shem[1] out, and using Brother Ham as his bondsman. Sharp fellow, Japhet! especially in America.

The testament of the twelve Patriarchs must be glanced at, as it is received as canonical by the Armenian Church, and learned men have hesitated to pronounce it a forgery. Reuben speaks of sleep as having been, in Paradise, only a sweet ecstacy; whilst now, after the Fall, it has become a continually recurring image of death. Simeon bewails his former hostility to Joseph; and relates, that his brother’s bones were preserved in the Royal treasury of Egypt. Levi is oracular; Judah rejoices in the sceptre left to his race; Issachar unfolds the future of the Jews; Zebulon relates that the brethren supplied themselves with shoes from the money which they got by the sale of Joseph. There seems to be some allusion to this tradition in the prophet Amos (ii. 6; viii. 6). Dan recommends his posterity to practise humility; Nepthali sees visions; Gad is contrite; Asser prophesies the coming of the Messiah; Joseph, the incarnation; Benjamin, the destruction of the Temple.

There exists a very curious and ancient testament of Job, which was discovered and published by Cardinal Maï, in 1839; it relates many details which we may look for in vain in the Canonical Book. In it Job’s faithful wife, when reduced to the utmost poverty, sells the hair of her head to procure bread for her husband.

What a remarkable document a will is! It is the voice of a man now dead, coming back in the hush of a darkened house—from the vault, low and hoarse as an echo. It speaks, and people hearken; it commands, and people obey; law supports and enforces its wishes; no power on earth can alter it. We expect to hear the voice calm, earnest, and speaking true judgment; terrible indeed if it breaks out with a snarl of hate—more terrible still if it gibbers and laughs a hollow, ghost-like laugh. For, surely, the most solemn moment of a life is that when the will is written: that will, which is to speak for man when the voice is passed as a dream; when the heart which devises it has ceased to throb; the head which frames it has done with thinking—under the fresh mould; the hand which pens it has been pressed, thin and white, against a cold shroud, to moulder with it: surely he who, at such a moment, can write words of hate must have a black heart, but he who ventures then to gibe and jest must have no heart at all.

There is some truth in the old ghost-creed; man can return after death; he does so in his will. He comes to some, as Jupiter came to Danaë, in a shower of gold; to others, as a blighting spectre, whose promised treasures turn to dust. What excitement the reading of a will causes in am m nfamily! and what interest does the world at large take in the bequests of a person of position! The last words of great men seem always to have possessed a peculiar value in the eyes of the people.

“Live, Brutus, live!” shouts the Roman mob in “Julius Cæsar;” but on hearing what Cæsar’s will promises, how

To every Roman citizen, he gives,—
To every several man,—seventy-five drachmas . . . .
His private arbours, and new planted orchards,
On this side Tiber: he hath left them you,
And to your heirs for ever;——

then the mob changes note, and with one voice shouts, “To Brutus, to Cassius;—burn all!”

Testamenta hominum speculum esse morum vulgo creditur.”—(Plin. jun., 8 Ess. 18.)

So they are! They are the last touch of the brush in the great picture of civilisation, manners and customs, lightening it up. Would that our space permitted us to enter into the history of wills: a few curious particulars alone can we admit.

To die without having made a will was formerly regarded with horror. A very common custom in the middle ages was that of leaving considerable benefactions to the Church. This was well enough, but the clergy were not satisfied until it was made compulsory.

Ducange says that neglect of leaving to the Church indicated a profanity, which deserved punishment by a refusal of the rites of the last sacraments and burial. The clergy of Brittany, in the fourteenth century, claimed a third of the household goods; the death-bed became ecclesiastical property in the diocese of Auxère; and Clement V. settled the claims of the Church, by deciding that the parish-priest might take as his perquisite a ninth of all the movables in the house of the dead man, after the debts of the deceased had been paid off.

Here we conclude our historical notes, and proceed at once—perhaps somewhat strangely—to give the reader a specimen of a will coming decidedly under our heading. It is that of a Pig. The will is ancient enough. S. Jerome, in his “Proœmium on Isaiah,” speaks of it, saying, that in his time (fourth century) children were wont to sing it at school, amidst shouts of laughter. Alexander Brassicanus, who died in 1539, was the first to publish it; he found it in a MS. at Mayence. Later, G. Fabricius gave a corrected edition of it from another MS., found at Memel in Thuringia, and, since then, it has been in the hands of the learned. The original is in Latin; we translate, modifying slightly one expression and omitting one bequest:

I, M. Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus, have made my testament, which, as I can’t write myself, I have dictated.

Says Magirus, the cook: ‘Come along, thou who turnest the house topsy-turvy, spoiler of the pavement, O fugitive Porcellus! I am resolved to slaughter thee to-day.’

Says Corocotta Porcellus: ‘If ever I have done thee any wrong, if I have sinned in any way, if I have smashed any wee pots with my feet; O Master Cook, grant pardon to thy suppliant!’

Says the cook Magirus: ‘Halloo, boy! go, bring me a carving-knife out of the kitchen, that I may make a bloody Porcellus of him.’

Porcellus is caught by the servants, and brought out to execution on the xvi. before the Lucernine Kalends, just when young colewort-sprouts are in plenty, Clybaratus and Piperatus being Consuls.

Now, when he saw that he was about to die, he begged hard of the cook an hour’s grace, just to write his will. He called together his relations, that he might leave to them some of his victuals; and he said:

I will and bequeath to my papa, Verrinus Lardinus, 30 bush. of acorns.
I will and bequeath to my mamma, Veturina Scrofa, 40 bush. of Laconian corn.
I will and bequeath to my sister, Quirona, at whose nuptials I may not be present, 30 bush. of barley.

Of my mortal remains, I will and bequeath my bristles to the cobblers, my teeth to squabblers, my ears to the deaf, my tongue to lawyers and chatterboxes, my entrails to tripe-men, my hams to gluttons, my stomach to little boys, my tail to little girls, my muscles to effeminate parties, my heels to runners and hunters, my claws to thieves; and, to a certain cook, whom I won’t mention by name, I bequeath the cord and stick which I brought with me from my oak-grove to the stye, in hopes that he may take the cord and hang himself with it,

I will that a monument be erected to me, inscribed with this, in golden letters:

M. Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus, who lived 999 years,—six months more, and he would have been 1000 years old.

Friends dear to me whilst I lived, I pray you to have a kindness towards my body, and embalm it well with good condiments, such as almonds, pepper, and honey, that my name may be named through ages to come.

O my masters and my comrades, who have assisted at the drawing up of this testament, order it to be signed.

“(Signed) Lucanicus. Celsanus. Cymatus.”
Pergillus. Lardio.
Mystialicus. Offellicus.

Whilst on this subject we might say a word about the epitaph on the mule of P. Crassus; or about that written by Papin on the ass, which, poor fellow, was eaten whilst in the flower of his age, during the siege of Paris, in 1590; or about Joachim du Bellay, who composed an epitaph on his cat; or about Justus Lipsius, who erected mausoleums for his three cats—Mopsus, Saphisus, and Mopsulus: but we are not writing on epitaphs or grave-stones.

We proceed to give a few instances of animals which have received legacies.

If it is a keen trial for a husband to leave his wife, for a young man to be taken from his pleasures, or a commercial man from his business, can we wonder at old ladies feeling the wrench sharp which tears them from the society of their dear cats—the companions of their spinster- or widowhood; or at old bachelors being distressed at having to part with their faithful dogs?—to part with them for ever, too, unless we believe in Bishop Butler’s suggestion, that there is a future for beasts, and enjoy the confidence of Mr. Sewell, of Exeter College, who dedicated one of his published poems “To my Pony in Heaven.”

The Count de la Mirandole, who died in 1825, left a legacy to his favourite carp, which he had nourished for twenty years in an antique fountain standing in his hall. In low life we find the same love for an animal displayed by a peasant of Toulouse, in 1781, who doted on his old chestnut horse, and left the following will:

I declare that I institute my chestnut horse sole legatee, and I wish him to belong to my nephew N.”

This testament was attacked, but, curiously enough, it received legal confirmation.

The following clause from a will was in the English papers for March, 1828:

I leave to my monkey, my dear, amusing Jackoo, the sum of 10l. sterling, to be enjoyed by him during his life; it is to be expended solely in his keep. I leave to my faithful dog, Shock, and to my beloved cat, Tib, 51. sterling, a-piece, as yearly pension. In the event of the death of one of the aforesaid legatees, the sum due to him shall pass to the two survivors, and on the death of one of these two, to the last, be he who he may. After the decease of all parties, the sum left them shall belong to my daughter G——, to whom I show this preference, above all my children, because she has a large family and finds a difficulty in filling their mouths and educating them.”

But a more curious case still is that of Mr. Berkey, of Knightsbridge, who died May 5th, 1805. He left a pension of 25l. per annum to his four dogs. This singular individual had spent the latter part of his life wrapped in the society of his curs, on whom he lavished every mark of affection. When anyone ventured to remonstrate with him for expending so much money on their maintenance, or suggested that the poor were more deserving of sympathy than these mongrel pups, he would reply: “Men assailed my life: dogs preserved it.” This was a fact, for Mr. B. had been attacked by brigands in Italy, and had been rescued by his dog, whose descendants the four pets were. When he felt his end approaching, he had his four dogs placed on couches by the sides of his bed. He received their last caresses, extended to them his faltering hand, and breathed his last between their paws. According to his desire, the busts of these favoured brutes were sculptured at the corners of his tomb.

In 1677, died Madame Dupuis, who, under her maiden name of Mademoiselle Jeanne Felix, had been known as a great musician. Her will was so extraordinary and malicious, that it was nullified. To it was attached a memorandum, which is still more extraordinary. We shall not quote the passages wherein she vilifies her son-in-law, imputing to him every vice she can think of, but translate the final clause:

I pray Mademoiselle Bluteau, my sister, and Madame Calogne, my niece, to take care of my cats. Whilst two live, they shall have thirty sous a month, that they may be well fed. They must have, twice a day, meat soup of the quality usually served on table; but they must be given it separately, each having his own saucer. The bread must not be crumbled in the soup, but cut up into pieces about the size of hazel-nuts, or they cannot eat it. When boiled beef is put into the pot with the soaked bread, some thin slices of raw meat must be put in as well, and the whole stewed till it is fit for eating. When only one cat lives, half the money will suffice. Nicole Pigeon shall take care of the cats, and cherish them. Madame Calonge may go and see them.”

Certainly people show their love in different ways. Counsellor Winslow, of Copenhagen (d. June 24, 1811), ordered by will that his carriage horses should be shot, to prevent their falling into the hands of cruel masters.

We only mention the “cat and dog” money, which is yearly given to six poor weavers’ widows of the names of Fabry or Ovington, at Christ Church, Spitalfields, and which, according to tradition, was left in the first instance for the support of cats and dogs; and remind our readers of the cow and bull benefactions in several English parishes, where money has been left to the parish to provide cattle whose milk may go to the poor. The poor have been often remembered by testators, as our numerous alms-houses, benefactions, and doles prove.

It were difficult to choose a better sample of a charitable bequest, which could properly come under our title, than the following simple and touching will of a French priest, Jean Certain, curé of a little parish in the Côte-d’Or, who died in 1740, with some 1200l.:

I brought with me nothing into my parish but my cassock and breviary,—these I leave to my heirs: the rest I bequeath to the poor of my parish.”

This reminds us of a conversation we once had with a foreign ecclesiastic on the subject of celibacy. We dilated on the comforts of the parson’s home in England,—the delectable children,—the charming wife. “But,” interrupted our friend the priest, “I have a wife too,—my parish!”

Wives, poor bodies! do not come off so well always as did the parish-wife of Jean Certain; for a crabbed husband will sometimes control and torment his good woman after he is dead and buried, or even play a bitter jest, as did one man, who left his wife 500 guineas, but with the stipulation, that she was not to enjoy it till after her death, when the sum was to be expended on her funeral. Or, as the author of the following:

Since I have had the misfortune of having had to wife Elizabeth M——, who, since our marriage, has tormented me in a thousand ways; and since, not content with showing her contempt for my advice, she has done everything that lay in her power to render my life a burden to me; so that Heaven seems only to have sent her into the world for the purpose of getting me out of it the sooner; and since the strength of Samson, the genius of Homer, the prudence of Augustus, the skill of Pyrrhus, the patience of Job, the subtlety of Hannibal, the vigilance of Hermogenes, would not suffice to tame the perversity of her character; and since nothing can change her, though we have lived separated for eight years, without my having gained anything by it but the loss of my son, whom she has spoiled, and whom she has persuaded to abandon me altogether; weighing carefully and attentively all these considerations, I have bequeathed, and do bequeath, to the aforesaid Elizabeth M——, my wife, one shilling.”

The clause in Shakespeare’s will must not be forgotten:

I gyve unto my wief, my second-best bed, with the furniture,” and nothing else.

We hope that this was not intended as a spiteful jest; but men are irritable, and women are so trying! The best bed would not have been a bad gift, as the grand four-poster was an expensive article in Elizabethan days; but the second-best seems rather a paltry legacy. However, as we are perfectly sure to have the noble army of Shakespearean commentators down upon us, if we venture to impute other than the highest and purest of motives to their idol, for the sake of peace we are perfectly willing to believe the bed to have been the most valuable gift that could have been made,—that sovereigns, roses, and angels were stitched into the coverlets and stuffed into the pillows; just as the miser Tolam bequeathed:

To my sister-in-law, four old stockings which are under my bed, on the right.

Item: To my nephew, Tarles, two more old stockings.

Item: To Lieut. John Stone, a blue stocking, and my red cloak.

Item: To my cousin, an old boot, and a red flannel pocket.

Item: To Hannach, my jug without a handle.”

Imagine the disgust of the legatees, till Hannach, kicking the jug, smashed it, and out rolled a quantity of sovereigns. The stockings, boot, and flannel pocket were soon seized now, and found to be as auriferous as the old pot. Now why should not the second-best bed left to Mrs. Shakespeare have been as valuable a bequest? We suggest this to Messrs. Dyce, Knight, Collier, Halliwell, and Co.

Whilst talking about beds, let us not forget a very odd story. In the earlier part of this century, there lived in the neighbourhood of Caen, in Normandy, a Juge de Paix, M. Halloin, a great lover of tranquillity and ease; so much so indeed, that, as bed is the article of furniture most adapted to repose, he rarely quitted it, but made his bed-chamber a hall of audience, in which he exercised his functions of Justice of Peace, pronouncing sentence, with his head resting on a pillow, and his body languidly extended on the softest of feather-beds. However, his services were dispensed with, and he devoted himself for the remaining six years of his life to still greater ease. Feeling his end approach, M. Halloin determined on remaining constant to his principle, and showing to the world to what an extent he carried his passion for bed. Consequently, his last will contained a clause expressing his desire to be buried at night, in his bed, comfortably tucked in, with pillows and coverlets as he had died. As no opposition was raised against the execution of this clause, a huge pit was sunk, and the defunct was lowered into his last resting-place, without any alteration having been made in the position in which death had overtaken him.

Boards were laid over the bed, that the falling earth might not disturb this imperturbable quietist.

Many testators leave directions for the treatment of their bodies: some are over-solicitous for their preservation, whilst others choose to show their contempt for that body, which, after all, will rise again; Dr. Ellerby, the Quaker, for instance, who bequeathed his lungs to one friend and his brains to another, with a threat that he would haunt them if they refused to accept the legacy. Others, from motives of humility, act somewhat similarly. The Emperor, Maximilian I., willed that his hair should be shorn, and his teeth brazed in a mortar, and then burned publicly in his chapel; also that his body should be buried in a sack with quick-lime, beneath the footpace of the altar of S. George at Neustadt, so that his heart might be beneath the celebrant’s feet. His intentions were carried out at the time: but afterwards his remains were translated to Inspruck, and they now lie under that goodly monument raised by Ferdinand I., his deeds graven tenderly in white marble about him, and eight-and-twenty mighty bronze paladins and princes standing guard about the choir wherein he sleeps.

If some folk leave injunctions about their bodies, others are as particular about their names. Henry Green, for instance, by will dated 22nd December, 1679, gave to his sister, Catharine Green, during her life, all his lands in Melbourne, Derby, and after her decease to others in trust, upon condition that the said Catharine Green should give four green waistcoats to four poor women in a green old age, every year, such green waistcoats to be lined with green galloon lace, and to be delivered to the said poor women on or before 21st December, yearly, that they might be worn on Christmas Day.

That the good men do may live after them, at least on their tombstones, has induced some to leave money as bribes to the writers of their epitaphs. The Abbé de la Rivière, son of an appraiser of wood, who became Bishop-duke of Langres, devised 100 écus for that purpose. But La Monnoye wrote the following:

Here lies a notable personage,
Of family proud, of ancient lineage;
His virtues unnumbered, his knowledge profound,
Remarkably humble, remarkably wise;—
RemarkaCome, come! for twenty-five pound,
Remarkably humblI’ve told enough lies!”

Another clause in the Abbé’s will deserves to be recorded, from its pithiness:

To my steward, I leave nothing; because he has been in my service for eighteen years.”

This reminds one of an anecdote told of the Cardinal Dubois, whose servants came to him every New Year’s Day to present their congratulations, and to receive a New Year’s box. When the steward came in his turn, the Cardinal said to him:

“Monsieur, I present you with all that you have stolen from me.”

The pleasure of receiving a legacy must be generally mingled with pain, more or less intense, according to the nearness of relationship of the deceased, or the affection we have had for him: but, when a plump legacy drops into our laps from a totally unexpected quarter, and left by one for whom we did not care, or possibly whom we did not know,—the amount of pain must be very minute. Such a case was that of a lady who came in for a large fortune from an eccentric individual whom she had never spoken to, though she had seen him at the opera, or in the park. The wording of the will was:

I supplicate Miss B—— to accept my whole fortune, too feeble an acknowledgment of the inexpressible sensations which the contemplation of her adorable nose has produced on me.”

The following is as curious. A good citizen of Paris, who died about 1779, inserted this clause in his will:

Item: I leave to M. l’Abbé, Thirty-thousand-men, 1,200 livres a year: I do not know him by any other name, but he is an excellent citizen, who certified me in the Luxembourg, that the English, that ferocious people which dethrones its monarchs, will soon be destroyed.”

On opening the testament, the executors were sorely puzzled to know who this Abbé Thirty-thousand-men could possibly be. At last, several people deposed that this citizen, a sworn enemy of the English and a great politician, had been wont every day to march up and down the Allée des Larmes in the Luxembourg; there he used to meet with an Abbé, who had as great an abhorrence of the English as himself, and who was perpetually urging:—“Those English rascals aren’t worth a straw. 30,000 men only are wanted,—30,000 men raised,—30,000 embarked,—30,000 landed,—and London would be in the hands of 30,000 men. A mere trifle!”

This was verified, and the legacy was delivered over to the intrepid Abbé, who had little dreamed of the spoil his 30,000 men were to bring him.

There is a question which we have been asking ourselves repeatedly, and which we now put before the reader. Is it possible to classify these wills? We have tried to do so, and have failed in every attempt. First, we have distributed them according to the bequests contained in them;—legacies of money, goods, animals, persons (of which latter, by the way, we have not given an example). There is no reason which can justify such an arbitrary system. Then again, when we arrange them according to the motives of the testator, as, wills indited by a perverted moral sense, or those composed under the influence of an aberration of the intellect, then we are obliged to exclude that of Corocotta Porcellus, of Jean Certain, beside many others, which can hardly be forced into position under either of these heads. And it is because the mind of man is too intricate, his motives too involved, his feelings too transient, his principles too obscure, for us to divide and subdivide the actions springing from them, as we can settle the classes of molluscs, or determine the genera of butterflies,—that in this paper we have attempted nothing of the kind. For wills are, as has been shown, as diverse as the hearts of men, of which they are the transcripts. An anatomist may dissect the heart, may name and register every muscle and fibre,—but he can tell us nothing of the motives which impelled that heart to throb faster, or chilled it to a sudden stillness. The bitterness of hate has left no poison in its cavities, in it the fleeting passion has set no seal, emotion left no trace, pity relaxed no nerve. The impulses which brought forth so full a leafage of action are lost, as the sap from the bare tree.

So surely as the berry indicates the soundness of the root, the flower of the bulb, so does man’s last will tell of the goodness or foulness of the heart which conceived it. The cankered root sends up only a sickly, withered germ, which brings forth no fruit in due season; whilst the wine that maketh glad the heart of man, the oil which maketh him a cheerful countenance, and the bread that strengthens his heart, have burst from roots which mildew has never marred, nor worm fretted.

Hitherto we have presented little but what is cramped or distorted to the reader; the generous and good, often quite as eccentric, have only received a passing touch, for we may possibly speak of “Curious Benefactions” in a separate article.

S. Baring-Gould, M.A.


  1. The Red Indian is of Semitic origin.