Whether or not you have a fortune to leave, writing a will is an important way of ensuring the significant others – and causes – most important to you are not forgotten when you die.
Yet as these 10 unusual wills show, making a will can also be an opportunity to cause a little mayhem from beyond the grave – or create a legacy that could outlive many generations to come.
The will that was an ill wind for widow
Flatulent cobbler Albert Orton let off more than steam when he was writing his will. He never forgave his wife for her lack of sympathy over infirmities that led to nature taking its course and him to “break wind within her presence or within her hearing.”
“Rotten old pig” and “stinking beast” were among the “abusive epithets” he complained his wife Jane responded with. Accordingly, Albert’s bequest to her was just a farthing, when he died in 1888 – the equivalent of around 30 pence today.
To add insult to the injury Jane caused his pride, the aggrieved Orton instructed in his will that the farthing should be mailed to his widow with the postage unpaid – “as an indication of my disgust.”
Postage in those days cost a penny – four times the value of a farthing.
Picture: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Maverick publisher Felix Dennis left his £150 million from his fortune to help grow and preserve the 30,000-acre Heart of England Forest of native trees he established in 2001. The woodland’s windfall came from the proceeds of the sale of Dennis’s publishing empire in 2018.
He co- founded infamous psychedelic magazine Oz in the 1960s and was famously put on trial for "conspiracy to deprave and corrupt the morals of the young of the realm". Felix, who had lived a colourful life to the full when he died in 2014, had said: “Who so ever plants a tree, winks at immortality.”
Another self-made millionaire, financier Keith Owen, bequeathed a £2.3 million fortune in 2013 to keep the seaside town Sidmouth, Devon, in bloom with a million flower bulbs.
Be sure I’m dead
Wealthy Hannah Beswick’s fortune was ultimately inherited by the doctor who embalmed her body when she died in 1758. Terrified of being buried alive, the old lady instructed in her will that Dr Charles White ensure that she was not.
In fact, he didn’t bury her at all. He mummified and wrapped the old lady in tar-infused bandages, leaving her face uncovered and peeping out from a grandfather clock. Once a year, according to the wishes in her will, he formally examined his patient to confirm she was still dead.
Dr White left the mummy to a doctor friend in his will and it was later bequeathed to a museum. Hannah was finally give a proper burial in Manchester in 1868, when it was agreed beyond certainty – 90 years after she died – that she was dead.
Cheers for the beers
Retired engineer Roger Brown surprised seven of his closest pals by leaving £3,500 in his will to pay for a lads’ weekend away. The group, who had been good friends for over 40 years, went to Berlin and raised more than one glass in Roger’s memory.
Among them was Roger Rees, who told The Swansea Evening Post “We would like to formally apologise to Roger’s two sons, Sam and Jack, for taking away some of their inheritance. We spent most of it on beer, the rest we wasted.”
Wiltshire man Stephen Cuthbert’s will, written in 2002, instructed for a “Piss Up” for his friends – at his expense – at the venue of their choosing and requested that he be conveyed in the back of a Cortina Estate car to the crematoria.
When businessman Charles Thompson died aged 70 in 1784, he left money to endow a school for poor children in his hometown, Mansfield, and £400 to anually provide penny loaves and “drab coloured coats with white buttons” for ten poor men of the parish and petticoats for ten needy elderly ladies.
Most extraordinary were his funeral wishes, which involved his interment in a plain oak coffin with an iron hoop and ropes attached to lower him into the grave. This was necessary because grave itself, he instructed in his will, should be at least 18 feet deep. Or deeper still, if the gravediggers could manage.
Thompson requested a wall be built around his grave and then as much earth as possible to be placed on top, creating a small hill – planted with trees – that became a local landmark.
Although he wanted a quiet funeral and even requested that the hearse went down a quiet backstreet to avoid fuss, word spread and noisy crowd of locals turned up and accompanied Thompson’s funeral cortege to his extraordinary burial.
A second-best bed
Playwright William Shakespeare left the bulk of his property and belongings to his daughter Susannah, with a £100 bequest to his other daughter, Judith, along with a “silver gilt bole”. But of greatest intrigue in his will is his bequest to his wife Anne, to whom he left “my second best bed, with the furniture.”
It’s been debated whether this was a deliberate slight by the bard rankling over an unhappy marriage. Others believe he had already adequately provided for Anne during his lifetime and that the second best bed was a love token – a reminder of nights of passion they had spent in it together.
Hotelier and property investor Leona Helmsley made sure her dog Trouble would never run short of dog biscuits. She left $12 million to the pet Maltese in her will – and left the dog to her brother Alvin.
Leona left the bulk of her $4billion fortune to charity when she died in 2007, but also left several family members – as well as Trouble – well provided for. She stipulated in her will, however, that money left in trust to her two grandsons was conditional on visiting the grave of her late son Jay, their father, every year.
The billionaire also left instructions in her will that her final resting place – a mausoleum in New York’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – should be steam-cleaned every year.
Have dinner on when we get home
Wealthy industrial magnate John P Bowman grieved the loss of his two young daughters and his wife by building a magnificent marble-lined mausoleum, at the cost of around $1million today. At its entrance is a statue of sorrowing John on bowed knee, hand on heart, while inside – where Bowman was also laid to rest when he died in 1891 – are marble busts of his loved ones and mirrors creating the illusion of greater space and light.
Bowman was a spiritualist, who believed in reincarnation. After the mausoleum in Cuttingsville, Vermont, was complete, he built a mansion nearby called Laurel Hall. He left $50,000 in his will for its maintenance, to ensure that it would be ready for his family on their return.
Clocks were kept wound, a warming fire was always ready in the fireplace and a hot meal prepared for the departed Bowmans every evening until the 1950s, when, due to bad investments, the money that he had left in trust ran out.
The Great Stork Derby
Capricious lawyer Charles Vance Millar’s love of a practical joke sent Toronto residents into a reproductive frenzy that became known as the Great Stork Derby.
Much of Millar’s estate, worth around $10 million today, was in stocks and shares; he left a stake in a brewery to teetotal religious clergy and a property in Jamaica to three fellow-lawyers he was fully aware loathed each other. But the bequest that caused the most heartache and legal wrangling after his death in 1926, was the sum he promised the mother or mothers in Toronto who bore the most children in the 10 years after his death.
These were hard times, when the Depression had left families desperate. Newspapers avidly followed the story, also questioning the morality of a bequest that could lead to even greater hardship for families. Many poor mothers vied for a life-changing windfall and there were scores of claims and counterclaims. Some lawyers contested the validity of the will, while others, heartbreakingly, argued for and against the inclusion of children who were born out of wedlock or who were stillborn, in the ‘derby’.
Millar’s estate amounted to $570,000 at the end of the 10-year period. A huge sum in those days, it was awarded to four mothers who each had nine children, attracting another media furore that they did their best to protect their families from.
The man who left a golden nest egg in his will
When Michigan tycoon Wellington Burt died in 1919, he was a very wealthy man. But he stipulated in his will that his fortune could only be inherited by his descendants 21 years after the death of his last surviving grandchild.
Burt left lifetime annuities to his secretary, chauffeur, cook, housekeeper and coachman, but although various relatives tried to contest his will and claim the fortune, the verdict was he’d been of sound mind when he wrote it – and there was nothing they could do.
In 2011, 92 years after Burt’s, death his estate – now amounting to around $110 million – was finally claimed, by his grandchildren’s grandchildren.
There’s been speculation over whether Burt’s will was prompted by a family feud, or that the timber merchant, who grew up in relative poverty on a farm – believed his children and grandchildren should make their own way in life.
If so, he may be looking down with satisfaction: His great-great-great granddaughter Christina Alexander Cameron, who inherited around $2.6 million from the will, told The Saginaw News “I’d rather not rely on it. I’ll probably just save it. It’s just not as big of a deal to me as it was to most of my family.”