9 Unusual Last Wills

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Wills can be the perfect format for revealing unusual last wishes, because by the time the document is read it’s too late for anyone to interfere. Some people have used their will to send a message from beyond the grave—whether one of thanks, bitterness, or regret—while others have included some unexpected instructions for the fate of certain body parts.


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Michigan millionaire Wellington Burt’s 1919 will became known as “The Legacy of Bitterness,” because he stipulated that his massive fortune couldn’t be paid out until 21 years after the death of his last grandchild. No one knows why the eccentric (and clearly cantankerous) lumber merchant made such a strange bequest, ignoring his close family and the many causes he had supported in life in favor of a fund for future relatives. In 1989 his final surviving grandchild died, and the 21-year countdown began. Lawyers were responsible for sifting through the many applications from relatives to identify those eligible to inherit. Eventually in 2011, the will finally paid out and 12 far-removed relatives benefited from the roughly $110 million fortune.


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Oscar-winning choreographer and director Bob Fosse left a final request that benefited 66 of his friends and colleagues who had “at one time or another during my life been very kind to me.” Fosse, who died in 1987, left a sum of $25,000 to be split between the 66 beneficiaries (which worked out as $378.79 each), who were instructed “to go out and have dinner on me.” Those urged to go out and eat in his honor included Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, and Liza Minnelli. Fosse’s surviving wife, Gwen Verdon, followed her husband’s wishes and booked the Crystal Room at Tavern on the Green in Central Park, New York, to which she invited all those named in the will as a final celebration.


In 1890 renowned archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie was excavating a pyramid in Kahun, Egypt, when he uncovered the world’s oldest wills. The fascinating documents were written on papyrus and prove that even ancient Egyptians liked to include some unusual requests in their last wishes. The will of Ankh-ren (also known as Sekhenren, depending on translation) is dated to 1797 BCE and leaves all his goods to his brother, Uah. Uah’s will was also found and it details that all the goods he received from his brother should be left to his wife, Teta—but it then goes on to add the intriguing caveat that Teta must refrain from knocking down any of the inherited houses. These ancient wills re-wrote the history books, indicating that laws of inheritance had developed many hundreds of years earlier than previously thought.


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The 1553 will of Renaissance satirist Rabelais was famously succinct, supposedly consisting of just one memorable line: “I have no available property, I owe a great deal; the rest I give to the poor.”


Antiquarian Francis Douce left a box to the British Museum in his 1834 will, specifying that it couldn’t be opened until January 1, 1900. The bequest was deemed especially unusual because Douce had worked at the museum for a short period of time before resigning, listing multiple reasons why he had to leave, including the “vastness of the business remaining to be done” and “the fiddle faddle requisition of incessant reports.” Douce had amassed an exceptional collection of old books, manuscripts, coins, and artifacts over his lifetime, and the majority of his collection he had bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where it became one of the library’s treasures. Thus the mystery box garnered quite some attention as curators at the British Museum speculated over what might be inside. Despite their impatience, Douce’s wishes were respected and the box remained unopened until 1900, when the trustees gathered round in excitement to finally glimpse the contents. However, the crowd was disappointed—it contained nothing more than some old notebooks and pieces of scrap paper.

A few newspaper reports from the time suggested that Douce had included a note in the box saying he thought the trustees at the museum were philistines and unworthy of receiving anything of any value. If this is true, no sign of the note has survived. Note or no note, the trustees could not help but see the mystery box and its disappointing contents as Douce’s revenge on the museum from beyond the grave. Their hopes of a valuable addition to their collections dashed, the British Museum handed over the contents of the box to the Bodleian in 1930, so that it might join the rest of his (rather more spectacular) collection.


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John “Pop” Reed worked for many decades as a stagehand at Philadelphia’s famous Walnut Street Theater. His unusual will revealed that he yearned for the stage. Reed stipulated that after his death his head should be removed from his body and his skull preserved and given to the theater, where it should be used for the skull of Yorick in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Reed’s wishes were duly carried out, and his skull became something of a memento at the theater, where it was autographed by many visiting actors.

This odd bequest is not as unique as it may seem, and many others have left similar instructions, including Polish composer Andre Tchaíkowsky (not to be confused with the rather more famous Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky). Tchaíkowsky died in 1982 and willed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where it was finally used on stage by David Tennant during his acclaimed 2008 portrayal of Hamlet.


In 1928 a kindly British citizen made an anonymous bequest to the nation of £500,000 (roughly $621,407) with the purpose of paying off the national debt. Since then the money has been held in trust as the National Fund and has grown substantially to £350 million (approximately $440 million), making it one of the 30 wealthiest charities in the UK by net assets. Unfortunately, stipulations in the will mean that it cannot be cashed in until it can fully cover the national debt, and as that currently stands at an eye-watering £1.6 trillion, this seems unlikely to ever happen. Barclays bank, which works as a trustee of the fund, has been investigating legal options to see if charitable grants could be made from it, or if the money could be handed directly to the Treasury, but so far no legal settlement has been found and the money remains untouched.


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German essayist and poet Heinrich Heine left a very strange clause in his will. Heine had married his mistress in 1841, an uneducated shop worker named Crescence Eugénie Mirat, whom for unknown reasons he called Mathilde. The pair were married for 15 years, and historians have revealed they had a volatile relationship. By the late 1840s Heine had become increasingly ill (possibly with syphilis) and was confined to bed for the last eight years of his life, his wife Mathilde at his side until the end. Heine, aware that he was dying, inserted a curious clause into his will in which he stipulated that Mathilde could only inherit his money if she remarried. This may seem a very strange desire for a loving husband to make, but when questioned by friends as to his reasoning, he quipped, “Because then, at least one man will regret my death.”


In 2007 a former RAF pilot and Canadian investment banker, Keith Owen, bequeathed his £2.3 million (approximately $2.85 million) fortune to his favorite holiday destination—Sidmouth in Devon, England. Owen stipulated that the capital must remain untouched, but that the sizeable yearly interest (about $150,000) should be used to make Sidmouth and nearby villages of Sidford and Sidbury “beautiful.” As a result, a local civic society, the Sid Valley Association, has been attempting to fulfill Owen’s wishes to create a “valley of a million bulbs” by planting thousands of flower bulbs—in 2014 alone they planted an astonishing 220,000 bulbs, which create a fantastic display of color when they flower each spring.