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SPECIAL REPORT - Part two of four parts.


It Took the World's Breath Away


Highlights from The Record of
The Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission, Inc.1917-1929.
Rose Young wrote this official summation
of the Leslie legacy for the
American-National Woman's Suffrage Association in 1922.

"I, Frank Leslie, of the City of New York, having changed my name of Miriam Florence Leslie, in pursuance of a request of my late husband, Frank Leslie, expressed to me frequently before his death, and which change was allowed and sanctioned by an order of the Court of Common Pleas for the City and County of New York,entered of record the 30th day of June,1881, Baroness de Bazus, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, but mindful of the uncertainty of life, do make, publish and declared this to be my last Will and Testament as follows:"

Thereupon, she directed that all her debts be paid, and bequeathed a number of bequests that ranged from $50,000 to just a few.

Article Twelve of the Will reads as follows:

"All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, whatsoever and wheresoever situated, whereof I may be seized or possessed, or to which I may be in any manner entitled at the time of my death, including the amount of any legacies hereinbefore given which may for any reason lapse or fail, I do give, devise and bequeath unto my friend MRS. CARRIE CHAPMAN CATT of the City of New York. It is my expectation and wish that she turn all of my said residuary estate into cash, and apply the whole thereof as she shall think most advisable to the furtherance of the cause of Woman's Suffrage to which she has so worthily devoted so many years of her life, and that she shall make suitable provision so that in case of her death any balance thereof remaining unexpended may be applied and expended in the same way; but this expression of my wish and expectation is not to be taken as creating any trust or as limiting or affecting the character of the gift to her, which I intend to be absolute and unrestricted."

When the appraisers had finished with Mrs. Leslie's estate, the gross amount with which the executors stood charged was $1,977,810.57, a huge sum of which $1,836,210.57, less depreciation, debts, funeral expenses, etc., was meant by Mrs. Leslie to go to Mrs. Catt at once for the promotion of the suffrage cause.

The amount to which suffrage was beneficiary, announced in the newspapers of September 27, 1914, left the world breathless. But promptly some of the world got its breath.

A great many were disappointed, and it was not long before they began to reveal it. There was an assembling of clans and a marshaling of cousins.

"We might as well have it as the suffragettes!" became the battle cry.

"My father," said a letter from Los Angeles, "is a first cousin of Mrs. Leslie, and we feel, as no doubt you do, that we are more entitled to at least a small portion of her estate than the Suffragettes... I have an uncle who is one of the best lawyers in the West and he has looked into the matter and says he feels sure that something can be done, if all the heirs get together..."


To want votes for women was just short of aiding and abetting crime. That money should be left to "an association that is perhaps not even sanctioned by law," as one of them set forth, passed the bounds of reason.

The protesters supposed Mrs. Catt to be no more bound by the provisions of the will than they felt themselves to be. They besieged her with letters to beg that she disregard the wishes and instructions of the dead and give them some money or some more money, out of the estate. They threatened contests. They pleaded. They menaced.

There were an incredible number of letters from men, with an ability to be ridiculous that had no limit, who rushed forward to proffer their services to Mrs. Catt as business manager, on the grounds that no woman could handle affairs of such magnitude.

There were hundreds from people who suggested other ways of using the money.

A clerk had to be engaged merely to take care of the correspondence involved, and considerable expense accrued to Mrs. Catt for the privilege of pointing out to people that she did not yet have the Leslie money and could not do anything with it except what Mrs. Leslie had indicated, even when she got it.

It was early evident that of those most interested no one was going to abide by the wishes of the dead except the one who was to get no personal benefit from the will, Mrs. Catt. Two of the next of kin promptly let it be known that they were not willing the will should be probated... The post-death history of Mrs. Leslie's will is startling testimony to the inefficacy of will-making.

When the (relatives) agreements were brought to Mrs. Catt, they came with the strong plea that it was quicker and cheaper to settle with claimants than to allow the claim to go from court to court, that a receivership could be ordered, a jury named, and the fortune exhausted. That, as she herself was to get nothing out of the estate, it was better to be lenient in the case of others who would fight hard to get something out of it. Compromise, counseled the lawyers.


Thereupon, admitting that she did not know the law as the lawyers knew it, she briefed the equity in the case as she saw it, and sent it to her lawyer as the expression of her wishes:

"Probably I do not clearly understand all the intricacies and possibilities of a contest, and perhaps it is the proverbial fool who enters in where angels fear to tread. But a contest is surely a more honest and self-respecting process than a dishonorable compromise.
        "I feel that I have no right to concede these outrageous claims or anything like them, that I would rather go into the contest and lose, than give away money which I have no right to give. If we lose in the contest I shall at least have a clear conscience and I can maintain my self-respect. I can at least give all the details to the suffragists of the country through the thousands of newspapers which will gladly tell the tale.

"On the other hand, if I consent to claims which I believe have no legal or moral basis, I shall not only bring upon myself the condemnation of my own conscience but the criticism of my fellow suffragists. I am unwilling that any compromise whatsoever shall be made with any heirs which I cannot freely announce to the world. I cannot therefore consent to any sort of compromise which cannot be justified in the understanding, not of lawyers, but the laity.

"If Mrs. Leslie was not of sound mind, it is right that the State should distribute the estate. Do we believe she was of sound mind? We do. Then why should we be afraid to let one hundred contests come if they will? Why should we give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to avoid contests? If the evolution of jurisprudence from the beginning of time has not yet reached the point where an honest and intelligent person can make an honest will, drawn by a shrewd and intelligent firm of lawyers, and have it upheld in an American court, it is time the world knew it and that somebody beside lawyers made the laws of our country..."
        (Catt went on to dissect the positions of several of the claimants and the fact that Mrs. Leslie never changed her mind.)
        "...I ask myself what right have I, to whom Mrs. Leslie entrusted the residue of her estate, to be used for a certain purpose, to begin by giving a large portion of it to people whom she distinctly and deliberately intended should not have it. The duty imposed upon me is not a pleasant one and is likely to be accompanied by no little trouble and expense. Yet my conscience tells me that a principle is at stake, and that since the trust has been given me I have no right not to act in accordance with my best judgment and conscience."


"Our opponents doubtless bank upon three elements. First, that the probating of the will means nothing to me and that consequently I will not fight for it. I have fought all my life against injustice, and this is a case which appeals to me and I am ready for the fray.
        "Second, they believe that the suffrage movement is in need of money and that it will sacrifice almost anything to get some of it. They do not know the movement. It has managed to take care of itself up to this moment and it can keep on doing so. It is a long way to the end of our journey and we are going to need that money late more than now. We can afford to wait.
        "Third, the one weak thing in our case might be the fact that an ignorant, prejudiced jury might think a woman crazy because she had willed her money to a cause in which they do not believe. If it could be proved that the case was lost on that issue, the publicity it would give to suffrage would be of as much value to the movement as the money which would come from the estate.

"Therefore I am willing to risk even that point. Our opponents also bank upon the claim that Mrs. Leslie was not interested in suffrage. We not only have our letters with which to answer that point, but there is something more important. I find that Mrs. Leslie was parsimonious, tight-fisted, when people wanted to borrow money of her, and their name was legion.

"On the other hand, there is proof that she was always open-handed to help women in need. She got their writings printed, she helped actresses, singers and musicians to get audiences and fees; he gave presents to struggling women, and never, after she was herself a business woman, did she turn her back upon an appeal presented by any meritorious woman.
        "It is quite in line with her life history that she should have desired the bulk of her money to help the struggle that women are making to win the vote. To defend herself against grafters she told them that she had only a small income and had to live within it. She had some of the elements of the miser and enjoyed going over her own accounts and seeing her fortune mounting higher and higher."


"She may have had the motive, as some people think, of building a monument to herself. That would be the lowest motive one could assign to her for the kind of will she made. If this was the motive, is there anything illegal about arranging for one's own monument?
        "For it is only a difference of point of view whether a monument shall be built of marble or be written in the history of a country. If this was one of Mrs. Leslie's motives, she certainly had another, and that was her desire to help the women of the world to get their own.

"The more I learn of her character, history and daily life from those who were most familiar with her, the more confident I am that the thing she did was according to a long-thought-out plan.
        "The more I learn of her, the more certain I am that despite her eccentricities, she was a remarkable character, with a shrewd, clever head on her shoulders. She was crafty, too. The fact that she did not acquaint Mr. Cramer with the purport of her will or Mr. Cromwell with the amount of her estate, was not the chance of a thoughtless, unbalanced testator. It was the crafty design of a woman who was unwilling to meet their disapproval.

"Believing all the above, I have asked myself what is my duty in this matter, and I answer that: "First, it is my duty to defend the right of a woman to make her own will in her own way; second, it is my duty to get the residue of that estate, if it is possible to do so, to use as she intended it to be used; third, it is my duty to aid, so far as I can, the probating of the will.

"If it be true that corrupt politics can get hold of this case, dictate a receivership, name and jury and all that sort of thing, and thus exhaust the fortune anyway, there is another field for a fight, and I am ready for that.
        "It seems to me that honest, decent public opinion will uphold such a struggle. There is one thing different about this case for the ordinary one. Ordinarily, wills concern people or charities and are of limited interest to the general public.
        "The progress of the suffrage movement has been made through publicity. It was once hard to get that publicity; it is now difficult to keep out of the papers what we wish to withhold. I was called up last night by every newspaper in the city to remind me that yesterday (Nov. 11, 1914) was the day when the citations were made returnable. You may be sure that the press of New York, and the Associated Press as well, will be on the trail of this case.
        "It may make the Leslie will a cause celebre, and if it does not bring money to the suffrage coffers, it may result in reforming the will business."


"I beg to assure you that I am not unmindful of the fact that I, as an individual, will get nothing out of the will except trouble and bills for my own pocketbook to meet. Nevertheless, a duty has come to me, and although it is not of my own seeking I am going to perform it according to the dictates of my conscience."

This is enough to indicate Mrs. Catt's sense of responsibility for the trust imposed upon her. In each and every case of assignment or settlement out of court, she yielded against her own wishes to the opinion of the best legal talent of the country that it was "cheaper to pay than to fight."
        In each case she was brought up sharply to the question whether the whole estate should be frittered away in court contests, or whether some modicum, of the residuary legacy could be saved for the purpose for which Mrs. Leslie has intended the whole of it. Finally, she wrote her own lawyer that he might see what the claimants would agree to as a minimum and bring the proposition to her.
"If it is more than I can conscientiously agree to, I will consult a few leading suffragists, lay the whole question before them and let them share with me the responsibility. If they agree to the proposition, I will agree. Otherwise, not."

(However, under pressure from her attorneys, several claimants did received large settlements. Heirs of the deceased husband also entered the case - grandchildren of Mr. Frank Leslie's sons whom he had specifically disinherited in his own will 40 years before. Their position went so far as to accuse Mrs. Frank Leslie of having been born illegitimate and the daughter of a black slave woman, adding that the woman who passed herself off as Mrs. Frank's mother was actually a whorehouse madam!)

The executors set up a machinery of investigation that would have done credit to Scotland Yard, boasting, as it did, detectives, photographers, handwriting experts, copyists, researches, and legal lights... When all the evidence was in and all the lawyers had done their best and worst, the decision was a sweeping denial of all the petitioner's demands. It was appealed, of course, and the appeals court ruled for CCC and suffrage... Twenty-four thousand dollars was paid to their lawyers, as the result of which the estate of Mrs. Frank Leslie was forever discharged from any obligation to any heirs of Mr. Frank Leslie.


More claims were made including one by the executor Mr. Louis H. Cramer who had gone on record as being dumbfounded and disappointed by the will. The amount he claimed was two hundred thousand dollars, saying that it was he who increased Mrs. Frank's net worth, so her deserved it. Mrs. Catt disagreed. "A man who couldn't make a fortune grow under these conditions would be a poor sort indeed," she replied to Mr. Cramer's lawyer.

The matter went to a referee who reported there had been no contract, implied or otherwise, between Mrs. Leslie and Mr. Cramer but he was still given $45,000. Another petition was filed in April, 1919... Mrs. Leslie was pictured as a weak-minded degenerate who had yielded to the undue influence of flattery and cajolery "in which Mrs. Catt excelled." In all nearly half a million went in settlement of claims not recognized by Mrs. Leslie in her will. The government got over $200,000. The total sum charged to legal expenses was not short of $220,000. The executors got $39,384.46, nearly twenty thousand dollars apiece, as pay for their services.

The total amount charged to Mrs. Catt by the executors was $977,875.02. In order to probate and execute the Leslie will more than a million dollars was spent!

   | PART ONE |    PART TWO    | PART THREE |    | PART FOUR |




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