Mark Hopkins went to California during the Gold Rush and made out quite well. With partners, he founded a mining and trading company, and then the Central Pacific Railroad. When he died in 1878, he left the largest inheritance in the world, but he had no children and no will. Since his death was big news, people came out of the woodwork to claim part of the fortune. His wife Mary (who was also his cousin) inherited the money. She soon adopted a boy named Timothy, the son of her widowed maid. Then she began her late-in-life hobby of buying, building, and decorating fine mansions. She grew close to her interior decorator, Edward Francis Searles, who was 23 years younger than Mary. He moved in with her, bringing his friend Arthur Walker, and Mary and Edward married in 1887. Mary died in 1891, sparking a battle between Timothy and Edward for her fortune. But it was when Edward died in 1920 that the real scramble for the money arose. Edward had no heirs, and willed the inheritance to Arthur. Suddenly everyone found a family connection to Mark Hopkins, Mary Hopkins Searles, or Edward Searles.
Rumors were everywhere. It was reported that a bank in San Francisco, California, had a vault holding envelopes with securities of $350,000,000 in a trust for Mark Hopkins’ heirs whenever they should be located.
The press sparked a treasure hunt and the lawyers took advantage of the publicity. From 1924 to 1929 over a thousand claims were filed by supposed heirs and co-heirs, and even the most remote relations. They came – or their lawyers came – with forged wills, fake Bibles, and bogus family trees to show a genealogical connection to Mark Hopkins.
Lawyers Reap the Riches
The lawyers gained great riches and pooled the Hopkins hopefuls together in class actions suits. They charged $50 to $100 for each claimant to join in the legal claim.
Some claimants, like Estella Latta of Durham, North Carolina, sold Hopkins stocks to finance the huge litigation fees.
One judge, fed up with the mess, ordered an investigation of the cases which reached “racket proportions.” The judge accused the predatory lawyers of keeping the treasure hunt alive.
The contest for the Mark Hopkins estate took on a life of its own. In fact, it would take years of research to sift through entirely, but GenealogyBank and library scrapbooks from the archives provide many colorful, entertaining stories. Timothy Hopkins, the adopted son of Mary Hopkins whom she cut out of her will before leaving it all to Edward, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch “it is the result of the most amazing pieces of propaganda ever spread in America.”
The fascinating saga of the Mark Hopkins fortune and the many people who wanted a piece of it is told in a series of blog posts at Geneology Bank: part one, part two, part three, and part four have already been published, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes next.
-via Strange Company