Historicist: The Great Stork Derby
Charles Vance Millar's bizarre and mysterious will promised a vast sum of money to the Toronto woman who gave birth to the most children within 10 years of his death. What followed was years of relentless baby-making and legal wrangling.
On Halloween night 1926, renowned lawyer Charles Vance Millar died of a heart attack at the downtown Toronto office of his law firm, Millar, Ferguson & Hunter.
A wealthy man, Millar was president of the O’Keefe brewing company and a successful racing stable owner. In 1915, his horses, Tartarean and Fair Montague, finished first and second at the King’s Plate.
Rather than collect his prize before the crowds at Woodbine, the shy and retiring Millar stayed away from the race track and later donated the substantial cash prize to the Hospital for Sick Children.
It was in death, however, that Millar gained the fame he had apparently eschewed in life.
Reports of unusual stipulations in the will of the deceased lawyer first appeared in the Toronto newspapers in early November, and it later transpired that Millar, who had no immediate family, had prepared a will designed to test the morals and beliefs of his contemporaries.
Millar left his stock in the historically Catholic-owned O’Keefe beer company to all the Orange lodges and Protestant ministers “actively engaged and resident in Toronto.”
Every ordained minister in Walkerville, Sandwich, and Windsor, Ontario, (“except one Spracklin who shot a hotelkeeper”) received a single share each of Kenilworth Jockey Club stock.
His Ontario Jockey Clubs shares were bequeathed to three people, two of whom had vehemently opposed racetrack betting. One of them, William Raney, was a former Ontario attorney general. The third man, Abram Orpen, was a saloon and racetrack owner who was among the biggest names in gambling in Ontario.
All three could only claim their valuable shares, valued at $1,500 per person, if they agreed to do so as a group. If one declined, all would lose out.
A holiday home near Kingston, Jamaica, was left to three lawyers who appeared not to like each other very much at all. If any one sold, the cash was to be given to the City of Kingston for distribution among the poor.
Money was also set aside for the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto, his alma mater, but the clause that raised the most eyebrows was the last—number nine.
It stipulated the remainder of Millar’s estate was to be liquidated into cash and invested over a period of nine years. On the 10th anniversary of his death, the balance of the fund was to be given “to the mother who has since my death given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children as shown by the registrations under the Vital Statistics Act.”
In the event of a tie, the money was to be divided equally between the mothers.
“This Will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime,” he wrote.
Millar’s bizarre will was met largely with confusion. The Globe newspaper called it a “freak” document and his friends weighed in on whether or not the whole thing was a practical joke.
“It would be just like Mr. Millar to get the whole province talking about such a document and at the same time leave a later will, which would appear after they had talked the matter of the other one out,” said Charles Kemp, one close friend of Millar’s.
“He spoke of it as a joke, and told all his friends about it,” he said.
Not much is known is about Kemp’s relationship to Millar. He received $1,000 from the will and was reportedly living with Millar at the time of his death in his bachelor home at 75 Scarborough Rd. in the Beach.
Kemp was at least 50 years Millar’s junior and, although he was cited as a business partner, Mark M. Orkin notes in his book, The Great Stork Derby, that Kemp didn’t appear to have much insight into Millar’s affairs.
“Perhaps one can see in their relationship the natural affinity of a childless bachelor for a surrogate son,” writes Orkin.
In April 1927, the interpretation of the clause concerning the distribution of the O’Keefe beer shares made its way to court.
The judge decided that Millar did not, in fact, own the shares he promised to the Orange lodges of Toronto. He owned shares in an entirely separate company, O’Keefe’s Ltd., but none in the beer-making O’Keefe Brewery Company of Toronto Limited, which he controlled with Sir Henry Pellatt and Sir William Mulock.
To fix the problem, Justice William Middleton decided the executors of the will should attempt to purchase the correct stocks and distribute them among the named beneficiaries. If no stock could be acquired, the value of the cash value of the correct shares was to be handed out.
In 1928, 99 clergymen received between $38 and $56 each.
Rancy and Chown, the two anti-racing advocates who received Ontario Jockey Club stock, slipped out of the will through a loophole. The pair dutifully joined the club, as requested, and were marked in the share register for about five minutes—just long enough to sell their shares to other members.
A small number of ordained minister from Walkerville, Sandwich, and Windsor applied for their share of the Kenilworth stock, only to find it was worth half a cent.
The holiday home in Jamaica also turned out to be a phantom: It turned out Millar had sold it two years before his death, and so the mismatched lawyers and the poor of Kingston missed out on any reward.
The most enduring controversy surrounded Clause 9, the portion of the will that pledged money to the mother of the largest family. According to Orkin, himself a Queen’s Counsel, Millar went to great lengths to make sure this portion of the will was perfectly structured in order to withstand court challenges.
The case against the clause revolved around whether or not it was against public policy, “encouraging the birth of children without regard to their chances of life or welfare and encouraging what ‘no decent breeder of dogs would do,'” in the words of the Globe newspaper.
As Orkin notes, Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor, pronounced the whole affair “horrible” while on a visit to Toronto. Birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger said years later that Millar’s will “reduced woman to an animal and is deplorable.”
Others, including Judge Middleton, concluded Millar had meant to highlight the plight of mothers of large families, who were often poor and victimized by a lack of contraception.
“Charlie’s hope was that by turning the spotlight on unbridled breeding, and making Toronto a laughing stock before the world, he could shame the government into legalizing birth control,” wrote Colonel John Bruce, a confidant of Millar.
Despite lingering questions over the validity of the will and ultimate value of the prize, in the years that followed, women began to emerge as contenders for Millar’s money.
The Daily Star was the Toronto newspaper most devoted to the story, assigning a special feature reporter to the case and doggedly pursuing and signing pregnant women to exclusivity agreements.
In 1933, seven years into the contest, court interpreter Grace Bagnato led the way with seven children born since Millar’s death and another on the way. A Florence Brown also had seven and three others—Hilda Graziano, Emanuela Darrigo, and Clarence Kitts—had had six living children since 1926.
(The Dionne quintuplets, born in 1934, would certainly have been contenders for Millar’s money, but the five girls were delivered in Callander, Ont., near North Bay.)
Meanwhile, Millar’s distant cousins in the United States tried to intervene and claim the cash for themselves by having Clause 9 declared void on grounds of uncertainty and public policy.
If they succeeded, the money for the mother of the largest family, however much it may be, would automatically be divided up between the next of kin, whether or not Millar had wanted that or not.
In May 1930, a judge threw out their claim because they did not represent the nearest next of kin—a half-aunt who had lived in California and died about a year after Millar.
The executor of the will of the half-aunt, Nancy Vance Millar, likewise tried to have Clause 9 declared invalid, but was scuppered by the executors of Millar’s will who successfully petitioned to have the U.S. citizen put up a steep security deposit for his court costs.
The biggest early challenge to the legality of the Millar will came from the Ontario government. Attorney General William H. Price introduced a bill in the legislature that sought to claim the the Millar money on behalf of the province in March 1932.
Price hoped Bill 141, entitled “An Act respecting the Estate of Charles Millar, deceased,” would remove both the mothers’ and the American descendants’ claims to the money, and appoint the executors of the will as trustees of the money.
For five years, any income from the money would be given to the University of Toronto to pay for scholarships and bursaries. After that, the entire sum was to be handed to the university, which would keep it forever and continue to use the income to benefit students.
Unfortunately for Price, the bill provoked a furious public and political backlash. Now deep in the grips of the Depression, “Charlie Millar’s will was no longer a big joke; instead, the Great Stork Derby has become the pie in the sky dream of every subsistence family in Canada,” wrote Mark Orkin.
Price was inundated with letters—up to 14,000 of them, according to Orkin—expressing outrage at the idea of the government dipping into people’s pockets to claim the money for themselves.
“The Ontario government is taking money from children that need it,” said Florence Brown, one of the women in the running to claim the money, who lived at 64 Uxbridge Ave. in the Junction.
The father of her 27 children, Henry Brown, was likewise incensed. “The government is hungry for money, but we’re not going to let them have it without a fight,” he said.
Eventually, Price backed down. He withdrew the bill a short time later, claiming (dubiously) that new relatives had come forward.
Though several mothers were associated with the Stork Derby race for years, the leaderboard was frequently adjusted to account for new arrivals. Perhaps discouraged by the ferocious public interest in the race, several women entered only in the last few years.
In 1935, a year before the end, Lillian Kenny, a newcomer, was top of the table with 11 of her 15 children apparently eligible for the prize. Lucy Timleck and Kathleen Nagle were tied for second with nine.
Grace Bagnato, who led the race in 1933, slipped into a five-way tie for third with Hilda Graziano, Emanuela Darrigo, Madeline Harrison, and Florence Brown when her eighth child was stillborn.
It’s easy to picture these families risking their health and wellbeing for a chance at Millar’s prize money, but it appears a chance at the cash wasn’t the primary motivator.
Grace Bagnato, when questioned, pointed out she had already had 13 children before the derby began. “I had all my children but one before I had any intention of putting my name forward as a contender,” said Annie Smith, another late contender.
Most of the women, it appeared, would have had large families regardless of any reward.
That’s not to say the money wasn’t a factor; most of the women in the competition were desperately poor, living in dire conditions while trying to provide for extremely large families. The majority of the frontrunners relied almost entirely on government relief money.
The executors of Millar’s will made a final push for entrants in the Toronto newspapers in the days leading up to the 4:30 p.m. October 31, 1936, deadline, and several more newcomers came forward, including a mysterious woman identified as “Mrs. A” or “Mrs. X.”
The final result was incredibly difficult to ascertain. Some women claimed births that hadn’t been officially registered, others had kids outside of wedlock, sometimes with more than one partner, and the women couldn’t be sure if the court would allow those children to count.
One woman, Vera Meldrum, was “confined to the Township of York,” which was then outside the City of Toronto, for the birth of one of her children, despite living permanently in Toronto.
When time expired on Halloween 1936, six women were tied for first place with nine children born and registered during the previous decade: Lucy Timleck, Kathleen Nagle, Annie Smith, Isobel MacLean, Lillian Kenny, and Pauline Mae Clarke—the publicity-shy woman previously identified as Mrs. X.
Kenny, Clarke, Timleck, and Nagle all claimed at least 10 births, but for various reasons couldn’t prove all of their children met all the stipulations. To avoid litigation, all of them except Kenny agreed to officially enter nine children.
With time expired, the legal challenges began. There were questions over the length of time the competition was supposed to last (did 10 years mean the race ended in 1937?) and whether unregistered, stillborn, or those born to unmarried mothers counted.
Some questioned the definition of Toronto and whether or not the whole thing was against public policy—that is, against public morals and decency.
The question of public policy was answered by Justice William Middleton, who had ruled on the Millar case a decade earlier. Middleton decided that Clause 9 was not against public policy and advised that “children” meant only living, legally registered babies born to married parents.
The case of the Millar will eventually found its way through the Court of Appeal for Ontario to the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld Middleton’s decisions on the definition of children and public policy.
In 1938, four women received a cut of the Millar fortune, which amounted to upwards of half a million dollars thanks to the deceased’s shrewd investment in the Detroit-Windsor auto tunnel. Lucy Timleck, Kathleen Nagle, Annie Smith, and Isabel MacLean all got cheques for $125,000—about $2 million in 2016 money.
Two other mothers, Lillian Kenny and Pauline Mae Clarke, got smaller amounts in out-of-court settlements after their stillborn, illegitimate, or unregistered children were not counted in their totals.
Millar’s distant relatives wound up with nothing.
Newly flush with cash, the working husbands of Annie Smith, Lucy Timleck, and Isabel MacLean left their jobs. All moved to more spacious homes, but there was little in the way of conspicuous spending, product endorsements, or public appearances.
However, author Mark Orkin recalled Lillian Kenny purchasing a sealskin coat and building a monument to Millar. Kenny also had a fondness for taxi rides and once paid for a round tip to Niagara Falls with a $100 bill (worth about $1,600 in today’s money.)
“You needn’t worry about us going out to buy Casa Loma or Chorley Park [the official residence of the lieutenant-governor,]” said John MacLean, husband of Isabel MacLean.
“With us, life will go on as though nothing has happened.”
Additional material from the November 1, November 2, November 3, November 4, November 26, December 7, December 8, December 14, 1926; April 14, April 21, September 29, November 22, 1927; March 23, March 24, June 18, October 27, 1928; May 9, 1930; October 31, 1935; October 29, 1936; October 18, November 4, November 5, 1937; March 21, 1938 editions of the Globe; The Great Stork Derby, Mark M. Orkin, 1981.
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