Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Will Contest that Changed a City

After the Civil War young Charles Prescott headed West from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Erie, Pennsylvania, with his mentor, William Trask. The two men grew rich in retailing.

Fast forward to 1932. Multimillionaire Charles Prescott, age 79, lies dieing in an Erie hospital. Historian Dennis Robinson tells how Prescott apparently seized the moment to make a new will. (A version of Robinson's article appeared in the February 1* Portsmouth Herald.)

Although he survived only a few days at Hamot Hospital, Charles abruptly decided to leave the bulk of his fortune to the Hamot and its sister hospital. His deathbed will was handwritten on a sheet of notepaper -- not by Charles -- and witnessed by his doctor and nurse. In a faint childlike scrawl at the bottom of the page are the letters "C-h-a-r-l" followed by a large "X".

Next to the signature someone has written "his mark". Despite the strange conditions surrounding this will -- which also gave two of Prescott's partners $100,000 each -- it was accepted for probate in Erie Pennsylvania. An earlier will from 1927, granting the bulk of his estate to his sisters in Portsmouth, was thrown out.

Prescott's sisters, Mary and Josie, were not amused. They dispatched a prominent Portsmouth lawyer, Charles Milby Dale, to Erie. Breaking Prescott's will probably wasn't hard: Pennsylvania law specifically barred deathbed wills made in favor of charitable beneficiaries. The Prescott sisters became millionaires.

What did two retired teachers with no visible talent for the high life do with their new fortune? They bought up block after block of dank, disreputable Portsmouth waterfront and razed most of it. Now the area is a waterfront park and entertainment venue that draws tourists from around the world. (Last summer I must have been asked, "Is this the way to Prescott Park?" in at least three foreign accents.)

The philanthropy of the Prescott sisters is remembered with gratitude on the New Hampshire seacoast. Charles provided the wealth; he too deserves to take a bow.

And I'd love to know who appointed or elected that probate judge.

*Whoops! It was the January 31 issue.

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