Delightfully Depressing

If you’re in the mood for something delightfully depressing, consider Hendrik Hartog’s Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age. Hartog’s tome is constructed from his canvassing the New Jersey courts for cases from the mid-19th to early-20th century where surviving members of a family sued each other over property that a recently deceased family member had left behind. In each case, the deceased had allegedly promised one of the parties in the suit some valuables in return for care during his/her old age, but for whatever reason — the absence of a written agreement, allegedly broken contracts, contradictory wills — this promise is now being contested before the court.

A typical case is this:

Annie Ripped, an elderly woman, had long lived in West Long Branch on the Jersey shore, in a house with a small farm attached. Her nephew, John Martin Lotz, lived with her. At first, prior to the death of Annie’s husband, John was paid $10/month plus his board for his work as a handyman and gardener. Later, after the farmland has been sold . . . he went to work as a carpenter and paid her $5/week for his board and continued to do chores about the place without pay. Annie’s sole income was from the sale of vegetables, produced largely through her nephew’s work . . .

The work of running a boarding house eventually became too much for Annie. In 1919 John proposed, with the support of Annie’s daughter Addie, that if Annie would promise to give him the property in her will, he would take care of her and the property . . . For the next four years he did all of the work he had promised . . . However, in 1923, without telling John, Annie went to a lawyer and made a new will, one that gave all her property to her two daughters. And then she died.

However such cases are decided, their premises are old age, spent youth, physical debilitation, scarce resources, ill will, poverty, and death. Even classic tragedies are not as sad; they are at least not so mundane and infused with inevitability. So, you’re in the mood?

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5 Responses to Delightfully Depressing

  1. Am I breaking the cardinal rule of not making unsolicited and uninformed book recommendations? If yes, may I just change that rule to not making too many unsolicited and uninformed book recommendations?

  2. A.M.B. says:

    Interesting. There has been a presumption against contracts between family members, the assumption being that family members perform services gratuitously while non-family members would expect compensation. I’m not sure how it works with wills, where the testator’s intent typically controls, but I’m curious to know the historical context. I may check this book out.

    • Your book list must be growing by leaps and bounds!

      • A.M.B. says:

        Indeed! There’s so much to read and so little time, particularly when I add all of my work-related reading to the pile. I wish there were more hours in the day.

        • I have the suspicion that the lengthening of the day (however magically that happens) wouldn’t entirely solve our problem of not being able to read all we want to read. A longer day will bring with it expectations of being able to do more. Work more; accomplish more; be more! Plus, I think any extra leisure time that I’m able to squeeze from a longer day will inevitably go some into discovering more books that I want to read. The piles will keep growing!

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