Posted on Leave a comment

The Millionaire that pranked Canada from beyond the grave

Hey, welcome to House of History. Today I’m going to tell you about Charles Vance Millar, who definitely is one of the most colourful characters in Canada’s history, but only truly managed to rise to fame, or perhaps infamy, after his death. During Millar’s lifetime, he already made a name for himself. He was a Canadian corporation lawyer and financier and for that time he amassed a considerable fortune. He was part-owner of the O’Keefe Brewery, acquired BC Express Company, gained the government mail delivery contracts in Northern British Columbia and he was an avid fan of horse-racing, owning several horses himself. All in all, he was a rather successful man. Now, during his lifetime, Millar’s became known as quite the practical joker, and he was notorious for connecting his humorous jokes to the price of people’s ethics. Some anecdotes state that he would often leave money on the sidewalk and enjoy to see people rush and pick it up, and other small innocent pranks like that.

Charles Vance Millar

But his final prank was undoubtedly his greatest. In order for it to be successful, he required quite a bit of patience, and he wouldn’t even be there to enjoy the end results. Honestly, I believe Millar’s elaborately planned prank easily make him one of the greatest pranksters of history. So what did he do? Well, on the 7th of June 1921 at the age of 68 he wrote his will. After a poor relationship as a young man, he never married and he didn’t have children. His parents had passed away long before him and as such he probably figured he could play a prank with the businesses and capital he would leave after he passes. In his will, Millar bequeathed his entire estate, but it would take five more years for anyone to find out to whom, and on what conditions.

Millar died of a heart attack on the 31st of October 1926, at the age of 73. The will was filed with Ontario’s Surrogate’s Court, and the opening passage revealed the general tendency of the entire inheritance:

“This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependants 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”.

Alright, so there were 4 bequests that were humorous in the short term and one that I’ll leave for last, that basically rocked the entire province of Ontario and Canada as a whole for an entire decade. 

Part of Millars will

To begin with, Millar owned a vacation home on the island of Jamaica. As a lawyer, over the years he met several other lawyers that he knew detested each other. In his will, Millar bequeathed his Jamaica holiday home to all three lawyers who shared joint lifetime tenancy. After their deaths, the property would be sold and the proceeds would be distributed among the poor of the city. But until that moment these three lawyers now were joint owners of a holiday home. During his lifetime Millar had already sold his home and as such we’ll never find out how this would have went on.

The next bequest was about his shares of the O’Keefe brewery stock. He gave each practising Protestant minister and every Orange Lodge member, an international Protestant fraternity, in Toronto a share, but only if they participated in its management and drew on its dividends. Now, that shouldn’t be a problem, should it? Thing is, the O’Keefe brewery was a Catholic business. But that’s not all, it was Protestant ministers that led the Temperance movement, a movement that propagates the abstinence from alcohol. A practical problem within the company’s structure prevented the legates from receiving their money initially, until the brewery was sold for 1.35 million dollars in 1928. Every protestant minister and Orange Lodger that accepted the bequest ended up receiving 56 dollars and 38 cents. 

As for his very valuable stocks of the Ontario Jockey Club, the horseracing track, Millar bequeathed these to two very vocal opponents of horse racing, William Raney and reverend Samuel Chown. These men were known as moral pillars of the community. A third man who hated the Ontario Jockey Club, Abe Orpen, received shares as well. Orpen owned several horse-racing tracks in Canada and due to his shady reputation was not allowed to become a member of this Jockey Club, his competitor. He thus received a share of his most important rival. But there was a catch: all three men had to become shareholders within three years. Contrary to most reports only Orpen accepted his share, once again proving Millar’s notion that some men’s morals have their price. Still, Raney and Chown’s shares were supposedly given to charity.

Lastly Millar left one stock of the Kenilworth Jockey Club to each practising ministers of three towns close to Ontario. Obviously accepting the stocks would go against a certain moral conviction for these ministers, and there was quite a public struggle on whether they would accept the stock or not. Thing is, the Kenilworth Jockey Club wasn’t publicly traded, and after the embarrassing public struggle it turned out the share was worth around half a cent. 

But although these clauses were funny in itself and caused a public uproar, it was clause 9 that really did the trick and dominated the news for a long time to come. Basically, Millar left the rest of his estate to the mother that would be able to give birth to the most children in the ten years following his death. As such, the Great Stork Derby began. Clause 9 read: 

All the rest and residue of my property wheresoever situate I give, devise and bequeath unto my Executors and Trustees named below in Trust to convert into money as they deem advisable and invest all the money until the expiration of nine years from my death and then call in and convert it all into money and at the expiration of ten years from my death to give it and its accumulations 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. If one or more mothers have equal highest number of registrations under the said Act to divide the said moneys and accumulations equally between them.

In short: the woman in Toronto that would in the ten years after Millar’s death have the most babies would receive the remainder of Millar’s estate. Right, so some other things were set in motion during these ten years that Millar could not have known about. For one, the great depression from 1929 led to a massive unemployment wave in Canada. Jobs were very scarce and families often were fully unemployed: around a quarter and a third of all working-age Canadians were out of work in 1933. As such, by 1929 some families started to seriously consider the Great Stork Derby as an only viable way to survive and have any income. 

The thing is, due to a fortunate sequence of events the value of Millar’s left-over estate increased significantly. He had made some long-term investments, for example, in the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. He invested 2 dollars, but his share would be worth over 100.000 dollars by the time the Stork derby was over. His entire estate was valued at around 750.000 dollars by the time the derby was over. Considering the minimum wage was 12 dollar 50 for a 60-hour workweek, even a fraction of Millar’s estate could lift many families out of poverty.

Throughout the years, several mothers that were ‘competing’ became famous in Canada and the Derby itself became famous around the world. Though many women that were in the race didn’t necessarily have their children because of it, and would probably have had large families if it wasn’t for the derby either. Anyway, after a decade of a media spectacle, the Great Depression and an ever-increasing estate, by 1936 the results were in.

Four women eventually tied “first place” with nine babies each. All four received 125.000 dollars each. In the aftermath of the great depression, this windfall obviously was lifechanging. Two other women were awarded 12500 dollars after a court battle. One of them had an uncertain claim because of two stillborn children when Millar’s will expressly stated ‘live children’. A very sad and grim twist to an otherwise funny and curious event. The other woman simply cheated on her husband and bore several illegitimate children.

All in all, Charles Vance Millar ended up indirectly fathering 36 children, and another 16 of the two women with disqualified claims. Not bad for someone that never had any children himself. According to a news article, the four families that won the fortune spent it in a very responsible manner. They bought a home and a car and provided a proper education for their children. As for Millar, 10 years after his death and during the worst economic crisis in history, he managed to improve the lives of six families with his final and incredibly sensational practical joke.

If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

Leave a Reply