On the Sanity of Ellen Dodge

Born in 1830, Ellen Miranda Wheaton became the third wife of Harrison B. Dodge of Skaneateles in 1859. Mr. Dodge was the longtime editor and publisher of the Skaneateles Democrat, and Mrs. Dodge lived quietly in his shadow. But in 1898, Harrison Dodge “passed peacefully away into the Great Beyond,” in the words of local eulogist Edmund N. Leslie, and the next year Mrs. Dodge lost her brother as well, Gerrit Wheaton of Cleveland, Ohio.

Harrison Dodge’s estate was modest: the couple’s house on East Academy Street and some personal effects. Gerrit Wheaton, on the other hand, was a millionaire; he left the majority of this estate to his widow, but set aside $100,000 for his sister, who received the bequest in 1902. Wheaton had done well in his business dealings, and was the brother-in-law of Henry Flagler, the co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller. And so a sizable amount of Ellen Dodge’s fortune was in Standard Oil stock.

Mrs. Dodge had written a will in 1901 leaving everything to her relatives. But after her windfall in 1902, she decided to write a new will including bequests to friends and charities; this will was written and filed in 1904. Her relatives, however, seeing how the size of the pot had grown, decided they wanted it all.

They began by having Mrs. Dodge declared incompetent, with a nephew in New York City put in charge of her spending, which had included “so much money on bonnets and favored relatives.” They cited as an example Mrs. Dodge’s inviting 50 friends to tea, surely a sign that she had taken leave of her senses. Her next of kin, willing to be quoted in the newspaper, baldly said they would get more if she spent less.

Ellen Dodge died on Christmas Day, 1907, and the free-for-all began. Her step-grandson, Harrison A. Dodge, demanded her furniture, saying it had only been willed to her for her lifetime, and should now be his. He then sued the estate for $3,000, saying that property of Harrison B. Dodge which was willed to Mrs. Dodge would have been worth $3,000 had she retained it. He neglected to note that after the property in question had already been auctioned off for $125, he had accepted the check from Mrs. Dodge, and cashed it.

Mrs. Dodge’s new 1904 will included bequests of $5,000 to St. James’ Episcopal Church, and bequests of $4,750 each to the Rev. Frank Nash Westcott and the Skaneateles Library Association. The relatives sued, saying that Mrs. Dodge had lost her marbles before the 1904 will and thus had not been of sound mind. Five of the village’s six attorneys became involved in the case, and set their meters running.

The legalities consumed all of 1908 and dragged on into 1909. And while all this went on, the value of Standard Oil stock soared. In late 1909, the relatives were informed that if they won their suit and settled under the terms of the 1901 will, they would actually receive less money than if they lost and settled on the terms of the 1904 will. Suddenly – and I know this will be hard to believe – they dropped their suit. And the attorneys presented bills totaling $13,500.

The attorneys certainly could have built a monument to Ellen Dodge, but did not, and she is remembered today only by a pew at St. James’.


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Pew photo by Lauren Mills Wojtalewski


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