The History Main Page New York City Directory The World Of Society Main Directory    

Suicide of C.J. Vanderbilt : Shoots Himself In The Head 1882

Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, the discarded son of the late Commodore Vanderbilt, shot himself in the head at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon, and died four hours later. The act was committed in the Glenham Hotel, and was witnessed by no one. About six weeks ago Mr. Vanderbilt went to the Hot Springs, in Arkansas, accompanied by his companion, Dr. George Terry, to use the baths for the benefit of his health. From thence he proceeded to Florida, and returned to New York two weeks ago last Saturday. He took rooms at the Glenham Hotel, and Dr. Terry and himself were assigned to rooms Nos. 79 and 80, fifth floor, front.

Mr. Vanderbilt was far from being well when he arrived, and he continued to fail until Saturday, when he took to his bed. While he was lying in bed in room No. 80 shortly before 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon, Dr. Terry went into the adjoining room, No. 79. While engaged with some affairs of his own he heard the sharp report of a pistol in No. 80. He hurried into the room and saw that Mr. Vanderbilt had fired a bullet into his brain. In his right hand was a revolver, and from a hole in his right temple the blood was oozing. Mr. Vanderbilt was breathing heavily, and when Dr. Terry spoke to him he returned no answer. It was evident that he could live but a short time, and Dr. Terry sent for Dr. Robert F. Weir, who quickly arrived.

Restoratives were applied, but Mr. Vanderbilt did not regain consciousness. William H.Vanderbilt, the brother of the dying man, was summoned and arrived before he breathed his last. After death had taken place, Mr. William H. Vanderbilt, who was said to have been deeply moved, gave directions as to the disposition of the remains, and departed for his home. Judge E. O. Perrin, Clerk of the Court of Appeals, and a friend of Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, and Messrs. Torrance and Sloane, brothers-in-law, came later.

Coroner Brady was notified, and at 7 o'clock viewed the remains in an official capacity. His deputy, Dr. Raeffle, and himself made an examination of the body and granted a certificate of death. The Coroner reported the suicide at the Twenty-ninth Precinct Station-house, and a report was sent to Police Headquarters that Mr. Vanderbilt shot himself through the head while laboring under great mental excitement.

When the representatives of the press arrived Mr. Napoleon B. Barry, the proprietor of the hotel, informed them that Mr. Vanderbilt was attacked with apoplexy at 2 o'clock and died at 5 o'clock. Judge Perrin said it was true that Mr. Vanderbilt killed himself. He had been subject to epileptic fits for 25 years, and these had impaired both his mental and physical condition. He was often attacked in the streets, and it was necessary that he should be accompanied by an attendant at all times. When seized with the fits he lost control of his faculties and was powerless. It was the hope that he might be benefited by the baths that induced him to go to the Hot Springs and Florida, but he did not seem to have obtained any relief. In fact, when he came back his condition was, if anything, worse.

Judge Perrin did not believe that he was responsible for his act. He had never evinced an inclination to take his own life, and there was nothing to indicate that such a thought had entered his mind. He did not appear despondent during the day, but was excited through some cause unknown to Judge Perrin. It was nervous prostration, Judge Perrin thought, that produced the excitement. Spells of that nature came upon Mr. Vanderbilt very frequently and he was utterly irresponsible at those times.

Dr. Terry, Judge Perrin said, did not dream that Mr. Vanderbilt contemplated such an act, otherwise he would not have left him for a moment. The Doctor thought that his patient was resting quietly and he took advantage of the opportunity to devote a few minutes to himself. Mr. Vanderbilt always carried a revolver not from any need but from habit. He was able to leave his bed but not for any length of time. He must have arisen while Dr. Terry was absent and taken it from his pistol pocket. It could hardly have been under his pillow, as Dr. Terry would have been apt to know it if that was the case.

Whether the deed was committed on a sudden impulse, or was an act of deliberation, was of course impossible to tell, but presumably it was the former. Dr. Terry had been the companion of Mr. Vanderbilt for years, and knew him so thoroughly that he would have been able to detect any purpose of the kind. No troubles could have prompted him to kill himself, and it must have been due entirely to the state of his health. The man suffered a great deal but he never showed any feelings of despondency, and his suicide was the last thing in the world that his friends thought of. The revolver that he used did not appear to have ever been discharged before. But one chamber of the six was empty. The revolver was a common-sized weapon of a popular make.

The last moments of Mr. Vanderbilt were uneventful, Judge Perrin said. He lay motionless in bed, breathing sonorously, and did not seem to be in pain. He died without a struggle, with William H. Vanderbilt, W. K. Vanderbilt, Dr. Terry, Dr. Weir, and some of the hotel attendants about his bedside. Speaking of Mr. Vanderbilt personally, Judge Perrine said he was temperate, prudent, and circumspect, but at the same time of a sociable disposition. Judge Perrine denied emphatically that he had been engaged in disastrous speculations.

Years ago he used to speculate in Wall-street, but of late years he had invested in no stocks or enterprises. He was in no way embarrassed, financially or otherwise, and there was nothing except his health to prey upon his mind. One thing that indicated more than anything else that it was his bodily affliction that caused him to fire the bullet into his brain, and that the shooting was not premeditated was the fact that he left no note disclosing the reason nor gave any warning of his intention.

The whole affair was shrouded in mystery. He had just completed a new house in Hartford, Conn., and was shortly to take up his residence in it. It was in Hartford that he married his wife, a Miss Williams, who died some years ago. It was quite certain that Mr. Vanderbilt's mind was greatly weakened. He recently celebrated his fifty-first birthday by giving a dinner at Pinard's at which about 30 of his closest friends were present, and it was apparent then that he was only a wreck of his former self.

The only information that could be obtained at the Twenty-ninth Precinct Station about the death of Mr. Vanderbilt was that at 7 o'clock Coroner Brady and his deputy, Dr. Raefele, called there and reported that Mr. Vanderbilt had died at the Glenham Hotel from a pistol-shot wound in the head inflicted by himself while in a state of "great mental excitement."

A memorandum to this effect, with the addition that he had given a certificate of death, was left by the Coroner with Sergt. Tim, at the desk. Although this notification was received at the stationhouse as early as 7 o'clock in the evening, the first intimation of the case was received at Police Head-quarters at 10:30. No explanation of this delay was given by Sergt. Tim. Neither Coroner Brady, who had assumed charge of the case, nor his deputy, Dr. Raefele, who had given the certificate of death, could be found at their respective residences last night. Repeated inquiries at Coroner Brady's house elicited the response that the Coroner was not in and no information could be obtained as to his whereabouts or when he was expected home. At 1:30 o'clock
this morning he had not returned home, according to the information given by a lady who responded to the summons at the door-bell. A reporter called at the house of Dr. Rafaele, and was informed there that the Doctor was out and it was not known when he would return.

In personal appearance Cornelius J. Vanderbilt did not exhibit any of the sturdy, rugged physical qualities which so greatly distinguished his father, the old Commodore. He had his stature alone, being over 6 feet in height but, in the middle of his life even, he was slender, poorly developed, and without much physical energy, and as he grew older he began to stoop at the shoulders and to display the wanness and attenuation of features that usually betray the consumptive tendency. His features, unlike the Commodore's were delicate, and by no means strongly marked. His hair was of a dark brown, and when he was not more than 30 years of age it was streaked with gray. His nose was small, his lips thin, and his mouth narrow, and his dark eyes were rather lusterless, but always had a kindly, genial expression. For 20 years past he has worn a closely trimmed brownish beard about his face. His voice was soft in tone, impressing one with the idea that he was weak-chested, but he was always accessible and pleasant in manner, and it is probable that his geniality was his greatest misfortune, as it made him all through life the easy tool or prey of unprincipled men.

The contest of the will of the late Commodore Vanderbilt, in which Cornelius J. Vanderbilt's sister, Mrs. La Bau, was the contestant, was one of the most protracted and bitter controversies ever heard or determined in an American court, and lasted over 200 days. By the terms of a will executed in January, 1875, the Commodore made his son William H. his principal legatee, giving to his wife $500,000 in cash, some other bequests to his other relatives, and to Cornelius J. the income only of $200,000, to be invested for his benefit. In a codicil, executed in the same year, he extended the bequests by giving to his grandson, Cornelius, Jr., $5,000,000 and to his grandsons William K., Frederick W., and George $2,000,000 each. He did not, however, augment the trust annuity to Cornelius J., of which William H. Vanderbilt, Cornelius, and William K., sons of William H. Vanderbilt, and Mr. Samuel Barton were created Trustees, with directions to pay the annuity only in such sums and at such times as seemed to them advisable.

To each of his five daughters he gave $500,000, Mrs. La Bau being included among them. The trial of the contest was not begun until November, 1877. Cornelius J. encouraged his sister in the suit, and ex-Judge Jeremiah Black, Scott Lord, and Col. Ethan Allen were among the most prominent of the contesting counsel. On the side of the proponent William H. Vanderbilt, who was present in the Surrogate's Court during nearly every day of the long and tedious trial, ex-Judge Comstock, of Syracuse,, and Mr. Henry L. Clinton were the most conspicuous lawyers. The contestants, in order to establish the Commodore's mental weakness and incapacity, introduced the most extraordinary testimony as to his habits of life, his physical ailments for a quarter of a century back, and his association with peculiar persons, such as Spiritualists and fortune-tellers.

The medical experts almost literally dissected the dead man in the presence of the audience by their minute descriptions of the condition of every part or organ of his anatomy. Charges of bribery and subornation of perjury during the trial were also flung back and forth, but finally, on March 19, 1879, Surrogate Calvin rendered a most voluminous opinion and decision sustaining the will at all points. Prior to the beginning of this struggle Cornelius J. Vanderbilt had begun a suit is the Supreme Court to recover from William H. Vanderbilt $1,000,000, which he claimed the latter had promised him on condition that he refrained from contesting the will. This suit was not tried or disposed of when the close of the will contest was reached, and the plaintiff was exerting himself strenuously through his counsel to bring it on for trial. Mrs. La Bau, also, was making preparations to appeal in the will contest, and there was a prospect of very extended litigation.

Soon after the Surrogate's decision, however, discreet friends appear to have exerted themselves to bring about a harmonious settlement of the various differences, and negotiations were begun through counsel to that end. Early in April, 1879, it became known that a settlement had been reached and the various suits were discontinued. Although no really authentic statement was then made as to the terms of the settlement it became generally accepted that William H. Vanderbilt had consented to give Cornelius J. and Mrs. La Bau $1,000,000 each, and an allowance of $250,000 for the liquidation of their counsel fees and other legal indebtedness. Facts which subsequently came to light, however, showed that the settlement actually made was not reached until May, 1879, and that so far as Cornelius J. was concerned, his brother, William H., had merely provided for him a handsome income derivable from a fund of which Mr. Worcester, Secretary of the principal Vanderbilt railways, was made Trustee. Almost immediately after the settlement Cornelius J. went to Europe, accompanied by his particular friend, Mr. Terry, and remained abroad over six months.

Cornelius J. Vanderbilt was always somewhat disinclined to pay his debt; even in the days before his father became angered at him for his reckless habits. A proof of this fact is given by the experience of Mr. Edward Mills with him. Mr. Mills was a wealthy man some years ago, and was largely interested in steam-boats. In August, 1854, he invited a large number of persons to accompany him upon the trial trip of his new steam-boat Yankee Blade. Among his guests were Commodore and Cornelius J. Vanderbilt. The latter escorted several ladies. Just before the steam-boat reached her dock, returning from her trip, Cornelius J. Vanderbilt called Mr. Mills aside and told him that he was in a strait and wanted help to get out of it. He had, unfortunately, left his money at home, and his situation was made perplexing by the fact that he had ladies whom he had to take to their homes. He said he wanted enough money to hire a carriage and pay for some refreshments for the ladies. Mr. Mills loaned him $25. Twenty-six years later he began a suit for the money, with interest. Cornelius J.pleaded the Statute of Limitations, but as it was shown upon the trial that he had admitted the debt in 1874 by paying $5 on account, a jury in the Marine Court on April 21, 1881, rendered a verdict for $68.25 against him. A month later the Assignee of a claim upon a small debt incurred for jewelry in 1870 sued Cornelius J. in Brooklyn, but the jury failed to agree upon a verdict.

Exceptions prove a rule, it is said, and a notable exception to his general disinclination to settle his indebtedness was the payment by Cornelius J. to the daughters of Horace Greeley of a large debt which he had owed to their father for many years before his death. The exact time when Horace Greeley began to lend Cornelius J. money has never been publicly stated, nor has any other reason for the loans ever been given except that Mr. Greeley's generosity induced him to occasionally assist a young man who pleaded his distress to him. The loans aggregated about $46,000, and Mr. Greeley took notes for them. It is reported that these loans caused a break in the friendly relations that had previously existed between Commodore Vanderbilt and Mr. Greeley.

The interview which precipitated this rupture is said to have been extremely interesting. It occurred in the sanctum of Mr. Greeley, into which Commodore Vanderbilt walked abruptly one and said: "Mr. Greeley, I understand you've been lending my son Corneel money." Mr. Greeley raised his head from the high desk at which he stood writing, and looked at the Commodore for a moment, he then resumed writing, and after a few seconds' delay drawled out: "Yes, Commodore, I've let him have some money." "You have, eh?" angrily said the Commodore. "You have! Well, I want you to understand that I ain't responsible for it, and I shan't pay you a cent of it." Stopping his work, and pushing his spectacles up on his forehead, Mr. Greeley gazed angrily at his visitor and yelled, "You won't eh? Well, who the devil asked you to pay it? I didn't, did I?" He then calmly went on with his work, and Commodore Vanderbilt stamped out of his office in a rage. The Greeley loans remained unpaid until April 7, 1879. On that day Cornelius J. Vanderbilt met Mrs. Ida Greeley Smith and Miss Gabrielle Greeley, the daughters of Horace Greeley, and their advisers at the Hoffman House, and there paid them $61,000, the principal of the loans with accrued interest. It was at first reported that William H. Vanderbilt paid this money for his brother, but Cornelius J. indignantly denied the statement, and declared that he paid the debt out of the first large sum of money be obtained, and that he had always intended to pay it.

Soon after the settlement of the Vanderbilt family litigation, Zachariah E. Simmons, who was for many years a friend and companion of Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, demanded the payment to him of $50,000 which, he asserted, the latter had covenanted to pay him when all his difficulties with his brother were settled. Cornelius J. rejected the demand. Simmons assigned his claim to Daniel Bernstein, who at once began a suit upon it in the Supreme Court. The action was based upon allegations that Simmons loaned much money to Cornelius J., but that the latter got rid of his legal liability by passing through bankruptcy; that subsequently Cornelius J., in consideration of his love for Simmons and of $1, gave the latter a bond by which he bound himself to pay him $50,000 upon the settlement in his favor of the controversy respecting his father's estate. Cornelius J. denied all liability upon the bond. After many technical proceedings the case was tried before Judge Donohue, who gave judgment for Cornelius J. in June last on the ground that the condition on which the $50,000 was to become due was the success of the effort to overthrow Commodore Vanderbilt's will, and that there was no proof before him that the effort had succeeded.

The reason given by Cornelius J. for not taking an active part in the will contest was that his brother William H. promised to give him $1,000,000 if he would keep quiet. As he did not receive this sum be began a suit for it in the Supreme Court, while Mrs. La Bau's case was pending before the Surrogate. A struck jury was selected to try the case. While active preparations were making for an immediate trial he sent a laconic note to his attorneys telling them to stop proceedings and ask no questions. The suit was discontinued. At the same time a suit begun by Cornelius J. against William Hl. Vanderbilt, Chauncey M. Depew, and John Doe was also discontinued. In this action Cornelius claimed $7,000,000 damages. He charged that the defendants had conspired to malign him to his father, and thus destroy the latter's affection for him. The final proceeding brought by Cornelius J. against his brother was one to remove the latter from the Trusteeship of the fund of $400,000 which was created by William H. in May, 1879. The second Trustee was Mr. E.D. Worcester. The income of the fund was to be enjoyed by Cornelius, and he was given the right to dispose of the fund by will. In the latter part of 1879 Cornelius J. asked William H. Vanderbilt to give him $200,000 to go into business, as he was tired of idling. William H. refused to do this, and a motion was then made to remove him as a Trustee. Judge Donohue denied the motion. On appeal, the General Term of the Supreme Court upheld Judge Donohue, saying that the court had no power to remove the respondent and thus make a new contract between the parties, and that even if it had the power there was no sufficient reason advanced for its exercise, as Cornelius J. had merely stated that he wished his means of support to be adequate "to the exigencies of business and probable speculative enterprises," while the purpose of the trust was "to protect him against his own possible rashness."

After the compromise in the celebrated will contest it is said that Cornelius went into Wall street, and under the directions of persons standing close to William H., he was able to make a number of clever moves. But immediately after reaping these big profits he struck out for operations on his own account. He was unsuccessful, and he soon lost an amount far greater than he had won.

"Corneil was always a singular sort of an individual," said one of the deceased man's intimate acquaintances at the Hoffman House last night. "From the time he began to crawl he was always at outs with everybody. The only thing he ever did which pleased the old Commodore was in his marriage with a Connecticut lady. His father was pleased with the match and gave the bride $50,000 in cash as a wedding gift. While his wife lived Corneel for a time led a comparatively correct life, but the reins were not always strong enough to hold him. He had no children, and when his wife died there was left not a single influence in all the world to influence him for good."

Shortly after 12 o'clock Henry T. Atkinson, the sexton of the Church of Strangers, brought an ice-box to the hotel and the body was placed in it for preservation. Mr. Atkinson buried Commodore Vanderbilt and will have charge of the funeral of the son. W. J. Miner, the assistant sexton, robed the body and was to stay during the night with it. Services will take place at the Church of Strangers at 9:15 tomorrow morning. Dr. Deems will preach the discourse. A special train will leave the Grand Central Dept at 10:30 to convey the body and friends to Hartford. Mr. Vanderbilt's body will be laid beside his wife, who is buried at Hartford.


Website: The History
Article Name: Suicide of C.J. Vanderbilt: Shoots Himself In The Head 1882
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


Bibliography:   New York Times April 3, 1882 p.1 (1 page)
Time & Date Stamp:  


  Privacy statement | Terms of use