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  • The Will of Herman Melville
  • John M. J. Gretchko

The contents of Herman Melville's will and the appraiser's inventory of his effects have been long known. This note supplies a few more facts about the will's witnesses, the comparative value of his books, and Melville's death and offers new information on matters of probate.

Melville had his will prepared on 11 June 1888. His executrix and sole heir was his wife Elizabeth. The will bequeathed his property, including money in the bank and real estate in Gansevoort, New York, to his wife. However, by the time of his death, the Gansevoort property, essentially consisting of the Mansion House, had already been sold and/or allocated to all heirs. Melville had confidence that Elizabeth would benefit their daughters, Frances and Elizabeth, and existent granddaughters, Eleanor Melville, Frances Cuthbert, and Katherine Gansevoort Thomas. The fourth granddaughter, Jeannette Ogden Thomas, would not be born until 1892.

Witnesses to the will were P(hineas) Minturn Smith, S(eymour) N. Robinson, and H(enry) B(esson) Thomas. Smith was the President of the Union Iron Works, an iron manufacturer at 45 Broadway. Robinson was his secretary who in probate deposition declared that he was well acquainted with Melville and had known him for three years. Thomas, an iron broker probably employed by Smith and of Quaker heritage, who lived in South Orange, New Jersey, was the husband of Melville's daughter Frances. In deposition, he declared that he had known Melville for fourteen years.

Melville's estate was worth $13,261.31, which consisted of $4,532.56 in cash, seven $1,000 United States Registered Bonds at 4%, and about 1,000 books overvalued at $600 and later realistically garnering about $110 (Charvat 252). Unfortunately his books were not itemized. His sister-in-law, Jane L. Melville, had died the year before on 30 March 1890. Her extensive and varied book collection of 158 titles and authors in approximately 460 volumes, much of which consisted of her husband Allan's library, was itemized and valued at $62.85. This sum for Jane's 460 volumes is in line with the $110 achieved by the contemporary sale of Melville's 1000 books. [End Page 95]

Herman Melville died on 28 September 1891 at 104 East 26th St. in New York City around 12:30 am. The cause of death was listed as cardiac dilation and mitral regurgitation with a contributing cause of asthenia or loss of strength. Dr. Everett. S. Warner, who lived diagonally across the street at number 117, had attended him since July. Melville's wake was at his home. The undertaker, Joseph Freed, who lived at 104 East 20th St. and whose business address was at 359 4th Ave., interred him at Woodlawn Cemetery on 30 September.

On 16 October 1891, Herman Melville's will was filed for probate. Charles N. Morgan of 69 Wall St. was Elizabeth's attorney. On 27 October 1891, the Surrogate Court Judge, the Honorable Rastus Seneca Ransom, admitted the will to probate. Ransom (1839–1917) would become President of the Society of American Authors. Its Bulletin would publish a memorial essay titled "Herman Melville" by its editor Mary Lanman Douw Ferris, which contained a reproduction of the 1885 Rockwood photo of Melville. Ferris was a Melville third cousin once removed (McNeilly 4).

John M. J. Gretchko
Cleveland, Ohio

Works Cited

Charvat, William. "Melville's Income." American Literature 15.3 (Nov. 1943): 251–61.
Ferris, Mary L. D. "Herman Melville." Bulletin of the Society of American Authors 6.10 (Sept. 1901): 289–93.
McNeilly, V. B. D. R. "The Melvilles and Mrs. Ferris." Melville Society Extracts 28 (Nov. 1976): 1–9.


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