Copyright © 2002 T. Mark James
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On 19 June 1798, William Jennings (or Jennens) died at Acton Place in County Suffolk, England, aged about 97 years. William was described as a “crusty old bachelor” and a miser, but he had amassed a fortune that some called the largest of any commoner in Britain. And he left no heirs, and no will.
His death touched off a feeding frenzy among lawyers on two continents that lasted 135 years. Since William had no children and no brothers, by English common law the estate was to be divided among his first cousins, descendants of William’s grandfather, Humphrey Jennings; and so the legacy became known as the Humphrey Jennings estate. By 1821 the succession had been essentially settled, with the family of Lord Curzon (made Earl of Howe that year) gaining the bulk of the real estate. But that didn’t stop the lawsuits, which came first from British and Irish claimants, then, beginning in 1849, from America. At various times there were seventeen legal proceedings in operation, the last being filed (and thrown out of court) in 1934 on behalf of a group of American claimants. According to one account, the Bank of England had to employ seven clerks just to handle correspondence related to the claims, in spite of the fact that there was almost nothing left to fight over. The “Great Jennens Case” became such a symbol of legal dissipation and frivolity that Charles Dickens used it as the basis for the “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” case in his 1852 novel Bleak House.
The common feature of all the American claims was this: a man or a group of men calling themselves attorneys and/or genealogists would approach a prominent Jennings family in New Jersey or Virginia or South Carolina, claiming to have information linking their mark to Humphrey Jennings. Documents would be provided that described the enormity of the estate at stake, with, of course, no mention that it had already been settled. It was proposed that the family should gather together and purchase “scrip” — certificates which would entitle the bearer to a share of the estate. Once sufficient funds had been raised by this method, the attorneys would travel to London to prosecute the case, with huge rewards for all just around the corner. After turning over the money raised, the Jennings family would never hear from the men again, unless they were judged credulous enough for a plea for further funds.
In at least three instances, the perpetrators of this scam met with spectacular success. In 1849, the Jennings family of Amelia County, Virginia, was approached with the “news” that their ancestor, William Jennings, who appeared in that area in 1754, was in fact a great-grandson of Humphrey Jennings who had run away from home at age 16 to join the British Navy. He was therefore the one true heir to the William Jennings fortune. The evidence cited for this conclusion consisted of (1) the fact that both men were named William, and (2) the fact that William of Amelia County married a wealthy and beautiful woman, proving that he came from high society. If this line of reasoning appears ludicrous, it nonetheless had its intended effect.
Immediately two rival groups of Jennings families sprang up and each collected thousands of dollars to present competing claims. One of the groups consisted of Jenningses from around Amelia County, while the other represented claimants from eight southern states. The latter group supported a wildly diverse set of contradictory claims, including the statement that Gideon Jennings, of Orangeburgh, South Carolina, was the one true heir. In fact Gideon Jennings was an Italian, whose real, pre-Anglicized name was Godinso Zanini.
A few years later, Jennings families in Connecticut were informed that their ancestor, Joshua Jennings, who immigrated to Fairfield County of that state in 1656, was somehow related to Humphrey Jennings. That family had spread to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other states; they too subscribed to a fund to send legal representatives across the Atlantic. When that money ran out, an organization known as the Jennings Association was formed in 1863 in Walpole, New Hampshire, and it sold more scrip to fund further legal appeals.
Finally, in 1878, Jennings descendants in New Jersey heard that they were not descended from Joshua Jennings after all (the Jennings Association’s claims had failed by then), but from Henry Jennings, who came to Burlington, New Jersey, in 1677. An account at the Gloucester County, New Jersey, Historical Society states that the perpetrator of this particular swindle was an Englishman named Egerton, who claimed to be a lawyer but was in fact a fugitive from justice in England. He was eventually caught and died in prison, but not before bilking tens of thousands of dollars from his “clients”. The account reveals that most of the money went for drink, to the extent that three of Egerton’s associates died of delerium tremens.
The failure of each of these claims on the Jennings estate seems not to have slowed down any subsequent scams, since the perpetrators simply described all previous claimants (correctly) as charlatans. Indeed the failure of previous claims was presented as good news, since it cleared the way for the descendants of the one true heir. The success of the claim by Lord Curzon either was not mentioned at all, or else was dismissed as the result of local political influence, and was said (falsely) to have involved only a small fraction of the Jennings estate. As late as 1942, a man calling himself Lord Beecham came to America and contacted three hundred Jennings heirs. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal (which reported his visit uncritically), his story was that “His doctor had told him he hadn’t much longer to live” and that he wanted to settle the estate before he died. It is not known whether he succeeded in raising any money; in any event, no claim was ever filed. The article, dated 25 July 1943, quoted a Jennings “heir” as stating that Beecham had since died. (She didn’t say whether he died of delerium tremens.)
The following excerpts come from a letter written from London on 2 February 1875 by a group claiming to be English attorneys and calling themselves Pilham & Phelps. The letter was addressed to J. E. Bacon of Edgefield, South Carolina, a lawyer representing one of the two Virginia-based Jennings organizations. Much of the letter describes one version of the Humphrey Jennings genealogy, including the claim that William Jennings of Amelia County, Virginia, was his great-grandson. Then the writers turn to the subject of money:
As we gave you to understand in our last, it will be useless to attempt the recovery of this large fortune without at least 1000 lbs., about five thousand of American dollars. […] Meanwhile we shall insist upon a fifth of whatever is recovered and we know that enough will be left to make millionaires of your clients in case they succeed.
The 1000 lbs. demanded, we do not regard exactly as a fee, but as a fund for expenses of getting up papers in America, paying your expenses across the ocean and while there and for the necessary and incidental operation of the case here.
You know it is different here from with you, that is, we prepare the case and then we will be forced to retain a barrister, for cash, to conduct the argument.
In fact every step here incurs expense, so you will see that the 1000 lbs will be actually needed. Indeed for so great a claim and the prospect of becoming millionaires your clients should be perfectly willing to incur so moderate a sum of money. […]
It is useless to remind you that delay is dangerous in law and that the longer the claim is deferred the harder the task to substantiate it. […]
It will not be too selfish we trust, to add that we are already buoyant with the hopes of enriching ourselves, your clients, and yourself and are ready and willing to turn our best efforts in a cause so deserving, and which, we must say it frankly, proffers to be a great financial success.
We have the honor to be very respectfully your obedient Servants.
Pilham & Phelps
One result of all of these doomed or ficticious lawsuits was an intense interest in Jennings genealogy, as each family sought to document its own link to the latest “one true heir” to the fortune. This had both positive and negative results. Family Bibles, church and land records were copied and preserved; genealogies that might otherwise have been lost were written down and saved. However, the preservation of evidence was often selective. Documents that might have supported rival claims were defaced or destroyed, while unscrupulous genealogists fabricated “evidence” for clients who were all too happy to pay for it. Anyone with Jennings ancestors in their family histories would be well advised to seek multiple sources of evidence to confirm the existence of those persons. There is always the possibility that the Jennings ancestor was “discovered” by someone with an ulterior motive, and copied uncritically ever since.
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Jennings Fraud Page revision 1.00, last updated on 6 April 2002.
Please send all comments to Mark James at [email protected].