Saturday, 30 June 2012

Penguin no. C1889: The Greer Case
by David W. Peck

When the case on appeal came before the court over which I preside, I found that reading the record was not a legal chore but an absorbing reading experience. Here in truth was more drama, mystery and conflict, pathos, irony and even humour than one could dream up. The real-life characters - lawyers and witnesses, the woman who bore a son in poverty and obscurity, abandoned him, married into wealth and social prominence, spent half her life in fear and half in hope that her son would turn up, and died leaving a fortune to be sought in the search for her heir - were more interesting than characters that might be encountered in fiction.

This is a compelling story, and one I think I would have struggled to take seriously if it had been presented as a work of fiction. The saddest aspect is the possibility that it may all be true. It is the story of a court case conducted in New York to establish the rightful heir of the large fortune left by New York socialite Mabel Seymour Greer upon her death in 1946. There were three parties who hoped to inherit: New York state, Harvard University, and a man in his late 50s who believed that he just might be Mrs Greer's illegitimate son.

The law on this point was clear: if he could prove the relationship, the money would be his, even though he had been induced by the executor to waive his right to any proceeds. He had signed the waiver with the hope of avoiding the publicity which would inevitably open his life to public scrutiny and sully the reputations of his parents, but the whiff of scandal surrounding an established New York family meant this was a forlorn hope. Now his intention was to contest the inheritance, and the University and the State had joined forces to fight his claim.

His claim would be a difficult one to prove, as Mrs Greer was believed to be aged 65 when she died, and was therefore too young to have been his mother. His case was inevitably based on a series of conjectures concerning events which had occurred more than half a century earlier. The truth was now effectively obscured by inadequate record keeping, the lifelong determination of one woman to shield her husband from knowledge of her past life or her true age, and the subsequent death of every person with first hand knowledge of what had occurred. And other than handwriting, there seems to have been no forensic tests available to at least eliminate possibilities. The lawyers were effectively searching for a needle in a haystack, and they were searching blind. A combination of luck and hard work allowed them to fill in much of the detail. By the end, though, they still only had an approximation of the truth, and much remained unexplained.

The $500,000 Mrs Greer left on her death was all her own money; her husband's estate had been bequeathed to Harvard University. She had accumulated the funds through a dedicated program of savings and stock market investments, and it was never clear why: she didn't need the money and there was no known living relative to whom she could leave it. Perhaps it was simply that she had known poverty, with her fortunes dramatically altered by her marriage in 1908 to Louis Greer, the son of a notable and wealthy New York family. Almost nothing was known of her history prior to the marriage, but a few days before she died she revealed to her lawyer the existence of a child, born when she was a teenager, and not seen since. She made no provision for this son in her will.

For a woman intent on ensuring that her husband remained unaware of her son's existence, Mrs Greer had confided her secret to a great number of people, and it was known by her maid, her friends, and her chauffeur; she trusted them all to keep it quiet. Her story was that at the age of 16 she had given birth to a boy in a Boston boarding house, and left the child in the care of an Irish woman. The child had been fathered by a young medical student named Willard B. Segar, who went on to become a doctor of some renown. It was her firm belief that Dr Segar had returned years later and adopted his child, providing him with a stable and loving home, and a decent education. She maintained that she had always longed to see her son, or to do something for him, but fear of her husband kept her from acting. It was Dr Segur's adopted son Harold who was contesting the will.

This book was written by David Peck who was the judge presiding over the court in which the case came on appeal. He has used his understanding of court procedures to gently guide the reader through the trial, explaining the strategy being employed by the lawyers, the lengths to which they had to go to locate witnesses and supporting records, and what the judge would have been thinking as he listened on. The story unfolds just as it did during the trial, and there are surprise witnesses, contradictory testimonies, and long delays as new questions arise and further evidence is sought. Harold Segur's prospects can seem to alternatively brighten and dim with each new witness.

This is an old Penguin which is definitely worth reading, and it is almost impossible to put down once you start.

As the rest of the story is fascinating, and as there is very little online information on the case, and as this book is probably a difficult one to find, I have decided to sketch out the Judge's decision and the aftermath for anyone interested. Please note, though, that this outline will ruin the book for anyone with plans to read it.
The Greer Case, Part 2


  1. It sounds quite a sad story. Thanks for reviewing the book as it probably isn't something I'd read.

  2. I had to check to see if I had this book before I read Part II and as I do have it (I am pleased about that) I won't read it. But now I'm dying to know what happened!! Good review.

    1. I found it fascinating Pam, and I hope you enjoy it as well. There are a couple of tedious pages in the first chapter where he attempts to romanticize the court and its traditions, but once he starts on the story of the trial, the book becomes compelling.

    2. I am actually Harold Segur's great grandson and until i was in my later teens did I even know of this book or tragedy....I never met him he died before i was born but knew his wife my greatmother until she died before my 13th one in the family ever talked about but i was always fascinated by the story..Dr. Segur his father was heroic man in of the last townsfolk to leave Enfield,ma before it was destroyed allowing the Quabbin resovior to be created...i wish like today they had forensics that would had cleared this up in seconds..i wonder still if the bodies were not cremeated if u could still find out..Michael Segur

    3. I assume you have read the book by now, Michael, and I wonder how it made you feel? And do you know how your Great Grandfather felt about the decision and the subsequent revelations? Thanks for your comment; it must be something to at least know this much about your antecedents.

  3. Your blog is fascinating! I must admit I'm drawn to the original Penguins myself, but my overriding obsession these days is vintage music. Still, I'm glad for a diversion to take me away from that for awhile, so I'll be enthusiastically working my way through your posts. Have you written about Geoffrey Household's 'Rogue Male' yet? Marie

  4. My heart leapt up when I saw 958. Henry Green. I thought I was the only person in the world who might publicise this great neglected writer. A real stylist. I read all his novels regularly!

    Thanks so much!



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