I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
For ten years, women in Toronto competed in a pregnancy sweepstakes; whoever produced the most babies in a decade would score a handsome legacy.
Charles Vance Millar practiced law in Ontario for 45 years until his death in 1926. He was also a shrewd investor, which meant there was a nice fat bank account when he suffered a fatal heart attack after running up some stairs.
Never married and having no close relatives, Millar constructed a will that was whimsical and mischievous. He parcelled out much of his estate to test his theory that every person had a price; the only mystery being at what level would greed trump principle.
Lover of Practical Jokes
Charles Millar would amuse himself in idle moments by dropping dollar bills on the sidewalk and then watching the expressions of the people who bent to furtively pocket the cash.
In death, Millar outdid himself in roguishness. He wrote “This Will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime.”
He left the shared tenancy of a Jamaican vacation spot to three men who could not stand the sight of each other.
He tested the resolve of teetotallers by leaving them shares in companies involved in the alcohol business.
The Ontario Jockey Club is an august body whose membership is drawn from society’s upper crust, so Millar left shares in the club to one very unsavoury character who existing members found repellent. He also bequeathed shares to two opponents of racetrack gambling.
But, it was Clause 9 of the will that caused the most fuss; it was the legacy that triggered a race to conceive.
Snopes.com describes Clause 9: “Simply put, he directed the residue of his estate be given to the Toronto mother who gave birth to the most children in the ten years immediately following his death.”
The money involved wasn’t chump change. By the time the race came to an end, the total prize was worth $750,000; that would be a bit more than $12 million today.
What came to be called the Stork Derby was on.
In the middle of the race, the Stock Market Crash ushered in the Great Depression. With so many people experiencing unemployment and poverty the pot of gold offered by Charles Millar was enticing.
The Baby Race
For the media, the contest offered a welcome distraction from the grim news of the day.
Newspapers followed the fortunes and fecundity of the contestants closely. Five women were leading the pack and theirs became household names. They mostly came from the lower income level of society and already had a slew of children.
By 1933, the five with the most fruitful wombs had delivered 56 kids among them, but only 32 of them were born during the contest window. This leads some to suggest these women would have produced large numbers of children without the incentive of the race.
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The coverage was worldwide.
Here’s Time Magazine from Christmas Eve 1934: “Last week in Toronto each of the two leading contenders for the prize money bore a child. Mrs. Frances Lillian Kenny, 31, gave birth to a girl, her eleventh child since the race began. Mrs. Grace Bagnato, 41, gave birth to a boy, her ninth ...”
While citizens followed the race keenly, the Ontario provincial government was not entertained or amused. It called the maternal marathon a “racket” and “the most revolting and disgusting exhibition ever put on in a civilized country.”
And the Winner Is …
Midnight on Halloween 1936 was the deadline for baby production. On October 19, The Daily Journal-World of Lawrence, Kansas carried a story that started, “A hesitant stork circled uncertainly today over 1097 West Dundas Street with what looked like a $750,000 baby in his well-worn bill.
“The tag read: “Deliver to Mrs. Grace Bagnato before October 31,” but the bird was taking his sweet time about it.”
However, the productive Grace was soon to be disqualified from the derby; her husband turned out to be an illegal Italian immigrant and that didn’t sit well with the authorities.
Lillian Kenny, who had ten births to her credit, was also tossed out of the event because she had the misfortune to deliver two stillbirths.
Pauline Clarke also gave birth ten times during the competition period but several of her babies were conceived out of wedlock; an activity deeply frowned upon at the time.
As the final whistle went to end the game, four women were tied at nine offspring each.
Annie Smith, Alice Timleck, Kathleen Nagle, and Isobel MacLean each received $125,000. Lillian Kenny and Pauline Clarke were handed consolation prizes of $12,500 apiece. Mrs. Bagnato got nothing.
Millar Will Challenged in Court
According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “The question of whether Millar intended his will to take effect or merely to amuse his lawyer friends remains in doubt.”
When Millar’s law partner found the will he thought it was a joke rather than a legal document. Others thought its purpose was to tie the legal system into knots.
The Ontario government, which had earlier huffed and puffed about the unseemly nature of the Stork Derby, tried several times to have Charles Millar’s will declared null and void. The premier, Mitchell Hepburn, had said it was “the duty of the government to stop this fiasco.”
A few of Millar’s distant relatives popped by to challenge the will; hoping to receive the entire jackpot. But, the will and its Stork Derby clause held up under careful examination and, eventually, the Supreme Court of Canada said it was valid.
It’s pleasing to report that the winners handled their legacies sensibly and were able to buy homes and provide an education for their children. And, as Snopes comments, Charles Vance Millar, the somewhat misogynistic and childless bachelor, became “the father of 36 kids, each of them growing up with loving thoughts of him.”
- Charles Vance Millar had a vindictive side. On one occasion he missed the ferry between Windsor in Canada and Detroit. This angered him so he bought the property that would eventually be used to construct the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, a venture that would put the ferries out of business. It was money from this investment that largely funded the Stork Derby.
- Nobody knows how many women started the Stork Derby and then dropped out. However, by the end of the contest at least two dozen mothers had produced at least eight babies. This placed an enormous burden on the families who were suffering through the Great Depression with 25 percent of Toronto families receiving government support in 1935.
- “The Great Stork Derby.” Barbara Mikkelson, Snopes.com, November 30, 2013.
- “Torontonians Race to Make Babies for Cash.” Patrick Metzger, The Torontoist, March 20, 2008.
- “Medicine: Baby Race.” Time Magazine, December 24, 1934.
- “Mrs. Grace Bagnato May Win $750,000 Canadian Contest.” The Daily Journal-World, October 19, 1936.
- “Millar Derby Stork About to be Spanked.” Dale Harrison, Associated Press, October 24, 1936.
- “Charles Vance Millar.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, undated.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor