I received a tattered paperback booklet, more than 100 years old, from Ron Martin of Arlington Heights, Ill. Martin found the booklet, which was published in 1886, in a box of old papers. It has one of those blockbuster titles typical of that era:
"Index Register to Next-of-Kin, Heirs-at-Law, Legatees, &c., &c., Containing the Names of persons Deceased, whose Next-of-Kin, Heirs-at-Law, and Personal Representatives are Wanted. Also, Persons Who Have Been Advertised For, to Claim Vast Sums of MONEY AND PROPERTY, in Great Britain and all Parts of the World Since 1650, Together with Amusing Anecdotes on Extraordinary Windfalls, Curious Wills, Misers, Missing Relatives, Foreign Intestates, Etc."There's more, but you get the idea. Most of the book contains alphabetical lists of surnames of people with rights to money or property. Readers were encouraged to send the publishers - the British-American Claim Agency - a fee in order to receive specific information about their possible winnings.
It's like those tokens and stickers you're supposed to mail back to sweepstakes in order to see if you've won anything besides discount magazine subscriptions. All the booklet needs to be updated is a line like "You May Already Be a Winner" plus a picture of Ed McMahon. For example, take this century-old account of how someone got lucky:
"The wife of an engine-driver on the London and Southwestern Railway last week came into possession of a legacy of 17,000 pounds from a source from which not a penny was expected. The lucky man sent in his resignation, and on Saturday took his last drive between Salisbury and Exeter and back, and was warmly congratulated on his good luck."
Except for the chauvinistic notion that the husband, not the wife, got the windfall, this, like hundreds of other anecdotes in the booklet, resembles testimonials accompanying modern sweepstake mailings. The old paperback even has "UNCLAIMED MONEY" printed diagonally in large type across the cover.
Usually, there's a clear suggestion that the fairy-tale winners were common people:
"Information has been received at Portsmouth to the effect that three persons in that town and one in Australia have come in for a fourth share of a quarter of a million which has been for years lying in Chancery. One of the prospective recipients has been for some time in the workhouse."
The modern theme, "You can't win if you don't enter," appears in the old booklet as, "You can't inherit unless you're located":
"Benjamin Walter Roper, a medical man, died in the utmost poverty in one of the most squalid slums of Nottingham. At Wakefield, only a few hour's journey away, a legacy of 2,000 pounds and an annuity of 300 pounds had been awaiting him for some time, but his whereabouts were unknown. No tricks of that scurvy jade, Fate, could be unkinder than this."
Besides hundreds of success and near-success stories - usually, like folk legends, concerning unnamed people - the booklet describes many who died in abject circumstances but were found to have been hoarding great riches. Other tales tell of eccentric provisions of wills and of missing persons being sought via classified advertisements in order to receive their inheritances.
The sample ads quoted usually contain the phrase, "He will learn something to his advantage."
The booklet's most dramatic stories tell of amazing occurrences related to the surprise legacies. For example, one poor illiterate young man was said to have been so overcome when he learned of his inheritance that he lost his speech entirely.
Another British lad was tracked down by the gentleman for whom he once merely opened a gate, and in thanks he was given "a large legacy." A Birmingham journeyman carpenter who saved a rich gentleman from drowning, though he himself could not swim, went "from extreme poverty to comparative wealth."
The booklet is great reading - something I can't say for most sweepstakes announcements - even though, sad to say, there's no "Brunvand" among the listings.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.