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You Can Snoop on Famous People’s Wills at DC Superior Court

An exhibit spotlights documents from the likes of Frederick Douglass.

Photograph via iStock.

If you’re curious about the deaths of historical figures, check out the Wills Project at the DC Superior Court building, an exhibit of 16 prominent Washingtonians’ wills. Here’s a peek at a few of the documents.

James Madison
1751–1836

What he left: Madison bequeathed most of his estate to his wife, Dolley, but also left $3,500 to universities as well as a walking staff, given to him by Thomas Jefferson, to Jefferson’s grandson.

Interesting detail: The fourth President wanted his Virginia corn mill to be sold to the American Colonization Society, which advocated for the migration of African Americans back to Africa.
 

Franklin Pierce
1804–69

What he left: The ex-President had an estate worth $72,000, including the value of his paintings and horses. It was divided among his brother’s family, a childhood friend’s kids, and Pierce’s landlady.

Interesting detail: He gave two swords to his nephew, along with a warning not to dishonor them if there was a need to defend the country.
 

Frederick Douglass
1817–95

What he left: Douglass’s second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, inherited their house in Anacostia, $10,000 in cash, and assorted books, writings, and paintings.

Interesting detail: A court later ruled the will invalid due to an insufficient number of witnesses. The house went to his children—who later sold it to Helen.
 


Euphemia Lofton Haynes
1890–1980

What she left: The first African American to earn a math PhD bequeathed $700,000 to her alma mater, Catholic University.

Interesting detail: Her will specifies that part of the money be used to fund a faculty chair at Catholic’s School of Education. It’s still going strong.

This article appears in the September 2021 issue of Washingtonian.

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Damare Baker
Assistant Editor

Before becoming an assistant editor, Damare Baker started out as an editorial fellow for Washingtonian. She has previously written for Voice of America and The Hill. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied international relations, Korean, and journalism.