Toronto’s Depression-Era Baby Race
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
One odd bequest led to four families winning a fortune — by procreating.
By Fiona Zublin
There are all sorts of terrible reasons to have a baby: You want to placate your in-laws, keep up with your friends or save a failing relationship. Maybe you’re allergic to pets.
Or maybe because someone will give you more than a thousand times your yearly salary to do it.
What kind of person would make such an offer? Meet Charles Vance Millar, whose death was the starting gun for the Stork Derby. A bachelor lawyer and financier who had made millions from investments, the Ontario native kicked the bucket at the age of 73, in 1926. He was known for his quirky — some might say jerky — sense of humor, which was on full display in his will. Millar left shares in a brewery to temperance-supporting Protestant ministers and bequeathed a house to three men who disliked one another while specifying that if any sold his share, the cash had to be given to the city of Kingston to distribute to its poor. But Millar’s most lasting contribution to humanity was what came to be known as the Stork Derby: Once he was done tweaking various noses, he bestowed the remainder of his estate, 10 years later, to the “the Mother who has since my death given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children.” In the event of a tie, the winners would split the money. The race was on.
Keep in mind that the contest began in the boom years of the 1920s and encompassed the worst of the Great Depression, so Millar’s estate, worth about $750,000 at the time (or more than 1,100 times an annual minimum-wage salary), was a matter of life or death for many families. And even though the derby took place in a pre-birth-control age, when regulating fertility was far more difficult than today, women still tried to avoid unplanned pregnancies. Canada’s fertility rate dropped significantly between 1926 and 1936, from 3.36 births per woman to 2.7. It wouldn’t recover to 1926 levels until the postwar period. Economic depression tends to put a damper on all sorts of expensive things: weddings, divorces, having kids.
There’s not much evidence that the women who eventually profited from Millar’s capricious bequest were even trying to compete — they just birthed a bunch of kids during that decade. One winning family had 12 children altogether (though only nine were born during the 10-year period in question) and another had 18. At least one of the winners told journalists they hadn’t really thought about the competition until it was nearly over. Banking on the inheritance would have been a pretty risky move — especially considering what happened when it came time to collect.
When Halloween 1936 rolled around, the day the winning family was set to collect the cash, suddenly lawyers got involved. First, Millar had distant relatives who were eager to get their hands on the dough and none too thrilled about it going to some random (enormous) family. Second, there were moralizing Torontonians who thought Millar’s bequest itself was immoral. “What infuriated the middle class of the city,” wrote Gerald E. Thomson in 2000, “was the fact that many of the competing mothers were on relief and that the leading contestants were of Italian/Irish ethnic extraction.” Around the same time, many states in the U.S. held “better babies” contests, in which medical professionals judged infants according to physical health and appearance — a fad designed to promote wellness but that played into the eugenics movement. Millar’s own relatives sought to make yet another moral argument: By not explicitly excluding babies born out of wedlock, they said, Millar was encouraging sinful behavior and his will ought to be tossed out altogether.
Then there were the families seeking to collect what they thought was their due. The New York Times — which reported on the story breathlessly in the late ’30s — counted 17 entrants to the race, and 14 eventually filed claims for the money. But it was unclear from Millar’s will which babies counted for the purposes of the inheritance, and judges were forced to adjudicate. Two unfortunate participants were pregnant when the contest closed and therefore unable to deliver before the appointed hour. Six women emerged to claim the prize, two of whom were disqualified from the winner’s circle. Pauline Clarke admitted that five of her 10 children had been born after she and her husband separated, while the judge refused to count the multiple stillbirths among the 11 times Lillian Kenny gave birth. These two also-rans were given $12,500 apiece in a settlement, while the four left standing — each of whom had given birth nine times — split the remainder of the prize: $125,000 per family. Numerous appeals followed, eventually winding their way to Canada’s Supreme Court, but ultimately the recipients got to keep the cash.
While he was alive, Charles Vance Millar was known for his practice of placing a dollar bill on the sidewalk in front of the Queen’s Hotel, then hiding behind his newspaper on the building’s veranda to watch whoever found it and observe their response. The Stork Derby was, in its way, the same trick writ large. Millar just wasn’t around to watch.