The Mystery of the Garrett Snuff Fortune

A fortune built on Red Clay Creek went mostly to lawyers.

Haven’t written a will yet? Then, you should know about the Garrett Snuff fortune—$30 million, most of which went to lawyers.

The story begins in 1930 when Henrietta Schaeffer Garrett—a childless widow and heir to a fortune that took 150 years to build—died without heeding her long-dead husband’s request that she write a will. By the time it was over in the 1950s, more than 26,000 self-proclaimed heirs had come forward to claim the estate.

“Like ants frenzied by a blog of sticky honey, the alleged heirs…converged on Philadelphia by bus, train and automobile,” wrote historian Clifford Weslager. Dozens misrepresented their own ancestry, accused their dead parents of having affairs and falsified official and family documents to present themselves as Garrett heirs.

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In Germany, a man who shared Henrietta’s maiden name shot his aunt and uncle after they refused to fund his trip to America to claim the Garrett fortune. (In remorse, he then committed suicide.) In Philadelphia, “someone” slipped an entire forged page into the bound files of death certificates in the vital records office. Even Henrietta’s trusted business manager made his play.

“One searches the voluminous records of the Garrett case in vain to find an unselfish character to contrast the godly with the unrighteous,” wrote Weslager. “There was one wholesome, fine, upright person, and that was Walter Garrett, whose money was the cause of it all.”

Garrett was the great-grandson of John Garrett, who began making snuff in 1782 at what had been a flour mill on Red Clay Creek near Yorklyn. Snuff is a form of powdered tobacco inhaled into the nose by users. Natives of Brazil are the first to have used snuff, which was introduced to Europe by a Franciscan monk after he noticed natives using it on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. By the 18th century, snuff was the tobacco product of choice among elite Westerners.

Garrett Snuff was long a leading brand, mostly because the family got into the business early and built a lead over other producers. Folk tales in New Castle County asserted that the water of Red Clay Creek conveyed special properties to the Garrett products. But, according to Weslager, the tobacco was grown elsewhere and Garrett manufacturing processes were nothing unusual.

It was a hugely profitable business. In 1850, Walter’s father, William Garrett, built what Weslager called “one of the most pretentious mansions in Christiana Hundred”—three stories tall with 19 rooms, oak floors, paneled doors, wainscoting, fireplaces with marble mantles and balustrade stairs. Locals called it the “snuff mill mansion.” And it wasn’t even William Garrett’s full-time home; he had moved to Philadelphia. William Garrett bequeathed the snuff mill to his sons, Walter and William Jr., the latter of whom died childless, thus returning his share to his brother.

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When Walter Garrett married Henrietta Schaeffer in 1871, he was a 40-year-old bachelor—tall and heavyset, with a flowing mustache, who wore a frock coat, starched collar and silk hat. She was 22, and blond and had left school in the eighth grade. As one of the richest men in Philadelphia, Garrett had a wide choice of potential wives. According to Weslager, however, he was “smitten” when he saw Henrietta scrubbing the stoop in front of her parents’ house on South 13th Street.

“A latter-day Cinderella story” is how the newspapers described it. Walter bought her a three-and-a-half-story house on South Ninth Street. Then he bought the house next door for her family and connected the two so Henrietta could visit her family at will. He also provided a coach and horses, a coachman, a cook, a personal maid and a downstairs maid.

“To say that Walter loved his pretty, young wife is an understatement,” wrote Weslager. “He adored her, he cherished her and he became so devoted to her that he didn’t want to leave her side.” Henrietta didn’t like highbrow amusements such as the opera, so Walter stopped going. She did like sentimental sheet music, so he bought her a rosewood piano on which to play it. She also liked Atlantic City, so he built her a 10-room “cottage.”

But Henrietta was not dumb. After Walter died in 1895, she did not blow the $6 million he left her. She lived modestly—more so than Walter—and kept careful track of her investments. Her physician would later testify that he often found her reading stock reports when he made house calls. In the 35 years before her own death, the estate grew to $17 million and to $30 million by the time it was distributed in 1951.

Settling the estate took years because every claim had to be investigated. In 1937, Henrietta’s body was exhumed to confirm that no will had been secreted in the coffin. Genealogists produced a three-volume report dismissing relationships to all but three cousins. These were people Henrietta had never met, but to whom she was related through her mother.

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Afterward, workers went to Henrietta’s house on Ninth Street with orders to smash everything, including the rosewood piano. Administrators had decided that nothing could be sold, lest some buyer later use an item to claim a relationship to the family and make a new claim on the fortune. The fragments were loaded into seven wagons, transported to a lot outside the city and burned.

Now, call your lawyer and make that will.

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