His heirs did not take the news well: one took out a pistol and shot the old man’s portrait.
It was the opening salvo of an immense legal battle. The Thellusson will occupied courts for decades, involving the country’s top legal talent; law professor Patrick Polden of Brunel University, who authored a monograph on the case, has tallied over one hundred lawyers involved in the judgment. Politicians and gentry waded in out of concerns far beyond the heirs’ resentments. “There was a major political dimension too,” he explains. “The fear was that when the trust expired these two or three mega-rich men would be able to exert a massive influence through buying up seats in the House of Commons and that they would establish dynasties of peers; worse, that others would follow suit.”
By the time the case was resolved sixty-two years later in 1859, much of the fortune had been consumed in legal fees, and Parliament enacted the Perpetuities Act barring Britons from ever attempting Thellusson’s stunt again. Perhaps, in the end, a dynastic trust that locked up money for generations simply smacked too much of feudalism for Britain’s new industrial economy.
“A fortune in circulation,” explained one judge from the case, “even if spent in luxuries, waste, and dissipation, did more good to the public.”
If Peter Thellusson left any real legacy, it was in inspiring Charles Dickens to create the endless case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in his 1853 novel Bleak House:
This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means Innumerable children have been born into the cause Innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.
The unimpeded growth of a huge sum of money, central to the Thellusson case, was even more fascinating to authors. The 1899 H. G. Wells novel When the Sleeper Wakes features a wealthy young man who sleeps for 203 years after an 1897 drug overdose, only to discover upon his revival that his unattended bank account has funded an entire totalitarian society. Like the bank account and the society it created, Wells later deemed the story “one of the most ambitious and least satisfactory of my books.” That didn’t keep the eccentric pulp writer Harry S. Keeler from going even further with the 1914 story “John Jones’ Dollar,” in which a solar system’s economy is built around a single silver dollar left to accumulate until the year 2921 to the astounding sum of $6.3 trillion—an amount deemed roughly equal to “the wealth on Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and likewise Earth, together with an accurate calculation of the remaining heat in the sun and an appraisement of that heat at a very decent valuation per calorie.” Instead of bankrupting the solar system, though, it finances an interplanetary socialist paradise.
The story may be absurd, but it was just that kind of mathematical absurdity that had captured Franklin’s fancy in the first place. A few years before Franklin drafted his will, philosopher Richard Price rhapsodized in a sober treatise on the national debt, “One penny, put out at our Savior’s birth to 5 percent compound interest, would, in the present year 1781, have increased to a greater sum than would be contained in two hundred millions of earths, all solid gold. But, if put out to simple interest, it would, in the same time, have amounted to no more than seven shillings and sixpence.”
When the first century of Franklin’s rather more practical plan arrived in 1891, it bore $572,000 for Boston and Philadelphia. That was hardly one earth of solid gold, let alone 200 million of them, but Franklin had made his point—and in particular, he’d made it to a New York lawyer named Jonathan Holden.