Although the judge in that case mused the eventual size of the funds meant that “in this day of space exploration Possibly other worlds will have to be discovered for the plaintiff’s future investments,” the funds nonetheless survived a number of early challenges. Their survival owed much to their being more high-minded than Thellusson’s scheme for enriching his family. Although nearly all states had perpetuity laws like Britain’s, there was more leeway given to charitable trusts like Holdeen’s. One hundred-year account, set up by suffragette Anna C. Mott, dumped $215,000 on Toledo in 2002—rather more than the thousand dollars she started with—and similar funds were created in the 1920s to relieve Britain from its national debt. In 1919, the Indiana legislature even passed a law to allow a charitable five-hundred-year trust by Charles Fairbanks, an Indiana senator who had also served as vice president under Teddy Roosevelt.
But while some trusts accumulated for a century or two, and others were created with yearly payouts in perpetuity, none were accumulating in near perpetuity. Even Franklin’s fund, after a solid two-hundred-year run, finally ended in 1990 with a bounty for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston. The roughly $7-million-dollar total payout didn’t quite attain the heights that Franklin predicted; such plans rarely factor in the cost of trustees’ fees, taxes, or legal battles. But if Franklin’s trusts survived at least relatively unscathed, it was the sheer ambition of the Holdeen trusts that would finally give America a decades-long legal fight worthy of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.
“This stuff is endless,” one court staffer groaned to a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter in 1994. “It truly is endless.”
Eventually the Holdeen trusts were allowed to stand, but they paid out yearly instead of accumulating and compounding. The matter was not truly settled until 2005, a full ninety-two years after Jonathan Holdeen first wrote his will. That was when Haldis Holden MacPherson, the sole surviving original trustee, died in Poughkeepsie. With her, the last defender of the Holdeen dream died as well.
These days, perpetual trusts are old hat: American laws against them have been steadily rolled back in the last two decades, thanks to a banking lobby that rather likes the idea of keeping your money forever. For those with less to spend, there’s even a Time Travel Fund website puckishly set up for would-be travelers who shell out ten bucks by Paypal—money that would be compounded to pay future peoples to retrieve you from your present cash-poor existence. Perpetually accumulating trusts, though, are not much more likely to be allowed to take over the world now than they were in 1912.
And so, after decades in the courts, Holdeen’s economic Armageddon ended not with a bang, but with a whimper—and a dividend check.
Hartwick College got its thousand-year trust, still bearing its maturation date of 2936; the principal now stands at an impressive $9 million. Rather than accumulating and compounding, though, the trust pays out roughly $450,000 a year to the college. This, a 2008 Hartwick press release announced, “represents the second largest gift to the college” in its history.
“It’s an enormous gift,” enthused Hartwick’s president to their local newspaper. “This is going to be of tremendous benefit to the college.”
And then it disappeared. Not the money, mind you. But visit Hartwick’s website today, and you’ll no longer find that press release, or much else relating to Holdeen. No dormitory wing, no scholarship, not even a luncheon—nothing. So what happened?
“The College utilizes the income to fund annual expenditures related to our physical plant,” the school’s director of donor relations explained in an email to me. In short, the money is liable to go toward paying for water bills and groundskeeper carts and the like: when you turn on a light at Hartwick, Holdeen’s bright idea is helping to pay for it. But the man who changed his name so that it would last a thousand years? He forgot to ask that it be attached to anything. And nobody alive today, it seems, could care less.
“There is no recognition currently,” the director said, “and I am not aware of an event recognizing the gift.”