Stork Derby
December 11, 2015 10:44 AM   Subscribe

In death, Millar unleashed his biggest prank ever — a last will and testament that was basically a giant social experiment. By promising a vast sum of money to the Toronto family that could have the most babies in a 10-year period, Millar set off a race to give birth the moment he died.
posted by Chrysostom (43 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
DON'T GIVE THE REALITY TV PEOPLE IDEAS.
posted by schmod at 10:47 AM on December 11, 2015 [10 favorites]


Jeez that was a horrifying read.
posted by pipoquinha at 10:51 AM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


Good lord that's hideous. Was it understood to be hideous at the time? The article doesn't really say how people reacted, other than newspapers promoting the thing.
posted by Nelson at 11:00 AM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm so glad this happened before IVF and induced ovulation.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:08 AM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]




DON'T GIVE THE REALITY TV PEOPLE IDEAS.

It seems they ripped this concept off already:

Then he left his house in Jamaica to three men who hated one another, on the condition that they own it together.



Was it understood to be hideous at the time?

I'm no lawyer, but it would seem to me a provincial government trying to nullify a will is a fairly extraordinary step:

It’s unknown how many families decided to try to win Millar’s fortune. While there were a few mentions in the press early on, news coverage of the Derby didn’t really pick up until 1932, when the Ontario government tried to have the will nullified and the money given to the University of Toronto. After a huge public outcry — the Toronto Daily Star accused the government of resorting to “communism in the raw” — the government’s claim was withdrawn.

Thanks for posting this. I had no idea.

Unrelated: I need to work the phrase "communism in the raw" into a conversation today.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:10 AM on December 11, 2015 [14 favorites]


That's a somewhat interesting-in-a-disturbing way historical event I had not heard of before. I thought the story could have been told better. Very strange perspective/focus the journalist brought to it.

But in what sense was Millar's bequest a prank? He offered a prize and then paid on it. I think of a prank as involving some trick. Strange as though the bequest was, if he offered a prize and paid on it, then in what sense is it a prank?
posted by dios at 11:10 AM on December 11, 2015


in what sense is it a prank?

It was an attempt to induce behaviour people wouldn't otherwise engage in that would ultimately end of being more trouble then the prize was worth. I guess.
posted by GuyZero at 11:12 AM on December 11, 2015


The thesis cited in the article seems like it would be an interesting deeper read on this.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:13 AM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Note: Not Mark Millar.
posted by Artw at 11:15 AM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


I will return later with the perfect play on words connecting "giving birth" and the "Detroit/Windsor tunnel", but this will take time to perfect.
posted by HuronBob at 11:19 AM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


This is now a teachable moment in some Canadian law schools.
posted by LegallyBread at 11:20 AM on December 11, 2015


Hello; what's your postal address these days?

“Coming soon to your TV: America's Most Extreme Baby Moms.”
posted by acb at 11:20 AM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


I tried to introduce "Communism in the raw," but the Marxist-Leninists spoke against it at their most recent congress, the Spartacists condemned it in an editorial in Workers Vanguard, and the Maoists organized a struggle session.

Also, it got a bit chilly.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:21 AM on December 11, 2015 [12 favorites]


I tried to introduce "Communism in the raw," but the Marxist-Leninists spoke against it at their most recent congress, the Spartacists condemned it in an editorial in Workers Vanguard, and the Maoists organized a struggle session.

Also, it got a bit chilly.


Splitters.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:25 AM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


On the other hand, the big character posters were especially stirring.


ALL THE WORKERS ARE UNITED IN THEIR DESIRE FOR YOU TO PUT PANTS ON
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:32 AM on December 11, 2015 [20 favorites]


WE WILL NOT BE LIMITED BY YOUR BOURGEOIS CONCEPTION OF ACTUALLY-EXISTING PANTS
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:41 AM on December 11, 2015 [12 favorites]


Maybe we could cut down on the jokes in this thread about a truly horrific historical event where a rich monster fucked with the lives of dozens of desperately poor people for fun.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:52 AM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


oh god. the humor police have arrived.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:07 PM on December 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


Sorry, I tell dark jokes when the occasion permits. ("What's the difference between a cow and 9/11?" "You can only milk a cow for 12 years.")

The way this is framed suggests that it was always treated with a bit of hilarity, and I sort of wonder whether many of the women who applied to participate really spent ten years aiming to win or if they just found themselves in a position to maybe compete. I have had several students with more than ten siblings, and my understanding is that was even more common before birth control.

I will now spend some time with the thesis to actually investigate the evidence here. Seems interesting.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:07 PM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


Almost 100 years is too soon guys. Too soon.
posted by Carillon at 12:08 PM on December 11, 2015 [12 favorites]


If I can't tell jokes about communism at inappropriate moments it's not my revolution.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:15 PM on December 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


Christ, What an Asshole.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:16 PM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


Footnote 3:

While the rate of stillbirths in the U.S. and Canada has declined to about 3 per 1,000 births, back in the 1930s, 36 per 1,000 American babies were delivered dead. I couldn’t find statistics for Canada that went back that far.


Sigh. Don't try or anything...

A Google search using "statistics," "Canada," and "stillbirths" turned up this result on the first page:

Table B51-58
Stillbirths and rate, infant deaths and rate by sex, neonatal death rate and maternal mortality rate, Canada, 1921 to 1974

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:20 PM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


But mandolin conspiracy, we know that keeping stats in Canada is an example of communism in the raw... so we shouldn't even use the available tables as it is giving in to the reds!
posted by chapps at 12:29 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: humorless communism in the raw.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:44 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


Was it understood to be hideous at the time?

I did some digging through newspapers, and I think yes, it was widely scorned.

New York Times, 10/24/1936, "STORK DERBY RULE TAKEN BY PREMIER":
TORONTO. Eight days before the contesting mothers cross the finish line in Toronto’s stork derby and, probably, go on to courts of law, Premier Mitchell F. Hepburn of Ontario announced today that his government would supervise the finish of the $500,000 race.

After calling the contest ‘the most revolting, disgusting exhibition every put on in a civilized country,’ Mr. Hepburn nevertheless admitted that the administration was prepared to act as one of the finishing judges.

‘If the government does not take some action soon, litigation will drag the case through all the courts to the Privy Council and when it ends there will be nothing left for these poor mothers and their babies,’ said the Premier.

Incensed at reports that ‘a host of lawyers’ representing leading contenders were active, he added:

‘It is the duty of this government to stop this fiasco. The thing has become a racket and we can’t let it go unchecked.’
Then there's this in response, which I kind of love:

"Mother No. 1 in Stork Derby Defies Criticism of Premier" (Chicago Daily Tribune, 10/25/1936):
TORONTO, OCT 24. They give prizes for dogs and squashes, for homemade pies and for statues made of soap, so why, inquired Mrs. Lily Kenny tonight, shouldn't there be a prize for the mother who excels at bearing babies?

That was her answer to the blast of criticism Premier Helpburn set off when he called the mothers' marathon a 'racket' and a 'disgusting, revolting exhibition.'

Mrs. Kenny, with twelve children, is the No. 1 claimant to the $500,000 which Charles Vance Millar bequeathed to the city's most prolific mother. She put it this way:

'People with large families don't get divorces. More large families means less divorces. Mr. Millar must have thought of that, so he sat right down and did something about it. He knew there were prizes for almost everything -- for bathing girls, perfect cakes, and shapliest fingernails -- prizes for everything but children. So he took care of that.'
The article continues:
The Toronto Globe, seeking a cross-section of opinion, found only one person out of twelve to say a good word of the stork derby. Some of the comment was:

"A disgrace to Ontario."
"Scandalous. Don't you think they've gone the limit?"
"Perfectly awful."
"This method of promoting childbirth is little short of criminal."
It also again talks about the Premier's disgust, in particular his concern that the whole thing would tie up the courts for years. The article ends: "A bill in parliament, meeting in January, may settle the entire business."

Hilariously, Australia made a copycat move, this one actually sponsored by the government.

New York Times, 8/2/1938, "Australian 'Stork Derby' Urged to Boost Birth Rate:
SYDNEY, Australia. Aug 1. A "stork derby" with sweepstakes prizes for prolific parents was proposed in New South Wales Legislature today to boost Australia's failing birth rate.

F. Burke, Socialist member of the House of Assembly, suggested that the government sponsor such a race patterned after the Toronto derby, which ended in October 1936.

A five to ten year period for the race would be suitable, Mr. Burke thought.

Legislators only laughed when a member of the United Australia party, A. Ross, asked the derby's sponsor, "Will members of Parliament be allowed to compete?"
I can email PDFs of the articles to anyone who's interested.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:51 PM on December 11, 2015 [10 favorites]


Oh 1930's-era Canadian reproductive craziness, do you have no bounds?

It went past the '30s unfortunately. "Inspired by the Great Stork Derby, Mayor Thomas Foster also sponsored a contest to reward mothers for their skills at procreation. The prizes were $1,250 for first, $800 for second, and $450 for third. Four ten-years periods began and ended on his death date, and ran from 1945–55, 1948–58, 1951–61, and 1954-64."
posted by Kabanos at 1:02 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


But in what sense was Millar's bequest a prank? He offered a prize and then paid on it. I think of a prank as involving some trick. Strange as though the bequest was, if he offered a prize and paid on it, then in what sense is it a prank?

The prank is on everyone who competed and lost, and now have eight children during a depression and no way to handle that. This ruined a lot of lives.
posted by kafziel at 1:08 PM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


Third prize is you're tired!
posted by zippy at 1:09 PM on December 11, 2015 [10 favorites]


I'm gifting mudpuppie with some Metafilter Gold for that research. Thank you!

(The prank is the baby who "had recently died from rat bites while living in ghastly poverty". Ha ha, good joke rich guy!)
posted by Nelson at 1:17 PM on December 11, 2015


If every picture tells a story, the thousand-yard stare on the faces of the parents who really went balls to the wall (so to speak) say it all.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:29 PM on December 11, 2015


The prank is on everyone who competed and lost

I guess. But this is where the article could have been written better, I think. By starting out from the premise that the guy was just a merry prankster, I expected something at the end showing it was a prank, but I didn't find it. I was expecting some Andy Kaufman shtick or something. But nope. No catch. No j/k. No funny. People who competed and won got what he promised.

He comes across to me as some crazy guy who had some fucked up desire to increase the population by incentivizing it. And if that was his goal, then those who competed and lost would be an added bonus for him. If I was some wheels-off Malthusian and promised to pay people who did not kids before they were 60 some set money, and in fact make good on that proposition, is that a prank too? Or am I just some weird ass guy who is incentivizing behavior I prefer?

If this was some fucked up prank, I think more was needed to explain this guy's mindset. If not, then I think I would characterize him as some rich eccentric with a messed up worldview (breed like rabbits!!!) who made a dangerous competition that ended up causing a lot of harm and proving the problem with his baby-machine views.

Regardless, the guy was a dick who used his money in a way that ruined lives.
posted by dios at 2:13 PM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]




But mandolin conspiracy, we know that keeping stats in Canada is an example of communism in the raw... so we shouldn't even use the available tables as it is giving in to the reds!

I believe that's the reason Harper cited for axing the long-form census: socialist sashimi.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:43 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


a truly horrific historical event where a rich monster fucked with the lives of dozens of desperately poor people for fun.

So I think we should figure out why what this guy did that was horrible. Offering people money for stuff they were already doing anyway doesn't feel like it's all that wrong.

It's not wrong for people (including poor people) to have babies, is it? So why is it wrong to encourage them? Compare to the other nonsense that was going on trying to coerce women--especially poor women--not to have babies, and this seems actually kind of positive. Hell, Quebec has paid women to have children, too, and that's largely seen as benign or even positive, as an example of the preservation of a heritage.

I think the argument has to be something like: because of the contest, some women had babies that they wouldn't have had, or else they had them more quickly than they otherwise would have had them, or else they didn't breastfeed when they should have. So this was an inducement to be bad mothers? That seems at least a bit strange, because a) the mothers had to know that they were unlikely to win, so this is like buying very expensive lottery ticket that poops, and b) mothers who deprived their children of sustenance in order to win a stupid contest should bear at least some of the blame themselves.

Consider the alternative, a kind of indecent proposal to the Abraham and Isaac scenario. Some asshole offers you $10 million to kill your child: do we really blame the asshole more than the filicide who takes him up on it? Sure, God's an asshole for inciting Abraham to violence, but the real monster here is the dude who raises a knife over his son's head and is fully prepared to use it!

Meanwhile, what actually happened is that more human beings came into existence, and that's an unmitigated good for *them* so long as they weren't horribly deprived or abused, so long as they were wanted and loved! Consider saying to one of these kids say from the families of non-winners, as an adult: "you were born because of a cruel contest, your are unlucky and you'd have been better off never to have been born." I'd guess they'd disagree.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:01 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Lots of places pay baby bonuses. There's a difference between

1. paying a baby bonus to someone who has one baby, thus offsetting the cost of having that one baby

2. encouraging people to have multiple babies by holding out the offer that you won't just offset the cost but completely leave these people made for the rest of their lives, and then NOT paying them, which is what happened to all those families with 8 or 7 or 6 kids or 10 kids one of whom was illegitimate.

The differences are 2, in case you're missing them. First, one case is more about removing the disincentive (The cost) to having a baby than creating an incentive. Nobody every profitted by having a baby and taking the baby bonus. The other case is about acutally creating a positive incentive. Some people DID profit from having babies here and many more did it because they hoped to profit.

The second difference is that in one case there is actually follow-through on the payment. So people who had babies believeing the cost would be offset, actually DID have the cost offset. In the other case most people who had babies never got money for them.

As for blaming the mothers instead, it misses how large an inducement this was. When you do research one of the ethical principles to keep in mind is that especially when dealing with vulnerable populations, the compensation can't be so high that it's effectively an offer the person can't refuse. You can't go to someone who is literally on the street and starving and about to lose their kid and say "hey, if you do my drug trial I"ll pay you 30 million dollars a year for the rest of your life." Why? NOt just because you don't have the funding, but because research requires informed and consensual participation. In the extreme case or 30-million a year to the starving, the incentive is so large and the circumstances so dire, that the compensation is de facto coercive. No ethics board would allow it, even if you did have the funding.

This isn't research, obviously, but you can see how the same thing would be true here -- there will be people living in such dire circumstances that holding out this chance to be made for life is a difficult offer to refuse (or in this case to not pursue). So yeah, poor decision-making on the family's part, too, but someone went out of their way to push them towards making poor decisions. It think pushing someone to make poor decisions is worse than making poor decisions when you're being pushed and see no alternative.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:15 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


What actually happened is that more human beings came into existence, and that's an unmitigated good for *them* so long as they weren't horribly deprived or abused, so long as they were wanted and loved!

Okay, but.... Again taken from a contemporary news account (because I've fallen down the wormhole and can't get up):

“Thirty Babies’ Lives Lost in Stork Derby,” Los Angeles Times, 11/2/1936
A piteous trail of stillborn babies, of sickly children doomed to limp through life on twisted limbs and of women weakened by constant child bearing today indicted Charles Vance Millar’s jest on motherhood as Toronto’s greatest tragedy.

[…]

Six of the most prolific matrons have borne eighty-five children. Of these only fifty-five are alive. Of the fifty-eight they bore during the ten years of the greedy scramble, twenty died, most of them at birth.
One of the most repugnant things about this to me is that, regardless of whether Millar intended it this way, it basically turned into popular entertainment. Mrs. Kenny -- who one who lost a baby due to rat bites, according to the article in the FPP, and also the one I quoted above -- became one of the story's most popular characters.

And we can debate whether the whole thing cruelly tricked poor mothers into having more children, or whether it was actually a form of encouragement they'd never received before, or whatever -- whatever your interpretation, there was also a great deal of classism lurking behind it all.

Check out all the dog whistles in this article about Mrs. Kinney, published in 1936, before all the litigation started:
“Pair Fight on Spending of Stork Derby Cash,” Los Angeles Times, 11/4/1936.

TORONTO, NOV 3. The stork derby approached the riot stage today. A mama blew up and with some well-directed punches tossed a papa right out on the seat of his trousers.

The staid old Royal York Hotel, scene of the baby marathon whoop-de-do, was thrown into an uproar.

It all came to pass when Matthew Kenny (short, bald and heavy set) boasted in front of his wife Lilly (a head taller and wielding a wicked right) what he was going to do when he got the $500,000 prize money.

[…]

The Kennys, who claim parentage of eleven children, believe [the contest] is in the bag. The Kennys were sitting in the Royal York with Kenny started shouting. “When I get that $500,000…” he began.

But he got no farther. Mrs. Kenny jumped from her chair, knocking over a Scotch and soda, and hung one right on Mr. Kenny’s chin.

Kenny cried out in pain, but his wife held onto the few surviving wisps of his bald pate and rained punches on his head. She kicked him in the sins [sic!] and then delivered a haymaker that knocked him out of his chair.

“You’re not going to get a dime of this money,” she screamed. “The fathers don’t count for anything in this thing. It’s the mothers. I am going to throw you out as soon as I get that money.”
In 1938, after the case hit the courts, there was an article about an outburst she had in court, shouting "To hell with the judge!" and punching bailiffs who tried to have her removed from the courtroom. And then another article later that year, after they split verdict had been paid out, reported that she'd been arrested for arson after a fourth fire (in four months) broke out in her home.

It's all just gross. It's gross (to me) that a bunch of women had a bunch of babies because of even the possibility of a payout. Gross, but also really sad. The media circus that surrounded it was gross and sad, too. And it was all because one rich guy decided to prank a lot of people who didn't deserve it, which is ultimately the grossest part of all.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:42 PM on December 11, 2015 [11 favorites]


I clicked the back button as soon as I saw the words "rat bites."
posted by lagomorphius at 3:53 PM on December 11, 2015


Maybe the guy just wanted to be in the back of a lot of people's minds while they were doin' it.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:14 PM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm giving my fortune to the woman who has the most babies with members of the Wu-Tang Clan over the next 88 years.
posted by bigbigdog at 5:55 PM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


Okay, still no references in this thread to The Magic Christian, so there you go.
posted by uosuaq at 5:59 PM on December 11, 2015


Or said God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:44 AM on December 12, 2015


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