When I was a young kid, I really didn’t like my birthday much. I was born on August 4th, which is smack dab right in the middle of summer. Unlike so many other kids who got to celebrate their birthdays during the school year with fellow students, I typically just had a small party with a few family members that were similar in age. Luckily, I quickly outgrew that feeling.
My mom, on the other hand, had a different birthday problem. She was born on December 26th, the day after Christmas. While we would spend Christmas day with family, her birthday always seemed like more of an oversight: Typically just one gift for the two occasions.
Then there was the case of Annie Ide, who was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont on December 25, 1876, which she considered to be the worst birthday of them all. Being born on Christmas Day meant that while every other kid that she knew had both a Christmas celebration and a separate birthday party every year, she received just one. What a ripoff…
In 1891, her father, Henry Clay Ide was appointed by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison to be the Presidential Commissioner to Samoa. Ide arrived at the islands on May 16, 1891, but was forced to hand in his resignation less than six months later due to a serious family illness. Most likely this was to care for Mrs. Ide, who passed away the following April.
Henry Ide would certainly go on to far greater accomplishments – including being appointed Samoan Chief Justice in 1893, Philippine Acting Governor-General in 1905, and minister to Spain in 1909 – but it was that initial appointment in 1891 that would forever place his daughter Annie into the history books.
Enter into the picture author Robert Louis Stevenson. World-famous in his day for works such as Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson moved to Samoa in 1890 hoping that its warm tropical air would help improve his health. When Henry Ide arrived the following year, the two struck up a close friendship, one that would last until the day Stevenson died.
One day, while 14-year-old Annie was still back in Vermont attending public school, her dad casually mentioned to Stevenson how much she hated having been born on Christmas day. Stevenson was always a lover of children and felt great pity for her. He put some thought into what it would be like for a child not to have a birthday celebration and came up with a most unique solution.
Dated June 19, 1891, 40-year-old Stevenson authored the following legal document:
I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind and pretty, well I thank you, in body:
In consideration that Miss A. H. Ide, daughter of H. C. Ide, in the town of St Johnsbury, in the County of Caledonia, in the State of Vermont, United States of America, was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore, out of all justice, denied the consolation and profit of a Proper Birthday;
And considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when O, we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description;
And in consideration that I have met H. C. Ide, the father of the said A. H. Ide, and found him about as white a Land Commissioner as I require;
Have transferred, and do hereby transfer to the said A. H. Ide, All and Whole of my rights and privileges in the 13th day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said A. H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats and receipt of gifts, compliments and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors;
You heard that correctly, Robert Louis Stevenson gave Annie Ide his birthday. Can someone really do that? From that day forward, she would no longer be stuck with that dreaded Christmas birthday.
And I direct the said A. H. Ide to add to her said name of A. H. Ide the name Louisa – at least in private; and I charge her to use my said birthday with moderation and humanity, et tamquam bona filia familiae, the said birthday not being so young as it once was and having carried me in a very satisfactory manner since I can remember;
And in case the said A. H. Ide shall neglect or contravene either of the above conditions, I hereby revoke the donation and transfer my rights in the said birthday to the President of the United States of America for the time being.
In witness whereof I have hereto set my hand and seal this 19th day of June in the year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety-one.
Duly witnessed by Lloyd Osbourne (his stepson) and Harold Watts, this document was then signed and sealed by the author before being sent to Henry Ide.
Upon receiving the deed handing over Stevenson’s birthday, Annie Hilliard Ide officially became Annie Louisa Ide. She celebrated her first real birthday on November 13, 1891, in the way that she had always dreamed. It was a party in which everyone brought gifts, played games, ate ice cream, and blew out the candle on the cake. That’s not a typo – since it was her first birthday, the cake had just one candle upon it.
Shortly afterward, Annie penned the following letter to Mr. Stevenson, although I can’t help but wonder if a ghostwriter assisted her:
Dear Mr. Stevenson:
You may be interested to know that the “will,” whereby you left your birthday to me, was published in several of the most widely circulated papers in the United States, and that I received letters from people in different parts of the country containing birthday greetings.
On November 13 I had my first real birthday celebration and dinner, with “sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats and receipt of gifts, compliments and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors,” as the “will” most satisfactorily provides. The conditions of the legacy have all been complied with. My old name was as unsatisfactory as my birthday, and I am now Annie Louisa, so that my new birthday cannot revert to the President of the United States, if I treat it kindly as I expect to do.
In addition to expressing her appreciation for his generous gift, Annie has clearly expressed that she intends to meet all of the requirements of the deed. In this next section, it becomes clear that Annie is having just as much fun as Stevenson with the true meaning of what this all means:
I am wondering, however, what you will do without a birthday? As the years roll by you can grow no older, and perhaps will thus become immortal in body as well as in renoun. When I have celebrated seventy or eighty November thirteens I shall be able to know of you as a comparatively young man still drinking at the fountain of perpetual youth and delighting the world with the products of a mind undimmed by age. How wonderful a discovery that will be! But if I have two birthdays every year I shall grow old at a terrible rate. The years will rush past me like an express train, and I shall soon be old enough to be my own grandmother or perhaps I shall have a double development like Doctor Jekyl, one for each birthday, so that in one phase I shall be twice as old as in the other. The possibilities are astonishing.
Annie now brings the letter to a conclusion by mentioning gifts that she has enclosed and an expression of her gratitude for what he has done:
You will see from the photograph which I send that I am already much older than my sister. How much older still I shall be in a few years! I send also a pen-and-ink sketch which I have made of the church which I attend, and which stands beside my home. It may remind you that your faithful old birthday is still comfortably housed, at least on Sundays.
Papa wishes to be kindly remembered to yourself and family, whose acquaintance he enjoyed exceedingly.
Thanking you once more for the gift which I greatly prize, I am,
Annie Louisa Ide
P.S. Will you be good enough to say to Mr. Strong that I was very much pleased with the Samoan sketch?
Mr. Strong refers to artist Joe Strong, who was married to Stevenson’s step-daughter Belle at the time. It was noted in the press that the author had sent Annie a watercolor painting depicting two Samoan natives standing on a beach waving to an incoming mail steamer, which is most likely the sketch that she is referring to here.
It was incorrectly reported in a number of newspaper articles that Annie found Stevenson’s birthday gift – and this really does give new meaning to the term birthday gift – hanging from the family Christmas tree. This would be impossible because Stevenson penned the original document on June 19, 1891, and replied to Annie’s thank you with this letter in November 1891:
My dear Louisa,
Your picture of the church, the photograph of yourself and your sister, and your very witty and pleasing letter, came all in a bundle and made me feel I had my money’s worth for that birthday. I am now, I must be, one of your nearest relatives; exactly what we are to each other I do not know; I doubt if the the case has ever happened before – your papa ought to know; and I don’t believe he does; but I think I ought to call you in the meanwhile, and until we get the advice of counsel learned in the law, my name-daughter. Well, I was extremely pleased to see by the church that my name-daughter could draw; by the letter that she was no fool; and by the photograph that she was a pretty girl, which hurts nothing. See how virtues are rewarded! My first idea of adopting you was entirely charitable; and here I find that I am quite proud of it, and of you, and that I chose just the kind of name-daughter I wanted. For I can draw, too, or rather I mean to say I could before I forgot how; and I am very far from being a fool myself, however much I may look it; and I am as beautiful as the day, or at least I once hoped that perhaps I might be going to be. And so I might. So that you see we are well met, and peers on these important points. I am very glad also that you are older than your sister. So should I have been if I had had one. So that the number of points and virtues which you have inherited from your name-father is already quite surprising.
I love how Stevenson plays with the idea that they are quite well paired for being relatives because they share similar qualities, all of which he has either lost or wished that he could have had. He continues by explaining how her new birthday really works:
I wish that you would tell your father – not that I like to encourage my rival – that we had a wonderful time here of late, and that we are having a cold day on Mulinuu, and the Consuls are writing reports, and I am writing to the “Times,” and if we don’t get rid of our friends this time I shall begin to despair of everything but my name-daughter.
You are quite wrong as to the effect of the birthday on your age. From the moment the deed was registered (as it was in the public press with every solemnity), the thirteenth of November became your own and only birthday, and you ceased to have been born on Christmas Day. Ask your father: I am sure he will tell you this is sound law. You are thus become a month and twelve days younger than you were, but you will go on growing older for the future in the regular and human manner from one November 13 to the next. The effect on me is more doubtful: I may, as you suggest, live for ever; I might, on the other hand, come to pieces like the one-horse shay, at a moment’s notice; doubtless the step was risky, but I do not the least regret that which enables me to sign myself your reverend and delighted name-father.
As I mentioned earlier in the story, Annie’s mom died in April of 1892. The following year, Henry Ide decided to move his two youngest children from Vermont to Samoa. (As a side note, the Ide’s had two additional children: Henry, Jr. died at age four in 1879. An older daughter, Adelaide, was already an adult at the time of the voyage and stayed behind only to succumb to typhoid fever at the age of twenty-five in 1898.)
Even traveling on the most modern steamships of their day, crossing an ocean was a lengthy ordeal. A stopover was made in Honolulu, where Annie was able to meet her name-father for the very first time. The two hit it off immediately, traveled to Samoa aboard the same steamship, and were able to celebrate her new birthday together that year.
Stevenson arranged for more than a simple birthday party; it would be better to call it a feast. At Stevenson’s home, Vailima, native Samoans brought gifts of woven mats, fans, and beads that they had made, danced and sang, and prepared a scrumptious meal.
The April 1904 issue of the Ladies Home Journal described the meal as follows: “The guests, with Stevenson and his name-daughter at the head of what would be called the table, sat cross-legged on the ground, Samoan fashion, and the feast was laid on banana leaves, the native substitute for a tablecloth. Every edible luxury the islands afforded them – mangoes, guavas, taro, coconuts, bananas, wild pigeons, shrimps, fish – all prepared with the skill for which every native chef is famous.“
The celebration would be repeated the next year, but it would be the last. A few months later, Stevenson would be gone. In what is a fairly well-known story, on December 3, 1894, he was struggling to open a bottle of wine when he suddenly blurted out, “”What’s that!”, which was followed by asking his wife Fanny “Does my face look strange?” He then collapsed and died a few hours later from what is generally believed to have been a cerebral hemorrhage. Robert Louis Stevenson was just forty-four years of age.
As Annie got older, she traveled the world and continued to celebrate her new birthday. Whether in New York, San Francisco, the Philippines, Samoa, India, Australia, or wherever, she always honored Stevenson by continuing the tradition. Whether the celebration was a large, over-the-top event or a small, intimate gathering, there was always a big meal, gifts, and a reading of Stevenson’s original deed.
The next notable event in Annie’s life would occur while attending a ball in Manila in 1905, a period during which her father was the acting Governor-General of the Philippines. There she met Congressman William Bourke Cockran, who was traveling to the Orient with a number of other politicians and notable people. Annie and her younger sister Marjorie joined up with the expedition, touring through both Japan and China.
It was clear from the very beginning that Mr. Cockran was smitten with Annie, but he did have a couple of strikes against him. First, Bourke was twenty-two years her senior. Second, he had been married twice prior. His first wife Mary died during childbirth when Bourke was twenty-two years of age. He remarried twelve years later, only to lose his second wife Rhonda after ten years of marriage.
Yet, nothing seemed to stand in the way of this blooming love affair. Upon returning to the United States, Annie took up residence in Santa Barbara, California and Mr. Cockran returned to Washington, DC. As soon as Congress adjourned for the holiday recess, he raced across the country to see Annie again. The couple traveled with sister Marjorie and a few others through Southern California and then into Arizona. It was while visiting the Grand Canyon that it became clear that the couple intended to be together forever.
Their engagement was officially announced from the executive mansion in Manila on July 13, 1906. The wedding, which was held at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City the following November 15th, was a relatively small affair with twenty-five guests in attendance.
For the next seventeen years, the couple appeared to live a wonderful life. They traveled the world, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and spent a significant amount of time at Bourke’s 300-acre Long Island estate that was known as “The Cedars.” Sadly, Bourke Cockran died on March 1, 1923, at 69 years of age. His entire estate, valued at $600,000 (approximately $8.5 million today) was left to his wife.
Annie would never remarry, but every year like clockwork the press would report on how she spent Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday. 1932 was the only year that she did not celebrate his birthday on November 13th because a close friend had died and her hostess was in mourning. It seemed better to celebrate after returning to her home on Long Island.
Annie Louisa Ide Cockran passed away at New York Hospital on January 7, 1945, after having been ill for several weeks. She was 68-years of age. Since the couple never had children, the bulk of her estate was left to her sister Marjorie. Yet, she was incredibly generous to others. Various friends, relatives, employees, and organizations received between $1,000 and $25,000 each. Always the animal lover – Annie set up the first ASPCA in Manilla – she left $1,000 for the care of her dog Promise, along with $100/month for life (about $1350/month today) to her employee Jessie T. Walker, who had agreed to adopt the pooch.
So what happened to the celebration of Stevenson’s birthday after Annie died? There is one person who knows best and I had the pleasure of interviewing her on Wednesday. Let’s take a listen:
Heather Finn: My name is Heather Finn and Annie Ide was my great-grandmother’s sister.
Steve Silverman: Well, welcome to the show. I do appreciate you doing this.
Heather Finn: Thank you very much.
Steve Silverman: The first question I need to ask is, well, do you know much about Annie Ide herself?
Heather Finn: Well, I suppose she is quite a figure in our family. She was my great-grandmother’s sister and she married a very wealthy man. Henry Ide had two daughters, Marjorie and Anne. Marjorie was my grandmother. Anne married Bourke Cockran who an Irishman who was born in Sligo. Very, very clever. His mother died and I think he was so clever that the Jesuit priest sent him to Paris and he did extremely well, moved to New York, became a lawyer, and, actually, he has such a brilliant style of oratory, he spoke so well that he inspired Winston Churchill to give his great speeches.
Steve Silverman: Yes, and I understand that he is a distant relative of yours? Is that correct?
Heather Finn: Winston Churchill was my grandmother’s first cousin. So, we have quite a lot of American relations. Marjorie, my grandmother’s mother was American, but also her grandmother was American, and her grandmother’s sister was Winston Churchill’s mother. So my granny and Winston Churchill were first cousins. There’s that connection there and that would be the connection between Bourke Cockran and Winston Churchill, as well. That’s how they would have known each other. He taught him how to speak and how to give speeches. That’s pretty amazing.
Steve Silverman: I read that he credits Bourke Cockran with teaching him how to be a great orator and a great politician, which I thought was quite interesting.
Heather Finn: Oh, brilliant. Yeah. Bourke Cockran and Anne never had children and I think Anne doted on my grandmother. It was her only sort of niece. She left quite an inheritance to my grandmother as well, so she was very important to her. But, what I didn’t realize was that I found out from my mom that Anne didn’t die until 1945, so my grandmother didn’t get this birthday as a child. She was in World War II, so she was an adult when this came to her. It’s kind of unusual.
Steve Silverman: Actually, it was announced in the papers a number of years before Annie died that she was leaving the birthday to your grandmother.
Heather Finn: Oh, I didn’t actually know that. Okay.
Steve Silverman: Yeah. So she must have known. I don’t know how old she was at the time. I want to say that she was a teenager, but at that point, she knew that she was going to inherit this birthday. And then when Annie Ide died, she got it.
Heather Finn: That’s Lovely. Yeah.
Steve Silverman: What can you tell me about your grandmother? I mean, since she inherited Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday.
Heather Finn: She was born in Ireland. She wanted to join the war effort, but in Britain, they didn’t allow women to join, so she went to France and they allowed her to join, to enlist there. She became an ambulance driver in the French Army and she went in under heavy fire and rescued people on both sides. I think she was one of the first women into a concentration camp after the Allies were freeing people and she’s written lots and lots books. She wrote, she was a great writer, so if people are interested they can look up her Wikipedia page and they can see her books and her story. She had a really, really interesting life, Very interesting life.
Steve Silverman: How many children did she have? Do you know?
Heather Finn: Two. So she had my uncle and my mother.
Steve Silverman: When your grandmother passed on, what happened to Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday?
Heather Finn: Well, I was very close to my grandmother. I sort of lived on and off with her really, because we lived almost next door as a child. She died when I was six. It was a verbal. She had told her solicitor or her lawyer who was a very close friend that she wanted me to have it because we were very close. So that’s how I kind of came to me. Really it’s just a bit of fun, you know, more than anything serious.
Steve Silverman: Just to make it clear. You inherited Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday.
Heather Finn: Yes. I inherited Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday.
Steve Silverman: I guess I should ask: How are you keeping the tradition alive? Stevenson did require that you celebrate every year the birthday?
Heather Finn: Every year we have a bottle of champagne and, of late, my husband cooks me a really nice dinner. I remember that he printed out all the documents, you know, for fun. We have some champagne and a nice meal, really. Nothing more than that but we always mark it. It’s definitely as much me as my own birthday. You kind of feel you have to do it, keep the tradition going.
Steve Silverman: Stevenson did this in kind of a whimsical approach and it’s nice that it’s being kept alive. I assume that you have children?
Heather Finn: I have one daughter. One daughter.
Steve Silverman: One daughter. I’m guessing that she is going to inherit this after?
Heather Finn: Yeah, I think so because we have to keep it going. It’s such a special little thing. I think she definitely will.
Steve Silverman: How old is she now?
Heather Finn: She is two.
Steve Silverman: So she has no clue what this means.
Heather Finn: No. No idea yet.
Steve Silverman: But I assume that you’re going to educate her fairly early on as to who Robert Louis Stevenson was.
Heather Finn: Absolutely. We will read her all of the books and tell her all of the stories.
Steve Silverman: I have a few other questions for you. Do you have any idea what happened to that original document that Robert Louis Stevenson had written?
Heather Finn: I think that an American University has the document in their library. That’s what my mom was told when she was in Edinburgh for the hundred-year anniversary, but she didn’t remember what university, but I’m sure we could find out. I’m sure somebody will come back to you, but that’s where I think it is. In America in a university library.
Steve Silverman: Do you recall how you learned about the fact that you inherited Stevenson’s birthday?
Heather Finn: I don’t really remember. It’s sort of always been there in the background, but I suppose when I turned eighteen we started having a glass of champagne on it, so that’s when I really remember sort of getting to enjoy it.
Steve Silverman: And, of course, if you don’t celebrate it what happens to it?
Heather Finn: It goes to the President of the United States.
Steve Silverman: You may not want to let him know about that.
Heather Finn: I know, Definitely not. I’m going to keep celebrating it. Don’t worry.
Steve Silverman: That’s good. If you look at Annie’s gravestone, she did adopt the middle name Louisa. It’s actually engraved into the tombstone, but she kept her own birthday. She wasn’t buried with his birthday.
Heather Finn: Oh, yeah, She was having the two. Yeah.
Steve Silverman: Well, at least you’re lucky. You get to celebrate two birthdays a year.
Heather Finn: I get two. Exactly. I’m spoiled. It’s brilliant.
Steve Silverman: Has anyone in your family ever been jealous of you getting this or not?
Heather Finn: I don’t think so. I think my mom always likes to celebrate it like it’s hers as well. Even if we are not together she always opens a bottle of champagne as well and marks it.
Steve Silverman: That’s good.
Heather Finn: Yeah.
Steve Silverman: Obviously, she could have inherited it also.
Heather Finn: I know. She doesn’t know why she didn’t.
Steve Silverman: I was wondering if maybe she had a hand in the decision of handing it down to you.
Heather Finn: No, I don’t think so.
Steve Silverman: Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
Heather Finn: No. I think you asked all of the questions. I hope that I answered everything. That’s it really because it’s an unusual thing to be asked about. You know, if you told people they would just think that you are mad, you know. How can you have Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday? It doesn’t make sense to people.
That was all that the two of us discussed regarding Stevenson’s birthday, but the conversation did continue. If you hang around until the end of the podcast, you can hear more of my interview with Heather Finn, including what she currently does for a living and what it is like to live in a real-life castle.
I should also add that Heather’s grandmother was author Anita Leslie King. She was nineteen years old when Annie willed Stevenson’s birthday to her in December of 1933.
It seems appropriate to bring this story to a close with an unpublished poem that Robert Louis Stevenson penned:
In for a penny.
In for a pound,
In for a name
And all round.
Which will you take?
And how will you choose?
By colour or weight
Or the glass shoes?
Once and for all I’ve chosen, chosen
Once and for all and what’er betide,
Annie Louisa, Annie Louisa,
Annie Louisa Ide.
I have chosen at a venture,
Nothing I knew;
Chose like a fool,
And that’s true;
Chose like an ass
And chose like a ninny
Once and for all, I’ve chosen, chosen,
Once and for all, and think with pride
Of Annie Louisa, Annie Louisa
Annie Louisa Ide.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
The original letter from Robert Louis Stevenson is at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury Vermont.
Wow! That is great to know. I wasn’t sure where the letter ended up, but I figured that it was probably in the collection of a museum. Thanks!