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There are some people who go through life virtually unnoticed. They are born onto this Earth, live a quiet and unassuming life, and then, in the end, seem to vanish as if they had never existed.

One such man was James Kidd, who was born to Ellen and William Kidd in Ogdensburg, NY on August 18, 1878. There is very little known about James Kidd and, what is known, was not pieced together until after he passed.

The 1940 U.S. census shows that he had a fourth-grade education, worked as a pump man in the copper mining industry and earned $1,754 ($31,800 today) that year. Yet, he lived the life of a pauper. Jim slept on park benches, went hungry at times, and traveled across the country by sneaking aboard freight trains. He would chew the same piece of gum over and over again, storing it in a small tin aspirin box that he carried in his pocket.

In 1967, miner Mike Pesely recalled, “I knew him when I was a high school boy. I used to walk past the shack on my way to the swimming hole. I always called him ‘Captain Kidd.’ I liked him. You know how kids are always hungry? Well, he would give me peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I think that’s what he ate mostly, too. He did for himself, always; he called himself ‘an old bachelor.’ He read a lot. He was quiet, was sort of jolly, and he liked to talk to kids. He never wore a necktie, always had his shirt buttoned up at the throat. And I remember his hat. Most people put a crease in their hats, but he didn’t. He just wore it standing straight up.”

Photograph of James Kidd recovered from his safe deposit box.
Photograph of James Kidd recovered from his safe deposit box. Image from the March 3, 1967 issue of Life Magazine.

Few ever saw Jim without that old grey Fedora upon his head. On the rare occasion when he did remove it, a balding scalp surrounded by graying hair was revealed. He never married, had no known relatives or close friends, and kept to himself. Jim never obtained a driver’s license and had no military record. It was said that he loved to gamble, but entered each game knowing exactly how much he was prepared to lose.

Beginning in September 1920, James Kidd was employed by the Miami Copper Company in Arizona. His job was to keep the wastewater pumps running smoothly. In November 1941, a rubber belt flew off one of the pumps and Kidd struggled to shut off a critical valve so that the entire building wouldn’t become flooded. He was able to get the stubborn valve closed but, in doing so, the wrench slipped and he was thrust toward the pump. He was stopped from near-certain death by an 8-inch (20 cm) diameter pipe which caused significant bruising to his chest.

Some days later, Kidd was back on the job when he suddenly fell and lost consciousness. It was later, during a workmen’s compensation hearing, that the only record of his actual words was made: “I could feel it then—I had no strength or mental condition. I don’t know which.” He continued, “It seemed impossible to try to do something for myself. I don’t remember where my hands were, but there is a four-inch water line that sticks above the ground, and my shoes are longer than my toes and may have doubled against me. I never looked to see but I do know I was in that position and couldn’t do anything for myself. I had no control over my legs, I couldn’t do a thing. When I became more conscious I realized if I could get on my side, it might do me good. I don’t know how I got there, or which side, I forget, and then after a certain time, which I don’t know for sure, I regained more consciousness and in time, I can’t remember the time, I felt able to get up again.”

Since doctors had diagnosed Jim as having suffered a heart attack, coupled with the fact that he had never filed a report after being whacked in the chest by that pipe, his claim was rejected. The company offered him a job as a watchman but opted, instead, to retire and move to Phoenix. It was there that Jim was able to rent a small apartment at 335 North 9th Avenue for $4.00 per week (about $43/week today). Claiming that he lacked the funds to pay the rent, his landlord allowed him to do small jobs to help offset the cost.

Draft registration card for James Kidd.
Draft registration card for James Kidd.

It was on the evening of November 8, 1949, that Jim borrowed a pickaxe from an acquaintance and indicated that he would be headed toward a couple of claims that he had made in the Globe-Miami area, which lies some 80-miles (130 km) east of Phoenix. At 6:00 the next morning, a car pulled up outside, Jim locked the door to his room, got into the car, and drove off. James Kidd was never to be seen again. To this day, no one knows who picked him up or where he was dropped off.

Clearly, having always been a bit of a loner, it should come as no surprise that no one noticed for quite some time that Kidd had never returned. It wouldn’t be until December 29th that his landlord would inform Phoenix police that he was missing. A search of his apartment by officers revealed nothing unusual. Everything seemed as it should have been, as if he had intended to return within a short period of time.

The search did uncover one interesting fact: James Kidd was not as poor as he had let others believe. A checkbook showed that he had over $3,800 (over $40,000 adjusted for inflation) sitting in an account at the Valley National Bank. In addition, he had received a dividend check for $382.50 a few weeks prior to his disappearance. A man named Pete Oviedo later recalled that Jim had told him, “I never would make any money working; it would have to be through stocks or prospecting.” Apparently, James Kidd was true to his word and dabbled a bit in both.

With no known relatives, there was no pressure to locate his body or disperse of his estate, so the investigation into his death was brought to a close in 1954. James Kidd was officially declared dead.

That would seem to be the end of the story, but everything changed in 1956 when Arizona passed the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act, which required that all property that has been unclaimed for seven years needed to be turned over to the state of Arizona within ninety days.

Suddenly, a deluge of unclaimed estates landed on the desk of Geraldine C. Swift, Arizona’s Estate Tax Commissioner at the time. That included the estate of James Kidd.

Initially, Mrs. Swift’s office did little other than document Kidd’s estate. The situation changed in 1957 when a safe deposit box that had been rented by him showed up in her office. The box contained things like a few faded photographs, a transcript from his workmen’s comp hearing, and three stock sell orders. Most importantly, there was a bulky envelope on which the words “Buying slips from E. F. Hutton Company, Keep” was written. It suddenly became clear that James Kidd had thousands of shares of stock, some of which were still issuing dividends. In other words, James Kidd was far from a poor retired pumpman – he was very well off.

Surely James Kidd had to have had some relatives, no matter how far distant, and Mrs. Swift set out to locate them. She ran inquiries with the post office, the Social Security Administration, the U. S. Census Bureau, and even hired a private investigation firm to assist in the search. No heir was ever located.

Meanwhile, his estate continued to grow. Mrs. Swift later stated, “In February 1963, the state examiners were in my office making their yearly check and they said, ‘You’ve had this estate for 5 years, why don’t you dispose of it?’” She added, “Well, that seemed sensible to me. But I’d thought I go through everything in the deposit box one more time.”

On the day that Mrs. Swift’s team opted to enter the vault of the First National Bank at 1st Street and Washington Avenues in Phoenix, work crews had turned the power off to the building. Armed with flashlights, they began to inventory everything in Kidd’s box. It occurred to her that no one had ever bothered to look through all of those buying slips in that bulky envelope. As she began to look through the slips, a small piece of paper fell out of the stack. It was a piece of lined notebook paper, marked page 498, that had been torn from a ledger. She stated, “And then, tucked away in an envelope with rolled-up brokers’ receipts I found it—that will. I had mixed emotions. For a minute I could have eaten it.”

That’s right, she had found what may have been James Kidd’s will. It read: “this is my first and only will and is dated the second of January, 1946. I have no heirs and have not been married in my life and after all my funeral expenses have been paid and #100. one hundred dollars to some preacher of the gospel to say fare well at my grave sell all my property which is all in cash and stocks with E. F. Hutton Co Phoenix some in safety deposit box, and have this balance money to go in a research or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death I think in time there can be a Photograph of soul leaving the human at death, James Kidd.”

Reflecting on this discovery several years later, Mrs. Swift commented, “My first reaction was I just couldn’t believe it was real, it must be a joke. And then I thought I’d better look at it again. I looked, and I thought, well, it’s dated, January 2, 1946, and it was signed in his handwriting. We had a signature card for his bank account at the Valley National Bank; it was actually in his safe deposit box. I knew his signature so well. It was exactly the same on both documents. I recognized his handwriting, and after reading it three times, and holding this tiny little thing in my hand, I thought: Now here it is. What am I going to do with it? But of course, I knew. I knew, naturally that I was going to keep it. You know, if it had been a normal will, and to think it had been in there all this time… But to read this in this dark room by flashlight! I mean, everything the way it was, it was a very eerie feeling. I just sat there and thought that I just had to be dreaming.

“It was quite a feeling, really. It rocked me—it rocked me. To think it had been in my possession all these years. Then, of course, I was very happy to think that here’s a man who writes a will and I’m so happy that I found it. And I’ll see that his wish is carried out. You know, you have the funny feeling in the beginning, the very eerie feeling… but then you have your true feeling: Well, I’m the administrator of this law, and naturally I want to put it into the proper hands.”

Mrs. Swift turned to the Attorney General’s office for help in trying to figure out how to best execute the highly unusual will. While some of the staff were of the opinion that the will was invalid and should either be ignored or destroyed, while Mrs. Swift insisted that the document should be executed just as James Kidd wished.

Unable to agree on how to proceed, a petition was made to the Arizona Superior Court to rule on the validity of the will. Judge Robert L. Myers was appointed to handle the case. Initially, the question he needed to rule on was straightforward: Was this a valid will and, if so, how should the money, now valued at $174,065.69 (over $1.4 million today), be distributed?

It wasn’t long before the press picked up on the story of a missing man who had left a fortune to be used in the search for the human soul. The Phoenix Gazette was the first to report on the story and soon it had hit newspapers all over the world.

Initially, there were just two challenges to the will: On March 5, 1964, the University of Life Church in Phoenix filed a petition with the court claiming that they, as a religious organization, were best suited to do the scientific soul searching. This was followed by a group that claimed to relatives of James Kidd who sought to have the will invalidated, in which case the funds would be distributed to them.

But it wasn’t long before others would challenge the will, including the Barrow Neurological Institute, the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and the Psychical Research Foundation out of Durham, North Carolina.

“I know of no precedence for the case nationally,” Judge Myers told the press. “Mr. Kidd assumes in his will that man does have a soul. This Court is concerned only with the legal problems of the will, whether anyone can prove the soul scientifically to the Court, or will research the existence of the soul.”

As the case dragged on, Myers ruled that Kidd’s will was legit and set formal hearings for March 6, 1967. The court was suddenly buried in a deluge of mail from all over the world. Unable to answer each letter individually, a form letter was prepared that advised each claimant that they had the right to counsel and, after paying a $15 ($115 today) filing fee, would be able to present their case at the hearings.

Judge Robert L. Myers seating behind a stack of letters received from claimants all around the world.
Judge Robert L. Myers seating behind a stack of letters received from claimants all around the world. Image from the March 3, 1967 issue of Life Magazine.

While there were legitimate claimants, the most unusual ones are far more interesting. Here is a small sampling of some of the correspondence that the court received:

“I believe I am the only logical existing person to fulfill the requirements asked for by Mr. Kidd,” wrote a man from Detroit. “I only need about $36,000 to $50,000 of the money to develop an extra sensatory [sic] perception machine through which Mr. Kidd’s soul may send a message to earth.”

A woman from Long Beach, California wrote, “I have been testing and refining my formula of axiomatic acid-proof revelation against all comers for the last 25 years. But whether I am interested in Mr. Kidd’s prize will depend largely upon the rules of judging.”

This idea that this was some sort of contest appeared to be a common thread in the letters:

“Dear Sir, I wrote you yesterday seeking information as to where I could send in my answer to the Kidd Mystery Contest, and I FORGOT to put a stamp on the return envelope. Here it is again, and thanks.”

“Your Honor: I would like to try for the great prize offered for the person that can prove that life is eternal, etc.”

“The human being has two souls, a white soul and a black soul, a negative and a positive one,” wrote a man from Brazil. “Which one do you want me to prove the existence of?”

One woman was quite blunt: “I wouldn’t be human if I did not wish for some of Mr. Kidd’s loot to buy me a new set of teeth.”

As the case began to take on a bit of a circus atmosphere, Judge Myers did what he needed to do. He stayed focused on his role. “It is the job of a probate judge to carry out the wishes of a testator, insofar as he can.” He added, “If anyone can fulfill James Kidd’s stipulations, my job is to see that it is done.”

After several delays, Judge Myers opened the hearing on June 6, 1967 with the following statement: “Probate Cause Number 58416 in the matter of the estate of James Kidd. This is the time set for the hearing on the petition of Claimant Number Nine, the American Society for Psychical Research.” His honor had set aside eighteen days for all to present their claims. When a lawyer for the Society informed the judge that he anticipated that their presentation would take two days, it was clear that it was going to take far more time than the judge had anticipated.

John G. Fuller, in his 1969 book “The Great Soul Trial, offers nearly 200-pages of blow-by-blow testimony by some of the bigger players in the case. Yet, once again, it’s the quirkier ones that grabbed headlines in the newspapers. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Mrs. Jean Bright, a mother of five from Encino, claimed that she was in contact with the soul of San Fernando dentist Dr. Earl S. Marshall, who had passed away on April 25, 1965. Six weeks later, she made her first contact with him during a muscular spasm. To prove that she was in contact with him while giving her testimony, she wore earplugs and placed a portable noisy hairdryer over her head so that she would be unable to hear the questions being asked. And, so that she wouldn’t be able to read lips, the questioner stood behind her. By nodding or shaking her head she was able to answer 15 of the 18 questions correctly.

Mrs. Jean Bright testified in court with a noisy hairdryer over her head.
Mrs. Jean Bright testified in court with a noisy hairdryer over her head. Rosemary Phillips is behind her asking the questions. Image appeared on page 1 of the San Fernando Valley section of the August 10, 1967 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

57-year-old Nora Higgins of Branscomb, California told the court that she had seen the spirit of James Kidd about a week prior to the hearing. She described how it happened: “I had just finished my housework and had walked into my bedroom when I saw a man standing there. I said, ‘Good morning, who are you?’” He just stood there and smiled back at her. She continued, “I was suddenly impressed that this was James Kidd. But in about half a minute he disappeared into a white fluorescent light and went up through the ceiling.” During her testimony, Mrs. Higgins stated that Kidd was in the courtroom “pacing up and down with his hands behind his back, shaking his head at the proceedings.” She also claimed that most of the time he was seated at a table directly in front of Judge Myers, although she was the only person who could see him.

Chicago resident Fred B. Nordstrom sought advice from those that knew the most about the heavens: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Houston, Texas. They politely wrote back, “We regret commitments to the Apollo project do not leave sufficient time to give the necessary depth evaluation. We must leave pedagogical research to others.”

In the end, 133 soul searchers from all walks of life offered up an estimated 800,000 words of testimony. The hearing took thirteen weeks and cost the residents of Maricopa County an estimated $10,000 (over $75,000 today).

On October 20, 1967, Judge Myers handed down his decision. “Considering the language of the last will and testament of the deceased as a whole, it was the intention and desire of the deceased that the residue and remainder of his estate be used for the purpose of research which may lead to some scientific proof of a soul of the individual human which leaves the body at death…. It is incumbent on the Court to ensure that the residue and remainder of the estate of the deceased be used in such a manner as to benefit mankind as a whole to the greatest degree possible.”

He continued, “This can be best accomplished by the distribution of the said funds for the purpose of research which may lead to some scientific proof of a soul of the individual human which leaves the body at death…. Such research can be best done in the combined field of medical science, psychiatry, and psychology, and can best be performed and carried on by the Barrow Neurological Institute, Phoenix, Arizona.”

With 132 disappointed petitioners, it was clear that the decision would be appealed. While the Arizona Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Myers’ decision, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on January 19, 1971 that the Barrow Neurological Institute should not get the funds. Instead, they sent the case back to Judge Myers and directed him to choose from one of four claimants. Finally, on July 17, 1971, Myers awarded Kidd’s estate to the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City. In the 21 years, 8 months, and 8 days since James Kidd had disappeared, his estate had grown in value to $297,000 ($1.86 million today).

So, how was it spent?

Lawyers claimed about one-third of the estate in fees and the society turned over an additional $65,000 to a researcher in North Carolina who never discovered anything worth publishing. As for the society itself, they spent the majority of the money on a study of deathbed experiences in both the United States and India. Approximately 1,000 phone calls were made and nearly 5,000 questionnaires were mailed to doctors and nurses in both countries. In papers filed with Judge Myers in June 1975, they reported that they had been unable to prove the existence of the human soul.

Laura Knipe, an executive with the Society, told the New York Daily News on September 8, 1985: “We’re still working on an answer.” She added, “One day we’ll know. One way or the other.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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