David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

The Great Stork Derby: Parshat Shemot

The Ambrose Harrison family with 14 children, eight born during the Great Stork Derby. (Public Domain/ St. Louis Post Dispatch 1936)
The Ambrose Harrison family with 14 children, eight born during the Great Stork Derby. (Public Domain/ St. Louis Post Dispatch 1936)

Few practical jokes impacted as many lives as those of Charles Vance Millar.

Millar was born on June 28, 1854, on a farm in Canada, near Aylmer, Ontario, the only child of Simon and Sarah Millar. As he grew older, his father wanted him to become a farmer. But his mother helped him raise the funds to study at the University of Toronto, where he won the gold medal for natural sciences. From there he went to Osgoode Hall Law School, from which he graduated in 1881. Then he joined a Toronto law firm where he spent the next four decades or so specializing in company and contract law.

In his spare time, he raced horses. In 1915, one of his horses, named Tartarean, won the King’s Plate. Just a month before his death, Millar saw his two-year-old Troutlet win the Clarendon Plate.

Charles Vance Millar. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

He was also president and a large stockholder in O’Keefe’s Brewery.

It seems he never patched things up with his father, but he was a devoted son to his mother, who passed away in 1915.

On October 31, 1926, Millar was speaking with two friends over lunch at the Queen’s Hotel. They began arguing about a point of law. Millar invited them to come back to his law office so he could prove them both wrong. The 73-year-old Millar ran on ahead to his office on the third floor of the Crown Life Building. Since it was Sunday, the elevator was not operating. So he raced up the stairs, laughing and joking with his friends. Moments later, sitting at his desk with a law book open, he collapsed and died almost instantly.

The next day, the article on page 5 of the Toronto Star read, “Charles Millar Dies Suddenly at Office: Seized with Stroke while Discussing Point of Law with Partner.”

Taken with a heart seizure Charles Millar, prominent lawyer in Toronto for forty years and a widely known horseman died suddenly in his offices at the Crown Life Building at Yonge and Colborne streets.

The stroke came while he was in the company of George Anderson of the post office department, Ottawa, during a discussion on a point of law with Charles Kemp, a law partner. Dr John Maynard was summoned, but Mr. Millar passed away before his arrival…

Mr. Millar was in his 73rd year, was unmarried and interment will take place in Ayimer where he was born and where his parents are buried in the family plot…

Members of his staff stated last night they had never known him to be ill and that any holidays he had were usually spent at Kingston, Jamaica, in the early spring or late winter months.

Mr. Millar’s chief recreation was in watching his horses race throughout the summer months. It is thought to have been horse racing which instilled in him a love for the open air. Summer or winter alike he always slept on his veranda. He had been a breeder of horses for years and at the time of his death owned seven race horses…

The only club Mr. Millar belonged to was the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and his chief business interest apart from his law practice was as the presidency of O’Keefe’s Brewery in which he was a large stockholder.

That his death was reported as far away as The New York Times indicates his standing.

What was not reported was Millar’s sense of humor. He used to place a dollar bill on the sidewalk and sit on the veranda of the Queen’s Hotel behind a newspaper, watching as passersby struggled with deciding whether to find who had dropped the money, or just pocketing it. An old employee of the hotel said, “He derived the keenest pleasure in watching the reactions of passersby when they discovered it. When one bill had gone, he would replace it with another.”

Another time, wanting to serve a summons on a prominent but reluctant Toronto businessman, he wrapped it up in a gift-wrapped box and sent it to him. On the label it said the value of the gift was $25. The package was duly signed for, and the summons thereby served. “A lesser amount might not tempt him, and a larger one might make him suspicious. But a twenty-five dollar something-for-nothing is just about right for most men,” he said.

A successful lawyer, who had never married and had no dependents, he had amassed a sizeable fortune by the time of his death. When the attorneys read his will, they discovered that his sense of humor had not abated.

Millar began his will with the following words:

This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime.

The will began slightly tongue in cheek, with a gift of $10,000 to “A.L. Gourlay of the J.J. McLaughlin Company, Toronto… as he lost approximately that sum in a business transaction with me.”

He left money to his housekeeper and his friend Charles Kemp, who was only 22 years old when Millar dropped dead in front of him.

He left “one half of the shares I own in the British Columbia Express Company” to Willis West. The joke here was that these shares were worth only $1.

Next, he gave:

To Honorable W.E. Raney, A.M. Orpen and Reverend Samuel D. Chown, each one share in the Ontario Jockey Club providing three years from my death each of them becomes enrolled as shareholders in the share register of the club.

The joke here was that two of them were strongly opposed to racetrack betting, and the third was Canada’s foremost racetrack operator, club owner and gambling king. Similarly, he gave one share in the Kenilworth Jockey Club to every ordained minister in the towns of Walkerville, Sandwich and Windsor.

He gave shares in the O’Keefe brewery to every Protestant Minister in Toronto. He gave his home in Jamaica to three lawyer friends who couldn’t stand each other on condition that they all lived there together.

But clause nine was where things moved from a joke to unintended social engineering.

Clause nine of Millar’s will reads:

All the rest and residue of my property wheresoever situate I give, devise and bequest unto my executors and trustees named below in Trust to convert into money as they deem advisable and invest all the money until the expiration of nine years from my death and then call in and convert it all into money and at that time give it and its accumulations to the Mother who has since my death given birth to the greatest number of Children as shown by the Registrations under the Vital Statistics Act. If one or more mothers have equal highest numbers of registrations under the said Act to divide the said moneys and accumulations between them.

As a lifelong bachelor, perhaps Millar merely wanted to support families with many mouths to feed. But what in fact happened, in the poverty of pre-Depression Canada, was that this became a challenge, a race to see who could have the most children in the next ten years.

Whether or not it was Millar’s intent, the newspapers loved the competitive baby challenge, dubbing it the Great Stork Derby.

It led not only to many births, but also to many legal challenges, racism and classism, and discussions about morals.

Smith Family (Fred holding Audrey, Annie holding David, then 9l-r) Thelma, Viola, Nonna, Edward)

Elizabeth Wilton wrote about this at length in her 1994 master’s thesis, entitled, “Bearing the Burden: The Great Toronto Stork Derby: 1926-1938.” I highly recommend reading this for an understanding of 1920s and 30s North America, but also because it casts the modern era in an interesting light.

Obviously, Millar’s relatives were not pleased with the will. He had nine first cousins at the time of his death. They only heard of his bequest from the newspapers.

The relatives sued for their share of the estate, arguing that the will, “tended to place a premium on immorality by offering an inducement to women, whether married or not, to compete against each other in sexual indulgence.”

Not only was the morality of “sexual indulgence” raised, but, as Wilton writes, also the importance of marriage:

As well, there was the issue of legitimacy. This arose because one of the mothers had five children by her husband and after separation from him, had five children by another man. Great scandal and a tremendous amount of legal debate surrounded this issue. Had Millar meant to count all children in his bequest or only legitimate children?

The will did not mention any limitation of only counting legitimate children, but the courts of 1930s Toronto ruled that clearly this was the implied meaning.

Furthermore, the latent racism of the time was not very subtle. For example, Mrs. Bagnato gave birth to her 20th child – though only five were born after Millar’s death and therefore including in the race for his bequest. A competitive Mrs. Brown said of her:

I can’t let any Italian get away with that leadership stuff. I’m a Canadian and so is my husband. We’re honest to gosh dyed in the wool native-born Canadians of the fifth generation and think six babies in five years ought to lead.

Her husband said, “If a few more Canadians would be themselves and produce a decent sized family the country would not be overrun by ‘foreigners.’”

Wilton also points out that:

It is apparent that class was a major category of identity in the denouement of this story. It was primarily poor families that participated in the competition, and it was only the families that conformed closest to middle class standards (or were in fact middle-class) that won the money… Non-Protestant families did not conform to middle-class standards. Only one out of the four winning families was Catholic.

Ten years after Millar’s death, and many court cases and disqualifications later, four families shared the prize money having given birth to nine children each. Wilton writes:

At the end of the competition four families, the Nagles, the Timlecks, the Macleans and the Smiths shared in the. money. Each family received approximately $100,000 dollars (reports ranged from $75,000 to $125,000) for their efforts which had produced nine registered children in the ten-year period.

The race to produce children brought out the worst in some Canadians. And it starkly highlighted the difference between the middle and upper classes, who tended to have smaller families, and the lower classes, who reproduced at a far higher rate.

In this week’s Torah portion of Shemot, we read that the slavery and persecution in Egypt was a direct result of the high fertility rates among the Israelites (Exodus 1:7-10):

The Children of Israel were fruitful and spawned and increased very greatly, and the land was filled with them. Then a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people: ‘Behold, the Children of Israel are more numerous and mighty than us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they increase.

Rashi explains that the Israelite women would give birth to sextuplets. He is citing Shemot Rabba which has other opinions that the children were born 12 at a time, or even 60 at once. If Pharaoh had been aware of Malthusian theory, he would have known that this was entirely unsustainable, and in a couple more generations would almost certainly have led Egypt to famine or war. As heartless as his decrees were, they were also mostly logical. When he said, “Let us deal wisely,” he was cruel and evil but not necessarily wrong.

One of the really interesting things about the population growth, is that it seems to have been primarily among the lower classes of Israelite society. When Moses is born, he has only two siblings. A family of three children seems unusual at a time when other families are having multiple sets of sextuplets. But it makes sense if we understand that Moses’s family was not part of the lowest stratum of society.

“A man of the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi,” (Exodus 2:1). Moses’s parents were important enough that they don’t need to be mentioned by name. Their marriage would have made the equivalent of the tabloids in Egypt. It is little wonder that Miriam, Moses’s sister, was not overawed when she saw Pharaoh’s daughter, but was able to engage in conversation with her. Similarly, Yocheved, Moses’s mother, was comfortable enough with high society that she could go and nurse Moses in Pharaoh’s palace.

It seems that the Levites, who had a higher status in Egypt, like the Egyptian priests that Joseph had elevated (Genesis 47:26), also had a lower birthrate.

Later in the Torah, when the tribes are counted, the tribe of Levi is by far the smallest, numbering only 22,000 men. The next smallest, Manasseh, had over 10,000 more. The three smallest tribes after Levi were the tribes of Joseph’s full brother Benjamin, and his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Compare that to he largest tribe, that of Judah, which had a whopping 74,600 men.

It seems that the closer a tribe was to royalty, the lower its birthrate.

Similarly, Moses despite being far from Pharaoh’s Egypt, had only two children. His wife, Zipporah, was the daughter of the priest of Midian, another man with high standing in society.

And Moses did not bring back his sons with him to Egypt. The verse states, “Moses took his wife and sons,” (Exodus 4:19) but then in chapter 18, it says that Zipporah and the boys came to rejoin Moses after the Israelites had left Egypt and were nearing Mount Sinai.

Rashi (on Exodus 18:2) explains that although they set out for Egypt as a family, Moses’s brother Aaron explained that it would be better if his wife and children returned to Midian.

He said: ‘Who are these?’

[Moses] replied: ”This is my wife, who I married in Midian and these are my children.’

[Aaron] asked: ‘And where are you taking them?’

[Moses said: ‘To Egypt.’

[Aaron] exclaimed: ‘We are suffering with the first ones [the children already in Egypt] and you want to add more?’

So he sent her back to her father’s house.

The generous reading is that there was no point in bringing more people down to suffer in Egypt. A less generous reading is that the contrast between Moses’s upper class children and those of the slaves in Egypt would have just rubbed salt in the wounds of the persecuted Israelites.

So it seems that the Israelite tribes that suffered the most and were on the lowest social rung had the largest families. Those who were higher on the social scale, had fewer.

(The truth is that based on the numbers and genealogies given in the Torah, nobody actually had multiple sets of sextuplets in the family).

This disparity in birthrate is a global phenomenon to this day. Some of the poorest countries have the highest birthrates. Topping the list in fertility is Niger, where women have an average of 6.7 children each. Of the top 30 countries, all but three are in developing African countries. At the other extreme are Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore, where women have on average fewer than one baby each.

Judaism places a high value on reproduction. The first mitzvah listed in the Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply.” Yet the reality is far more complicated. And it is interesting to see that in the biblical story, the better off families had fewer children than those lower down the socioeconomic scale.

The Great Stork Derby was intended to help large families look after their children. But it became a battleground of racism, discrimination and classism. We should do our best to care for our families, and all other families, regardless of whether they have many children or few.

PS: I also learned a lot from book about this story, by Mark Orkin, entitled, “The Great Stork Derby.

On Tuesday, January 9, I’ll be giving the second shiur in my series for WebYeshiva “Tour of the Beit Midrash” about the  Mishna. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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