Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: A Texas farmer named Herman Oberweiss filed an unusual, self-penned will in 1934.
Origins: The will of Herman Oberweiss, an apparently cantankerous old man with a grudge against his brother Oscar, has long been claimed to be an actual will offered for probate in Anderson County, Texas, in 1934. August legal authorities such as University of California Law School
But is it real? Some of the contextual clues should give the alert reader pause. Herman, we glean from the text, was an east Texas farmer who wrote using a syntax indicative of a native German speaker and was familiar with more than a few Yiddish words, indicating that he was likely Jewish. Yet he used a number of terms indicative of a polyglot of non-Jewish religious denominations: "pastor," "elder," and "meeting house." A Lutheran or (Roman Catholic) congregation would have a pastor, but it wouldn't refer to its church as a "meeting house." Quakers use the term "meeting house," but they don't have pastors.
These curiosities may make the will suspicious, but they don't prove the will to be phony, do they? Well, how about the fact that the Anderson County clerk's office has no record of this will's ever having been offered for probate? Ah, 1934 was a long time ago, you say — maybe they lost the paperwork.
Fortunately, we don't have to rely on surmise and supposition. It turns out that the Oberweiss Will, just like the infamous Ronald Opus case study, was a work of fiction created by a banquet attendee for the amusement of his audience. Judge Jerry Buchmeyer's 1982 article in the Texas Bar Journal revealed that the Oberweiss culprit was a Houston attorney named Will Sears, who devised it for a law school banquet in 1931. As often happens, once the piece was removed from its initial context, people overlooked the humor and took it to be the Real McCoy.
Last updated: 10 July 2007
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