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The Executor as “Spokesman of the Soul”; Revisiting the Will of Alfred Nobel

"I regard large inherited wealth as a misfortune, which merely serves to dull men’s faculties. A man who possesses great wealth should, therefore, allow only a small portion to descend to his relatives. Even if he has children, I consider it a mistake to hand over to them considerable sums of money beyond what is necessary for their education. To do so merely encourages laziness and impedes the healthy development of the individual’s capacity to make an independent position for himself." – excerpt from the last will of Alfred Nobel, 1833-1896

Born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833, Alfred Nobel was the third son of Immanuel Nobel, an engineer and inventor, and Andriette Ahlsell. After being sent abroad for study, Alfred became best known for mixing siliceous earth with nitroglycerine, forming it into a rod, and coining it ‘dynamite’. In addition to his obvious attraction to science, innovation and industrialism, Nobel was also drawn to social issues, as touched upon in a previous Hull and Hull LLP blog .

On November 27, 1895, Nobel signed his third and last will in Paris. It was handwritten on a yellow notepad, with notes scribbled in the margin, and Nobel had discussed it with no one. (Click here for the full text of the will).

                                   

After he died of a stroke at his villa in Italy in 1896, shock and controversy ensued when it was discovered that Nobel had bequeathed the bulk of his fortune (the equivalent of $214 million in today’s money) for the establishment of what would come to be known as the Nobel Prizes: coveted and prestigious annual prizes in five categories, awarded without distinction of nationality. Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, two of Nobel’s young engineers, were named as executors, and one of their first tasks was to collect Nobel’s far-flung assets and move them quickly back to Sweden before French authorities could make claim to the money. Nobel’s shares, bonds and documents were rounded up and hurried to the Swedish consulate in Paris by horse-drawn cab, escorted by Sohlman, who was armed with a revolver ‘at the ready in case of direct attack’.

The will was incredibly controversial, and was indeed flawed, imprecise and legally deficient. Apparently Nobel had had such negative experiences with lawyers (‘niggling parasites’, as he referred to them) when defending his dynamite patents that he had drawn up the will himself. Initially, Nobel’s permanent domicile could not be easily determined since he had lived in so many countries. To complicate matters, the executors were left the task of forming the Foundation, which was done in Sweden where the will was eventually probated. Nobel had not even consulted the various Prize-awarding institutions to seek their consent to participate in the awarding of the Prizes. Most surprisingly for Nobel’s relatives, this third will contradicted an earlier will in that Nobel’s heirs, instead of receiving twenty percent of the estate would now only receive specific legacies. Two bitter nephews quickly challenged the will and tried to have it declared null and void, however, another nephew residing in Russia told Sohlman about the Russian concept that the executor is ‘the spokesman of the soul’ of the testator. King Oscar II of Sweden added fuel to the fire when he dismissed Nobel’s wishes as ‘nonsensical’ and ’not patriotic minded’ because his property would now be dispersed internationally. King Oscar II later recanted his disapproval when he realized that publicity about the prizes might, in fact, benefit Sweden, and in 1902, handed out the first prizes to the laureates on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger