How the cats of Dixfield, Maine came into a fortune — and almost lost it
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
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JEFF GUO, HOST:
About 20 years ago, something extraordinary happened in a small town in Maine called Dixfield. It all started with a local woman named Barbara Thorpe. Barbara passed away in 2002, but I found someone who knew her really well - Bev Glover. Bev used to drive Barbara to the doctor's office and the doughnut store. They were close.
BEV GLOVER: I remember one Mother's Day, I went to the store. I was - before I went to church, I went to the store and got a plant and took it to her. And I said, you're like another mother to me. And that - I remember that it made her cry because she never had any kids, and she said she'd never gotten a Mother's Day gift.
GUO: Barbara didn't have any kids. What she did have was cats.
GLOVER: She had two Siamese cats - the boys.
DOUGLIS: The boys.
GLOVER: The boys - I've lost the boys. Can you come help me find them?
GUO: The boys were named Waldo and Henry.
What was Barbara's relationship with cats?
GLOVER: She just loved them. She just loved them.
GUO: OK. But there are, like, different levels of cat lady, you know, right? Like, some people, like, have cats, tolerate cats. Other people like me have them as their phone background.
GLOVER: I think if we would have had phones back then, I think she would have had her cats on her phone background. I'm quite sure.
GUO: It wasn't just the boys either. Barbara loved all cats, and this was rural Maine. Cars would drive through dumping litters of kittens on the side of the road. The town of Dixfield became, like, a haven for these strays. There was a squad of cat ladies in town who would take care of them, and Barbara would help out with some of the bills.
GLOVER: She wanted those cats taken care of.
GUO: Then in 2002, Barbara Thorpe passed away. And in her will, she left her sister-in-law Gloria an antique painted, floral bedroom set. To Bev, she left a cup and saucer.
GLOVER: I still have my cup and saucer on my bookcase in my bedroom.
GUO: But Barbara reserved most of her money - almost $200,000 - for one special purpose. She wanted to create a charitable trust. This is a special legal arrangement where you set aside some money for a charitable purpose, and that money has to be spent according to your wishes, even long after you die. A charitable trust is, like, the closest thing we have to immortality or at least economic immortality. It's like a piece of your soul that can live forever. And the part of her soul that Barbara put into this trust was her love of cats. She dedicated her $200,000 to, quote, "providing shelter, food and health care for all the abandoned and unwanted cats in the town of Dixfield." In other words, those stray cats in Dixfield, they had suddenly become very, very rich. And that is when all the trouble began.
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GUO: Barbara's will sparked this messy, long legal battle that dragged on for more than a decade. And along the way, the cat fortune seemed to just disappear. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jeff Guo.
Charitable trusts are a way for the dead to control vast amounts of money and land basically forever. And that's actually a very weird arrangement. It even used to be illegal because forever - that can get complicated, as in the case of Barbara Thorpe's $200,000 cat fortune. I first heard about the Dixfield cats a couple years ago, and as a major cat lover, I kind of got a little obsessed. So today on the show, we are going to Maine to track down that money, to understand how Barbara's plans went awry and to ask - is any of this a good idea? Should we let dead people use their money to reach into our lives? We are going to pet a lot of cats and find out.
Gosh, how does it feel? How does it feel to be so blessed, so rich? You're a rich, little cat, aren't you?
When Barbara Thorpe left her $200,000 fortune to the stray cats of Dixfield, Maine, it's not like some attorney was going to track down these cats and present them with suitcases full of cash and fancy feast. The money needed to go to humans who would take care of the cats. And the most obvious candidates were the cat ladies of Dixfield. They were this tightknit crew, and their ringleader was a woman named Brenda Jarvis. And OK, yes, everybody in this story apparently has a name that starts with the letter B, but from here on out, you just have to keep two of them straight. Barbara was the one who gave her money to the cats of Dixfield. And Brenda is the chief cat lady of Dixfield. So we went to go see her.
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BRENDA JARVIS: Hi. Welcome to the Arctic Circle. Come on in (laughter).
GUO: Brenda is 82. She is small and skinny with wispy white hair. She lives in a trailer at the edge of town.
JARVIS: I put salt down so you wouldn't kill yourself coming in.
GUO: I brought along PLANET MONEY producer Willa Rubin, who, like me, is a huge cat lover. And when we walked into Brenda's home, we were not disappointed.
JARVIS: One, two...
WILLA RUBIN, BYLINE: Here...
GUO: They're all coming out.
RUBIN: Here are four babies right over here. Hi, sweet kids.
GUO: Look, there's another in the corner.
This is my paradise - a cat on every couch cushion.
JARVIS: Come on, cats.
GUO: Brenda is committed to this cat lady life. She's got a litter box in her bedroom next to a picture of Jesus. She shows us framed photos of cats that don't even belong to her. Brenda says she's only looking after 11 cats these days. She's downsizing. But until recently, she was caring for dozens and dozens of the town's strays. She had turned her parents' trailer, after they died, into a cat sanctuary. Everybody in town knew that cat trailer. Everybody in town knew Brenda.
JARVIS: I got to tell you, one evening, it was Halloween, snowing at that time, Halloween. It was wicked cold. And, of course, every kid in town came to the trailer to see the cat lady and all her cats.
GUO: One group of kids told her they'd just seen a woman throwing some cats out into the cold.
JARVIS: I got in my car, and I went down, and I knocked on their door. I said, you give me your mother cat and those kittens right now or you are going to go to court. Oh, I threatened people. I threatened people.
GUO: You're like Lady Justice of the cats.
JARVIS: I am. And when it comes to an animal, you don't mess with this old girl.
GUO: Brenda brought that mama cat and her kittens right back to her trailer. And Brenda wasn't rich. She worked at the grocery store. She made $7 an hour. Most of her money was going to these cats.
JARVIS: I'd spend at least - at least $200 a week.
GUO: Two hundreds dollars a week, that's, like, $800 a month. That's, like, rent in some places.
JARVIS: Like I said, I was born poor, and I probably will die poor. But my cats are not going to go without.
GUO: Back when Barbara Thorpe was still alive, she would drop by the grocery store to see Brenda. Brenda had known her since she was 16. She called her Barb.
JARVIS: Barb would walk up Main Street with an envelope, come into my work place, put it on the counter at least twice a month. Sometimes it'd be 20. Sometimes it'd be 40.
GUO: So when Barbara passed away and the town discovered that she had left $200,000 to benefit the cats at Dixfield, a lot of people assumed it would go to Brenda. And this started to get Brenda's hopes up. Like, these lucky cats. She imagined all the food and treats she would buy them. She even dreamed of driving to the shelter and adopting every single homeless cat. But something wasn't right. A year went by and then another, and the cats weren't getting any money.
JARVIS: Well, everybody in town would meet me and say, Brenda, I guess you're going to get help with your cats now, aren't you? I am? It's been three years. I haven't seen any yet.
GUO: The person in charge of handing out the money was a local woman named Gertrude Crosby - Trudy. She'd been Barbara's part-time housekeeper. And Barbara's will had given Trudy the responsibility to carry out Barbara's wishes. To help her do that, Trudy also brought on her husband, Bentley, or Ben, and their friend Charlotte as trustees. But in those first years, as far as Brenda can tell, Barbara's wishes are not being carried out. She hadn't seen the cats get any money. And Brenda starts to get suspicious, angry even. She starts to wonder, are the Crosbys somehow using Barbara's money just to get rich?
Did you ever talk with the Crosbys? What did they tell you?
JARVIS: They didn't talk to me because I wouldn't talk to them. And they knew that what they were doing, in my opinion, was wrong because no money came to the cats of Dixfield.
GUO: Brenda was determined to liberate that money for the cats. She gets involved with a local lawyer, and the trust does start sending her some checks. But most of the money is still locked up, and people in town start to get kind of outraged. They want these cats to get the money. They hold meetings in a library basement. And at one point, the town itself files a lawsuit against the Crosbys. Brenda and four other cat ladies join in. This legal battle drags on and on and on and on for more than a decade. And Brenda starts to think, maybe these cats are just never going to get the rest of that money. A couple of years ago, she says, she just kind of threw up her hands.
JARVIS: We're going to fight it. We're going to fight it. Well, we did fight it for years until it stressed me out so much. And I just said, I can't deal with this anymore. I just gave up. That's all.
GUO: Brenda wanted to move on with her life, but I - I couldn't stop thinking about that money. I mean, $200,000 doesn't just vanish, right? Surely someone had to know what happened to the Dixfield cat fortune. And so I went looking for answers. The obvious place to start was with the Crosbys. And I wanted to get their side of the story, but Trudy Crosby passed away in 2020, and her husband, Ben, never returned any of my calls. So while we were in Maine, Willa and I went to look up the original court records.
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GUO: The courthouse for Oxford County, Maine, is this imposing, red brick building on a hill with white columns.
UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: Hi, how are you?
GUO: We're reporters for National Public Radio, and we're here - we're looking for the records from the case involving the town of Dixfield and Barbara Thorpe's cat trust.
UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: Oh, the cat case?
GUO: You've heard of it?
UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: One of those cases you don't forget.
GUO: It seemed like everybody had heard of this cat case. And after a few minutes, the clerk came back with two giant folders. Each of them was, like, 5 inches thick. And Willa and I dove in.
Ah, amazing. Look at this. This is Gertrude Crosby's affidavit. So this is, like, her sworn statement.
RUBIN: Oh, my.
GUO: The cat ladies had thought that the Crosbys were up to something fishy, but the Crosbys weren't stealing money from the estate. They were getting paid to manage it. Barbara had agreed to give them 10% of the estate upfront. And later on, they started taking small fees - about $500 a year - essentially to pay themselves for all the paperwork they were doing. The court found at one point that they had overpaid themselves by a few thousand dollars, but the Crosbys had left most of Barbara's money untouched. So why weren't they spending that money on cats?
From the records, we got Trudy Crosby's side of the story.
So she believed that the best use of the trust might be to invest the funds and use the income and principal to purchase or construct a building for the cats.
The Crosbys - they wanted to build a cat shelter in Barbara's memory. That is why they were holding onto that money. But that shelter was never built. And the records - you know, they hint at a perfectly reasonable explanation. It's hard to build and administer an entire cat building shelter, right? Trudy had been a part-time housekeeper. Ben had worked at the paper mill. They didn't have cat philanthropy experience. So maybe they were trying their best but found themselves in over their heads. Still, they weren't doing their jobs. The Dixfield cat fortune was not really helping cats. And that is why, according to these records, someone else steps in in 2016 - someone who I thought might have all the answers. I had to talk to her.
CHRISTINA MOYLAN: My name is Christina Moylan. I'm an assistant attorney general in the Maine attorney general's office.
GUO: Christina had first heard about the Dixfield cat fortune from her colleague Linda, who was this big cat lady. Cat ladies are truly everywhere.
MOYLAN: She left the newspaper on my desk and said, read this, we might need to do something about this.
GUO: So Christina takes a look.
MOYLAN: The headline was "13 Years Later: Dixfield Cats Waiting For Inheritance."
GUO: And so Christina, who works in the office of the top lawyer for all of Maine, gets involved on behalf of the cats of Dixfield to make sure that these kitties are getting what they're owed. After the break, Christina tells us what happened to the Dixfield cat fortune.
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GUO: When I talked to Christina Moylan, who is an assistant attorney general in Maine, she told me that she deals with disputes involving charitable trusts, like, all the time - trusts benefiting art museums, universities, the Boy Scouts.
Is it common for people to leave their money to, like, benefit animals?
MOYLAN: It's not uncommon, I would say. I mean, two time-consuming charities that I've worked on in recent years were both having to do with trying to benefit cats.
GUO: It is, in fact, the job of every state attorney general to oversee charitable trusts, to interpret and carry out the wishes of the dead, which I think is kind of a bizarre job for a lawyer to have - like, channeling dead people, talking to ghosts. And in fact, for a long time in America, most people thought this was a terrible idea. Why give dead people the power to control money from beyond the grave? Until about 150 years ago, many states didn't let you create permanent charities. A lot of states even made it illegal to give to charity in your will. These were called mortmain laws, which is French for dead hand.
MOYLAN: You can't have the dead hand from the grave reaching out to lock up this stuff forever and ever.
GUO: Or at least, she says, that used to be the idea. But in the late 1800s, men like Rockefeller and Carnegie, these cutthroat industrialists, the so-called robber barons, they started pledging their fortunes to helping the poor and the sick. And that, that started to make the dead hand seem not so bad. So eventually, the government starts allowing rich people to create these forever charities to carry on their wishes in perpetuity.
MOYLAN: And society and the law has recognized that there is a good and having that because we want to encourage philanthropy and good things.
GUO: Some of that Rockefeller and Carnegie money even made it to us. Both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York are financial supporters of NPR. In the case of the Dixfield cats, it was clear to Christina that she needed to step in to enforce Barbara Thorpe's wishes.
MOYLAN: This is a charitable gift that is stalled. We've got to figure out a way to get these dollars flowing into the community.
GUO: To make that happen, Christina had to confront the two classic problems that come along with these forever charitable trusts. Problem No. 1, you have to figure out - what exactly did this dead person want? And Christina started by reading Barbara's will, which was pretty vague. Remember, it just said she wanted to provide shelter, food and health care for the abandoned and unwanted cats in the town of Dixfield. But, like, what did that mean in practice? If only she could ask Barbara.
So you never thought about, like, oh, maybe we'll just, like, light some candles, like, get into a mood and just see what the ghost of Barbara - if she appears, what she might say.
MOYLAN: Well, I'm not sure the taxpayers who fund state government and ultimately my salary would be too in favor of that, to be honest.
GUO: (Laughter) There's no line item in the budget for medium, seance supplies.
MOYLAN: (Laughter) No. There's no line item for that.
GUO: Instead, Christina talked to some folks in town and a lot of them mentioned Brenda the cat lady, how Barbara had given her money while she was alive. And Christina says if Barbara had named Brenda directly in her will, this all would have been easy. But she didn't. Instead, she left this vague instruction about helping the cats, and she put Gertrude Crosby in charge. The Crosbys had their own interpretation of Barbara's wishes. They were going to build that cat shelter in Dixfield. But Christina says even if that is really what Barbara wanted, there was no way that was going to be feasible.
MOYLAN: We were talking about less than $200,000, which is not enough to establish and maintain going forward an animal shelter.
GUO: This brings us to problem No. 2 with these forever charitable trusts. People die, and the world moves on. Things change. What some dead person wanted five, 50, 150 years ago, that might not make sense anymore. Here is a really famous example. In 1918, Milton Hershey, the guy who created Hershey Chocolate, he put almost all of his fortune, including the controlling shares of his company, into a charitable trust. And this trust had exactly one purpose - to fund a school - but not a school for just anyone, for poor orphans, poor male orphans, and even more specifically, poor, white male orphans. It was called the Hershey Industrial School. And that school is still around.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The Hersheys believe learning shouldn't have a price. Everything we need is taken care of.
GUO: Over the years, all that stock had become extremely valuable. In 2019, the trust was worth, like, $17 billion. But every time the people running that trust want to do more with the money, they have to ask permission from a judge because Hershey's wishes were pretty clear. It says right there in the trust - poor, white male orphans. So the school has had to hire lawyers to beg for permission to expand, to let in non-white orphans, to let in girls, to let in students who maybe aren't even orphans. And the courts have let them do it. There's a fancy legal term for this. It's called cy pres, which is French for, eh, close enough.
MOYLAN: You have to balance what the philanthropists, what the grantors want to do with their money with what's realistic over time.
GUO: And in the case of Barbara Thorpe's cat fortune, Christina thought, OK, the realistic thing to do here is to put the money into the hands of some kind of organized group that can spend it on the Dixfield cats. She convinces the Crosbys that this is the move, but then she has to find the right group.
MOYLAN: And we had a hard time finding an organization that was close enough to Dixfield, that wanted the hassle of dealing with this fund. You know, it's a hassle because there are strings attached, right?
GUO: The money could only be spent on helping stray cats from Dixfield. And they'd have to file reports on it, keep detailed records. Not a lot of groups thought that that was worth it. But eventually, in 2019, Christina did find a shelter that agreed to all of those terms, and she arranged to give them Barbara Thorpe's cat fortune. The bad news - the shelter isn't in Dixfield. It's about 30 miles away. And on top of that, remember how Barbara had left $200,000 to the cats? By the time Christina brokered this deal, only about $85,000 was left. The rest had been drained out of the trust over the years by legal fees. All this fighting meant less money for the cats.
If you could speak to Barbara now...
MOYLAN: Oh, I'm not going to like this, Jeff. Oh.
GUO: If you could speak to Barbara now, what would you tell her?
MOYLAN: Thank you for your wonderful gift. We hope you aren't turning over in your grave (laughter) because of where the money is now or what it's doing now.
GUO: Christina says she always worries about this with trusts. You can never be totally sure that you've done what the dead would have wanted. But I was excited because we had found the money finally. And there's still some of it left.
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GUO: All right, Willa.
RUBIN: All right, Jeff.
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GUO: We are - where are we?
RUBIN: So we are outside of the Responsible Pet Care animal shelter.
GUO: This is where Barbara Thorpe's money had finally ended up. And we knew that there were rich Dixfield cats inside. And Willa and I were standing the parking lot just imagining, like, how do these cats live?
What does the cat 1% get? Do you think they get massages, acupuncture? Can you acupuncture cats?
RUBIN: I don't know. I'd worry they'd wiggle, but maybe.
GUO: Great to meet you. Thanks for making time for us.
When we get inside, we meet Autumn Dow who's the treasurer here.
AUTUMN DOW: It's an animal shelter. Don't mind the scent.
GUO: And she says, starting last year, the shelter has been taking in stray cats from Dixfield.
DOW: So they've got kennel space here, and their vet care is paid for through the Barbara Thorpe fund, which is really nice.
GUO: Oh, my gosh. Wait, you're saying that there's - like, if a cat comes in and the cat is from Dixfield, it gets, like, a little - like, a star next to its name on the chart or what?
DOW: Essentially it does - right? - because it's now special. So it has everything it wants for medical care. All of that is paid for. We had one cat came through that was very ill from the Dixfield area. That cat got lots of vet care, so...
GUO: How much you spend on that one cat?
DOW: Several thousands of dollars. Yeah.
GUO: Obviously, we had to go see these little high rollers right away.
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GUO: Are these the Dixfield cats?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We only have three in here. So Felicia came from Dixfield.
GUO: Hey, Felicia. Oh, she can come out? Hi, darling. Oh, my gosh. How does it feel? How does it feel to be so blessed, so rich? You're a rich, little cat aren't you?
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GUO: Felicia, have you ever heard of a lady named Barbara Thorpe?
Visiting Responsible Pet Care, it was kind of bittersweet. I was happy to see some real Dixfield cats getting taken care of. But this is probably not what Barbara Thorpe imagined would happen to her cat fortune - almost half of it eaten up by legal fees, the rest ending up at a shelter 30 miles away in the hands of people who didn't really know her. It made me think about this bargain that society has struck between rich people and the rest of us.
We let the wealthy control their fortunes in perpetuity, so long as they dedicate that money to some charitable cause like cats or orphans or art museums or National Public Radio. So many American institutions are now dependent on philanthropy, beholden to the desires of the dead. But on the other hand, the dead aren't really in control, right? They're dead. They have to trust that we will carry out their wishes. And society often ends up using their money in ways they never envisioned.
After all of this reporting, I think Barbara Thorpe would have wanted Brenda the cat lady to be getting some of this money, too. And when I mentioned this to Autumn at the shelter, her face lit up. She said, actually, they're allowed to make grants to people like Brenda, local Dixfield residents who help stray cats. And they've actually been trying to reach out to Brenda, but it sounds like maybe some wires got crossed. And so I told her, I've been talking to Brenda.
Oh, you look so excited.
DOW: I am excited. My fear had been that because of all that had happened, that they were just uninterested in having any more connections with it. But maybe this new line of communication will make that better, and we can kind of all heal.
GUO: Autumn asked if I could put them in touch. I mentioned this to Brenda, and she got excited too.
So they specifically provided for - in that the fund could give money to individuals to take care of cats like you've been doing.
JARVIS: Maybe I ought to give them a call because I am feeding all these cats and providing shelter for them.
GUO: So in the end, maybe Brenda will get some more money for the cats after all. At the end of our conversation, Brenda told me that when she dies, she is not going to try to control her money from beyond the grave. She's leaving her home, her farmhouse, all of her cats directly to a couple of friends in town, no strings attached. Technically, they can do whatever they want with it. But those friends, they're cat ladies, too. And so Brenda feels like she can trust them.
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GUO: Before we go, a quick plug for our most recent bonus episode. You can hear Kenny Malone and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi talk about what goes into reporting a PLANET MONEY episode and how they wound up working at PLANET MONEY in the first place. That's out for PLANET MONEY+ subscribers right now. And if you're not one, it's easy to sign up at the link in our episode notes.
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GUO: This episode was produced by Willa Rubin with help from Dave Blanchard. It was engineered by Josh Newell. Sally Helm edited the show, and Sierra Juarez checked the facts. Jess Jiang is PLANET MONEY's acting executive producer. A very, very special thanks to Becky McDonald, who runs the River Valley Animal Advocates - she helps out a lot of cats in that part of Maine - and to my friend Hannah Hussey. She is a proud Mainer, and she was the one who first told me about these cat ladies many, many years ago. I'm Jeff Guo. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
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