Imagine you had a wicked stepmother who so opposed your romantic relationship with a former employee that she secretly changed her will, adding a provision that would deny you your father's inheritance - a small fortune that you had acquired in your father's name through your own toil - should your liaison ever culminate in marriage. Sounds like the plot of a Jennifer Aniston comedy, or with a few songs thrown in, a Disney film.
In actuality, this was the real life drama of prolific inventor and entrepreneur Clement C. Clawson, Sr.
Beginning in North Carolina in the 1870s, and eventually moving to Newark, NJ, Henry T. Clawson and his son Clement built an enormously successful business based on the younger Clawson's invention of the coin-operated vending machine, or "coin-in-the-slot" machine as it was originally named. These highly profitable machines were the first of their kind, and very desirable to tavern and store owners who placed them on their counters and practically minted money.
The machines typically cost less than five dollars to produce at the Newark factory owned by Henry. Machines were then purchased at a set price by the Clawson Slot Machine Company controlled by Clement, thereby guaranteeing Henry any amount of profit they wished. And there was no shortage of profits, as machines could either be leased, put into stores with the take being split between the Clawsons and the store owner, or ultimately sold outright for around $65.
Despite the complex business arrangement, Henry Clawson always acknowledged that the business would be nothing without his son's genius, and that upon his death, anything in his name would be left to his son. Somewhere along the line Henry Clawson had a change of heart, and at the reading of his will in 1897, it was found that he had instead left everything to his second wife, Aurelia. A justifiably upset Clement was able to exact a compromise with his stepmother - in exchange for not contesting his father's will, she would agree to make a will leaving everything to her stepson upon her death.
It didn't take long for Aurelia Clawson to have second thoughts. When Clement's wife died in 1899, Aurelia suspected that Clement had taken up with Ella Hood, a young woman who had lived with the Clawsons and was employed as their child's nanny. It is unknown exactly what the widow Clawson's objection was to this relationship, but her feelings were so strong that she made a new will on July 17, 1900, adding the provision that all of the property previously promised to Clement by first his father, and later herself, would be forfeit were he to live with or marry Ella Hood.
No doubt this would have caused quite a dilemma for Clement, had he known of it! In the event, he indeed did marry Miss Hood in February 1901, moving permanently to Flagtown, and becoming estranged from his stepmother who remained in the Newark house with her grandniece Aurelia Lee.
In the months before her death in February 1902, relations between stepmother and stepson improved somewhat, with Clement often visiting Aurelia in Newark. How shocked he must have been upon her death to find out that he had once again been cheated out of what was rightfully his, the entire estate going to Aurelia's grandniece and other of her relatives.
This time Clawson went to court. The Clawsons and their two young sons - Clement, born 1902 and Robert, born 1903 waited for more than two years for the case to be decided. Finally, on June 28, 1904, the Court of Chancery of New Jersey ruled in their favor, awarding them everything that Henry Clawson had originally promised Clement before his death, valued at around $50,000.
In subsequent years, Clement Clawson, Sr. moved the entire operations of the Clawson Machine Company to Flagtown, building Hillsborough's first modern factory, and establishing a lasting legacy in our town.
Might make a good movie someday!