Search using this query type:

Search only these record types:

Exhibit Page

Advanced Search (Items only)

Brought to you by The Developing Librarian team at Columbia University

A strange will

The creation of the Leake and Watts Orphan House in 1831 was the result of a series of unusual events, beginning with a bizarre proviso in John George Leake’s will. John G. Leake, a famous New York lawyer, died without heirs in 1827 and bequeathed his fortune to Robert Watts, the son of John Watts, a friend of his who was a county judge and congressman.  Robert stood to inherit John G. Leake's fortune only on condition that he would adopt the Leake surname.

"In case of his failure to do this, or his dying before the age of twenty-one years, the will provides that the property shall be vested in a specially designated Board of Trustees for the maintenance and education of helpless orphan children, paying no attention whatsoever to the nationality or religious persuasion of the parents [1]."

While Robert did accept the conditions of Leake's will and planned to change his name to Leake, his untimely death (following a fever contracted while playing a ball game) prevented the inheritance of Leake's estate. The elder Watts, now the heir of his own son, then successfully pursued the realization of Leake's stated desire to have the estate be used for the establishment of a home for orphans.

John Watts and John Leake were thus two early proponents of social responsibility in New York City and contributed to founding one of the first private institutions for the care of children in need. The Leake and Watts orphan house for the city of New York was incorporated by an act on 7th March 1831 [2].

Lithograph representing John Watts (1749-1836), American lawyer and politician, and father of Robert Watts, the recipient of John Leake's will.
















Photograph of the statue representing John Watts (Trinity Church Cemetery) erected by his grandson, John  Watts de Peyster.



[1] Richard M. Hayden, An Historical Account of the Founding and Work of the Leake and Watts Orphan House New York City (New York: Leake and Watts Association, 1886), 12.

[2] Frank Allaben, John Watts de Peyster, volume II  (New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, 1908), 212.