Utah Communication History Encyclopedia

April 27, 2012

The “Mormon” Will: Legitimate or Fraud?

Filed under: Government, Law, Politics,Religion,Spring 2012 — comm5630 @ 1:34 am

by JESSICA SOLIS

In April 1976, one of the richest, most powerful businessmen in the world died, marking one of the most mysterious scandals to have ever occurred in the state of Utah. Howard Hughes was known for being one of America’s first billionaires, and when he died there were several questions about his estate and where his money would go. Originally it was thought that no will was left behind, but approximately three weeks after Hughes’ death an envelope addressed to the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS Church or the Mormons) was delivered to the Church office building located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Inside the envelope was the supposed will of Howard Hughes, leaving $156 million to the Church and another $156 million to an unknown man named Melvin Dummar. Hundreds of questions and rumors flew in every direction: Was the will real? Why did he leave so much money to the Church? Who was Melvin Dummar and what relation did he have to Howard Hughes? These questions unearthed the famous scandal behind the will, uncovering the true story of Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes. (Brienholt)

Hughes was one of the first billionaires to live in the United States. Born in 1907 in Texas, Hughes started building his wealth at the young age of 18 when he inherited the family business. Just a few years later he used some of the wealth accumulated from the business to fund and produce several films, including one of his most popular films, Scarface, starring Paul Muni and George Raft in 1932. Hughes even launched the career of actress Jane Russell, who went on to have a very successful Hollywood career. (Schumacher) Hughes always had an interest in aviation and won several world records due to his work designing and testing plane models. Hughes built several other businesses, including multiple hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada. After many accomplishments throughout his life, Hughes died being known as one of the richest men in the world. (Steele)

What many people found unique about Howard Hughes’ life were the people that he chose to surround himself with in the business world. While Hughes was not a member of the LDS Church, most of the employees that he hired to work for him were members. Many people found his obsession with employing Mormons odd, but when asked Hughes simply replied that he liked that his Mormon employees did not drink so they always were able to work hard and never changed from the men they were when they were originally hired. (Sheridan) When the supposed will of Howard Hughes surfaced after his death, it was not too much of a surprise to those who knew him that he might have left an entire one-sixteenth of his wealth to the Mormon Church because of his long, trusting relationship with them. What did surprise them, however, was the same amount of money being left to a Melvin Dummar, a man who seemingly did not have any kind of relation to Hughes whatsoever. (Brienholt)

When Melvin Dummar was asked about what his relationship was with Howard Hughes, Dummar replied with a story about giving him a ride home one night. As Dummar’s story goes, he was driving through Nevada late at night in December 1967 when he pulled to the side of the road for a short rest. He found a shabby looking man in clear distress lying on the ground. Dummar offered to give him a ride and he drove the distressed man to The Sands hotel in Las Vegas. Upon arrival the man then identified himself as Howard Hughes. After this one incident, Dummar claimed he never had any more contact with Hughes. (Brienholt)

Once Dummar had made a statement, the story of Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes became famous. Because of the infamous reputation and wealth that was held by Howard Hughes, the news spread like wildfire both locally and nationally. Media coverage on the subject spread rapidly through the news, radio, newspapers, reporters, and even became the plot line for several books and movies. Newspapers all over the country were trying to get in on a piece of the action happening with the will of Howard Hughes. For example, TIME magazine wrote an article stating that “the document seemed more likely to cause new legal problems than to resolve old ones.” There were also several films produced based on this story. The most famous of which was a Hollywood movie titled, Melvin and Howard. The film won over 15 awards including two Oscars and was nominated for many other awards at the time it was released. (Demme)

While the story of the relationship between Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes made a good story for the media, many people, including investigators and courts, felt that the incidence was just that, a story. Though the envelope was delivered anonymously to an official at the LDS Church office building, a fingerprint identified as belonging to Dummar was discovered and Dummar admitted to delivering the envelope himself. There were many questions about the will being fraudulent and rumors about Dummar inventing the will; however, Dummar claimed that the envelope was delivered anonymously to him. He found it addressed to David O. McKay but was curious and carefully opened it up. After reading what was inside and being overwhelmed with shock and confusion about the will, he placed the will into an envelope and anonymously left it on the desk of an LDS Church official for the Church to decide what to do with it. The LDS Church turned the will over to state court officials, who examined it and investigated the case for years. After Dummar’s fingerprint was discovered on the envelope, many media sources claimed to believe the will to be fraudulent. Even media outside of Utah was interested in having an opinion about the subject.  For example, the Milwaukee Journal printed an article stating, “It is our belief that … Mr. Dummar was, and had to be, involved with the forgery of this will.”

Investigations about the will have led to several different answers. Some believe Dummar’s story to be true; most however, find the will to be fraudulent. In one Salt Lake Tribune article, there is evidence given that Melvin Dummar’s story may have been true. Retired FBI agent Gary Magnesen was able to track information down through some of Hughes’ old friends who may have validated Dummar’s story. For example, witness G. Robert Deiro believed he had been out with Hughes that night in the same part of the state that Dummar described when Hughes disappeared and the next morning was at his hotel in Las Vegas. This testimony could have validated Dummar’s story had Deiro been willing to testify in court. (Smart)

Just a year later, the Salt Lake Tribune released another article proving that the will had been discredited. According to the article, there were numerous reasons the will was being considered a fake. One was because Dummar had originally lied about knowing anything regarding the will. Then when his fingerprint was found on the envelope, he changed his story to having been the one to drop off the envelope because he didn’t know then what to do with it. Shortly after, it was discovered that his fingerprints were also on a book that had samples of Hughes’ handwriting. Another reason the will was discredited was because it also left some of Hughes’ estate to his cousin, whom he did not associate with. The will also referred to a nickname given by the media to one of Hughes’ planes, the H-4 Hercules. The media called this plane “the Spruce Goose.” According to many of Hughes’ employees, he hated the “Spruce Goose” nickname. Finally, the will was endorsed by Noah Dietrich, a man Hughes had fired from employment in the 1960s. Because of all of the discrepancies that the secret will of Howard Hughes had, the will and Melvin Dummar’s story were finally discredited in 2006. (Associated Press)

The attention this event received was incredible. Many believed in the overall conclusion of a fraudulent will, while others rooted for the innocence of Dummar. Its popularity was most likely because it involved one of the richest men in the world and was tied to the LDS Church, which is deeply rooted in Utah history. Though courts have deemed the will fraudulent, Melvin Dummar has never denied his story about meeting Hughes in the Nevada desert and giving him a ride. To this day, Dummar sticks to his story. Though the will has been proven to be a fake after several decades of investigation, there has been no solid proof that can support whether the interaction between Dummar and Hughes did or did not happen, a mystery still at hand.

Jessica Solis is a junior attending the University of Utah. She is majoring in strategic communication.

Sources

Jeff Brienholt, “Remembering the Howard Hughes ‘Mormon Will,’” Mormon Matters (October 2009).

“The Hughes Will: Is it for Real?” TIME Magazine, May 10, 1976.

“Fingerprint Hints at Forgery on Hughes Will,” The Milwaukee Journal, December 14 1976, 5.

Christopher Smart, “Melvin and Howard: A True Story After All?” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 28 2005.

The Associated Press, “New Today: Hughes Associate Discounts ‘Mormon Will,'” The Salt Lake Tribune, June 2006.

Geoff Schumacher, Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia, and Palace Intrigue (Las Vegas: Stephens Press, 2007).

James Steele and Donald L. Barlett, Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004).

John Harris Sheridan, Howard Hughes: The Las Vegas Years (self-published, 2011).

J. Demme (Director), Melvin and Howard [Motion Picture], 1980.

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