A few days ago, I had the pleasure of presenting a talk on charitable giving and estates to the Saskatchewan Society of Estate and Trust Practitioners (STEP), in Saskatoon. While I was there, I made a pilgrimage to visit Canada’s most famous will – that of a Cecil George Harris, who passed away in tragic circumstances in 1948. As long-time readers will know, I am a huge fan of history – and this is one of the most important historical stories about estates in Canadian History. I’ve taken the liberty of trying something new in my newsletter by adapting the style of one of my favourite podcasts – History Daily, to share this story. It is somewhat longer than our normal stories. I think you will find it well worth the read.

It is the 8th of June, 1948. Deep in Saskatchewan, 115 kilometers south of Saskatoon, a farmer named Cecil is eating his lunch. Like many farmers, the need to prepare his field for planting was weighing heavy on his mind. In rural Saskatchewan, early June was planting season, and the family farm’s success or failure rested on getting the crops in on time. Before anything could be planted, however, the field needed to be ploughed.

Cecil turns to his wife Bessie, and tells her that he is headed out to plough the back fields. Jumping up into his tractor, he told her that he would likely not be back until at least 10pm, as he was headed to a distant part of the fields, several miles north of their home. Knowing the season, she wished him well, and began her chores for the afternoon.

Cecil takes the slow, lonely drive to the back fields. His Case Model C tractor, with its shiny red paint, and enormous, steel wheels churn and grind their way up the gravel road. Unlike modern rubber tires, these wheels are all metal, with 4-inch V-shaped lugs that provide traction through the soft dirt of the fields. Behind his tractor, a one-way plough is slowly pulled north. One-way ploughs are unique in that they can only be moved forwards – never reversed to go backwards. Cecil doesn’t give this much thought, though, as it’s very rare when a plough needs to be reversed. Little does he know that in a few hours, the directionality of his plough will take on significant importance.

When he arrives at the fields, he begins his work. After a short while, he realizes that the plough needs to be greased. He stops his tractor and gets to work. It’s a job he’s done hundreds of times. The field he is tilling is filled with heavy clay, which can be brutally hard on farm equipment. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon, and he has a long day of work yet ahead of time.

From between the tractor and the plough, Cecil reaches up to the left hand clutch, hoping to shimmy the tractor backwards a little to assist in getting the grease to where it needed to go. But to his horror, the tractor engages and rolls backwards. Cecil becomes pinned, stuck between the tractor moving backwards, and the plough which can only go forwards. Cecil is pinned between the two, with the V Shaped lugs of the back wheel having cut his leg from his ankle to his hip. The next lug cuts into his waistline, just above his belt. He is alone, bleeding, and trapped, with his leg severely fractured.

Hours pass. Cecil hangs on, but realizes his situation is dire. While he still has strength, he frees up one arm, grabs his pen knife, and scratches onto the fender of the tractor “In case I die in this mess I leave all to the wife”, and signs his name as “Cecil Geo. Harris.”

When Cecil fails to return home by 10pm, Bessie gets in the family car, and drives north to see what has held him up. When she arrives, to her horror, she finds him still alive, but bleeding heavily and pinned by the tractor. She rushes to the closest neighbour to get help. The neighbours quickly rally as a community and rush to free him from the tractor and plough.
Unfortunately, a severe thunderstorm has moved in as the last light fades. Roads become washed out, and the field that Cecil was tilling becomes an unholy mess of mud, clay and water. Two hours later, the community has freed Cecil at long last, and have loaded him into the backseat of a car. The car itself is being towed by a tractor over impassable roads. Cecil has spent 10 hours trapped and is somehow still clinging to life.

Despite the best efforts of the hospital, Cecil passes away 36 hours after his horrifying ordeal starts. He is only 56 years old. In his pain and suffering, he does not mention that he scratched his last will and testament onto the tractor’s fender.

It would be two friends of his, George and Louis, who would find the will. Ironically, they find it at almost the same time that Cecil passes his last breath. George has the presence of mind to realize as soon as he hears of Cecil’s death hours later, that the fender should be removed, and preserved. They take it to Cecil’s wife Bessie, and reach out to William Elliott, a local lawyer who has often done work for the Harris family.

Elliott realizes the unique situation the hand-scratched will presents. In Saskatchewan, hand-written “Holograph Wills” are legally binding – but never before has one been written on anything other than paper. He hires a local photographer to take a picture of the fender. He searches for other legal precedents and can only find one: a 1926 case from England when a will was written on the egg of a hen. Unfortunately, in that case, the courts had rejected the notion that it was a valid Holograph will, as holograph wills were not generally allowed under British law except in very specific circumstances.

In 1948, Saskatchewan’s wills act required a Holograph will to be “wholly in the handwriting of the testator and signed by him, may be made without any further formality or any requirement as to the presence of or attestation or signature by any witness.”

Elliott moves quickly to proactively address potential legal challenges and issues with Cecil’s will. Within a day, he has a series of affidavits signed by eight individuals (including the local bank manager, and a former business partner) who knew Cecil Harris, attesting that the writing style and signature matched Cecil’s previous signatures. Elliott even goes so far as to attest himself that the signature matched his client’s – an intriguing legal maneuver, which opens the door that Elliott himself might be called as a witness.

Elliott doesn’t stop there, however. Ten days later, he approached the attending physician, and asks him for an affidavit indicating that in the doctor’s opinion, that Cecil died of wounds sustained from his accident. This is another pivotal legal maneuver in validating the will. Elliott’s research has found a potent problem in the wording of the fender will. Cecil’s use of the phrase “In case I die in this mess…” has made his will conditional. This raises a significant chance that a judge would negate the will if his death cannot be conclusively linked to the actual event of being trapped under the tractor. Just a few years before, a Manitoba man had written a will with the wording of “whereas I am going to go on a journey to Mexico, and should I die….”. This gentleman died shortly after returning from Mexico, and a court found his will only applied if he had actually died while on his trip. Without the affidavit from the doctor, Cecil’s will may have been moot, as he died a day and a half later, at the hospital. The statement from the doctor, linking his cause of death back to the accident is a crucial piece of legal evidence.

Another issue that Elliott addresses, is to confirm how Cecil was able to physically write the will in the moment, given the extent of his injuries. At the hospital, Cecil’s clothing was removed, and given to one of the neighbours who brought him in. After learning of the scratched will on the fender, the neighbours pass along the knife to Elliott. This knife, and its chain of custody, being traced directly to the clothing warn by Cecil the day of his accident provides crucial proof on how he wrote his brief will. Elliott will also highlight that there was no rusting on the scratched areas around the fender, to prove that the writing was done while trapped. He also takes great pains to get the rescuers to attest that he was conscious and lucid as the freed him – an apparent attempt to show that Cecil had legal capacity, despite his painful ordeal.

Elliott’s quick thinking, and deft understanding of the possible objections to the will are a remarkable and thorough effort. So much so, that the court accepts the will as valid, with no objections raised on behalf of the Public Guardian, who would normally intervene in such a situation. Barely a month after Cecil’s death, his will is declared valid by a judge, and the Saskatchewan courts issue Letters of Administration on July 13, 1948.

One of the legal requirements in Saskatchewan in 1948, was that the original copy of the will must be kept on file at the court. So, the court ordered the portion of the fender containing Cecil’s will to be cut off, and remanded to the custody of the court, with the remainder returned to Cecil’s wife, the inheritor of his estate. Years later, Elliotts legal maneuverings will be widely admired for his quick thinking, and remarkable understanding of the possible challenges to the will that could arise. His quick action, and keen legal mind made a massive difference to Cecil’s wife Bessie and their two children.

For 50 years, this remarkable piece of Canadian history resided in the court records in Kerrobert, Saskatchewan. When the courthouse was permanently closed in 1997, the fender was ordered to be turned over to the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, given its historical significance.
Today, as you enter the law library, this iconic and most famous of Canadian wills is the first thing you will see. Cecil Harris’ legacy, combined with the incredible legal maneuvering by William Elliott, have created a unique legal “shrine” that is inspiring future generations of lawyers.



PS – this story is a dramatization, based largely on the extensive legal and historical research by Geoff Ellwand, in 2014, from Vol 77 of The Saskatchewan Law Review. You can find his excellent article at this link.