That's why there was such big excitement in the summer of 1919 when Felix E. Voorhies announced that the huge Gradnigo fortune would finally be settled upon its rightful heirs. He and his wife were each direct descendants of Juan Gradnigo, a rich young man from Italy who had settled in St. Landry Parish, and their share would be $800,000 each.
(The name is spelled Gradnigo in press accounts of the search for the family fortune. This may be a variant spelling. It was sometimes spelled Gradenigo or Grandengo, and sometimes shortened to Gradney.)
The press and Gradnigo kin paid close attention as Voorhies told the tale of the fortune. Another Juan Gradnigo, he said, who was an archbishop in Venice, had become sole heir to a fortune built over the centuries by his elite Venetian family. When the archbishop died in Venice in 1832 his estate was worth $70 million, which he divided into thirds.
One-third went to the church, one-third went to a nephew who lived in Florence, and the final third went to another nephew, the Juan Gradnigo who lived in St. Landry Parish. But the word apparently took some time getting across the Atlantic and to the southwest Louisiana prairie, because the Louisiana Juan died before claiming his inheritance.
He left seven children: Helaire Gradnigo, who married Amelie Fuselier; Lese Gradnigo, who married Louis Carriere; Marguerite Gradnigo, who married Etienne Lamaurandiere; Augustin Gradnigo, who married Elizabeth Clermont; Brigite Gradnigo, who married Louis Fontenot; Aimee Gradnigo, who married Cornelius Voorhies; and Marie Gradnigo, who married Nicholas Rousseau.
Voorhies said Juan's one-third portion had been placed in trust with the Italian government and had grown over the years to $68 million or more.
The first hint that something might be slightly askew with the Voorhies story came in a report in the New Orleans Picayune in July 1919, in which he said Juan's seven heirs knew about the fortune, but didn't claim it.
"The heirs designated Cornelius Voorhies ... to go to Venice and establish claim to the estate," Felix told the newspaper. "One condition was imposed -- that he go alone, leaving his bride of a few months in this country. Being wealthy, [and] owning large sugar plantations ... Cornelius ... declined to accept the mission and no further action was taken to ... secure the money until recently."
The newspaper reported: " Mr. [Felix] Voorhies says ... the heirs have discussed taking steps to establish their claims, but that not until a few months ago, when he was designated administrator ... was any definite action taken."
Voorhies said he'd done "reams" of paper work, traced down all of the rightful heirs and felt certain that "the matter will be untangled in a very short time."
A flurry of follow-up stories followed that first interview with Felix Voorhies, most of them accounts of people coming out of the woodwork claiming to be Gradnigo heirs.
But it did none of them any good. As it turned out, there was no archbishop and no Gradnigo fortune.
The sad news appeared in the Picayune of Sept. 8, 1919: "The Gradnigo estate, which for several months has agitated descendants ... particularly in southwest Louisiana where they are thickest, seems to have gone the way of most other mythical great estates overseas. It appears from official sources that the good Father (not archbishop) Gradnigo ... left what estate he had to the poor of Venice. ... The amount of the estate is not mentioned. It was probably a small fraction of the fabulous amount stated."
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.