The letter carrier delivered a check to my postal mailbox a few months ago, and it wasn’t intended for me or anyone in my family. The addressee was Anna Mae Heilman, whose name seemed familiar, although I could not place it. The amount of the check, drawn on the account of an organization called Ameritor Security Trust, was $10.32, intended (as an accompanying letter explained) to cash out an investment of 171.94 shares of a closed mutual fund.
I stared at the name on the check and tried to remember how I knew it. Eventually it hit me. Heilman, as I recalled from reading the thickly bundled title records that came with our property, was a previous owner of our house. But she hadn’t lived at our address since 1971.
The final per-share price of the mutual fund, a mere six cents, intrigued me. How did the value fall so low? A little research told me that Ameritor had a notorious reputation in the financial industry as one of a family of mutual funds widely regarded as the worst in the business. It had begun in the 1950s as the venture of the schemer Charles Steadman, known by some as “the Rembrandt of Red Ink.” Steadman (who died in 1997) and his colleagues bled the fund by charging management fees of as much as 22 percent to a clientele that grew evermore inattentive, debilitated, and dead. The fund lost impressively during bull and bear markets alike. In its final decade, the fund dwindled to nearly nothing, meaning that Heilman’s shares had probably once been worth thousands of dollars.
Returning the check to Ameritor, which was out of business, seemed pointless, so I tried to track down Heilman. I found her in a two-inch New York Times article of October 2, 1971, headlined “4 Die in Dakota Air Crash.” She and her husband, along with another couple from Minneapolis, had perished in an accident during a thunderstorm (Jerome Heilman piloting) near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That’s why my house changed hands that same year. The Heilmans, in their late thirties, left behind six children, who surely could have used the squandered Ameritor money.
In so many ways, that check embodies loss. I keep it as a reminder of the fragility of life and the persistence of crookery.