Joseph Martin's last Christmas was like a scene from a Charles Dickens novel.
Homeless and virtually penniless, he was living in a cardboard box perched over a grate on a London street.
Then the "Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come" appeared.
This Christmas, Martin will be popping the champagne bottle for his friends.
A toast to his newfound wealth!
Martin won't be a millionaire by any stretch of the imagination. But when you have nothing, 24,000 pounds -- 40,000 U.S. dollars -- can sure help a person feel like one.
His good -- and unexpected -- fortune occurred because his late sister, who moved to Buffalo 50 years ago as a war bride, never forgot the sister and brother she left behind in England.
A newspaper reporter, a couple of attorneys and a judge who left no stone unturned in their effort to find Ella Selina Martin's heirs also figured in this plot.
Ms. Martin died in Buffalo on May 2, 1994, not long after she retired from Ford Motor Co.
Her marriage to her soldier husband ended in divorce, and her second husband died.
"Shortly after her death, we were able to locate her sister fairly quickly," said Victoria D'Angelo, the attorney for Ella Martin's estate. "But it was another story with the brother. She
said she had lost track of him three or so years before and had no idea where he might be."
In fact, Martin was last heard from more than three years ago.
Erie County Surrogate Joseph S. Mattina appointed attorney Douglas S. Coppola to safeguard the missing heir's legacy, and the search began.
"If we didn't find Mr. Martin," Ms. D'Angelo explained, "his share of the estate would go to New York State, and none of us wanted that to happen."
An exchange of letters across the Atlantic proved futile.
"But we were certain Martin wasn't dead," Ms. D'Angelo continued, "because there was no death certificate anyplace.
"At that point, Donald Coppola asked Judge Mattina for permission to retain an heir-searching firm and have someone go to to England."
One of the first stops that the firm's representative made was to the newspaper in the town where Martin was known to have last lived -- Bristol.
Dennis Payter, a reporter for the Bristol Evening Post, was assigned to track down Martin's whereabouts.
"My editor thought it was a good-enough story for the front page," Payter said, "and sure enough, some of his friends thought they recognized Martin as the man on the front page. They went to Martin, and then they all went to the charity group that was taking care of them.
"Those people got in touch with us, and, sure enough, we had our man."
While the search was going on, Martin was walking across England, working on farms or other odd jobs and along the ship canal helping people with their boats.
"After I found him," Payter said, "he was shocked to hear about his sister's death, and the first thing he told me was he wished he could have seen his sister one more time.
"Then he said, 'Things are really happening to me. I have a warm room after all these months, and now this money. I think I will buy me a telephone and a video recorder (VCR) and celebrate with my friends.' "
Why did Martin hit the open road more than three years ago?
"He told me he had been working at a bakery making bread," Payter said, "and he just plain got fed up with it so he up and quit. He didn't even go back to the hostel where he had been living for his clothes, and he didn't even collect the week's pay the bakery owed him. He said, 'I started walking and figured I could earn my way with odd jobs.'
"One thing he made clear to me," the reporter continued, "was that he 'didn't want no welfare.'
"I would think with the inheritance and with his present setup, he won't have to worry about that."
Martin, 65, also has a family again. His other sister, Rosemary Fenech, was living less than 50 miles away from the modest home he now lives in, which was provided by charitable organizations for older people without money.
"Her daughter," said Ms. D'Angelo, "is already calling him 'Uncle Joey.' "