Have you made a will?
In today’s world it seems a lot more complicated to make a will than it did “back in the old days.” Not only that, but today’s wills are so full of legalese and sound so sterile that it’s not even possible to get the sense of the real person behind the will anymore.
Wills are legal documents, and as such they have always been recorded in some book or file in the county where writer of the will died. Aside from usually being fun to read, they can be helpful in many ways to show us what kind of times and situations our families lived in. Even a few lines in a will may have a story – one that we may or may not be able to track down.
I think my favorite will of all I have found comes from my Great-great-grandpa Uberto Wright, who died in 1889 in Barren County, Kentucky. He was a gentleman farmer, a surveyor, a Justice of the Peace and a minister in the Christian (Campbellite) church. His will has an aura of kindness about it, and I am touched by the message he left at the end.
I have a photocopy of his old will, but the ink has faded to the point that it is impossible to reproduce it here for you to read. So I’ll transcribe it below:
…And that my wife, Susan J. Wright, shall have power and
authority at my demise to make such sales of land and deed by
general warranty, the same to the purchaser or purchasers to
have the full force of a deed from myself and her jointly, and
any other small matter that I might or may owe that my wife
pay the same as in her judgment may be deemed proper.
Uberto sets his will up in a way that treats his wife as an equal, empowering her to handle the not-unsubstantial estate. Sometimes wives are barely mentioned and not often given the job of executrix of the will. Uberto names her as executrix.
Finally, he ends with this:
Now in the 69th year of my age and on the 15th day of August, 1887, I set my signature in declaration of this, my true and last will and testament. May God Bless my family. [Underlining mine.]
I like that a lot.
Now Uberto’s dad was named Jacob and he had a will too. From his will we discover a family problem.
Now in this case, Jacob wants his daughter Frances, who is married to Fielding T. Wade, to have her share of his estate but he doesn’t want her husband to be able to touch a cent of it! He says he wants Uberto to act as his sister’s agent “to give, invest or convey her portion as she may think proper.” He wants it to stay with “her and her bodily heirs separate and apart from her husband, and that he shall have no control of the property.”
One wonders what Fielding has been up to that would cause this kind of reaction. However, there is enough to look for in the lives of one’s direct ancestors, so mostly we don’t do any further research involving more distant relatives. But wills do often signify that all is not well.
Now sometimes there is just a hint of a problem, and sometimes that hint includes your direct ancestor. When that happens, the researcher is always inclined to follow the story.
Abner Hall, a very wealthy Missouri farmer and lawyer, was my 3rd great-grandfather. He was born in 1798 in North Carolina. From his first wife, who died, he had two sons, William and John. He had a much larger family from his second wife: Caroline, Thomas, Nancy, James, R.M and Honore. By the time he was old enough to think of a will, his two older sons were out on their own.
In his will he starts by making bequests to his younger children. Once he disposes of that, he makes a bequest to his son John, and then we sense something is going on:
8th. I give and bequeath to William L. Hall ten dollars and such a sum to be paid him annually as his necessities require or as my said executor may think proper….
He named son John as executor.
It obviously doesn’t escape William’s mind that he is being treated differently.
Since John A. Hall was my great-great grandfather I felt I needed to do some further research.
To make a long story short, William had previously served time in prison for killing a man – 2nd degree murder it was called. When he got out (it appears he was pardoned by the Governor), he went back home, taught school for a few years and then….
The facts of the case can be found all throughout the documents on file in the Franklin County, Missouri, Courthouse and in the newspapers of the time. When Abner lay dying, his son William tried to hire a man to wipe out the entire family so he would be the only heir to get his father’s money. The person declined to participate, so William set out to do it himself. He first went to the family home where his half-sister Caroline was sitting “death watch” at her father’s bedside and William shot and killed her, causing Abner’s death also. Then he set out for my great-great-grandfather John’s house where he was prepared to kill everyone there. As luck would have it, a posse caught up with him before he could fire a shot. Martha Hall had seen him coming and warned her husband to lock up the house and not answer the door.
The posse captured him, took him to the county jail, and the next day in a vigilante-style event “unmasked” men marched into the courthouse, took William outside and lynched him on the spot.
The article I read ended with “There is no doubt in the minds of many of the best citizens that the victim of this lynching was insane.”
So wills can tell us the kinds of things that have gone well and that gone awry in families through the years. I love reading wills but only those that pertain to my own people. And times haven’t changed all that much, have they?
And finally, I have a lovely will dating from the early 1800s written by widow Susanna Lucas, who parcels out her possessions to her two daughters and a single son – and gives the son a horse named Leboo! The horse no longer is merely one among many. I laugh, and think that now Leboo is an immortal horse. I suspect there are very few wills that tell us the names of the family horses.
I have collected over the years many more wills, but these are my favorites. Jer and I have wills, but frankly, they are not very interesting at all. Certainly not like these four above.