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Jack Smith

Where There's a Will, There Are Ways

June 22, 1988|Jack Smith

In writing recently about a Kentucky farmer who died in 1840, two years after leaving a written will cutting off his second wife without a penny if she remarried, I expressed my disapproval of the fellow's post-mortem meanness.

He had had at least 10 children by his first wife, and after she had died, not surprisingly, he had taken a second (at least), whom he evidently wished to remain mateless after his passing.

The man was Amos Richardson, who also made sure that his half-brother, Thomas, would no longer live under his roof, stating that he "should take the young filly as his own property that he now claims and get another home."

I inferred from this provision that the half-brother was not only a free-loader, but could not be trusted alone with the widow. In one stroke Richardson deprived him of his lodging and his quarry.

Richardson further provided that if Mrs. Richardson were to remarry, everything should be sold and the estate divided among the 12 children. Amos also left $15 each to his two youngest daughters to be paid when they married or became 21.

Richardson's great-great-great granddaughter, Suzanne Johnson LeVonian, had sent me a portion of the will mainly because of its almost poetically bucolic language. It read, in part:

"I do will and bequeath to my loved wife, Frances, all my home farm and that part of my barren outfield that lies on the left-hand side of the old peach orchard and well. . . . One yoke of oxen known by the name of Buck and Jack, three milk cows known by the name of Cleverny, Whiteback and Susan's heifer, all my sheep . . . two breeding sows . . . 225 dozen bundles of oats, also the three stacks of hay that is now in stack. Also one stack of flax which is now rated and standing in my meadow. . . ."

Because Richardson was illiterate, the will was evidently written by a professional calligrapher and signed with an X.

Perhaps reflecting the more liberal customs of today, I commented: "Evidently Amos expected that his wife's wealth would more than compensate her for a loveless future, and, he calculated, no doubt, that without her wealth she would not be that attractive to a suitor. How like a man that he did not want her to know the joys and comforts of a second spouse, as he had. . . . I hope she rode off on that filly with her brother-in-law."

"Could it have been possible," writes Annette Norris of La Verne, "that this man simply did not want another man to take charge of those assets which should rightfully go to his children and not to some other man's relatives?

"Could it also have been possible that this second wife was much younger than he and very beautiful, and thus he feared that she would remarry and his assets might fall into the wrong hands?"

"Without the provisions in his will," writes J. Richard Bowersox of Bakersfield, "it was possible that Frances may not have received the cows, oxen, sheep, pigs, oats, flax and other property, and the estate would have either passed to the eldest son or the free-loading half-brother, and Frances and the children could end up in the road with nothing but their clothes. This would not have been an unusual event 150 years ago. . . . To condemn a man 150 years after the fact for caring about his family is shameful. . . ."

Gene and Dorothy Blake of Port Hueneme complain that I assumed Richardson had two wives because one could hardly have borne him all those children. No, Mrs. LeVonian wrote that the wife Richardson named in the will (Frances) "was at least his second," and at least two of the children could have been hers. She confirms that all the children were by his first wife.

Since then, Mrs. LeVonian has done some research and found Frances Richardson's name on an 1850 Hardin County census. She was at that time 63 and had a worth of $1,000. Two of the children still lived with her. Evidently the half-brother was gone.

That means Frances Richardson would have been 53 when Richardson died; no spring chicken, but young enough to enjoy a second marriage.

She might have had more fun if she had left the house to the children and ridden off with the brother-in-law. With makeup, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson would be perfect for the parts.

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