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A beer bust leads a widow into probate court

Reader Margie Beldin found a probate file for her great great grandfather Francis (Frank) McHugh’s estate in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. And came away from the documents with more questions than answers.

Frank died without a will in 1879, but his estate wasn’t probated until 1888. The administrator wasn’t her great great grandmother Bridget, it looked like Bridget and a John Murphy got tagged for a huge fee that had to be paid to the judge for a surety bond, the administrator almost got fired, and in 1889 the end result seemed to be that even though the estate was valued at $1675, Bridget walked away with nothing but her clothes and a whopping $94.

These events leave Margie scratching her head. And at the core of her puzzlement is that weird legal document, the surety bond. “What,” she asks, “is a surety bond? What led to the bond? Did Bridget and John Murphy hold the bond or was it against them or they owe it or what??? And the money is owed to the judge. The judge? Why does he get the money? or does the word ‘judge’ stand for city, court, county, whatever?”

Let’s go through Margie’s estate documents step by step.

On 1 May 1888, Bridget went into court and asked to have an administrator appointed for her husband’s estate.1 The court record doesn’t say why she waited so long — nine years — after Frank’s death, but chances are nothing happened in the years after her husband’s death where she needed an administrator. If the creditors aren’t hounding you, and none of the kids are saying, “well Daddy said I could have…,” and the law hasn’t caught up to you for any taxes due, putting off probate was a very good thing. And the law permitted an estate to be probated any time within 20 years of the death.2

Bridget McHugh busted

So why then? Again, the court record doesn’t say. But Margie found a wonderful newspaper article about the police raiding Bridget McHugh’s “place” and finding (gasp) beer there not long before Bridget went to the probate court.3

That very likely triggered the need to probate the estate so that Bridget’s rights — particularly to the property, that “place” the police raided — could be clear. Most likely, there were official questions about the status of the place. Bridget may have started thinking about selling it. She might have tried to post it as bail and was turned down. And maybe her lawyer from the beer bust wanted to be sure he was going to be paid and found the place wasn’t in her name.

As Frank’s widow, Bridget could have asked the court to appoint her as the administrator of the estate.4 But Margie notes that Bridget was illiterate. And the court records shows it was Bridget herself who asked that a lawyer, William Turtle, be appointed instead. In Margie’s shoes, I’d be looking for the record of the case involving the beer bust to see if Turtle was her lawyer there. That’d sure explain why she chose him to handle the estate.

And with the court order appointing Turtle as administrator comes the surety bond and its incomprehensible language:

we William Turtle of Pittsfield in the County of Berkshire as Principal, and Bridget McHugh and John J. Murphy both of Pittsfield aforesaid as sureties, … are holden and stand firmly bound and obliged unto James T. Robinson Esquire, Judge of the Probate Court in and for the County of Berkshire, in the full and just sum of One Thousand dollars to be paid to said Judge and his successors in said office; to the true payment whereof we bind ourselves and each of us, our and each of our heirs, executors and administrators, jointly and severally, by these presents.5

Right… What’s a surety bond? The dictionary definition isn’t very helpful, since you’d have to combine the definition of surety6 with the definition of bond7 and both definitions are… well… lawyer-speak.

So let’s go straight to plain English: for an estate administrator, it’s a promise to pay the judge, not personally but as the court official,8 a certain amount if and only if the administrator screws up. If the administrator did his job, then, in the words of this bond, “this obligation to be void.” Or, in plain English, nobody has to pay a dime. Think of it as an IOU that gets torn up by the judge when the job is done right. It’s not cash out of Bridget’s, or the estate’s, pocket at all.

The law at the time required a surety bond.9 And if Turtle had screwed up, the court would have gone after him first. But if somebody is going to screw up an estate, he’s also likely to get out of Dodge. So a bond always required sureties — other people who were willing to bet their own money that the administrator would do a good job. Here, Bridget and John Murphy were betting that Turtle would do what he was supposed to, and promising to pay the court if he didn’t. Murphy might have been a friend or relative of Bridget’s — or he might have been associated with Turtle. It’s sure worth researching Murphy as a possible member of what Elizabeth Shown Mills would call Bridget’s FAN club10 — her Friends, Associates and Neighbors.

But something changed between 1888 and 1889. Whatever reason Bridget had for wanting the lawyer to handle the estate was gone. She went back to the Probate Court in April 1889, and not only was she asking the court to fire Turtle as administrator, she was also saying she didn’t want to be responsible if he screwed up.11 My guess is that Bridget was unhappy that he hadn’t yet filed the inventory on the estate, which was one of the things the bond — and the law — said he had to do within three months of being appointed. I say that because four things then happened all on 7 May 1889:

(1) The court let Bridget and Murphy both get off the bond so they weren’t responsible for anything Turtle did wrong.12 Think about that as the court tearing up Bridget’s IOU. She was off the hook.

(2) Turtle filed the inventory that was overdue, and the estate was valued at $1500 in real estate and $175 in personal property.13

(3) Probably because the overdue inventory was filed, the court let Turtle stay on as administrator.14

(4) Turtle had to file a new bond (a new IOU, if you will) and get other people — people he knew, rather than people Bridget knew — to act as his sureties.15 Bridget wasn’t about to ask anybody she knew to guarantee that Turtle would do a good job — she didn’t think he was doing a good job!

You might wonder why Turtle wanted to stay on when Bridget wanted him fired. Two simple reasons. It’s bad for business for a lawyer to get fired by a court, and an administrator only got paid when the estate was settled.16

Once the inventory was filed, Bridget could then ask the court to give her what she was entitled to as an allowance against the estate. The law expressly said her “apparel and ornament” belonged to her and that she could get an allowance for herself and her family that wouldn’t be counted against her when the estate was hit for payment of debts or the costs of administering the estate.17 That’s what she asked for in August 1889, and what the judge ordered on 5 September 1889.18 That likely wasn’t all she got — remember, Frank owned real estate worth $1500. It’s just all she was allowed at that time.

Which brings up Margie’s other questions:

What other documents should I be looking for, where would they be and where do I go to find them? And what would they tell me?

First off, you want the rest of the probate documents that exist. And note that many of these may not be indexed in the overall probate index so always look at the individual volumes for the time period. There should be at least a final decree (court order) at the end of the estate administration. That final decree should say what was allowed to the heirs (and who they were), what the administrator was paid, what bills the estate had to pay and more. Look at Berkshire County Probate Vol. 157-158.19 If the record exists, you’ll find out what else Bridget got beyond the $94 allowance in 1889.

There may have been interim accountings that show other allowances like the one Bridget got in September 1889. Look at Berkshire County Probate Vols. 66-70.20 They would tell you what else was paid out of the estate and for what reason. And you may find out more about Turtle’s appointment as administrator in Vol. 173, which has affidavits related to probate appointments.21

What happened to the “place”? Did Bridget keep the property or was it sold? If it had to be sold, there could be both probate records and land records. Look at probate Vols. 179-18222 for a license to sell the land and at Vol. 187-188 for any assignment of dower (Bridget’s right to Frank’s property based on marriage).23 Check the real estate indexes to see if there’s a deed recorded around then, and what eventually happened to the property later on. How about tax records? Somebody had to pay taxes on the property, for sure.

And whatever happened to Bridget’s beer bust? Newspapers and court records — which may be at the town level, and not the county level — should tell you about that, and they’re mostly not on microfilm. I can definitely see a courthouse research trip in your future here.

You’re gonna have so much fun with this family. Good luck. Let us know what you come up with!


SOURCES

  1. Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Probate Court Records 149:216, petition for administration, estate of Frank McHugh, 1888; County Courthouse, Pittsfield; FHL microfilm 1,750,283 item 2.
  2. Title IV, chapter 94, section 3, General Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2d ed. (Boston : Wright and Potter, State Printers, 1873), 483; ; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 27 Feb 2012).
  3. “Berkshire County, Pittsfield,” news briefs, Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican, 8 Aug 1887, p.7, col. 1; digital image, GenealogyBank.com (http://genealogybank.com : accessed 27 Feb 2012).
  4. Title IV, chap. 94, sec. 1, General Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 483.
  5. Berkshire Co. Probate Court Records 149:216.
  6. “A surety is one who at the request of another, and for the purpose of securing to him a benefit, becomes responsible for the performance by the latter of some act in favor of a third person.” Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1142, “surety.”
  7. “A contract by specialty to pay a certain sum of money; being a deed or instrument under seal, by which the maker or obligor promises, and thereto binds himself, his heirs, executors, and administrators, to pay a designated sum of money to another; usually with a clause to the effect that upon performance of a certain condition (as to pay another and smaller sum) the obligation shall be void.” Ibid., 144, “bond.”
  8. The statute said the bond had to be payable to the judge. Title IV, chap. 94, sec. 2, General Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 483.
  9. Ibid.
  10. See Family Search Wiki, (https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Main_Page) “Elizabeth Shown Mills,” rev. 29 Dec 2011.
  11. Berkshire Co. Probate Court Records 59:472, petition of 3 Apr 1889; FHL microfilm 1,749,905.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Berkshire Co. Probate Court Records 63:195, inventory, 7 May 1889; FHL microfilm 1,750,278 item 1.
  14. Berkshire Co. Probate Court Records 59:472, order of 7 May 1889.
  15. Berkshire Co. Probate Court Records 149:353, bond of 7 May 1889.
  16. Title IV, chap. 98, sec. 10, General Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 495.
  17. Title IV, chap. 96, sec. 4-5, General Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 489.
  18. Berkshire Co. Probate Court Records 129:64, order granting allowance, 5 Sep 1889; 1,750,456 item 3.
  19. Decrees of settlement no. 5-6, 1876-1911; FHL microfilm 1,750,458.
  20. Accounts no. 2-3, 1871-1898; FHL microfilm 1,750,280. Also Accounts no. 4-6, 1872-190; FHL microfilm 1,750,281.
  21. Affidavits of notice of appointments, 1883-1891; FHL microfilm 1,750,401 item 1.
  22. Licenses for sale of real estate no. 7-6, 1869-1900, microfilm 1,750,401 Items 2-3. Also Licenses for sale of real estate no. 6,8-9, 1875-1902; FHL microfilm 1,750,402.
  23. Assignment of dower no. 2-3, 1863-1905; FHL microfilm 1,750,403.
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