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The aftermath of death on the rails

It was the night of the 10th of August 1887. A train left Peoria, Illinois, heading east with vacationers wanting to see Niagara Falls.

But a trestle it needed to cross had been damaged by fire, and when the train was on the trestle it collapsed. “Of the 500 passengers about 85 perished and scores were injured.”1

One of those 85 or so people who perished was Frederick D. Weiennett, great great grandfather of reader Anna Louvau, who has been tearing her hair out trying to understand his probate file.

Frederick didn’t leave a will, but there weren’t a lot of assets — some $500 from the railway company, as damages for the death; some shares in a local savings and loan; a bit of cash on hand; and the family home, valued at some $5,000. It was crystal clear that all his widow Caroline really wanted was the house and its contents.

And that started a chain of events that has Anna totally confused.

Between the appointment of an administrator for the estate and a guardian for the minor children in August 1887, and the closing of the estate in October 1889, the paperwork makes it look like the widow gave up $2,885 in cash and assets to get $460 in personal property, the guardian fouled up and had to be replaced, the widow confessed to something, and the house had to be sold … but she still got the house in the end.

No wonder Anna is shaking her head. Let’s see if we can work this through.

According to the probate file in the Peoria County, Illinois, County Court, Frederick’s estate had about $2,360 in ready assets — cash, notes, shares, and the damages from the railway company — and $6,233 in liabilities. On paper, the estate was $3,873 in the red without considering the real estate.2

Under the law, the administrator didn’t have a choice. He had to ask the court for permission to sell the real estate. And on 18 February 1888, he did just that.3

The law required him to tell everybody who might have an interest in the sale, so he had to notify the widow and the minor children, by their guardian. The problem was, he was the guardian. So technically he was on both sides of this argument — as the administrator he needed to sell the house; as the guardian he needed to represent the interests of the children.

And that’s why, on 2 March 1888, the court appointed another man as guardian ad litem for the children.4 A guardian ad litem is simply someone “appointed by a court of justice to prosecute or defend for an infant in any suit to which he may be a party.”5

The guardian ad litem then promptly filed an answer that, boiled down to its essence, said, “Do whatever you think is right, Judge.”6

The widow Caroline in turn confessed to the petition — meaning she didn’t oppose it. She couldn’t oppose it. The law required that the estate debts be paid and the only asset big enough to pay the debts was the house. And the court ordered that the property be sold.7

So how in the world did Caroline, the widow, end up with the property in the end?

Because almost everything that was going on here was on paper only. The estate had two big debts: a mortgage on the house for more than $2,000; and $2,885 owed by law to Caroline herself as a widow’s award.

You see, under the laws of Illinois at that time:

The widow, residing in this State, of a deceased husband whose estate is administered in this State, whether her husband died testate or intestate, shall, in all cases, in exclusion of debts, claims, charges, legacies and bequests, except funeral expenses, be allowed, as her sole and exclusive property forever, the wit :
First — The family pictures and the wearing apparel, jewels and orna ments of herself and her minor children.
Second — School books and family library of the value of $100.
Third — One sewing machine.
Fourth — Necessary beds, bedsteads and bedding for herself and family.
Fifth — The stoves and pipe used in the family, with the necessary cooking utensils ; or, in case they have none, $50, in money.
Sixth — Household and kitchen furniture to the value of $100.
Seventh — One milch cow and calf for every four members of her family.
Eighth — Two sheep for each member of her family, and the fleeces taken from the same, and one horse, saddle and bridle.
Ninth — Provisions for herself and family for one year.
Tenth — Food for the stock above specified, for six months.
Eleventh — Fuel for herself and family for three months.
Twelfth — $100 worth of other property suited to her condition in life, to be selected by the widow.
Which shall be known as the widow’s award…8

The appraisers who had evaluated this laundry list had fixed the value of the widow’s award to Caroline at $2,885.9 She’d gone ahead and selected $460 worth of property — things like the piano, bed sets, carpets and other household furnishings10 — but the reason why the estate was technically in the red was mostly what was owed to her. That and the mortgage.

As with many of these forced sales, this was pretty much a set-up deal with an expected outcome right from the start. Caroline had to borrow enough to be able to buy the house when it went up for public sale in April 1888, she was (as expected) the high bidder, and the cash she paid to buy the house then went into the estate where — ta da! — most of it was paid over right back to Caroline as the balance of her widow’s award.

A very complicated set of papers, and a very complicated set of transactions, for what ended up as a very simple result: what the widow Caroline wanted — the house and furnishings for herself and her children — is what the widow Caroline got.


  1. Chatsworth Train Accident August 10, 1887,” Illinois Ancestors Presents Peoria County ( : accessed 11 Mar 2013).
  2. Peoria County, Illinois, County Court, Probate File 3251, Frederick D. Weiennett, Account of Administrator, February 1888; digital images furnished by Anna Louvau.
  3. Ibid., petition of Albert L. Schimpff, Administrator, 18 Feb 1888.
  4. Ibid., Order appointing Leslie D. Peterbaugh guardian ad litem, 2 Mar 1888.
  5. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 551, “guardian ad litem.”
  6. Peoria Co., Ill., County Court, Probate File 3257, Frederick D. Weiennett, answer of guardian ad litem, 2 Mar 1888.
  7. Ibid., decree, 7 Mar 1888.
  8. Widow’s award, § 74, chapter 3, Administration of Estate, in George W. Cothran, editor, The Revised Statutes of the State of Illinois (Chicago : E.B. Myers and Co., 1887), 67; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 11 Mar 2013).
  9. Peoria Co., Ill., County Court, Probate File 3257, Frederick D. Weiennett, appraisal of widow’s award, Sep 1887.
  10. Ibid., widow’s election, 21 Sep 1887.
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