Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Was Great-Great-Grandma a She Devil?

     When the Irish census of 1901 was taken, only 20 houses stood in the townland of Ballygologue in County Kerry.  Mary Elizabeth Gunn had been born in that speck on the map of Ireland in the spring of 1860; now, forty-one years later, she was thousands of miles from Ballygologue.  To be precise, Mary was in a courtroom in Ontario County, New York, defending herself against a charge of fraud.
     Mary came to the United States in 1879 where she found work as a servant on a farm in Macedon, NY.  That she left her parents John and Margaret (Browne) Gunn and brothers George and Francis in Ireland to travel alone was not unusual.  Many Irish women did the same; post famine Ireland had little to offer poor young Irish women.   Her mother’s sister Sarah Browne Griffin made her home close to Macedon, and was no doubt the reason Mary chose that area.  Her future husband, Philip Power, had emigrated from County Waterford, and by 1880 was working as a laborer on a nearby farm.
    The couple was married at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Palmyra, NY on 8 November 1882; Mary’s Aunt Sarah Griffin was her witness.  At some point in their marriage they moved the few miles to Manchester, NY, where Phillip had found an opportunity to work a farm on shares.  The owner of the property, a widow named Lydia Clark, had recently died leaving two married daughters, and a son, Eugene.  It was he who inherited the farm, and allowed Mary, Phillip and their young children to move into the house with him.  That single decision set in motion a series of events that would reverberate through the local courts for years.
     Thirteen months after Mrs. Clark’s death, Eugene deeded the entire farm to Mary Power, reserving only life use for himself.  The fury of the Clark daughters can only be imagined.  This was no small farm, it encompassed over 180 acres.  They contended Eugene was incapable of minding his own affairs and sought to have a guardian appointed to watch over him and his property.  By the end of the year, they succeeded in having Eugene declared incompetent, but the story was far from over.  For the next six years the case would wind through the courts, being confirmed in one, only to be dismissed in another as appeal after counter appeal were filed.  Sensational headlines blared from local newspapers, “Man Was Under Complete Control of Powers Family” read one. 
     Charles McClouth, who for a time was appointed guardian of Eugene, filed suit against Mary Power; contending she had knowingly taken advantage of a “weak, feeble minded” man and was guilty of fraud.  In the papers he filed with the court, he made a point of their ages and the close proximity in which they lived.  While the charge was never explicitly made, the implication was there; a forty one year old woman living with a forty nine year old single man had worked her feminine wiles until he was rendered, “completely subservient to the will of Mrs. Power”.
     Mary countered with a motion of her own.  She claimed the deed was conveyed to her for, “good and valuable consideration, in good faith and without fraud.  That she has performed her part of the contract, has boarded Eugene, nursed him when he was ill, done his washing, mended his clothes, taken care of his room and administered to all his wants.   Mary further maintained Eugene was and always had been of sound mind, and she may have been correct, he was trusted enough by the town to be elected collector of school taxes for several years.
       Eugene’s guardian Charles McClouth won that decision, only to find it reversed on appeal.  In 1905, Eugene's lawyer filed a motion seeking to have him declared competent.  The motion was granted.   His sisters and their husbands had had enough!   No more appeals were filed in the case.  When the New York State census was taken that year, Eugene was listed as a border in the household of Philip Power.   Eugene passed away in 1909; his obituary stated he died at the family home where he had always lived.  The 1910, 1920 and 1930 census’ all show the Power family living at the farm.   Their descendants resided there until 1978 when Phillip Power Jr. the last surviving son of Mary and Phillip Sr. died at the farm.
     Did Mary beguile Eugene to the point he was willing to give her everything he owned?  Or did she in truth have an understanding with him that she would care for him as his mother had always done for the remainder of his life?  The only certainty here is that by some means, a middle aged woman from an impoverished country who could not even sign her own name ultimately became the owner of a 180 acre farm in America.