These excerpts are a mixture of summaries, quotations and near verbatim lifts from several depositions in the Mordecai C Fitzhugh, Etc. V. Berkeley Ward And Wife, Etc. case file in the Library of Virginia’s Circuit Court Records Preservation Program.1
Giles Fitzhugh had left his entire estate to his niece Harriet Ward. The case sought to have his will invalidated, at the request of Mordecai Cooke Fitzhugh and several other family members. The individuals deposed and the questions asked were clearly chosen by the competing sides to best support their positions. Therefore, the testimony may give a somewhat narrow picture. The case file has 131 document pages. Each excerpt below starts with the number (#) of the case file page on which the deposition begins.
#43 Lucy N. Page deposition: Said that Giles had said Mrs. Ward told him he couldn’t go into her house again if he didn’t write a will and give all his property to her.
#51 Clarence Powell deposition: Stated opinion that Giles felt he was forced by Mrs Ward to make a will and leave his property to her. Also, that Giles was not competent to manage his own affairs; that he spoke childishly and his general manner was one of incompetence.
#61 Lucy P. Brent (Giles’ great neice) deposition: In 1851 & 1852, Giles said he no longer knew who she was, though he had known her all her life. He spoke childishly and repeated himself in conversation. Recalling when Giles was younger, said his conversations were very eccentric all the time, but full of point. He was a very smart man and had a peculiar way of stating his own case – until the latter part of his life when his conversations were weak and drifting and he had hardly any conversaton at all and seemed to have no mind. Starting in the fall and winter of 1851, gradually he deteriorated.
#73 Nathan Phillips (a clerk of court) deposition: I knew him more than 30 years, not intimately. For 2 or 3 years prior to death, his mind, which I regarded as always weak, seemed to be greatly impaired by age and disease. He asked questions [he should have known] I had no means of answering. He was greatly emaciated, apparently very feeble, slovenly in his dress and filthy in his habits. When first knew him, seemed a healthy man, five feet ten or eleven inches, weighing 140-60 pounds. He was always slovenly in his dress. He was always, during my acquaintenance with him, very odd and eccentric.
#80 William H Page (store and mill keeper) deposition: Knew Giles 4-5 years before his death. Sold him stock in the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Giles talked about the advantages likely to result to that whole region of country and said that this road would be the great connecting link between the east and west, north and south. I never doubted his ability or understanding to dispose of his property. He was eccentric, but his ideas of business matters were clear and shrewed.
#88 John Balaile Dade (Giles’ nephew of 40 years) deposition: Considered him of sound mind, “remarkable shrewed and cunning, more so than any Uncle I have.” I never saw anything like insanity about him. He was, however, eccentric, his habits were very simple and plain in his deportment, in his intercourse with his fellow man. Saw him about 2 years before death, when collecting his own dividend from his uncle Thomas Fitzhugh’s estate, of which Berkeley Ward was one of the executors.
#94 Thomas L. Moore (lawyer who wrote Giles’ will and a previous one that failed to emancipate his slaves) deposition:
“A distant relative and an old acquaintance” of 40 years, whose house Giles would sometimes visit, as it was on the way between his home and Warrenton.
Regarding the will provisions, quoted Giles as saying: “…I want a will that will set my negroes free. They have worked for me very well and I don’t think they have cheated me, and I will not have them set up and sold at public sale and separated as my brother Tom’s were.” “…It [Giles estate] is not worth divding among so many – and my niece Mrs. Ward has been kinder to me than any and has taken (or has had) a geat deal of trouble with me, and I want to leave the rest after the negroes are free, to her.”
Considered Giles competent to make a will and handle routine business affairs of daily life, but likely not contracts and deals. Believed others, who didn’t know Giles well and judged him by what they observed on the street or casual encounters, likely judged him incompetent. So he mentioned this to a few people who also knew Giles well. “Giles deafness and oddity apparent to so many was so likely to create.” I didn’t doubt Giles’ testmentary capacity, but my discussing this with others may have led them to believe that I did.
For some years prior to death, subject to a bowel complaint, which neglected as is very likely to be with old men who have no white family was often distressing to him and to others also. When he came to Warrenton, his niece (Harriet Ward) amended his case, and caused him to amend his apparel. …besides natural decay of sight and hearing his health was good, he had a good appetite, rode frequently to Warrenton on horseback, about eight miles. As to his conversation, he had read a good deal and frequently made apt quotations. His remarks on the motives and actions of men were often shrewed and sometimes caustic. But…there was always an oddity which disfigured and often made seemingly ridiculous … His remarks were objectionable more for their oddity than for weakness or foolishness. Increasingly deaf in last two years of life; not conducive to conversation.
In response to a question that asked Moore to identify a copy of Giles’ previous will (#35), which left the name of his sole heir blank, and if it was in Giles’ handwriting, answered: “I…believe it to be the same paper which Giles Fitzhugh wrote in my presence… I had often heard of an illigitimate daughter of the testator, to whose support and instruction he had formerly contributed means – and I accounted for the extraordinary mystery in which he obscured in the writing of that paper; that he regarded his affection for his daughter and the bequest of his estate to her, as connected with scandal and while he lived determined to hide from his relatives his purposes in regard to this daughter.”
#111 George N Carter deposition: Reported Giles healthy and in command of his sense to the end. Mentioned Giles building on property inherited from his brother. That he preferred to hire colored laborers. Also, that he hired out his own servants and kept good accounts with them.
#115 William H. Gaines deposition: Knew and did business with Giles from 1844 until his death. Believed him competent to the end, though saw him infrequently in 1852. Was consulted by Moore, at time Moore wrote the will, about Giles competency to do so. Concurred with Moore that Giles was competent. Believed for a time that Giles had his nephew Warren Fitzhugh as his helpman on his farm of about 400 acres, about 7 miles from town. Giles purchased the lower half of a nearby farm in 1847-8 against Gaines advice, who thought he wouldn’t be successful farming it because of his advancing age.
#118 A H Spilman deposition: Knew Giles well since about 1837; believed he was competent to the end.
#119 Gordon M Saunders deposition: Knew Giles for many years and saw him often, especially frequently after he bacame resident in the county. Was consulted by and concurred with Moore that Giles was competent to make a will. Said that Moore was concerned that others not well acquainted with Giles likely questioned his competence because of his oddity of conversation and manners. Was party to negotiations and a contract to buy a slave woman and 2 or 3 children from Giles. The slaves went missing and Fitzhugh returned the money and kept ownership. Saunders dropped his claim when Mrs. Ward and Mrs White threatened a lawsuit on grounds of imbecility. Said Giles appeared very feeble and to have great difficulty in the business negotiations over the slaves. That he was apparently disturbed and harrassed by his creditors (in answer to question of whether Giles wealth was quite diminished in last 2 years of life) and “the sale of his negroes to which he was much attached caused him much uneasement.” “He was a man of about 6 feet high, thin, and feeble in his last two years. His conversation and manner were particularly his own, always dealing in parables and answering in monosyllables.” “He was uniformly odd at home or abroad.” In the business of buying the slaves, when leaving Giles’ farm, Saunders and his two partners thought Giles might carelessly drop and lose his money. So they took it to town, paid an assessment due the constable and deposited the remainder with Mr. White.
- Mordecai C Fitzhugh, Etc. V. Berkeley Ward And Wife, Etc., Index Number 1854-045, case file – copies of original court documents, including will, challenge documents and complete depositions. ↩