Primary Resource

"Bettie Thomas-Lewis" from the Richmond Times (June 19, 1892)

This article in the Richmond Times, published on June 19, 1892, details the case of Thomas's Administrator v. Bettie Thomas Lewis, in which the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the Richmond City Court of Chancery to honor the deathbed wishes of William A. Thomas.

Transcription from Original

BETTIE THOMAS-LEWIS.

EXTRACTS FROM COURT OPINIONS.

The Facts in the Interesting Case Set Forth by Judge Fauntleroy Are More Enter[tain]ing Than Any Novel.

By the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia, Bettie Thomas Lewis is made the richest colored woman in Virginia. She is married and her husband, John H. Lewis, a bright mulatto, keeps a drug store at No. 20 west Leigh street.

Bettie Thomas Lewis would be mistaken for a white woman by any person who did not know her. She does not associate with the masses of her race. The society in which she moves is composed of a few of the most intelligent colored persons in this city, all of whom are well-to-do and who are generally termed bright "mulattoes."

Fannie Coles, Bettie's friend and companion, lives with her. Fannie is the daughter of a white man who was killed while defending her honor by a young Englishman in Albemarle several years ago. Fannie was present when Thomas died. She was on the witness stand for six hours, and it was through her evidence, which the finest legal talent in Virginia could not successfully assail, that the case was won.

Judge Fauntleroy's opinion in the case comprises sixty pages of closely written legal cap paper. It is said by the legal fraternity to be a magnificent exposition of the law in the case, and was spoken of by the concurring members on the bench in most complimentary terms. After reviewing the history of the case in the lower courts, and the question raised in the controversy to be decided by the higher court, Judge Fauntleroy proceeds to recite the facts in the case as disclosed by the record and concurrent testimony.

It is written in a highly original style peculiar for a decision of this character and reads like the pages of a strong modern novel. It is interesting from beginning to end, but on account of its great length only extracts are given herewith as follows:

Bettie Thomas Lewis, who, before her marriage, was Bettie Thomas, is the only living child of the late William A. Thomas, a wealthy retired merchant, who, at the age of seventy years and enfeebled by long sickness, departed this life, intestate, on the 4th day of January, 1880, at his residence in or near to the city of Richmond, possessed of a large estate of both real and personal property, but principally personalty. He never married, but cohabited with a woman of half-white blood, formerly his slave, in the county of Pittsylvania, Va., by whom he was the father of two daughters, Bettie and an older sister Fannie, who married and died soon after the late civil war without issue. Bettie, thirty-five years of age when her father died, and Fannie were always recognized and acknowledged by William A. Thomas as his children; they called him father; and he called them and cherished and lived with them as his children. The death of Fannie was a great grief to him, and, after that event, his whole and devoted affection was centred upon Bettie as the "daughter of his heart and home," whom he loved "passing well" and from whom he was never thereafter separated, except for the two years that he sent her to a boarding school. Soon after the termination of the late war he removed to Richmond to engage in business, and he purchased a small farm just outside of the city limits for a home for himself and Bettie, and there they lived together for more than twenty years, she presiding at his table and over his household affairs, and ministering to him in sickness and in health, nursing and caring for him with the constant assiduities of a devoted and dutiful daughter, and he providing for her comfort and pleasure in every conceivable form that lavish parental love and large means could suggest. He built the house in which they lived for her, and, according to her directions, he planned and furnished it. He occupied a room intercommunicating with Bettie's, and, during his long and languishing age, enfeebled by sickness and suffering, he preferred and tolerated no ministry but hers to his wants and his weariness. He provided for her an intelligent, agreeable living-companion in his house until her marriage to John H. Lewis, and, for many years previous and up to his death, Fannie Coles, an educated, intellectual woman—the natural and recognized daughter of the late John S. Coles, of Albemarle county, was her household companion, friend and room-mate. He urged Bettie to make a trip to Europe with him, and for eight or ten summers next before his death he visited Saratoga Springs, taking with him Bettie and Fannie Coles; and there, as at his own home, sitting and eating with them at the same table. For Bettie's mother he provided a home, where, for a time, she lived; but this he sold; and at the time of his death she lived at his house with Bettie, though the proof in the record is that he did not of late years of his life cohabit with her. William A. Thomas is represented by the witnesses of the appellants as a man honest, just, close to his interest, unusually prudent and of fine business capacity, simple and frugal in his habits. He is described by the witness, Dr. H. McGuire, who was his attending physician, chosen friend and adviser, as "a peculiar character, anyhow. I think, too, he had some little superstition about making his will. I think it was a dislike that belongs to a great many men to provide for death in any way." This "peculiar character anyhow," cut off from social intercourse by the kind and circumstance of his household affinities, lived, isolated in his own home, almost absolutely without social recognition or intercourse. He had a few business friends and no enemies. He had no relations of legal blood except some collateral kindred, who had never visited him in health or in sickness, and whom he knew of only by the importunity of occasional begging letters, of which he complained as an annoyance, saying "here is a begging letter; the only use my relatives have for me is to get all out of me they can, but if they expect to get what I have when I die they will be mistaken." Dr. McGuire says: "From some things he said to me, I don't know what, I had an idea that he did not like his relatives, for I sometimes used these facts in urging him to make his will."

Mr. Stephen B. Hughes, the most intimate and trusted friend of Mr. Thomas, said: "I have known Mr. Thomas since 1850. We lived together in the same store for many years, occupied the same room together and were partners in business for about three years. And these friendly relations continued up to the time of his death." This witness, with very much other testimony equally important in its bearing upon the relations and affection existing between Mr. Thomas and his daughter, Bettie, says: "They were of the most affectionate nature—that of father and daughter. I have been present when Mr. Thomas was sick, and I have seen for myself. When Thomas was sick he usually sent for me. I was, several years ago, sent for to see Mr. Thomas. I found Thomas, as I thought, quite sick, and I asked Thomas to allow me to send him a trained nurse, and he said, 'No,' that he preferred Bettie to anybody else. It was during that sickness that Thomas first told me that Bettie was his daughter. It was during that sickness that Thomas told me at this death Bettie Lewis would be amply provided for."

Mr. Thomas speaks more than once of his intention to provide amply for Bettie at his death. He said: "She was the only one I ever heard him say he was going to make provision for. Thomas used to get his mail at our store and I have heard Thomas remark, 'Here's a begging letter,' or 'another begging letter,' and the only use his relations had for him was to get all out of him they could, but if they expected to get what he was when he died that they would be mistaken."

There is in the record very much more testimony equally strong, explicit, unimpeached, and uncontradicted, attesting the life-long avowed and unwavering solicitude and purpose of this isolated old man to nourish tenderly while he lived and to provide for amply at his death his devoted and faithful daughter Bettie, the only light of his long life and the only love which quickened the emotions of his introverted and self-centered soul. There is no particle of evidence, and none could be adduced by the appellants, aided by the direction of able, accomplished and assiduous counsel and prompted by the large stake of the controversy, to prove that William A. Thomas ever declared or intimated an intention to provide for any of his collateral kindred at all, much less to allow them to take and enjoy the acquisitions of his long life of industry, thrift, frugality and self-denial. But while we were asked to deny judicial credence to the clearest, the most consistent and convincing testimony that this dying and devoted father did give, with all due and legal solemnities, the larger portion—not all—of his property to his only child and darling daughter, we are deliberately invoked to infer (without the slightest evidence to warrant the reduction, and in disregard of full, incontrovertible proof to the contrary) that it was William A. Thomas' dying design to leave his beloved only child in destitution and disappointed helplessness; and to devolve by the statute of distributions his whole state upon collateral kindred, with whom he had no intercourse, and for whom he cared nothing—strangers absolutely to his heart and home. And the only inducement urged for this illogical and unwarranted inference is the circumstance that Mr. Thomas has the portrait of B. F. Gravely, who had married Mr. Thomas' cousin, and that in a letter of condolence dated March 2, 1882, in reply to a letter announcing the death of B. F. Gravely, he expressed kindly regard and asked Mr. Gravely's son "can I do anything for the family?" The inference is that he did then give them aid, and to this he doubtless had reference when he declared (as detailed in the evidence of Stephen B. Hughes, Fannie Coles, Mrs. Boyd and sundry others,) that he had given to them long years ago all he intended ever to give to them. We have given this unavoidably long narrative of the relations, circumstances, congenities and situation of the parties to this cause, to show that the avowed and constant object of Mr. Thomas' life, labor and love was solicitude and provision for his daughter Bettie, and that there is not one scintilla of proof in the record that through all the years of his life and in all the references he ever made to his intended disposition of his property, he ever had in his heart or mind a purpose to provide particularly for any other than his cherished child; to whom he was bound by the strongest ties of nature and affection; to whom he owed the undivided obligation of a father, and whose whole tenor of life, as shown by the record in this case, from her birth to the moment of his death, was an unvarying demonstration of dutiful devotion and filial confidence and affection. During the long years of his declining health and "cold gradations of decay," there was no planning or plotting after property in her heavy heart; but, reposing in childlike confidence and disinterested trust in the love of her father. Dr. McGuire says that when repeatedly warned and advised by him (as often he had urged upon her father on all the occasions of his critical illness) that if he should die without a will the law would deprive her of everything, "she always seemed rather indifferent about it, and was always more concerned about his health than his money."

On Thursday, the 3d day of January, 1889, William A. Thomas was taken seriously ill, and he died in the early part of the night of Friday, the next day. It was during that illness that he made to his daughter Bettie the gift which is the subject of controversy in this case, and to which the Chancery Court of the city of Richmond, upon the evidence adduced, has solemnly adjudged she is entitled by law.

It is vehemently charged that the testimony of Fannie Coles as to the factum of the gift is false—that it is the result of a conspiracy with Bettie Lewis to defraud the legal distributes of William A. Thomas; that no such gift, as she testifies to, was ever made. The charge is easily asserted, but law, logic and a decent respect for human nature, all require clear and indubitable proof to induce judicial credence to such an atrocity.

It is argued that Mr. Thomas did not make the gift mo[r]tis causa of his property to his child Bettie, as distinctly and incontrovertably [sic] proved, because of his oft and emphatic statement of intention to provide for her by will; and time and time again it is argued that in the eight or ten minutes of Mr. Gilliam's presence with him alone in the death chamber, only a brief time on Friday afternoon before he expired he made an appointment with Mr. Gilliam to go to Mr. Gilliam's office the next day to have his will written. Aside from the utter improbability—not to say impossibility—of an enfeebled and dying old man, in the country beyond the limits of the city of Richmond, making an engagement at 4 o'clock P.M., to arise from what proved to be his death-bed early that night and to come into the city and to a lawyer's office the next day, there is no evidence in the record of any such purpose or possibility.

After a long review of the evidence and facts bearing upon the case, of which the above are extracts, Judge Fauntleroy said: In the able and elaborate opinion of Judge Leake, filed with the record in this case, he decided, saying, "But certainly not without doubts." "The question to my mind is a very doubtful one;" that the gift by Mr. Thomas of his bank book showing the amount of his deposits in the Planters National Bank was ineffectual in law, as a donatio mo[r]tis causa of the money to his credit in the said bank, and he decreed accordingly.

In this, I am of the opinion, the decree under review is erroneous, and that it should be, under the rule, in this particular corrected in favor of the appellees, and in all other respects affirmed, but the majority of the court think the decree is wholy right, and that it must be affirmed as it is.

The last clause is invested with particular interest, because it was changed from the original and resulted in the loss to Bettie Thomas-Lewis of $18,000 represented in the bank book. It is plain from the manuscript that the words, as originally written, were changed.

They at first read: "In this I am of opinion the decree under review is erroneous, and ought to be, under the rule in this particular, corrected in favor of the appellees and in all other respects confirmed."

The change can be readily seen, and was evidently made after Judge Fauntleroy found that the majority of the court disagreed with him in this portion of the opinion.

In continuance the Judge proceeded then with the discussion of the law of the case, and determined each of the legal questions raised in the case in favor of the appellee, Bettie Lewis, and in support of each position gave a long and interesting review of the authorities on the subject.