Between 1880 and 1895, William Mullen had been committed to the State Workhouse in Cranston on no less than 20 occasions. A confirmed alcoholic, Mullen suffered physically and mentally from the effects of his disease, regularly besieged with body tremors known as delirium tremens.
At the beginning of 1880, 26-year-old Mullen had lived with his wife Ann (Golden), also 26, on Mill Street in Pawtucket with their 7-year-old son William and several boarders they had taken in. Mullen was employed as a brakeman on the railroad. But as the year grew to a close, he found himself unable to handle his habit and was confined on the grounds of the State Workhouse & House of Correction.
This was not the first time Ann had to fend for herself. Five years earlier, her husband suddenly gone, she moved in with her siblings and took a job at a Pawtucket mill. The couple never divorced, but Mullen’s constant state of intoxication destroyed the relationship. By 1902, he was living in the boarding house of 53-year-old bank watchman Llewellyn Jones on North Main Street in Providence.
He had been residing at Jones’s place for several months when he arrived one day, deeply under the effect of alcohol, in the company of a woman who he introduced to Jones as his “female friend.” The couple went to Mullen’s room and she instructed him to pack his trunk. As he was physically unable to handle the task, she watched his efforts for a short time before for packing it herself.
Jones would later testify that he could hear Mullen sobbing profusely, complaining about the addiction that had him in its grip. The female friend, 40-year-old Margaret McKeon, took control, Mullen following her every direction as they finished packing and left the boarding house.
Later that day, the last day of May, they went on to the Board of Trade building where Mullen attempted to obtain paperwork to withdraw his savings from the bank. Those present would later tell how Mullen kept pacing and crying, sitting down and talking woefully about how much he loved his son. There was enough money in his account for his burial, he explained, and he wanted to make sure his son got what was left. Due to his mental and emotional condition, they refused his request.
Four days later, Mullen lay violently ill with pneumonia at the home of McKeon, also located on North Main Street. On June 7, McKeon obtained the services of an attorney who came to the house for the purpose of drawing up a will. According to the attorney, who knew nothing about the relationship between the couple, Mullen told him that he wanted McKeon to inherit everything he had.
McKeon immediately went and got a bank book and the attorney prepared an order for Mullen’s money to be deposited into her account. When Mullen was asked to sign the paperwork, he was physically unable to write and barely able to hold the pen, so his name was signed for him. McKeon hurried to a female neighbor’s house and brought her back to act as a witness. By the time the attorney left, McKeon was sole executrix and beneficiary of Mullen’s will.
Mullen died two days later. In the days that followed, his 29-year-old son, a jeweler in Massachusetts, heard about his father’s death. He visited McKeon and questioned whether or not his father had asked her to send for him before he died. She said he had, but that she didn’t know where he lived. He then learned the details of the will and was shocked.
The probate records and the arguments that followed are made much more confusing by information we are privy to today, which the court was not aware of back in 1902. The biggest argument, based on witness testimonies, was that Mullen would not have left his estate to a woman he had known for only a week, unless he had been delirious and incapable of making rational decisions. It appeared to all that a strange woman had swept in and taken advantage of a man who didn’t know her.
Today, public census records show that Mullen was living with Margaret and her 20-year-old daughter in the home of her father, Richard, at least two years prior to his death. He was working on the railroad and perhaps engaged in a domestic relationship that was kept a heavily guarded secret for much longer than one week.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.