Roby (Dye) Williams was 96 when she died of pneumonia on March 31, 1897 in Auburn. Widowed by Horace Williams, who’d died of heart disease in 1872, she was buried in Pocasset Cemetery. The Town …
Roby (Dye) Williams was 96 when she died of pneumonia on March 31, 1897 in Auburn. Widowed by Horace Williams, who’d died of heart disease in 1872, she was buried in Pocasset Cemetery. The Town of Cranston refused to probate her will and appointed an administrator to the estate. Soon, a bizarre story played out before a jury.
Two decades before, Roby regularly ordered groceries from Remington’s store on Cranston Street in Providence. The store’s clerk, a youngster named Herbert Burnett Lockwood, made the deliveries. Upon learning the elderly woman lived alone, he began stopping by to haul her water and coal, make her fires and shovel snow. Now, the will named Herbert as chief beneficiary and sole executor of the estate.
Herbert testified that the first time he delivered Roby’s groceries, she paid him and he signed the receipt. Seeing his surname, she asked him who his parents were. He answered her and she informed him that she’d worked alongside his mother at a Warwick mill. She sent greetings back to Mrs. Lockwood and soon the friendship was reignited and the women visited each other on occasion.
Herbert claimed that he called her “Aunt Roby” and that, years earlier, she had given him $600 toward a mortgage on some Warwick real estate he wanted. He said that when he became unable to pay the mortgage or interest, he offered to give her the deed to the property but she said she didn’t want it and would accept a life interest instead. Other times, he went on, she had him withdraw money for her from her account at Hospital Trust.
While 19 witnesses believed that Roby had intended the will to show gratitude for Herbert’s many kindnesses to her, 21 witnesses testified that the nearly century-old woman was barely sane and that Herbert, who was now 35, had taken advantage of that.
Some witnesses had heard rumors regarding Roby and a younger man but didn’t know the man’s identity. Others did. Mary M. Stone, age 59, who had known Roby for 25 years, testified that the will was made with a feeble mind. She stated she had seen Herbert at Roby’s numerous times and when Roby decided to leave him her estate, she asked Mary to sign the will as a witness. “I told her how foolish she was to be so devoted to a young man,” Mary stated. In turn, Roby told her that Herbert knew nothing regarding her personal business.
A neighbor of Roby’s from 1878 to 1891 testified that Roby talked often of how nice Herbert was to the point that she seemed infatuated with him. She alleged, in contrast to Herbert’s story, that Roby didn’t know Herbert’s mother at all and that Roby had told her about the first time she met her, arriving at the Lockwood’s Warwick home in a carriage driven by Herbert. She said Roby also told her, “Herbert cares for no other girls but me and I gave Frank Lockwood, his brother, ten dollars to go up when he brought me an invitation to Herbert's wedding in 1891 and tell the girl that she couldn't have him."
Believing that infatuation had turned into delusion, the neighbor told the court how Roby had described the gown she’d bought to wear at her wedding to Herbert. Sometime later, she allegedly told the neighbor they’d been married in her parlor by her physician, Dr. Dan Ozro King. King testified that he believed her to be of sound mind when the will was made but denied performing any marriage ceremony.
Some testified that Roby had talked about how Herbert was coming to marry her in a carriage drawn by a pair of white horses which Governor Sprague was going to loan him and that she later enjoyed pointing out the area of her parlor where she claimed they had been wed.
A young boy who had done chores around her house testified that when the time came to be paid, Roby said she didn’t have the money but her husband Herbert Lockwood would pay him. A Mrs. Joslin of Providence told the court that Roby often spoke of being married and that when she asked Roby why there was no husband at the house, she had replied, “Ask Horace Remington."
Horace Remington, the 50-year-old son of Roby’s sister Almira, had been appointed her guardian in 1891 after her family became concerned regarding her relationship with Herbert. They claimed that he had gotten her to sign blank checks for him from 1882 to 1889. She had inherited $12,000 when her brother died and $2,000 when her sister died and the family claimed that Herbert reduced those amounts in her bank account. Herbert was indeed a husband now but not hers. He had married Mary Ella Kenney on April 15, 1891. The couple lived on Wentworth Avenue in Edgewood and he was employed as a concrete contractor.
Later in 1891, a jury had heard the case of Roby Williams vs. Herbert Lockwood and Roby was awarded $4,071.17 in damages. Three years later, she claimed she had lent him large sums of money which she wanted back. She testified that, in 1881 he wanted to go into business for himself and borrowed $600 from her. She alleged that, as security, he gave her a mortgage on eight acres of land. She claimed that in 1884 he ceased his business and, the following year, asked her for another loan. She gave him $375 and, for surety, he gave her the deed for the eight acres and a life interest on the property. According to Roby, he built a house and barn on the land in 1887 and rented it out before making it his residence. Then, in Oct. 1890, she said, he deeded the land to his father, ignoring their deal. Roby also charged that, in Jan. of 1891, Herbert withdrew $400 from her bank account and deposited it into his own and did the same on Nov. 13, 1891 with $2,000.
Attorney Stephen Ostrom Edwards testified that Roby had called him to draw up a will for her and that Herbert was not there and he did not feel that Herbert had anything to do with writing the draft which the will was prepared from. Made out on Jan. 28, 1888, the will was signed by witness Mary Stone.
Roby willed the family clock and a share of the family portraits to her niece Phebe Swarts. The rest of the family portraits had been willed to her sister Amy. All of her real estate, consisting of a cottage on Park Avenue and about an acre of land, as well as the balance of her personal estate, which included about $10,000 deposited with the RI Hospital Trust Company, was left to Herbert.
Arguments went on concerning Roby’s sanity. Some witnesses claimed she had been highly alert and intelligent and that her relatives had very little to do with her except where the contents of her will were concerned. Others claimed that Herbert had a great deal of influence over her and that she’d doted on him, taking pride in a parlor stand he had gifted her, fastened with ribbons and bows Roby bragged he had tied himself. On top of her parlor mantel was a photo of him. Sarah J. Straight, the nurse who’d cared for Roby in the months prior to her death testified that she was weak of mind and body.
Herbert argued that Roby was apparently “sane” enough to donate her money to the church, including $500 for a memorial window, as no one questioned those expenses. A provision in the will stated that Herbert must remain unmarried to retain her personal property. If he married, it was to pass on to her family members. As far as he was concerned, that should have been proof enough that the will was not a product of his own making, otherwise he would not have gotten married.
In Nov. of 1897, the jury ruled that Roby had been of sound mind when the will was made and that the instrument would be upheld. Because Herbert had married, the family would inherit the cash and entire personal estate, but he would get the land and the cottage. The court denied the family’s appeal for a second trial.
On the night of Aug. 30, 1899, someone set fire to the shed on the Park Avenue property which Herbert had filled with a carload of tar pitch, about 250 empty tar barrels, 25 filled tar barrels and a quantity of wood. The shed, near the gravel pit Herbert kept for work, was found blazing at 9:00 that evening. The loss of about $2,000 worth of material was fully covered by insurance. Three months earlier, the attorney who had won Herbert his share of the will went on to sue his former client after Herbert failed to pay the counsel fees.
The following month, Herbert was sued by 74-year-old Waite Gardiner, a mentally and physically feeble Park Avenue man whom Herbert had befriended. Waite claimed that some land abutting Park Avenue had come into the possession of Herbert’s wife and that Herbert desired to develop it into house lots. He allegedly arranged to trade Waite one foot of front land for every two feet of his back land so that he could lay out a street, later called Woodbine Street, to access the house lots. Waite claimed Herbert later drew up deeds that cheated him out of property. Herbert claimed he had never made the agreement he was accused of. Waite died in 1901.
Herbert married two more times and moved to NC in 1906. There he engaged in the cotton waste business. He died of heart disease on Dec. 16, 1916 leaving a wife of eight years, Norma, and three young children. Before leaving RI, he completed the concreting of the Natick Bridge as well as a concrete platform at Pawtuxet Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. During Cranston’s 150th anniversary celebration, he served as a marshal in the parade.
Had Roby Williams been delusional? Or was she simply lied to or lied about? Was she in love with her young chore-boy and jealous when he married another woman? Was Herbert Lockwood a kind-hearted man who just wanted to help, or someone who took advantage of a trusting woman’s aging mind? We’ll probably never know any more than that jury of 12 men did back in 1897.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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