On Aug. 24, 1886, when Amos Williams Olney died of heart disease at his home on Plainfield Street in Johnston, the event ushered in a court battle that would go on for over a decade.
Seventy-four-year-old Amos had written his last will and testament on April 26 of that year, leaving an estate worth over $79,000 to his wife, 59-year-old Mary Jane (Alexander) Olney. The will stipulated that, upon his wife’s death, the remainder of the estate was to go into a trust whereby five chosen trustees would use the money to erect a brick building on High Street in Providence to be called the “A.G. & A.W. Olney Block”, in memory of he and his brother Albert, both longtime grocers.
The structure was to be a “substantial building for business purposes” standing “three stories high” and constructed of “the best quality of Philadelphia pressed brick and iron.” Business spaces within the block were to be rented out and the collected rents “to be divided among such of my lawful heirs as shall present satisfactory proof of their claims.”
A host of family members came forth to argue against the will. Many told a sordid story in which Amos was one of the many illegitimate children of Moses Olney and Martha (Williams). As the testimony went, Martha Williams had been a servant within the household of Moses’s parents, Gideon and Abigial Olney. Witnesses alleged that Moses wished to marry Martha but that his father forbid it due to her inferior social status. He was supposedly warned that if he pressed the matter, he would be disinherited.
According to court testimony, Moses and Martha therefore lived in sin, with Martha giving birth to several illegit-imate children. Supposedly, once the children reached school age, they were taunted for being the products of un-married parents.
Other witnesses argued, however, that Moses and Martha were married at the deathbed of Gideon in 1798 and that the children were not out of wedlock. Their offspring included a son Moses, born and died in 1800; a son Wanton, born and died in 1803; and a son Erastus, born and died in 1805. Another son, Stephen, had been born in 1898; son Albert in 1808, and Amos in 1812.
The only marriage record in evidence for Moses and Martha was filed on Nov. 4, 1817. Some witnesses claimed the couple had endeavored to make the union legally valid five months prior to Moses’s death, on April 25, 1818, only so that Martha could inherit his property.
The hearings regarding Amos’s will stretched on into the 20th century and included 325 exhibits and 215 witnesses. Mary Jane’s inheritance had been declared invalid and she was allowed a $20,000 settlement before she died in 1892. The fight continued over whether the rest of the estate should go to Amos’s paternal or maternal heirs, as he and Mary Jane had no children and the court had established that his parents were not married at the time of his birth.
The court finally decided that the heirs of Martha Williams would inherit the estate, the last wishes of Amos Olney being overridden by arguments and legal proceedings for many long years after his death.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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