Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 1982 Volume 20 Number 4, Pages 115–123

Spiritualism - and a Contested Will

Mark Tunnell and Bob Goshorn

Page 115

Rebecca Davis was a spiritualist. On September 24, 1893, she died at the age of ninety-four.

At the time of her death, in addition to various items of personal property, she was the part owner of a tract of land of about 170 acres in the northeast corner of Tredyffrin Township. On the property were located the old stone farm house that during the encampment of the Continental Army at Valley Forge had been the quarters of General Louis Lebeque duPortail, under whose supervision the defenses at Valley Forge were constructed, as well as an old stone Federal bank barn, dated 1792.

The property had been in the possession of the Havard-Davis families for almost two centuries. For almost one hundred years, since 1797,it had been in the Davis family; before that, it had been in the possession of Mary Havard Davis' ancestors, the Havard family, for ninety years.

In April, 1706, David Meredith obtained a patent of 1500 acres "in the Welsh Tract" directly from the agents of William Penn. Later that year, in November, the property was deeded by him to David Powel(l).In the following April Powel(l) in turn transferred 800 acres of the property to John Havard.

In about 1760 John Havard divided this fertile 800-acre farm into four smaller farms, one for each of his sons (Samuel, David, and John Jr.),and a separate tract of 100 acres set aside for his daughters (Mary and Margaret). The land that was to become "the Davis Farm" thus became the property of John Havard Jr.

Page 116

When John Havard Jr. died in 1797, his will left to his daughter, Mary Havard Davis, the wife of William Davis, a life estate in the property, subject to its devise to her son (and his grandson), John Havard Davis, upon his attaining the age of 21.

John Havard Davis also received a handsome legacy from an uncle, which included, according to one report, "as much silver as three men could carry". But he also apparently had little difficulty in spending his money. By April 1819 he was bankrupt.

As a result, at that time, title to the property was transferred by Dr. John Havard Davis and his wife Eliza to Edward Siter, Israel Davis, and Joshua Jones, in trust for the benefit of Davis' creditors. By October of the following year, however, his affairs were apparently sufficiently straightened out that the trustees deeded the property back to his father, William Davis.

William Davis and Mary Havard Davis had seven children altogether. In addition to John Havard Davis, who predeceased his father, there were two other sons (Samuel H. and William Jr.) and four daughters (Sarah H., Hannah, Mary, and the aforementioned Rebecca). When William Davis Sr. died, in about 1848, he left no will. A distribution of his lands and property was therefore made by the Orphans' Court of Chester County. By its decree, as of late July 1856, the title to the particular 170-or-so acre parcel of land in his estate, with which we are concerned, passed to his son William Jr.

Although he had a serious stroke in 1872 or 1873, William Davis Jr. lived until 1879. In June of that year he died. Like his father, he left no will. Unlike his father, he had no issue. At the time of his death, his brother Samuel, and his sisters Sarah and Hannah, had also previously passed on, leaving only his sisters Mary and Rebecca and a nephew, Cyrus H. Davis, the son of his brother John Havard Davis, as the sole surviving heirs. Cyrus Davis, a farmer, lived in New York state, about ten miles west of Auburn, at the foot of Lake Cayuga.

In early 1880 the nephew, who annually visited his aunts, executed a Deed of Release, giving up his interest in the property in exchange for their similar release to him of their interests in another tract of land. The property was thus held jointly by Mary and Rebecca Davis. In the summer of 1880 Mary died, leaving Rebecca as the sole occupant.

The farm was operated for her by tenant farmers; in 1880 by Charles Groff, followed by George Hybeck, who was the tenant farmer from 1881 to 1885, and then by a man named Lyons and his wife Florence.

As Rebecca Davis declined in health, her financial affairs were managed for her by two neighbors, William Roberts and John M. Wilson.

Page 117

As previously noted, on September 24, 1893 Rebecca Davis died at the age of ninety-four.

She did leave a will. It was dated July 23, 1880. The witnesses were Harry R. Wilson, a neighbor farmer who lived on the property adjoining the Davis farm and who had known Rebecca Davis all his life, and P. G. Carey, who had also prepared the document.

By its terms, her nephew and sole remaining heir, Cyrus H. Davis, was not the recipient of the bulk of her estate, but received only the annual interest from it for so long as he lived. Upon his death, the principal sum of money or residue of the estate was to be divided between two black "caretakers" of many years, Amanda Kennedy and Debbie B. Jacobs. The two women were sisters and had been raised on the farm. (At the time the will was prepared, Amanda Kennedy was still living on the farm, while Debbie Jacobs lived with her husband, Alfred Jacobs, in New Centreville, about a mile or so away.)

"I, Rebecca Davis, of the Township of Tredyffrin, County of Chester, state of Pennsylvania, being of sound mind and disposing memory," her will began, "do make and declare this to be my last will and testament, hereby revoking and making void all former wills heretofore made by me. ..."

In her directions for the disposition of "such estate as it has pleased God to intrust me with", Miss Davis left to her "friend and relative Susannah Roberts, wife of William Roberts" title to thirty-seven acres of ground formerly owned by her brother Samuel Davis, with the added provision that she should pay $200 to each of her two daughters, and to an Anne Rue annually the interest from $200 for so long as she should live. Sums of money ranging from $100 to $400 were also left to various other neighbors, friends and relatives, among them Mary Griffith, Hannah Mc-Cahn, Emily Ferree, Mary Jane Thisler, Ellen T. Havard, Mary Ann Richards, Millie Morris, and Elizabeth Brown, and to the Valley Friends Meeting. Her silverware and tea service were bequeathed to Mary and Annie Walker, the daughters of Havard Walker.

But "the sum of one thousand dollars" each was left to Amanda Kennedy and Debbie Jacobs by Miss Davis. She also directed that the residue of the estate should "be securely invested upon interest ... and said interest paid annually to my nephew Cyrus H. Davis so long as he shall beliving ... and after the death of my said nephew, then the principal sum of money or said residue of my said estate shall as soon as possible be divided share and share alike between the aforesaid Amanda Kennedy and Debbie B. Jacobs".

Finally, William Roberts and John M. Wilson were appointed Executors of this "last will and testament written upon three pages of paper".

Page 118

Page 119

Two codicils, or amendments, were also made. In the first, signed May 6, 1881, Miss Davis made specific bequests of certain additional items of her personal property to Amanda Kennedy and Debbie Jacobs, It was witnessed by Charles Groff, her tenant farmer, and P. G. Carey. In the codicil she revoked her bequest of her silverware to Mary and Annie Walker, leaving six silver tablespoons and a plated silver cake basket to Ammanda Kennedy, and six silver tablespoons and a silver cake basket to Debbie Jacobs. Also left to Amanda Kennedy were two beds and bedding, a mahogany dining table, a bureau, a wash stand with "its usual contents", and a carpet, while two beds and bedding were specifically left to Debbie Jacobs. To Alfred Jacobs was left one horse and carriage, formerly the property of her late brother William. Also revoked were the monetary bequests to Mary Jane Thisler and Ellen Havard, while Katie M. Robinson was added to the list of persons to receive $100, and six walnut chairs with leather seats were left to Mary Walker.

The second codicil, dated August 13, 1887, was added to appoint Winfield S. Wilson as an Executor of the estate, in place of John M. Wilson, who had died. Winfield S. Wilson was also a neighbor, living on an adjoining farm, and was the president of the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad. He previously had been general superintendent of both that railroad and the Chester Valley Railroad. This codicil was witnessed by Edward S. Wilson, his brother; and Harry R. Wilson, a nephew.

It was soon obvious that Cyrus Davis was more than a little upset by this disposition of his aunt's property. Bad news travels fast, and in less than a week he learned of the will's provisions, even though he was miles away at his home in New York.

Accordingly, within five days of the death of his aunt, on September 29,1893, he began legal action, notwithstanding the fact that efforts to contest a will were (and still are) rarely successful. Describing himself as the "heir at law of Rebecca Davis, late of the township of Tredyffrin", he filed a "caveat and protest against the probate" of the will" until examination thereof in the proper court and the decree of the said court be therein pronounced".

His protest was based on two counts. The first was a technical complaint that his aunt's signature on the will had not been properly witnessed.

But his major contention was that, in making her will and the first codicil, she had been unduly influenced by the two caretakers who were the principal beneficiaries under them.

That his aunt and several other members of the Davis family were spiritualists was common knowledge. Seances and spiritual meetings were held at their home with some frequency. Both Amanda Kennedy and Debbie Jacobs not only attended some of these sessions but also, he believed, acted as mediums. In this capacity they obviously were in a position to exert an influence on her. The fact that, by the first codicil, additional items were to be left to them could be construed as further evidence of this influence.

Page 120

Thus the nephew and "heir at law" forthwith came down to West Chester and engaged an attorney. On October 4th he also posted the required bond, in the amount of $500, as security for "all or any costs which may be occasioned by such caveat, or appeal".

The hearing was held on October 11, 1893 before the Register of Wills, Frank A. Thomas, The contestant, Cyrus Davis, was represented by R. T. Cornwell, while the proponents were represented by John J. Finkerton.

Thirteen persons were called on to testify during the first day of the hearing. Three persons, including both witnesses to the will, were called to validate the signatures on the various documents. Four persons (Florence B. Lyons, Dr. Charles H. Frederick, Cyrus Davis, and Winfield S. Wilson) were called by Capt. Cornwell for the contestant, and six persons (Eliza Lang McClure, Havard Walker, Mary Emily Walker,John Goulder, Susanna Roberts, and Mary Jane Walker) were called by Mr. Pinkerton,

At the beginning of the hearing, the two witnesses to the will, Harry R. Wilson and P. G. Carey, were asked by the Register of Wills to identify their signatures and the circumstances under which they made them. The signatures of other witnesses by then deceased were similarly verified by persons who knew their handwriting and signatures.

In support of Cyrus Davis' first contention, in his testimony Harry R. Wilson stated that he had not actually seen Miss Davis sign the will. He explained that he had come over to the house to see Charlie Groff, the tenant who farmed the place, and that as he was about to leave "Miss Davis came to the doer and called me back and asked me if I would come in and sign her will". He also stated that he was there just "a few minutes and left", and that Miss Davis and P. G. Carey were present at the time. When asked if Miss Davis had signed the will before he went in, he replied that he had "supposed she had" though he did not "remember seeing her signature". He also added that he "may have seen it", but "did not see her write it".

P. G. Carey, on the other hand, reported that he had seen "Rebecca Davis sign, seal, pronounce and declare" the will to be her last will and testament, and that it was his recollection that he had signed it "at her request, in her presence, and in the presence of Mr. Wilson". He also stated that his practice had "always been not to have the testator or testatrix to sign until the two witnesses are present". "I ask whether this is their last will and testament and whether they desire such a person to sign as witness thereof," he testified, "and if they give their assent, we sign." "And that is your recollection of what took place here?" he was asked, and his reply was "Yes sir."

On the second point, more than half of the persons called to testify, including several called by the proponents, testified either on director cross examination that it was recognized that Rebecca Davis - and also her sister Mary and her brother William - were "avowed spiritualists". Four persons testified that they had also attended seances or spiritualist meetings in the Davis home.

Page 121

In the testimony of Harry R. Wilson, for example, he acknowledged that he "understood" all three of them to be spiritualists; that spiritualist meetings "used to occur every week for a time" in their home; and that he believed "various people in the neighborhood went to see them", although he himself had never been present at any of the meetings. Florence Lyons similarly reported that it was "well understood in the neighborhood" that the family were spiritualists. Dr. Charles Frederick, the family physician (and also a witness to an earlier superceded will of Rebecca Davis) testified that Rebecca Davis was "a great spiritualist" and that he had been present at some of their spiritualist meetings. That both Rebecca and Mary Davis, as well as their brother William, had "the reputation" of being avowed spiritualists was also admitted by Winfield S. Wilson, though he also stated that he "never attended the spiritualist meetings",

Susanna (Havard) Roberts, a neighbor and relative, and also a legatee under the will, stated that she had been at spiritualist meetings at the Rebecca Davis home "many a time" and that they used to hold such meetings "every week" when William Davis was still living. Mary Emily (Roberts) Walker, her daughter, also admitted to having been present at "the seances", which were held "every Friday afternoon" with "everybody invited who wished to go" during William's lifetime. In his testimony, Cyrus Davis stated that he knew of these spiritualist meetings, and had attended "seven or eight" of them during his annual visits to his aunts, although he had attended "no spiritual meetings there in the last five years".

The seances were apparently held much more frequently during the lifetime of William Davis Jr. and before his death, according to the testimony developed at the hearing. Winfield S. Wilson, in his testimony, for example, stated that he had not heard of any of the spiritualist meetings since the Lyonses had taken over operation of the farm (in 1885) nor did he think he had heard of any since William Davis' death in 1879. According to Susannah Roberts "the last public meeting they ever had" and to which the neighbors had been invited, was in 1873 or 1874 after William's first stroke, though some "private meetings" were held (but "not very often") after he had died. Harry R. Wilson also noted that he did not think they had meetings at the time the will was drawn up, but "they used to go on before that".

There were some contradictions in the testimony as to whether Amanda Kennedy and Debbie Jacobs actually served as mediums during these meetings. Harry R. Wilson testified that he "understood" they were "spiritualistic mediums". Mrs. Lyons, in her testimony, stated that two mediums that she knew of came out from Philadelphia, but that it was also her belief that Amanda Kennedy and her sister Debbie Jacobs "had some mediumistic power". Susannah Roberts, on the other hand, said she did not think that the two sisters were mediums.

Page 122

There was also testimony concerning whether, before making her will, Rebecca Davis had received at one of these meetings letters purporting to have been from the spirit world and her late brother William. Both Mrs. Lyons and Cyrus Davis testified that they had seen such letters. In her testimony, Mrs. Lyons reported that when she first came to the farm she read to Miss Davis some letters which Miss Davis had told her came from "somewhere in New York" and which she supposed to have been "written to a medium". The letters, she stated, were in Miss Davis' possession. No further information as to their contents was brought out in the hearing. In the same vein, Cyrus Davis testified that his Aunt Rebecca had told him she had received "communications from different members of the family", including his father and uncles "Charles and Samuel, after he died, and sometimes from William". "After Aunt Mary died," he testified, "Amanda [Kennedy] wrote [the messages] at Aunt Rebecca's request". He also stated that the letters were with her papers.

Susannah Roberts, on the other hand, testified that she did "not know of any spiritualist communications from William Davis excepting one letter and that came to Mary", and that she "never heard of any" coming to Rebecca Davis, who took the messages with "a pencil", writing with her eyes closed. Similarly, when, asked directly if they had any knowledge of reported communications purporting to have come to Rebecca Davis from her deceased brother, both Harry R. Wilson and Dr. Frederick, also answered in the negative.

During the questioning of Winfield S. Wilson, he reported that as the Executor he had not looked through the papers of Miss Davis or found any such letters, He was then instructed to look them over and to produce on the following Friday "any letters that may be amongst her papers ... purporting to be spiritualistic communications". (There is nothing in the record to indicate that any such papers were found or produced.)

The testimony of the six persons called for the proponents by Mr. Pinkerton was to establish that Miss Davis had been of sound mind when she made her will and codicils. (The two witnesses to the will, Harry R. Wilson and P. G. Carey, in the questioning by the Register of Wills, had both previously stated that she was.)

In response to questions by Mr. Pinkerton, Eliza Lang McClure stated that the mental condition of Miss Davis was "perfect", and that she was "just as smart as anybody". Havard Walker, who had known Miss Davis for 25 to 30 years, said her mind was "clear as could be". Mary Emily Walker testified that Miss Davis was able to manage her affairs. John Goulder, who said he had known Miss Davis for sixty years, described her condition as "an exception for strength". According to Mrs. Roberts, she had the "best mind for a person her age I ever knew" and was capable of making a will, while her daughter, Mary Emily Walker, agreed that she was "exceptionally strong for her years" and "had her ideas of right and wrong". All of them agreed she was capable of making her will.

Page 123

With this testimony, the hearing was adjourned until October 13th, two days later.

At that time Charles Groff was called upon by Mr. Pinkerton to testify. His testimony corroborated the earlier testimony that the mind of Rebecca Davis was "good" and that he had never noted "anything to the contrary". After his testimony, the hearing apparently ended abruptly.

Later on that same day, the will and codicils were admitted to probate by the Register of Wills, At the same time, Winfield S. Wilson was qualified as the Executor of the estate.

On October 25th he filed an inventory of Rebecca Davis' personal estate, and about two months later, on December 20th, he filed the inventory of real estate.

Authorized by the will "to sell and convey to the purchaser thereof" any and all of the real estate, on April 2, 1894 he sold the property to David Havard, the former owner of Chesterbrook, The price was $11,220, of which half was credited to Rebecca Davis' estate. Thus the property returned to a Havard once more, after almost 100 years in the Davis family. (It was to be so for only four more years, however, as David Havard died in April 1898.)

On April 27, 1894 the Executor's account was filed. The estate, after expenses for Miss Davis' burial, legal, fees (John J. Pinkerton received $75 for his services), miscellaneous administrative costs, and the Executor's compensation, amounted to $5731.26, After distribution of the various bequests provided for in the will and codicils, including some $3600 in monetary bequests, the residue of the proceeds was "securely invested" by the Executor, as specified in the will, and the interest therefrom paid annually to Miss Davis' nephew, Cyrus Davis,

(On August 3, 1905, Winfield S. Wilson died. His youngest son, William G. Wilson, was named "Substituted Trustee" in his place.)

Cyrus Davis lived until May 11, 1908.

Early the following year, "as soon as possible" after his death, the Substituted Trustee filed his "first and final, account" of the estate. It showed a balance in the estate, including accumulated income since Cyrus Davis' death, of $2513,64. After deducting claims for sundry expenses and commissions, Amanda Kennedy (by then Amanda Kennedy Jones, as she had "since intermarried, with one Lewis Jones") and Debbie R. Jacobs, the "residuary legatees", were each to receive $1176.72.

Final distribution was made on January 23, 1909, at which time the two sisters, in the presence of Lewis Jones and Reba M. Jacobs, accepted the accounting as correct, and released the Substituted Trustee "from all claims and demands whatsoever".

And thus ended a saga of spiritualism - and a contested will.


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