BACK IN THE DAY:

A family's fights over fortune

By KELLY SULLIVAN
Posted 9/9/20

By KELLY SULLIVAN The more you have to bequeath, the more there is to fight over. The family of the wealthy founder of Brown University became well versed in litigating over legacies. Warwick resident Caroline Matilda (Clements) Brown, the widow of

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BACK IN THE DAY:

A family's fights over fortune

Posted

The more you have to bequeath, the more there is to fight over. The family of the wealthy founder of Brown University became well versed in litigating over legacies.

Warwick resident Caroline Matilda (Clements) Brown, the widow of Nicholas Brown III, made out her will in March 1869. Of the five children Caroline had birthed, three were still alive – Annmary (Brown) Hawkins, Carrie Mathilde (Brown) Bajnotti and Grenville Brown. Son Alfred Nicholas Brown had died in 1864 at age 32 and the first daughter to be named Annmary had died in 1837 at age 2.

Her husband’s death in 1859 left Caroline living in the Warwick mansion known as Choppaquonsett with their grown children and a staff of servants – domestics Delia Chapman, Tonasia Winster, Rebecca Johnston and Ellen Reynolds; waitress Esther Harker and waiter John Henson; gardener William Stow; and the coachman who remained in her employ the longest, Jesse Elsey of Maryland.

In her will, Caroline directed that “all nicknacks, all embroidered furniture and other articles of embroidery, mosaic and fancy tables, mosaics and china” to be divided between the children. Two silver porringers and engraved tankards were also left as legacies.

“I give and bequeath all and singular my jewels unto my two daughters,” the will read, explaining the jewels were to be passed on to their daughters. The executors were directed to sell publicly or privately “my books, pictures, sketches, curiosities, works of art and coins.”

Caroline also directed that if the chapel for her late husband had not been completed by the time of her death, for that work to be finished, for the grounds near it to be planted with suitable trees and for a marble tablet to be erected to her late husband and son. She also stated that she wanted an iron door put on the burial vault to protect it from intruders.

With expensive goods, real estate, trusts, cash and income from rents to be handled, she named William Bailey and her son Grenville as executors.

During the winter of 1874, Caroline changed her will. She named beneficiaries for three estates in Providence and one in Penn. She left an inheritance of $150 per year to Jesse Elsey who had married in 1867 and lived with his wife and two children at the Warwick estate. She also replaced Grenville with William Grosvenor Jr. as executor.

Caroline died in 1879. Her daughter Carrie died in 1892 and her son Grenville in 1896. In 1897, a lawsuit was brought forth in which the court awarded Grenville’s infant son his father’s share of Caroline’s estate when he turned 21.

Caroline’s late husband and his brother, John Carter Brown, had argued in courtrooms years earlier after the death of their father. Nicholas was furious concerning what he perceived to be an unfairness in the legacies and stated that his children would live in poverty if things remained as ordered. He finally accepted $10,000 to withdraw his lawsuit.

In 1900, his brother John’s son died of typhoid fever at the age of 39, leaving a 3-month-old heir, John Nicholas. At the age of 4, the little boy was dressed in white and wrapped in furs to toddle over Persian rugs and lay the cornerstone for the new gates at Brown University. Having inherited a $55 million fortune, he was the wealthiest child in America.

The majestic Choppaquonsett, which Caroline’s husband had constructed in 1855 upon a 200-acre waterfront property, burned down in 1888. Inside the multi-storied Italianate, with its hand-printed wallpaper, imported plants, expensive furniture, jewels and servants, lives of privilege were always under the shadow of future lawsuits.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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