Jonathan Preston’s Will:
An Incompetency Dispute Divides a Village
by Patricia Shillingburg © 2003
Sometimes, and not for want of trying, a community is incapable of serving the best interests of an individual in need. This was true, I believe, in the case of the alleged incompetency of Jonathan Preston which raged in Greenport, New York from 1904 until a settlement was reached within the family in late 1907. This conflict not only pitted his principal caregiver against his extended family but also divided the entire Village of Greenport. His nephew predicted that the only ones who would benefit would be the lawyers, and he was right. In the end, one-quarter of Jonathan’s estate was spent on legal fees, as two groups of otherwise good and well meaning friends and family battled over his legal competency in his waning years.
Jonathan Preston was born in 1826 in Leicester, England and immigrated to the United States as a child with his family. According to an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Sunday, May 14, 1899, his father, Stephen Preston, was a farmer by occupation who “immigrated to this country with his family when Jonathan was but four years old. The Prestons landed at Shelter Island where the father secured employment on the property of Lawyer [Samuel Smith] Gardiner, who at that time was considered one of the wealthiest residents of the Island.” According to Jonathan in testimony at an incompetency hearing in 1904, his father drowned when he was 14 or 15 years old.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle article continued, “As a youth Captain Preston attended the old village school house on the main road in winter and worked about among the big farms summers until he was about 20 years of age, when he purchased the outfit then owned by one Lewis Ross, who did odd jobs about the river and who occasionally made a shilling from the more generous inhabitants of the Island when the latter desired to cross in the little sixteen foot cat boat which Captain Ross managed. This was the actual beginning of a regular ferry between the two mainlands and Jonathan Preston with the diminutive ferryboat Ceylon laid out a regular schedule of trips which he carried out as systematically as wind and tide would permit.
“On account of opposition, he sold out his ferry and embarked in the smack fishing industry, but after three years he again bought out the ferry line and sailed an eighteeen foot South Bay catboat, which he used for upward of four years, after which he had another and his last boat built by Edward Hand, who in those days conducted the only shipyard at Greenport. This boat was twenty-three foot long and it was named the Brother Jonathan. Saul Nicoll, a brother-in-law of Captain Preston, presented the Brother Jonathan with a set of colors the day she was launched. The Brother Jonathan cost $600 and was at that time classed as the most seaworthy craft of its kind known hereabouts.”
According to recorded deeds, in 1853 Jonathan Preston purchased land at the end of State Road at Dering Harbor on Shelter Island from Asenath C. Griffing and her daughter Asenath, and he used it for the first regular ferry service from Shelter Island to Greenport. He was 27 years old.
In 1857, with the assistance of Dr Nicoll, Lawyer Frank Gardiner, and other Island residents, Jonathan secured an exclusive charter from the Legislature in Albany -- the first such charter ever issued -- to operate a Greenport - Shelter Island ferry. With the charter in hand, he “erected the first dock at Dering’s harbor, also the first waiting room, and thereby made crossing the ferry a comparatively comfortable undertaking.”
Regular ferry service had become significant to the people of Shelter Island. The railroad had come to Greenport in 1844, and Islanders could have regular contact with New York City, and thus they needed reliable connection to the North Fork. And, as a result of the ferry, the Town fathers built a bridge across Chase’s Creek in 1869, at present Bridge Street, and, thus connected the area known as “The City” -- where Menantic Road meets West Neck Road today -- more effectively to the ferry dock through Squire Chase’s homestead land, now The Heights.
Jonathan plied the ferry, with, he later proudly proclaimed, no interruptions -- even during severe winters -- for ten years. According to the 1899 Brooklyn Daily Eagle story, “It is even told by old residents now living here that it never blew hard enough to prevent Jonathan Preston from making a crossing in his staunch little boat. In those days, the horses and cattle which were transferred from one side to the other were swum across instead of being taken over in floats and ferryboats as at present, and Captain Preston smiles grimly as he tells some of his adventures in towing some of the more obstinate animals across the river. Later a raft with a mast and sail attached was pressed into service for carrying the stock across.”
In 1899, Jonathan proudly told the reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that “during the fifty years or more that have marked the career of the ferry across Peconic Bay, between Greenport and Shelter Island, not a single life has been lost among the thousands of passengers which have crossed by day and night during that period.”
He sold the ferry business and the Shelter Island terminus in 1863 to Charles and Cornelia Casta.
Information about the remainder of Jonathan’s life comes from the transcript of a probate hearing following his death in 1905. This transcript includes Jonathan’s testimony from two incompetency hearings held in 1904.
For the rest of his life Jonathan lived in Greenport with his wife Eliza, ne Robinson, who died in 1902; they had no children. He supported them by his investments which primarily were small mortgages. He believed that many small investments were safer than a few large ones. He depended on his nephew, William Titus Ross, known as Tite, and local businessman John Bartlett to assist him in managing his investments. In 1902, he had assets of about $20,000.
He was also a chicken farmer. He kept eggs until their price was high. He explained when asked how he kept eggs in a brine, sometimes as many as 1200 at a time, “I don’t remember the quantities exactly. It was a pint of salt, fine salt, and a pint of air-slacked lime and three gallons of water. You want to boil your water and stir it up and let it cool. And, not put your eggs in till next morning after you pick them up.” He sent them to a baker in Brooklyn who wanted only his eggs. “When eggs was low, I put them in this preserve and kept them until eggs was higher.”
Jonathan was not known as a generous man. It was said that he never gave anything to anyone. When asked about a bedstead he gave as a wedding gift, the recipient said, “It was his wife who gave it to me.” However, he gave Tite a copy of a history of Long Island -- which apparently had a picture of him in it -- some other history books, his father’s gold watch that did not work, and a silver watch, “a relic.”
In the early summer of 1902, when he was age 76, Jonathan suffered two minor strokes according to the family physician, Dr. Arthur Loper. On July 18, unexpectedly, his wife of 49 years and her sister who was living with them died within hours of each other. Jonathan was devastated and depressed. He imagined that Dr. Loper was somehow to blame “...because Loper didn’t seem to do much for my wife. She went there and got some medicine Thursday afternoon and Friday morning he came there and gave her some more and about fifteen minutes after he came the second time she was dead and her sister died and I paid him a hundred dollars for doctoring her.” His neighbors suggested that he ought to be afraid, he said. So he returned to Dr. Hartranft. Dr. Hartranft later testified that Jonathan Preston “was a man of sound mind. Take any man the age of Jonathan Preston and anger him seriously and it will be a strange thing if he don’t deviate from his natural self... the man was harassed continually and it was on his mind.”
He was also agitated that his wife’s will left him a life estate, and her property, including the house in which he lived, two doors from the Wyandank on the south side of Front Street, was to pass to her family upon his death. Her cousins were her beneficiaries, including Mrs. Eva Vail of Brooklyn, Mrs. Ellen Corwin of Riverhead, Mrs. Addie Corwin of Southampton, and Mrs. John Terrell, Miss Adele M. Terrell, Mrs. George M. Vail and Dr. Allen S. Terrell, all of Riverhead. On numerous occasions Jonathan took the cars (the train) to Riverhead to badger George M. Vail, the executor of his wife’s estate, asking repeatedly for his wife’s money. He didn’t understand -- although it was always carefully explained to him by both Mr. Vail and Mr. Bartlett -- that he would receive income and had the right to live in the house, but would not receive principal. After probate the estate’s cash value was $299. The inventory of Eliza Preston’s estate included a list of 31 books, one of which was Law without Lawyers. Every time a property tax bill came due, Jonathan would question his obligation to pay.
Soon after his wife died, he gave up his chickens and going to church.
On July 24 of that year, he executed a will which named Tite Ross and John Bartlett as executors. Tite was to received $500 for acting as executor and one-fifth of Jonathan’s remaining estate. Other beneficiaries were Annie Fowler, daughter of his deceased brother John W. Preston, his brother Henry S. Preston, his sister Matilda Starkey, his sister Ann Sparks (one-fifth), and the children of his deceased sister Sarah Grumley.
According to his friends, reliance on a series of housekeepers was a disaster. He claimed that the housekeepers stole from him. He admitted to friends that he was very unhappy. He complained constantly about his living situation to anyone who would listen. His friends observed that his appearance was less and less tidy. Isaac Sweezy, his neighbor, reported later that Jonathan had suffered from shingles in the summer of 1903. He testified to that himself a year later.
Tite Ross’s wife, Elme, had an experience with Jonathan in the summer of 1903 when he was unable to write a check -- destroying three in the process. He kept signing the check in the wrong place. Mrs. Ross took matters into her own hands, and in September 1903 she telegraphed Jonathan’s niece Lillian Sparks, a school teacher who lived in Saybrook, Connecticut, urging her to come to Greenport to care for her uncle.
Lillian arrived shortly thereafter with her mother, Ann Sparks, and together they took Jonathan’s care upon themselves. The two women, particularly Lillian, doted on him.
Too much so, as far as the rest of the family was concerned. He went to his lawyer friend Leroy E. Raynor and transferred $3,000 worth of mortgages into Lillian’s name. Then he went to his lawyer friend Charles R. Lyon and placed $10,000 worth of mortgages into Lillian’s name. He explained to anyone who would ask, that Lillian had promised to care for him for the rest of his life. Therefore he wanted her to have his money, and if he did not give it to her while he was alive, she would never get it. Then, he asked Mr. Raynor to draw up another will. He asked Tite to act as executor of this will.
At this point, Tite -- who had learned about his Uncle Jonathan’s transfers to Lillian -- was alarmed. They exchanged angry words on more than one occasion. Tite refused to act as executor, and he suggested that if Jonathan kept giving his money away, Tite would have to place him in the poorhouse at Yapank -- which was Jonathan’s worst fear. He complained bitterly to anyone who would listen that Tite and John Bartlett were stealing his money and were going to send him to the poorhouse in Yapank.
The Greenport family was also scandalized by the fact that Lillian Spark’s gentleman friend, James Rugg, who was married to another woman, was living in Jonathan’s house. Jonathan was also complaining around town about how short he was of cash and the number of mouths he was feeding. He wasn’t sure that he could survive his old age.
John Bartlett and his banker knew better. John continued to receive monthly interest payments on Jonathan’s mortgages and sent consolidated checks to Jonathan. The president of the First National Bank, Grosvenor C. Adams later testified that Jonathan always had $1,000 on deposit.
The winter of 1904 was severe and because of the ice often the ferry to Shelter Island could not run. Jonathan was quick to tell anyone who would listen that when he ran the ferry, he never missed a trip, even if he had to drag the ferry across the ice. William W. Griffin, a trustee of the Village of Greenport, later recalled a conversation he had with Jonathan that winter. “The ferry was blocked about that time. The old man had been in the ferry and sort of complimented himself on never missing a trip or a day.”
Anyone who knew Jonathan also knew the story about how he almost died. It was after he sold the menhaden fish factory. He was tarring seine (fish nets). They stopped to eat lunch, and the tar got too hot. He leaned over the kettle too long, the fumes tarred his lungs, and he passed out. He was unconscious for a number of days. Dr. Hartranft and Dr. Nicoll treated him and saved his life.
Tite, obviously concerned about what to him was his uncle’s irrational behavior, initiated a competency proceeding. Before the hearing, on February 23, 1904, Mr. Raynor drew up an agreement between Jonathan and Lillian Sparks in which she agreed, in writing, to care for him for the rest of his life. It was filed with the Suffolk County Clerk and is in Deed Liber 555 on page 381.
The competency hearing was heard on March 1, 1904 in Greenport. Timothy M. Griffing, Esq., of Riverhead, presided as “commissioner” and there was a jury of 21 men. Mr. Raynor represented Jonathan. During the hearing, Jonathan at times was quite coherent. He explained that he had given $14,000 to Lillian because she had promised to take care of him for the rest of his life. He knew he had $6,000 left. At other times he was confused. He didn’t recognize John Bartlett, his business agent for over a decade, and on at least three occasions during his testimony he tried to get up to leave to go home. After an all night deliberation, 20 of 21 members of the jury found Jonathan competent. Commissioner Griffing did not agree.
On several occasions Jonathan told friends how grateful he was to have received the support of the people of Greenport. He told his friend of 50 years, Charles L. Corwin, with whom he had a chance encounter in April that he “didn’t want to give [his money] away, but he says they made me do it.”
His friend J. Madison Wells, a Greenport businessman, was furious and told Mr. Corwin, that only the family of Truman Preston and Mr. Fordham who doubted Jonathan’s competency and “all ought to be sent to hell.”
For reasons unknown, Mr. Raynor was added to Jonathan’s list of rascals which included Mr. Vail, Dr. Loper, Mr. Bartlett, and Tite Ross.
On March 26, Mr. Lyon drew up a will for Jonathan which he signed. It named J. Madison Wells as executor. It seemed to be similar to the will drawn by Mr. Raynor earlier in the winter which was never executed. In this will, he left $25 to Tite and $25 to Tite’s grown son Jonathan; Mary Preston, widow of John Preston, was to receive $100, as was Annie Fowler and the Methodist Episcopal Church; his niece Lulu Tryon was to receive $400; other beneficiaries included Henry Preston, Maltilda Starkey, Annie Booth, Victor Booth’s wife, and the children of Sarah Grumley. Ann Sparks was not listed because her daughter had already received $14,000 and was, in Jonathan’s opinion, already taken care of.
In the meantime, Tite and John Bartlett appealed the competency verdict to the Supreme Court.
Greenport probably was not a comfortable place for Lillian and Ann Sparks. Their Greenport family was not pleased that Lillian now possessed most of Jonathan’s assets. So, by April 1904, she and her mother returned with Jonathan to Saybrook.
According to Jonathan, he had a wonderful summer in Saybrook. He had chickens and gathered eggs. He had a lovely garden, and every day after breakfast he walked the mile to the post office. He attended services on Sundays, he said. His niece, Sarah Grumley, who lived next door to the Sparks in Saybrook, later told a different story. She said the chickens belonged to the upstairs tenants, the garden was a disaster as he scattered all the seeds for small vegetables mixed with each other, and that on numerous occasions he was so confused as to where he was that he entered her kitchen thinking it was the Sparks’ kitchen.
Meanwhile, in May, the Supreme Court ordered a new hearing as to Jonathan’s competency, and Jonathan, Lillian and Ann returned to Greenport for the hearing which was held December 6, 7 and 8, also presided over by Mr. Griffing. At this hearing he was found incompetent as of November 1903, and Lillian was required to turn all of Jonathan’s funds over to Mr. Griffing.
Following the hearing, Lillian, Ann, and Jonathan immediately returned to Saybrook.
Jonathan’s early morning routine was to take out the ashes and empty the coffee grinds. On the morning of February 12, 1905, according to Sarah Grumley who watched from her parlor as she dressed for school, Jonathan slipped and fell on the ice. He never again emerged from the house, and on the night of February 28/March 1, 1905, Jonathan Preston died. He was buried alongside his wife Eliza in Sirling Cemetery in Greenport.
J. Madison Wells submitted the March 26, 1904 will to the Surrogate Court in Riverhead. A hearing took place before Surrogate Joseph M. Belford between May 1 and May 3, 1905. The entire contingent of Greenport relatives joined Tite and John Bartlett in contesting the March 1904 will. Charles L. Lyon, Esq. represented the proponents. He presented the testimony of Dr. John H. Benjamin, Thomas F. Price, vice president of Peoples National Bank, Louis T. Wells, a member of the real estate and insurance firm Tasker & Wells and a director of People’s National Bank, Louise Conklin who lived across the street, Isaac Sweezy who lived next door, Dr. Howard Young, Dr. Hartranft, William W. Griffin, local agent for the LIRR and a trustee of the Village of Greenport, and the Reverend Henry Blatz, the minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Herbert L. Fordham, Esq. represented the contestants. Those who believed that Jonathan had behaved irrationally from November 1903 onward, included George M Vail, Esq., Sarah Grumley, Fred B. Corey, assistant cashier of the First National Bank, John J. Bartlett, Elias P. Jennings, director of People’s National Bank and a trustee of the Southold Savings Bank, Mr. Corwin, a member of the same church, Mrs. Ross, Dr. Clarence C. Miles, Dr. Loper, Dr. Barton D. Skinner, Mr. Adams, and Suffolk County Sheriff Henry H. Preston.
On June 10, 1905 the Surrogate found the March 1904 will not to be valid, and on July 24, 1905 probated the July 24, 1902 will.
On June 29, 1905, J. Madison Wells appealed to the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division disagreed with the Surrogate Court’s decision on matters of law, took particular objection to the testimony of Dr. Loper, and ordered a new trial. That trial, before Justice Townsend Scudder of the New York Supreme Court Special Term, as reported in the June 29, 1907 issue of the Suffolk Times, ended in a hung jury. The headlines read: “In the Famous Jonathan Preston Will Case Which Ended this Friday, 11 Stand for the Will, Jury Out All Night and Mr. Scudder Discharges Them -- Fight to Continue.” The jury, apparently, believed that Jonathan Preston was competent, but that he had been under undue influence in writing the will, eleven to one.
In its November 16, 1907 issue, the Suffolk Times reported that a settlement had been reached. The settlement is on file and is dated December 28, 1907. The case is called “William T. Ross and John J. Bartlett as executors of the Last Will and Testament of Jonathan Preston, deceased, Plaintiffs, against Lillian H. Sparks, Defendant.” The settlement reads in part, “It is ordered that Timothy M. Griffing, the receiver heretofore appointed in this action, be and he hereby is directed to apply all the property now in his possession, formerly belong to Jonathan Preston, deceased, as follows: that he first deduct therefrom his legal fees and expenses, amounting to the sum of eleven hundred and sixty seven and 40/100 dollars; that he next pay the funeral expenses and debts of the said Jonathan Preston, deceased, amounting to the sum of four hundred ninety-four and 58/100 dollars and not including any legal expenses, or any claim of the defendant or anyone claiming under or through her, and the transfer tax as determined at $20.45 by law, and take proper receipts therefor and deliver the paid receipts to the plaintiffs herein, that he next divide the remainder of the property into two equal parts, and pay one part to Charles L. Lyons, Esq., the attorney for the defendant, upon receiving from the said attorney the three consents, receipts, and releases as already agreed upon on the 11th day of November 1907, all of which papers shall be delivered to said attorney for the plaintiffs; and that he pay the other equal one half part to Herbert L. Fordham, Esq., attorney for the plaintiffs....”
The Suffolk Times reported that the estate after lawyers’ fees was worth about $15,000. Tite Ross got to divide half among the family as he saw fit, and Lillian Sparks received about twice what her mother would have received if the July 24, 1902 will had been probated as Surrogate Joseph M. Belford ruled on July 24, 1905.
June 17, 2003
|The gravestone below and above is one unit with
a front and back. One side, above, is for Jonathan and his wife Eliza ne
Robinson and Martha Edwards who is unknown. The otherside, below, is for
Tite Ross, his wife Elme, and perhaps Tite's father William Ross. Tite is
a nephew of Jonathan -- and loyal to him in life and death. They are all
buried together at Stirling Cemetery in Greenport, NY.