Back in the Day

The legal weight of words

By KELLY SULLIVAN
Posted 1/24/20

By KELLY SULLIVAN James Gwinn was a successful Providence jeweler, having formed the partnership of L. Carr & Co. with Lewis Carr in 1863. When that partnership dissolved in the 1870s, he went into business with John McCloy and continued manufacturing

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Back in the Day

The legal weight of words

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James Gwinn was a successful Providence jeweler, having formed the partnership of L. Carr & Co. with Lewis Carr in 1863.

When that partnership dissolved in the 1870s, he went into business with John McCloy and continued manufacturing his specialty gold lockets under the name Gwinn & McCloy.

James lived on Friendship Street in Providence with his wife, Hannah Bell (Daughaday), and their son, Walter, who also entered the prosperous jewelry industry. By the turn of the century, however, 74-year-old James was living in the home with his 48-year-old housekeeper, Ella Greene, and boarding 46-year-old schoolteacher Annie McCloy. As his wife had become of unsound mind sometime earlier, he’d had her placed in Butler Hospital in Cranston on Oct. 21, 1897.

Before James died, on Dec. 15, 1906, he’d noted in his will that his trustees were to provide for her support as long as her mind remained affected. Sixteen years later, this would be cause for a lawsuit.

In 1922, Josiah Barney and Edwin Tetlow, the trustees named in James’s will, brought suit against Annie McCloy and the other beneficiaries.

Ten months after James died, Hannah’s sisters, Adelaide and Elizabeth, removed the 72-year-old woman from Butler Hospital. For the next 15 years, she resided with a number of friends and relatives in several different locations, who were paid for her support by the funds dictated in James’s will.

Finally, the trustees requested that Hannah be placed back in Butler Hospital. When this request was denied, they appealed to the court, asking if they were responsible for supporting the woman in a place other than that specific institution.

The last will and testimony of James was brought into court and read. It stated that the trustees were to “provide comfortable and suitable support and maintenance for my wife such as she has been accustomed to have provided by me and in as liberal manner as the condition of my estate will permit during her stay at the Insane Hospital.”

Because the will did not specifically name which insane hospital James was referring to, the court ruled that the trustees must continue to fund Hannah’s support in whatever place had been selected by her caretakers for her comfort and well-being.

Hannah Gwinn died on Jan. 14, 1926, in Providence, having lived with a mental disorder and senile dementia for three decades.

Whatever James Gwinn’s intentions had been while writing his will, the whole incident proved the legal weight of words being verbatim.

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

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