1890: A widow’s witnesses

Sepia Saturday 428: Third in a series about my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, a U.S. Civil War widow. Mary was the mother of my paternal great-grandmother Eva (Bull) Charboneau.

Widows of U.S. Civil War veterans — such as my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull — were required by Acts of Congress to substantiate their marriages when applying for benefits.

So Mary had to produce witnesses and/or available documents to support her contention that she was indeed the wife of my great-great grandfather Arthur T. Bull, a Union Army pensioner.

Fashion illustration of a widow and a bride (circa 1896). In 1890, my widowed great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull needed witnesses to substantiate her marriage to Union pensioner Arthur T. Bull. One person she turned to was son-in-law Sidney Banton, who had married her daughter Jessie two years before. Image: msu.edu

Proof of a marriage

In a 2010 article “‘A Reasonable Degree of Promptitude’: Civil War Pension Application Processing, 1861-1885,”[2. Prechtel-Kluskens, Claire.  ‘A Reasonable Degree of Promptitude’: Civil War Pension Application Processing, 1861-1885. Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Admininstation, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring 2010). Website. Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2010/spring/civilwarpension.html : accessed 19 July 2018.] Claire Prechtel-Kluskens describes how proofs of marriage typically worked .

The pension office could allow a widow’s pension based on evidence of cohabitation but, ironically, could not legally terminate a widow’s pension because of cohabitation. Because marriage records had been created haphazardly in many places, or not at all, pension office custom was “to accept evidence of cohabitation and general recognition as husband and wife, as sufficient proof of marriage to entitle to pension in cases where it is clearly shown that more satisfactory proof cannot be furnished.”  The pension files are replete with affidavits of persons who may not have witnessed the marriage ceremony but who could testify that John Doe and Mary Doe held themselves out as being husband and wife and were so accepted in the community.

Mary Bull’s witnesses

In this, my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull was no different from the mass of other Civil War widows filing pension claims.

Her Application for Accrued Pension. (Widows.) includes the following written testimony of two witnesses attesting to her marriage. (Handwritten entries are underlined; strikethroughs were manually entered.)

Also personally appeared Carey D. Davie, residing at Salamanca, N.Y., and Sidney S. Banton, residing at Salamanca, N.Y., who, being duly sworn, say that they were present and saw Mary E. Bull sign her name (make her mark) to the foregoing declaration; that they know her to be the lawful widow of Arthur T. Bull, who died on the 30th day of January, 1890; and that their means of knowledge that said parties were husband and wife, and that the husband died on said date, are as follows: from acquaintance with Mr. Bull and family and from general reputation and the annexed certificate of William Whitney and Rhoda A Whitney.

Carey D. Davie was a lawyer, according to the 1892 New York State census[1. Free login required by FamilySearch to view the document image.]. Judging by the penmanship, he appears to have completed the handwritten portions of Mary’s application.

Sidney S. Banton was Mary’s son-in-law, who had married her daughter Jessie Ann Bull just two years earlier. At the time, Mary was mourning the Jan. 1888 death of her mother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — so the above illustration of widow and bride echoes the ups and downs of Mary’s life during that period.

But what was the “annexed certificate of William and Rhoda A. Whitney”?

More on this in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

 © 2018 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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10 thoughts on “1890: A widow’s witnesses”

    1. So true! The connections were not obvious at first, but through other research I have learned more about the witnesses and those who provided affidavits — and many have turned out to be family.

  1. This is very interesting to follow and is making me more aware of what I might miss/may have already missed in records I come across for my ancestors.

    1. I missed much of this detail the first time through. But sitting own to write about my ancestors has prompted me to thoroughly examine each document — and make new discoveries! Sometimes the answers you are looking for are right in your own files.

  2. This is a fascinating series. I don’t know much about the history of actuarial studies, but I suspect that because female mortality was higher in earlier times due to childbirth, which then caused men to remarry, there may have been a preponderance of young widows making claims when the old soldiers died. Someone in the post Civil War era surely worked out an estimate on the cost of paying survivor benefits and the years that it would need to continue.

    1. Interesting observation. I have read that single Civil War veterans were considered to be good marriage prospects because they had pensions that promised economic stability. The last Civil War widow, who died in 2003 at age 93, married her veteran husband when he was 81 and she was 18 — so the benefits could indeed last a long time.

  3. I recently met a widow of several months, who told me she had to go through the Social Security office to get her pension, and some other forms to change her taxes. So widowhood still makes a mourning woman jump through hoops. Thanks for letting us know about your GG grandmother.

    1. Appreciate this comment, Barb. A shame there is so much paperwork involved after a loss, especially for widows in need of benefits.

  4. I suppose the powers that be had to be careful, but how awful the widows had to go through so much in order to collect what was due them!

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