Facts of the Case
William A. Thomas died on January 4, 1889, in Henrico County, near the Richmond city boundary. His daughter Bettie Thomas Lewis was about thirty-five years old at the time. Another daughter had died previously. Their mother, whose name does not appear in the printed records of the case, was a mixed-race former slave whom Thomas had owned while living in Pittsylvania County. The case’s records suggest that Thomas had long recognized Lewis and her sister as his children. He repeatedly referred to them as his natural daughters, while treating Bettie Lewis with affection and respect, providing for her education, and, until his health made travel impossible, taking her with him on his annual holiday in Saratoga Springs, New York.
At the time of Thomas’s death, Lewis was married to John H. Lewis, a mixed-race keeper of a pharmacy in Richmond. According to the Richmond Times, in an article about the case on June 19, 1892, “Bettie Thomas Lewis would be mistaken for a white woman by any person who did not know her. She does not associate with the masses of her race. The society in which she moves is composed of a few of the most intelligent colored persons in this city, all of whom are well-to-do and who are generally termed bright ‘mulattoes.'”
Thomas was a reclusive retired businessman who had no immediate family and only a few distant relatives. He seldom or never saw them and never indicated that he wished them to inherit any of his estate. He lived quietly with his daughter and Fannie Coles, a mixed-race former school teacher, whom he paid to live with them as his daughter’s companion. Thomas’s physician and the few other men of the city who knew him well testified that he acknowledged Lewis as his daughter, treated her as such, and told them that he wished her to inherit his estate.
In spite of the urging of his friends, though, he neglected to prepare a will even after his health failed and he was in danger of dying. On January 3, 1889, the day before he died, Thomas met briefly with an attorney and made an appointment to draw up a will the following day. He died before seeing the attorney but not before twice—in very clear words, according to Coles’s testimony—giving his daughter two pocketknives, a quantity of gold and bonds, the keys to his bank box, and his savings account passbook. At the time of his death, the whole of his estate was valued at about $225,000, including the house and real estate, which were worth about $20,000.
Chancery Court Ruling
On January 29, 1889, Lewis and her husband filed a bill in chancery court in the city of Richmond to claim ownership of the property as a legal gift causa mortis, or a gift that Thomas made in anticipation of imminent death. Such gifts of personal property were long recognized as legal when properly witnessed and made under prescribed circumstances that left no doubt that the dying person made the gift willingly and knowingly. Real estate could not be conveyed without a legal deed, and Thomas did not attempt to give Lewis his land.
The attorneys for the estate objected that, even if the uncorroborated testimony of Coles were accurate in describing the gifts, Thomas had not followed to the letter the forms that the laws of Virginia required for a legal gift causa mortis. They raised several questions: Was the testimony of the one witness, Fannie Coles, about the words and actions of Thomas adequate under the law to establish a gift causa mortis? Was Thomas’s hand-delivery of the bank passbook and keys sufficient to give Lewis full legal possession of the contents of his bank account and the lockbox? Did her initial placement of the securities, key, and bank book back in Thomas’s bureau rather than in her own trunk violate the law’s requirement that a recipient take complete sole possession of the property? Did the fact that Thomas and Lewis resided in the same house violate one of the Virginia code’s stipulations about gifts causa mortis?
The judge of the court of chancery who heard the case in June 1890 died before delivering an opinion, and the case had to be heard again. For both hearings, both sides filed long printed briefs on the points of law involved, and they questioned men who had known Thomas about his desires. They questioned Fannie Coles at great length and in detail about Thomas’s words and actions when handing Lewis his personal property, bank passbook, and lockbox key.
On January 8, 1891, the judge ruled in favor of Lewis and awarded her all of Thomas’s personal property except for $18,000 deposited in the Richmond bank account. He decided that her possession of the passbook was not legally sufficient for her to claim the money under the statutes governing gifts causa mortis, which required her to be in actual possession of the contents of the account, not merely of the passbook. Her possession of the bank box key, on the other hand, gave her immediate access to, control over, and therefore ownership of the contents of the box, which contained most of Thomas’s assets.
The attorneys for the administrator of Thomas’s estate appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Both sides had hired experienced attorneys to represent them in the city chancery court, and for the appeal they augmented their formidable legal teams. The senior of the four attorneys for the estate was a former, Waller R. Staples, who had once served in the . Lewis’s six-member team included Edward C. Burks, also a former judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and , one of the state’s most prominent white , who was known sometimes as “Yankee Allan,” despite being a native of England. The two teams of attorneys prepared elaborate printed briefs before arguing the case in front of the court’s five judges.
The attorneys for Thomas’s estate declared that the circumstances that Fannie Coles described in her testimony were insufficient to meet the law’s requirements for a valid gift causa mortis. Normally, two or more witnesses should have been present, the recipient of the gift should have taken full possession of the items of personal property, and the donor and recipient should not have resided in the same place. The attorneys also cast doubt on Coles’s credibility, in part by virtue of her being illegitimate and of mixed race. “In this case,” the attorneys complained, “the allegations relied on are testified to by only one witness [Fannie Coles], whose testimony is certainly not beyond suspicion of bias and falsehood. Her origin, her rearing, her condition in life, and her relations to the complainant,” Bettie Lewis, “are surely not such as entitle her to full credit as a witness.”
The attorneys continued, describing Coles as “a pariah of mixed blood, reared under the ban of social ostracism, a school teacher disabled to pursue her occupation by broken health, a companion, a dependent parasite and hanger-on of Bettie Lewis, her fetcher and carrier and doer of chores and errands, going and coming at her beck and nod, reliant for shelter and food upon her favor, and upon her success in this litigation for a future home.” How could the court, they asked, determine the ownership of large sums of money based on the sole testimony of such a person?
At its annual session in Wytheville, on June 16, 1892, the court ruled four to one in favor of Lewis. Judge Thomas T. Fauntleroy penned the majority opinion, relying in large part on the legal brief filed by Lewis’s attorneys. They had argued, and Fauntleroy agreed, that all of the white witnesses who knew Thomas had testified that he had intended to give Lewis his estate and not make any provision for his distant relatives. He had also made a last-minute appointment with an attorney to draw up a will for that purpose. No evidence contradicted any of Coles’s testimony, which was consistent in parts with the testimony of the white men.
Fauntleroy also commented favorably on Coles’s character and reliability, in part using the family background the estate’s attorneys had cited to discredit her. He described Coles as “an intelligent, agreeable, female living companion … the natural and recognized daughter of the late John S. Coles, of Albemarle county.” That and the lack of contradictory evidence about her testimony convinced a majority of the judges that her testimony was truthful.
Judge Benjamin W. Lacy dissented. He accepted as controlling all of the legal objections that the estate’s attorneys had stated about the circumstances of Thomas’s deathbed gifts to Lewis. He refrained, though, from endorsing the language that the attorneys had used when describing Coles’s character and relationship with Lewis.
Lewis thereby received legal possession of all of Thomas’s personal property except for the $18,000 in the bank account. Virginia newspapers reported on the case at each stage, and many African American newspapers elsewhere in the country reprinted or summarized articles about it. For a brief time, Lewis’s name was nationally known, and for a decade or more afterward, when similar cases arose, newspapers often referred to her celebrated case. In the mid-1890s Lewis and her husband moved to Philadelphia. She did not return to Virginia after her husband died in 1898.