Judge John A. Batts: Epilogue
One of my readers was good enough to pass along a link to Judge Batts’ will and associated documents, on FamilySearch. They do shed some additional light on the scope of Batts’ property holdings and — possibly — on his state of mind at the time of his death. You can read a copy of Batts’ will and associated legal filings here.
Following Batts’ death in May 1878, his family filled his will with the local court. The will, executed in April 1877, a little over a year before his death, is straightforward in its bequests:
2nd. I give and bequeath all my lands and stock East of Muckalee Creek to my daughter Mittie Batts, my son J. G. Batts, my daughter Lula Batts, amd my Daughter Willie Batts, equally divided between them at my death. 3rd. I give and bequeath to my beloved wife Mary Batts all my property west of Muckalee Creek, including my Smithfield property, Consisting of House and Lot, and all out Buildings, Said Lot Containing four acres, & store house, and the Lot on which said Store-house stands, and my plantation known as the Possum Trot Place, containing Three hundred and Twenty-five acres, more-or-less, together with my horse and Buggy, and two mules, and all my stock of Hogs, and Cattle, to have and to hold during her natural life, and at her death, I will and desire that my beloved wife equally divide the property among all my Children.
The four named children were John and Mary Batts’ youngest, their approximate ages at the time of the will’s execution being John, 21; Mittie (Mitalena) , 19; Lula (Tallulah), 17; and daughter Willie, 15. All four were still living at home with their mother three years later, at the time of the 1880 U.S. Census.
It makes sense that John Batts would want to provide some financial security for his younger children, who in 1877 had not yet struck out on their own. This would be especially important for the girls. But Judge Batts’ bequest may not have been appreciated by everyone, for he had older children as well, who inherited nothing. In November 1878, several months after Judge Batts’ death, W. B. Paul filed a lawsuit to block the provisions of the will. Paul was the husband of John and Mary’s daughter Eliza, and was challenging the will on behalf of his own children (i.e., the judge’s grandchildren), Sarah, John, Nora and Lulah. In filing his suit, Paul was joined by the judge’s eldest surviving son, Joseph L. Batts who, as we saw last time, had been handling the day-to-day operations of his father’s plantation. Under the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that Joseph would be unhappy about being cut completely out of the inheritance.
W. B. Paul and Joseph Batts challenged the old judge’s will on two points:
1st. That the will offered for probate is not the last Will & Testament of said John Batts. 2nd. That said John Batts was at the time of the execution of said Will offered for probate, not of sound & disposing mind, but his mind was so far gone & so unsound as to render him incapable of executing any Will, or of disposing of his property legally. Wherefore they say that said will should not be probated and admitted to Record.
The case was ultimately tried in Lee County Superior Court in late 1881, and the jury ruled in favor of Batts’ original will.
But were W. B. Paul’s and Joseph Batts’ claims factually true? We don’t — can’t — know for sure. But their second assertion, about the judge having been of unsound mind and incapable of handling his own affairs, does echo claims from the time of his death that he had been in a deep depression, even suicidal, for months, and that his “many family troubles. . . had partially dethroned his reason.” What emerges through the mist of decades is a somewhat sombre portrait of a large and maybe fractious family, with John Batts — older, perhaps with diminished capacities — caught in the middle. It’s a sad story.