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1835: Love and Law in Ohio County Part 2

In Community, Community Contributorsby OC Monitor Staff

**This piece was submitted as part of our Community Contributor series. 

By Gavin Richardson / OC Monitor Community Contributor

The following is the second of a four-part series about an 1835 trial taking place in Ohio County. The first part can be found here. According to Richardson, “the deposition list for the case reads as a kind of “who’s who” of founding Ohio County families.” Part three of this series will be posted Thursday morning on 5 a.m. at ocmonitor.com.

OHIO COUNTY, Ky. — On the evening of Monday, June 22, 1835, John B. Ford died in the home of his aunt Cynthia. He was 31 years-old. The fact his fatal illness, like that of his uncle John W. Ford, is never identified demonstrates the precarious nature of health in pioneer Kentucky, when simple illnesses could prove fatal without modern medicine.

In his final hours, all we can be sure of is John B. Ford gave a large sum of money to Cynthia’s teenage daughter Permelia, who then entrusted it to a man named Richard P. Wall. Whether Permelia gave Wall the money for safekeeping until John B. Ford’s estate could be settled, or whether she did so in an attempt to hide assets from his estate administrators is a matter of some dispute. Somehow the administrators, Samuel J. Ford of Henderson, Kentucky, (likely a brother to John B. Ford) and Henry Stevens, suspected a large sum of money was being withheld from the estate, and they sued for its recovery.

Perhaps they assumed the comparatively recent sale of lumber in New Orleans, which reputedly grossed at least $250, would have furnished John B. Ford with more money than had been turned over to them. Parties were sworn in the fall of 1835, and witnesses were deposed the following year.

In April 1836, in her formal answer to charges of fraud, the widow Cynthia insisted John B. Ford gave $160 to her daughter Permelia because the two were romantically involved.

“This respondent … answers and says that it is true as stated that John B. Ford lived for some years at her house and died there. It is also true that he left some property, all of which has by her been surrendered up to the administrators, the complainants. It is not true as charged that he left any money in her hands. It is true that he did the morning before his death give to her daughter Permelia, who is a defendant to this suit, $160 in banknotes, but this was an absolute unconditional gift; said John B. and her said daughter were engaged to be married and were to have been married in a few days. The day fixed for their marriage was Thursday, and the Monday of the same week he died, and this she presumes was the reason of the gift. Though in law they were not man and wife, yet he felt toward her as toward a wife and wished to make some provision for her.”

In a deposition later that July, Cynthia added these details: “During his last illness and when he said he was going to die, he had Permelia called and directed her to bring him his money. She did so; he took it and unrolled it and looked at [it] slightly and handed it back to her, saying, ‘Here Permelia, take this and take good care of it, and it will do you some good; you will stand in need of it.’ She took it. I then spoke to him and said, ‘John, this will not do, there will be more fuss about it than twice that much money is worth.’ He replied, ‘Mamma, I want her to have it. I have property enough to pay my just debts without it.’”

The problem with Cynthia’s account, besides the incredible coincidence John died three days before his wedding, was the fact no one besides Cynthia and Permelia saw this exchange:

“Question by complainant: ‘Who was present at the time John B. Ford gave the money to your daughter, or about the house at the time?’

Answer: ‘There was no person present at the time nor about the house, except my daughter and the other children.’”

Co-defendant Richard Wall would affirm this account in his formal answer, but he does so simply on the basis of what he had been told by Cynthia.

“[A]t the same time he received the money, and when he was told it was given to Permelia, he was informed by her mother, who was present, that the reason of his giving her daughter the money was that they were engaged to be married and were to have been married within a few days of the time of his death.”

One might expect the teenaged Permelia to affirm her love affair with her fiancé John B. Ford, but her testimony is a bit coy when it comes to the matter. Because Permelia was under twenty-one, a guardian ad litem (a neutral party who typically does not represent either plaintiff or defendant) was appointed to represent her interests in the case.

This guardian, John H.A. Henry, filed the following answer on behalf of Permelia: “The morning before his death and in his last sickness, and when he believed he was near death and would not recover but would die from that sickness, [John B. Ford] gave to this respondent a small roll of banknotes, which she afterwards ascertained amounted to $160 and no more, but this was an absolute, unconditional gift accompanied by the delivery of possessions, and she retained the possessions until she handed it over to her codefendant Wall for safekeeping. The gift she presumed was induced by reasons set forth in the answer of her mother and not necessary here to be repeated; whether they were honorable or fraudulent she is willing to submit to the chancellor.”

Permelia’s response seems oddly indirect about her alleged engagement. One would expect a girl in her teens to affirm this detail in more emphatic terms, especially since her presumed fiancé was taken so tragically from her. Also, the truthfulness of an engagement claim hardly seems the kind of thing one would defer to a court about.

The indirect rhetoric here also saves little time or space; one could write, “This respondent had been engaged to be married to the deceased” in the same number of words, or fewer. Permelia’s answer reads as if this claim caused her or her guardian some measure of discomfort.

Perhaps Permelia knows this claim to be untrue or overstated; perhaps her guardian does not want to make her vulnerable to a perjury charge precipitated by her mother’s claim; or perhaps the guardian is uncomfortable addressing matters of the heart in a legal document.

Genealogist Jerry Long, serving as a guest columnist for Harry Tinsley in the Hartford Times-News column “Lineage Lines,” on Feb. 1, 1996, briefly referenced this lawsuit: “In settling John B.’s estate, Miss Permelia Ford, daughter of John W. and Cynthia, refers to John B. Ford as ‘her cousin’ and stated that they were to have been married within a few days of his death …” (15-B).

However, explicit statements about this engagement are not made by Permelia herself, but by others–Cynthia Ford and Richard Wall–in their formal answers and depositions.

The only independent party to confirm the alleged engagement of Permelia and John B. Ford is Elizabeth Benton, though other aspects of her July 2, 1836, testimony problematize Cynthia and Permelia’s claim, such as Cynthia’s assertion to Elizabeth John left only $10 to Permelia.

Later in Elizabeth’s deposition we witness this exchange:

“[Question]: ‘Did you or did you not have a conversation with Miss Permelia Ford shortly after the death of John B. Ford relative to the money of John B. Ford? If yes, what was that conversation?’

Answer: ‘Yes. On Wednesday after the death of John B. Ford, in a conversation with Miss Permelia Ford about the money of John B. Ford, she said that mortal man should not have it. I told her I thought that was more than she could do if he was her lawful husband and his debts not paid, and asked her if he gave her the money. She replied, ‘No, he did not,’ but then confirmed he gave it to her, but she did not know what for but to take care of. As he wanted it, he called for it and she handed it to him, and when he had taken out some, he would hand it back. She said she did not know how much money he left, but she thought there was about [illegible] dollars and said it was all in large bills.’

[Question]: ‘In the conversation [aforestated], to what reason did Permelia assign for wishing to keep the money?

Answer: ‘None in particular that I recollect of, except that she said she thought if there was any thing, she had the best right to it of any other person.’

[Question]: ‘Did you not hear John B. Ford tell his mother that if he lived, he and Permelia were to have been married?’

Answer: ‘I did.’”

Gavin Richardson is a native of Hancock County, Kentucky, with family roots in Ohio County as the son of Beverly (Ford) Richardson and grandson of Grace (Moore) Ford and Charles E. Ford. Gavin earned a B.A. in English and Classics from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois. He is Professor of English at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is married with three sons, and is the great-great-great-great grandson of John W. and Cynthia Ford profiled in this essay.

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