Monday, February 29, 2016

From the Tennessee Supreme Court Case Files: Mary A. Bower v. Ellen Lunney et al

By Kim Wires

In our ongoing work to process the Tennessee Supreme Court case files, our staff, volunteers, and interns encounter many intriguing cases. One East Tennessee case was of particular interest - the case of Mary A. Bower v. Ellen Lunney et al.

A birth certificate for Mary (Donohue) Bower (b. 1879) that was used as an exhibit during the case.

In this court case, the plaintiff, Mary Bower, sought to prove to the court that she was the legitimate daughter of Thomas J. Donohue in order to claim inheritance rights to his estate. While the case itself did not offer much intrigue, the files included an impressive collection of family history records admitted as evidence.

In June 1940, Bower sued in an attempt to prove that she was indeed the legitimate daughter and sole heir of Thomas J. Donohue and therefore was the rightful heir to his estate. In the lawsuit, Bower stated: “I just want to say that my father’s name has to be vindicated and my mother’s – that is all.”

Ellen Lunney, the estate's executor, denied her claim of kinship and alleged that Donohue was a bachelor, having never married in his lifetime, and that upon his death left everything to his sole heir and next of kin, Daniel J. Donohue, his nephew. In an effort to prove the legitimacy of Bower’s claim, the court filed numerous exhibits from both sides and considered testimony from witnesses detailing the family’s history.

Some of the exhibits included were certificates of baptism, a will, a marriage certificate, a death certificate, an inventory of the estate, Thomas J. Donohue’s obituary, 28 letters from Donohue to Bower, six deeds, a copy of a business charter, a photocopy of a Bible record, and two unidentified photographs that most likely depict Thomas J. Donohue and Anna Kirk, who was Bower's mother. The transcript also provided additional genealogy information such as the names of family members and how they were related, when and where they were married, how many children they had, their religious backgrounds, residences, and birth and death dates.

An unidentified photograph used as an exhibit during the case. This photograph could possibly be Thomas J. Donohue.
An unidentified photograph used as an exhibit during the case. This photograph could possibly be Mary A. Bower.

A correspondence from Thomas J. Donohue to Mary A. Bower, 1907.

In the end, the court ruled that Donohue was considered a bachelor because there were no marriage or divorce records linking him to Anna Kirk. The court determined that Bower was the illegitimate daughter of Thomas Donohue. The court also noted that Anna Kirk was married and living with another man at the time of her death and had children by him. Bower was awarded $1,275.54 and Lunney was awarded compensation as executor of the estate.

Obituary for T. J. Donohue used as an exhibit in the case.
When doing genealogy research, it's easy to forget that court cases can hold valuable information, especially if a case pits family members against one another. Testimony, depositions, and exhibits could be the missing puzzle pieces of your family history. This case is a wonderful example of how the Tennessee Supreme Court Records Project can be another useful tool in your genealogy research.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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