If you haven’t read the previous posts, you might want to go back now and read them. Otherwise, you might be a bit lost here.
When our story ended last time, Francis Degen was dead. His blind wife Helene was given charge over his estate. And his body was exhumed but nothing found.
But what of the faithful servant Hugh McNeil?
Well, shortly after Helene was made administrix of the Degen estate, McNeil had her power of attorney signed over to him. Within twelve days of Francis’ death, Helene sold him the Belmore property for “the sum of fifty-dollars and other considerations.” Between March, 1890 and February 28th, 1891, Helene and Hugh dutifully took care of settling Francis’ estate.
By the time of his burial, the stock Francis held was worth $1,000.00. His land shares and mining shares were worthless. His deposits in Marble Bank amounted to $1,900.00 and he had a note owed him by W. L. Raht for $700.00. Without considering his furniture the estate amounted to $3,600.00. For the time, this was a comfortable sum of money (though not the $22,000.00 quoted by one newspaper of the day). Helene was declared sole heir of the entire amount.
Helene died March 6, 1891 at 91 Guernsey Street in Brooklyn, exactly one week after settling her husband’s estate. Her body was supposed to have been taken back to Florida for burial, but no records exist to indicate such a burial happened.
According to newspaper reports written after her death, Helene and Hugh had come to New York hoping to get treatment for her lost eyesight. They apparently made several trips between Florida and New York in the months after Francis died. During one November trip Helene had a will drawn up.
This will of course left everything to McNeil. However, Helene never actually signed the will. The will was marked with an “X”. Her nephews, Eric and Frederick Rothgart contested the will in September of 1891. In early 1892, after several delays, witnesses came all the way from Florida to appear in the case.
The first witness called to the stand was Bernard J. Douras, the attorney for the will. He testified that he drawn up the will for Helene at 195 Guernsey Street. Witnessing the will were George Wilson and Morris Barnett.
Mr. Douras was a friend of Hugh McNeil and met Helene through him. According to his testimony Helene wanted “Mac” to have all her property when she died. The will was signed on November 29, 1890. There is dispute about whether the witnesses actually saw her make her mark or if they were in a separate room at the time.
Mr. Douras further testified that Helene “had told him twenty-five times at least that “Mac” was entitled to her estate.” She also told him that Francis had reletives who accused her of having poisoned Francis. She had no relatives of her own, according to Mr. Douras, and she wanted everything to go to McNeil.
The case was decided in McNeil’s favor and the nephews filed an appeal in Clay County. The attorneys weren’t too interested in fighting hard for Bavarians who were on the other side of the world and the case didn’t make it much further. McNeil was the sole heir of the Degen estate.
Not only do we not know what happened to Helene’s body, we don’t know much about Hugh McNeil after this whole ordeal. The last record I have been able to find is an 1892 census record indicating the he lived in New York with a wife named Anne. No previous records indicate that he was married.
Was Anne a trophy wife for the 54 year old heir to a small fortune? Was Hugh a secret lover to Helene during the year they spent together in Rutland before traveling out to meet Francis in Utah? Did they plot Francis’ death together? Did he betray her and poison her into blindness? Did they poison Francis as is relatives suspected? Did McNeil trick the blind widow into signing her fortune to him, or did she still love him and the mark on the will was truly hers?
There are many unanswered questions. Perhaps some of Joseph Degen’s descendents can answer them. Anyone know a Degen? Maybe they know where Helene is. Maybe they know what happened to McNeil. Maybe they would want to restore the grave of Francis Marion Degen to its former glory.
We can only wonder…