Sympathy Saturday: A Bastard's Inheritance--The Suicide of Crafton Bennett

Because yesterday, today, tomorrow, and Monday were, are, and will be exceedingly long days for me, I am not in a happy mood. To give you an idea, this was the face I made as I was sitting in my rush hour traffic today:

Isn't that just lovely? </sarcasm font>

What this means is that I am finally in the mood to sling some mud around, which is why I am going to tell you about my good ol' ancestor, Crafton Bennett. For no other reason than it gives me a legitimate reason to repeatedly use the word bastard.

To begin this story, we need to take a trip over to Google Books.

The older your ancestor is, the more you need to rely on Google Books as a resource--and not just to look for genealogies. Many of the primary sources, especially older legal documentation, is going to be available on Google Books. This was the case for Crafton Bennett.

This book is called Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia and it delineates the trials in which Crafton Bennett was the defendant against his bastard half brother, Henry Toler.

In case you weren't aware, English law from this time period had no sympathy for bastards--a term which specifically means a person who was born out of wedlock, or of an unknown father. One of the ways in which this manifested itself was that bastards could not inherit property. And the fledgling nation of the United States needed to decide whether or not they were going to continue in the same vein.

Essentially, Joseph Toler (grandfather) specifically writes into his will that Henry Toler (bastard) and his descendants are to receive of his estate, along with his daughter's other legitimate children. Crafton Bennett (non-bastard, and my ancestor) tried to nullify this clause in his grandfather's will. 

The courts decided to break with English tradition and do away with the disinheritance of bastards. Crafton Bennett returns to appeal the decision, and the book above reveals the verdict.


Crafton Bennett loses his appeal, and it is maintained that because Henry Toler was legitimized by Crafton's father, there should be nothing to inhibit his descendants from receiving their share of the inheritance. Crafton's consequence for dragging this out in court is to pay "damages and costs."

I don't have any records to show how much money that would have been. However, one could take the following news story as an indication that it was very substantial.

Suicide. --Crafton Bennett, of Pittsylvania county, Va., committed suicide, by hanging, on the 22d ult. Cause supposed to be pecuniary embarrassment.
The Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 6, 1861

Now, was Crafton's death really a suicide? I think there is certainly room to believe he was murdered and it was made to look like a suicide. How thorough was the investigation into his death? We simply can't be sure. We can only judge by what the record has given to us.

But if it was in fact a suicide, one could imagine that the monetary damages to him were severe enough that his life and self image were destroyed. He may have also possessed other vices in his life to push him to that mental anguish, or already had a depressed disposition that the verdict only exacerbated. Regardless of the twisted rationale in his mind, one thing is certain. He saw no other option than taking his own life.

The contempt between family members over an inheritance--money and slaves--erupts into an even more tragic end. And considering it was at the outbreak of the Civil War, Crafton Bennett's death becomes all too symptomatic of the incivility tearing the nation apart at the seams. The casualties of war were many, and not all of them on the battlefield.

I find it so indicative that the wealth this man sought to amass and protect is ultimately what destroyed him, and I'm sure there were many on both sides who had to learn this unfortunate lesson.

The Civil War, in my opinion, began as a contest of politics, power, and wealth--and ended as a search for civility. At the heart of that struggle, for both sides, was to accept that for as long as a man loved money more than he loved his brother, the fighting would continue.

Sometimes the journey to humility can be a cruel and unforgiving teacher.