Things Fall Apart -1853

     Everything seemed to be going well for the Keenan clan . Everyone had settled in to their homes, and all the men were working and supporting their growing families.

     But over the winter Matthew contracted bronchitis and on March 10 of 1853 he died. On his death certificate  the cause was listed as “Phohogis P.” which has no known contemporary medical interpretation. James Nicholas immediately went to Holy Cross cemetery, which had opened in 1849, and purchased a lot in which to bury his father. That transaction, which was recorded by the Commissioner of Deeds on March 10, designates the grave site as Lot #37 in Section 4.

     Mary Keenan now had to care for five underage children (Margaret, the second youngest having died in the interim) ranging from Bridget who was about a year old, up to Sarah Ann who was eleven and a half. James and Ann’s first child (Mary T.) was 6 months old, and Ann was about to be pregnant again.

The Family Of Matthew Keenan
(Click on Image to Enlarge)

     But first Matthew’s estate had to be legally settled.

     “The probate process transfers the legal responsibility for payment of taxes, care and custody of dependent family members, liquidation of debts, and transfer of property title to heirs from the deceased to an executor/executrix (where there is a will), to an administrator/administratix (if the person dies intestate-without a will), or to a guardian/conservator if there are heirs under the age of twenty-one years.

     When a person dies without making a will, his or her property becomes an intestate estate. It is divided according to settlement shares determined by law. In most states, if the deceased is a married man, the widow receives a prescribed interest in any real property her husband owned (known as her dower rights) and a prescribed share of his personal property, and the rest is divided equally among the children…

     In intestate cases, the court appoints the administrator. Each state prescribes the order in which persons are entitled to be appointed, but, in general, this order is maintained: spouse, one of the children, ..etc…  An administrator must post a bond equal to the worth of the assets of the estate to insure his or her faithful performance of duty and to protect the heirs in cases of misconduct…

     In most testate and all intestate estates, three disinterested people (often relatives who are not potential heirs) are appointed by the court to inventory and appraise all the property of the estate. They are usually ordered to submit the inventory at the next term of court or within ninety days. This inventory protected the executor or administrator from excessive claims against the estate and protected heirs against fraud or pilfering of their inheritance. The court also used it to set probate fees…. As a result, the values given to each item were close to current market value, although there seems to have been a tendency to keep them low. Thus, the fees levied against the estate were lower…

    The executor/administrator must make a final accounting of receipts and disbursements of the estate before the remaining property can be divided and the responsibility ended.”

     Mary Keenan applied for and was granted the position of Aministratrix of Matthew’s estate on March 16th 1853.  The transcript of that transaction read as follows:

     Mary Keenan of the City of Brooklyn widow of Matthew Keenan deceased

In the Matter of the Administration of the Goods, Chattels and Credits of Matthew Keenan deceased.  Application Filed March 16th 1853.  Order Made March 16, 1853.

I Mary Keenan of the City of Brooklyn, being duly sworn and examined Do depose and say, that I am the widow of the said Matthew Keenan deceased; that said deceased departed this life at the City of Brooklyn on the tenth day of March in the year 1853 without leaving any last will and testament

that said deceased died of Bronchitis,  possessed of certain personal property in the State of New York the value whereof does not exceed the sum of about six hundred dollars as I have been informed and believe; that said deceased left him surviving the applicant, his widow, and Six children, namely James Keenan, Sarah Ann Keenan, Matthew Keenan, Elizabeth Keenan, Catharine Keenan and Bridget Keenan all of whom are minors and reside with the applicant in the City of Brooklyn his only next of kin; that said deceased was at the time of his death an inhabitant of the County of Kings And I ask that Letters of Administration on the estate of said be granted by the Surrogate of the County of Kings to me Mary Keenan.

Sworn before me this 16th day of March 1853

J C Smith, Surrogate

I Mary Keenan do solemnly swear and declare that I will well, honestly and faithfully discharge the duties of Administratrix of the estate of Matthew Keenan deceased, according to law.

Mary Keenan

Sworn this 16th day of March 1853 before me

J C Smith, Surrogate

At a Surrogate’s Court, held in and fore the County of Kings, at the SURROGATE’S OFFICE, in the City of Brooklyn, on the Sixteenth day of March, in the year 1853

Present Jesse C Smith, Esq., Surrogate

In the Matter of the Administration of the Goods, Chattels and Credits

Matthew Keenan Deceased

On reading and filing the petition of Mary Keenan the widow of the deceased asking that letters of Administration of the Goods, Chattels and Credits of said deceased be granted to her

And on reading and filing the Bond executed by her with two competent sureties conditioned faithfully to execute the trusts reposed in her as such Administratrix and to obey all orders of the Surrogate of the County of Kings touching the administration committed to her And this Court being satisfied that said Mary Keenan is in all respects competent to act as such Administratrix, does hereby order that letters of Administration of the Goods, Chattels, and Credits of the said Matthew Keenan deceased, issue to the said Mary Keenan.

     Mary became Administratrix but failed to file the Petition and Orders of Inventory until July 21 of 1855, over two years later. However, it is those documents that give us the most intimate look into the lives of our ancestors living on Underhill Ave.

     The appraisal was eventually conducted by Samuel P. Dawson and Andrew Mercein, appointed (conveniently) by Rodman B. Dawson, the Kings County Surrogate.  First they were required to post public notice of the appraisal a week in advance, and did so at City Hall, Fulton’s Ferry and South Ferry.

      Then several documents were then filed to complete the Inventory . The following is a transcription of those documents:

The Following Articles are Exempted from Appraisement to remain in the possesion of the widow of the deceased pursuant to Revised Statutes

   The Family Bible and all the books belonging to deceased being under in value $50. 1 mahoghany Table  6 Curl maple chairs  2 bedsteads with their necessary beds + bedding. 4 pillows. 2 bolsters.  1 Earthern tea pot. milk pot + sugar dish. 6 knives. 6 forks. The clothing of the family + the clothing of the widow. 6 cups + saucers. 6 plates. 6 german silver spoons and cooking stove with utensils.

In addition to the above enumerated Articles exempted from Appraisal the Appraisers in the exercise of their discretion pursuant to the Statute set apart the following articles of necessary household furniture and other personal property for the use of the widow of the deceased, the same not exceeding in value one hundred and fifty dollars.

  • 1 Mahogany bureau                         6
  • 2 common rocking chairs               .75
  • 1 clock                                                1
  • 1 Mahogany Work stand                 2 .25
  • 1 Looking Glass                                1
  • 6 Pine chairs                                     1
  • 1 Wardrobe                                       2
  • 1  cart + set of harness                    60    
  • 1   spring cart                                    40
  • 1   Light Wagon                                15
  • Pigs                                                     14  
  • 1  Goat                                                 7


                                                                150  —

   Brooklyn, June 21 , 1853



  • Cash in Brooklyn Savings Bank  in the name of intestate at the time
  • of his decease                                                                                     530 
  • Cash received by Administratrix from J. Carson Brevoorst for labor
  • performed by deceased in his lifetime                                            120
  • Lot of tools                                                                           12.50
  • 1 iron axletree                                                                                 _  8
  •                         $  670.50    

                                          Brooklyn June 21, 1855

     This inventory gives us a peek inside the house at 58 Underhill Ave. It was furnished sparsely by today’s standards, but with everything necessary to make a comfortable household and an efficient kitchen. The kitchen table and chairs were of quality wood and could be laid out with a full setting for six (including German silver spoons!) The sleeping quarters had fully appointed beds together with a wardrobe for clothes and a looking glass for Mary. Although Matthew and Mary were probably illiterate when they arrived in the U.S. (like their siblings), they apparently had learned to read and at least to sign their names. (We have Matthew’s signature on his Naturalization papers from April of 1839).  It looks like Matthew might have spent many a night after dinner in his rocking chair, reading by oil lamp from what seems to have been a pretty substantial library that he had accumulated.

     I also feel quite sure that the two story structure that we see in the 1880 maps spanning the rear of the lot at 58 Underhill was original to Matthew and housed the various wagons and carts that were required for his profession, as well as a stable for a horse and a place to store the tack and all the tools necessary to keep things in good working order. This setup was apparently quite common as is shown in the following adds found in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper dated Feb. 19, 1855.

     I believe that Matthew’s carriage house and stable was later converted to a dwelling place and rented out. 

    But in addition to the barn, there must have been a pen for the milk goat, and one also for the pigs that would eventually supply ham and bacon for the table. And all of this on a lot that was 25 feet wide and less than a hundred feet deep. Although this surely speaks to the rural Longford roots of this Keenan clan, Brooklyn at this time was by no means the countryside, and that type of lifestyle was on its way out, as evidenced by the following notice found in the Brooklyn Eagle dated August 11, 1854-

     In addition to a house, livestock and his business inventory, Matthew also left his family a fair amount of cash in the bank and some accounts due him that would be subsequently collected by Mary from J. Carson Brevoorst.

     Apparently Matthew had been working for Brevoorst, a man of considerable substance in Brooklyn at the time. As a young man Brevoorst had gone abroad to study at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, and graduated with the diploma of a civil engineer.

      On returning to the United States, he accompanied his uncle, James Renwick, one of the commissioners on the northeastern boundary survey. In 1838 he went abroad as private secretary to Washington Irving, U. S. Minister to Spain. After serving a year in this capacity, he spent several years in European travel, then returned home in 1843. Brevoort married Elizabeth Dorothea Lefferts in 1845 and moved to Brooklyn. There he managed the large land holdings of his father-in-law, Judge Leffert Lefferts. In Brooklyn, Brevoort gained renown for his scholarly interest and public service. He studied history, entomology, and ichthyology and also served for many years as a member of the Brooklyn Board of Education and the Board of Water Commissioners.

   It was probably while managing his father-in-law’s properties that Brevoort availed himself of Matthew’s services as a cartman.

     Matthew was laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in a plot registered to James N. Keenan –  Section Plots, Range 4, Grave 37.  

   Holy Cross Cemetery had been opened only a few years earlier, in 1849.

      “Having used St. James Cemetery for twenty-six years until its available land was exhausted …Bishop John Hughes of New York found it imperative that he purchase land for a diocesan cemetery to serve the parishes of Brooklyn.

     Since the City of New York (then consisting of only Manhattan) forbade any more burials within its limits due to the cholera epidemic, Bishop Hughes purchased from James and Mary Duffy, a portion of the old Van Brunt farm in the town of Flatbush, at the geographical center of Kings County, in June of 1849, and the first burial took place on July 13, 1849.”

    Matthew’s wake and burial must have been a solemn affair, attended by the Farrells and the families of Owen and Patrick Keenan, as well as by Michael Keenan and Sarah. Matthew had forged a path for the Keenans, leaving Ireland and traversing the Atlantic to settle here. He had found a way to prosper, and had aided the other members of his family to do the same. Now, at the age of 42, he was gone, leaving his family with a very uncertain future. 

     The sum of $670.50 quoted in Mary Keenan’s Inventory for Matthews liquid assets would be the equivalent sum of over $20,000 today – but that was not a whole lot if you had six mouths to feed and no source of income. It therefore seems strange that the first thing Mary would do after Matthew’s death was to purchase a piece of land. But on May 12, 1853, two months after Matthew’s passing, Mary paid Nehemiah Denton $370 for a triangle-shaped parcel on Bergen St. that backed up to the rear of 58 Underhill Ave. This parcel is clearly shown on a map filed on April 28, 1853 in the Kings County Clerk’s Office  which also shows the lines of the old street layout of this area before it was changed in 1839. Marked #88 and 89 on the map, these lots were later designated #701-705 Bergen St. (See also Underhill Ave map in the previous chapter entitled Real Estate)

      Undoubtedly Matthew had intended to purchase this lot, and perhaps he had already paid Denton and was just awaiting the recording of the Deed when he took ill. It certainly would have given him the room to expand his business and livestock needs, as well as giving him access to the carriage house from Bergen St. And perhaps it was also intended as a place for James Nicholas to build a house for his own family. At any rate the sale was closed on despite the new unfortunate circumstances of the Keenan family.

     But, as we shall see, the purchase of that corner triangle lot, which had been intended as another stepping stone towards a more prosperous and stable home base for the growing Keenan family, through a strange twist of fate, turned out to be very thing that would end up breaking up the family and flinging them to the far corners of Brooklyn and beyond.

     Mary, no doubt mindful of her precarious financial situation, decided to sell the lot. By September she had found a buyer.

     Patrick Ward was several years younger than Mary.  He had emigrated from Ireland around 1838  and had soon thereafter married his wife Eliza Lennon. Together they had three sons, Thomas, James and William. Patrick worked as a laborer  and might have been living on Prince St. near Tillary close to the Farrells. In 1850 he moved a few blocks away to 9 Chapel St. on the side street next to St James Cathedral. In the 1853 and ‘54 Hearnes Directory Patrick was listed as a cartman. So it is likely that Patrick was already acquainted with the Farrells and Keenans, not only through church and community, but as a fellow tradesman.

      Elizabeth (Keenan) Farrell, Matthew’s sister, took ill and died on September 8, 1853 leaving her husband John with six children to care for. No doubt Mary had made numerous trips downtown and to St James during that period. Perhaps that had put her in touch with Patrick Ward. Patrick’s wife Eliza had died between 1850 and 1853  and so he had found himself in a similar situation to Mary, with minor children and no spouse.

     In any case, on Sept 12, 1853 Patrick bought the triangular plot on Bergen St. from Mary for $450. On October 18 of 1853 he took out a mortgage for $700 against the value of the land, and another one for $300 in May of 1854. The mortgages were given to him by Charles W. Lynde. Lynde was a lawyer and member of the New York State Senate from Cortland County, who had moved to Brooklyn in 1838. His son Charles R. Lynde was married to the daughter of Joseph Harper, the publisher, and he also served as the Commisioner of Deeds.  It was probably the younger Lynde that arranged for Patrick’s financing.  The only reason I can think of for someone lending $1000 on a $450 plot of land was if were being improved, i.e. a dwelling was being constructed on it – and that would explain the two-stage lending, as the work progressed.  Indeed Insurance maps (1869) show a three story brick structure at #701 Bergen about 22 ft wide by 25 ft. deep. On the opposite corner of the lot (#705) is a triangular  two story building.

   The 1940 tax photos give us a much clearer idea of what Patrick Ward had built.

701 Bergen St. 705 Bergen St


     Patrick Ward and Mary were married at St Joseph’s Church on April 29, 1855. Theirs could very well have been  a marriage of convenience, or they may have fallen in love.

     In 1855 the combined Keenan-Ward households would have tallied 2 adults with 8 children 14 years old or under, as well as James Nicholas and Annie with two toddlers of their own. It would have been untenable to try to house everyone in a single small dwelling.    Even further, it might have proved difficult to knit the two families together so soon after having lost one parent in each household. The Ward boys were 12, 11, and 6 years old.  Sarah Ann, the eldest Keenan daughter, was thirteen and perhaps did not like what this new arrangement foreshadowed. That probably explains why we find her living in Cambridge with her grandfather James McDermott in June of 1855.

    The 1855 Census showed Patrick and Mary Ward living with six of the kids (Patrick’s three boys and Mary’s youngest girls) in a brick house valued at $3000. One might assume that this was the new Bergen St. residence but in fact it was not, rather it was located on Underhill Ave but further down towards Wyckoff Street (later St. Mark’s). Although this Census does indicate that Patrick was a landowner I believe that what that referred to was his his Bergen St. property, and that their 1855 dwelling was most likely a rental.   

    [ Note: Census documents of the time did not provide an address for the houses they were visiting.  I therefore had to develop a complex and tedious methodology for determining the location of a targeted family (i.e. Patrick and Mary Ward in 1855). I call this method “Walking with the Census Taker”. Those who gathered and recorded the information on the populace had to be fairly systematic to ensure that they completely documented the area to which they had been assigned. They would walk down one side of a street, visiting each dwelling and interviewing the occupants. Since they notated the value of each dwelling as they came to it, and assigned a number to each group of people living together, it was easy to determine how many families were living in each separate dwelling. I recorded the names of a dozen or so families both before and after the “target” family and then cross referenced these names against Brooklyn Street Directories for the years around the appropriate Census year. Of course not everyone was listed in the directories, and people would move around constantly, but certain families (usually homeowners) would appear consistently on the same street, and in the same order over several successive censuses. By creating spreadsheets of these listings and comparing them, a pattern emerged of who lived on what block of what street and in which house, and I could actually “track” the route of the census taker as he made his rounds (although it was not always in the same direction for different years)

   The document “Walking with the Census Taker –Underhill Ave. 1850-60” is an Excel spreadsheet consisting of three pages, each page corresponding to successive Census years of 1850, 1855, and 1860.  Columns A-F reproduce the information taken from the original Census forms. Columns G and H log the corresponding Street Directory information, and Columns I through K describe the route of the Census taker, with arrows indicating which direction he walked. Highlighted rows show the west side of Underhill Ave on the block where #58 was located, starting with John Boyle at the corner of Dean St. and ending with Patrick Cassidy at the corner of Bergen.  (Note that between 1850 and 1855 two additional houses were constructed on this block.)]

     So in July of 1855 Patrick and Mary Ward were renting further down on Underhill Ave. This, by the way, was confirmed in the Inventory of Matthew’s estate that was conducted that same month. In the “Notice of Appraisement and Making of Inventory” the appraisers state that Mary would be making the appraisal at “her late residence Vanderbuilt Ave between Bergen and Dean St.” (they got the Avenue wrong– but do make clear that she was no longer living there.)

     We know Sarah Ann was in Boston, but what about James Nicholas and Matthew T.J.? They appear nowhere in the 1855 Census. However by consulting the “Walking with the Census Taker – Underhill Ave” spreadsheet it becomes evident that the Census taker skipped over 58 Underhill (Keenan) as well as the next house (Patrick Cassidy). So it is a pretty good assumption that James and his family, together with his younger brother Matthew, were living at #58, possibly with a renter as well.

     Several months later, on November 16th of 1855, Patrick and Mary sold the recently constructed  Bergen Street house to Julian Gauton of New York for twenty-three hundred dollars. Julian Gauton was a French boot maker with a business in lower Manhattan. He did very well there and began investing in real estate. When he died in 1871 his estate included properties in Brooklyn, College Point, Long Island, and three houses at 310-314 East 38th Street.  His agreement with Patrick and Mary read as follows:

     This Indenture made the day of November in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty-five between sellers Patrick Ward of the City of Brooklyn County of Kings and State of New York and Mary his wife parties of the first part And Julian Gauton of the City and State of NewYork party of the second part Witnesseth that the said parties of the first part for and in consideration of the sum twenty three hundred dollars  lawful money of the United States of America to them in hand paid by the party of the second part at or before the ensealing and delivery of their presents the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged and the said party of the second part his heirs, executors and administrators forever released and discharged from the same by their presents have granted bargained sold (   )  remissed  released conveyed and confirmed and by these presents do grant bargain sell alien remiss release convey and confirm unto the said party of the second part and to his heirs and (   ) forever All those two certain lots peices and parcels of land (   ) in the ninth ward of said City of Brooklyn and taken together form a triangular piece of ground bounded as follows viz. Beginning at the point on the northernly line of Bergen Street at the distence of sixty one feet and nine inches westerly from the north westerly corner of Bergen Street and Underhill Avenue and running thence westerly on said northerly line of Bergen St sixty three feet and three inches 63 feet & 3 (in) thence northerly on a  line parallel with Underhill Avenue one hundred and thirteen feet one inch thence on a diagonal line southerly one hundred twenty nine feet and six inches  to the place of beginning. being the same premises which are designated by the numbers 88 & 89 on a lithographic map entitled “Map of property of the ninth ward of the city of Brooklyn belonging to Nehemiah Denton filed in the office of the Register County of Kings April 28, 1853. Together with all and singular tenements (   ) (   )and appurtanances thereon to belonging or in anywise appertaining and the (   ) (   )and (   ) remainder and remainders unto (  )  and profits thereof.And also the estate right title interest dower right of dower property (  ) (  ) and demand whatsoever as well in law as in equity of the said parties of the first part of in or to the above described premises of every part and parcel therof with the appurtanances to have and to hold all and singular the above mentioned and described premises together with the appurtanances unto the said party of the second part his heirs and assigns forever subject to the payment of two several mortgages made by the said Patrick Ward and his wife to Charles W Lynde one for seven hundred dollars and recorded in the Kings County Registers office October 18, 1853 on Liber 288 of mortgages page 447 and another for three hundred dollars recorded in said office May 3, 1854 in Liber 308 of mortgages page 290 the payment of which two mortgages and the interest thereon from November 1, 1855 is hereby assumed by said party of the second part as a part of the consideration named in this deed. And the said Patrick Ward for himself and his heirs executors and administrators doth covenant grant  and agree to  and with the said party of the second part his heirs and assigns that the said party of the first part at the time of the sealing and delivery of these presents were lawfully seized in their own right of a good absolute indefeasible estate of inheritance on fee simple of and in all singular the above granted bargained and described premises with the appurtanances and hath good right-full forever and lawfull authority to grant bargain sell and convey the same in manner and form aforesaid And that the said party of the second part his heirs and assigns shall and mayat all times hereafter peaceably and quietly have hold use occupy possess and enjoy the above granted premises and every part and parcel thereof with the appurtanances without any  let suit trouble molestation eviction or disturbance of the said party of the first part, their heirs or assigns or of any other person or persons lawfully damage or to claim the same.And that the same are  now free clear discharged unencumbered from or of all formerand other grants titles charges estates judgements taxes assessments and encumbrances of what nature or kind soever  except as aforesaid And also that the said parties of the first part and their heirs and all or every other person or persons whomsoever lawfully or equitably (  ) any estate right title or interst of in or to the herin before granted premises by from under or in trust for them shall and will at any time or times hereafter upon the reasonable request and at the proper costs and charges in the lieu of the said party of the second part his heirs and assigns make do and  execute or cause or (  ) to be made done ….

                                           ( infinitum)

In witness whereof the parties to their presents have hereunto interchangeably set their hands and seals the day and year first above written City of Brooklyn State of NewYork  KingsCounty   Patrick Ward (x)

                         Mary Ward   (x)

On the sixteenth day of November in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty five before me the subscribed appeared Patrick Ward and Mary his wife to me personally known to be the same person described in and who executed the written instrument who severally acknowledged that they executed the same and the said Mary on a private examination by me apart from her said husband acknowledged that she executed the same freely and without any fear or compulsion of her said husband

     Charles R Lynde  comissioner of deeds

     recorded November 22, 1855   at  G A  M w

[Note : When the position of Register of Deeds was created for the County of Kings on March 22, 1852 , the Register’s fees were set at six cents per hundred words to be copied. This could explain the complex and repetitive language found in the recording of deeds from this era.]

        It seems to me that Patrick and Mary did very well on this deal. For an initial investment of $450 for the lot, a little interest on the mortgages, and perhaps a little infusion of cash along the way to complete the project, they walked away with somewhere between  $1500-2000  two years later.

     Meanwhile Mary had become pregnant again. She and Patrick had a child of their own, a boy named Joseph. He was born on February 16th, 1856 and was baptized at St. Joseph’s Church on March 9th. It appears that Mary suffered complications following the birth, because by the middle of March she was on her deathbed. (In the Letters of Administration her death was listed as due “To natural causes”). This circumstance precipitated a flurry of activity. James Nicholas and Annie were expecting their third child at any time, and now James faced the prospect of being responsible for the care of his five younger siblings as well. Additionally, the issue of Mary’s estate (which included the house James was living in) was made potentially very complicated by her marriage to Patrick Ward. James had just turned 23 years old and this must have been overwhelming for him.

      Mary’s father, James McDermott, had come down from Boston, probably during Mary’s illness. He likely brought Sarah Ann with him. James was by this time around 64 years of age. By 1856 the last of  his daughters had married, and his son James Jr. was no longer living at home. I believe that James McDermott and James Nicholas  Keenan decided on a strategy to enable the family to transition the tragedy that was about to occur.

      Mary died on March 23 of 1856, leaving behind her minor children –Sarah Ann (15 yrs.), Matthew T.J. (13 yrs.), Elizabeth (11 yrs.), Catherine (9 yrs.) and Bridget who was only around 5 years old. We don’t know where Mary was buried. It seems very likely that she was buried beside Matthew but the records from Holy Cross Cemetery are incomplete for that time period.

      On March 25th James McDermott appeared before the King’s County Surrogate Court and filed for, and was subsequently granted, Guardianship of Sarah Ann. In that hearing James Nicholas also testified that Sarah’s property consisted only of real estate “ and that the annual rents of the real estate of said Minor does not exceed the sum of twenty five dollars or thereabouts”. So it appears that James had indeed taken in a tenant at the Underhill Ave. house.

    On April 5 James Nicholas appeared before the City Court of Brooklyn to adjudicate the legal issues surrounding Mary’s death. Part of that involved a request to partition the property on Underhill Ave. and to sell it at public auction. That petition was granted by the Court. Evidence of that is given in the following notice, one of several, printed in the Brooklyn Eagle in April.

       Meanwhile on April 10th Patrick Ward filed a petition, which was also granted, to be appointed the Administrator of Mary’s Estate. In that petition he stated that the value of Mary’s personal property “does not exceed the sum of about forty dollars”. Given  the results of the Inventory of Matthew’s estate that had been concluded less than a year earlier, as well as the proceeds from the sale of the Bergen St. property, this was a gross underestimate.

     The petition to auction Underhill Ave. might at first appear to be a desperate move on James’ part, especially since he was living in the house, but I believe it was, instead, primarily a legal maneuver. After Matthew’s death the ownership of 58 Underhill would have devolved to both his wife and his children.

     Colonial America brought with it a practice from England called “dower rights.” At that time, property holders were typically men. Property ownership at a man’s death was transferred to his eldest living son or, if there was no son, to his eldest daughter’s husband. Most states abandoned primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son) and provided statutes to address the division of land among children.  By 1800 in most states, sons and daughters received equal shares in real and personal property

     Dower rights assured the widow that upon her husband’s passing she would continue to have the right to live in the home in which she had been living, or that she would benefit financially from the property’s sale so she would have some income to survive on. In early America, dower rights amounted to a one-third interest in the property and any income generated from it. What this meant was that if a husband died and there were claims by others against the property to settle his debts, any property he held could not be foreclosed or forced into sale while his widow still lived, because she had unassailable dower rights in the property.

    Before 1848, dower rights…were the only property rights to which a woman in the United States was entitled as a consequence of marriage. …Dower created a life estate only; the woman could not control these assets by sale or through a bequest of her own.     But on April 7, 1848 New York State passed the Married Women’s Property Act. It significantly altered the law regarding the property rights granted to married women, allowing them to own and control their own property. It was used as a model by several other states in the 1850s. It provided that:

      “The real and personal property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents issues and profits thereof shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.”

     It would seem that this 1848 law would have excluded Patrick Ward from any legal interest in the Underhill Ave property, but his name was still included as a defendant in the action that led to the public notice of auction. What the petition to partition accomplished, I believe, was to allow the court to define the real estate interests of the minor children in the Keenan family who had no legal guardians, and assign a referee to oversee those interests, namely Alex Hadden (see Notice above). I have not been able to locate the records of that court hearing (they might have been destroyed in a huge warehouse fire in Brooklyn in 2005) but it might have included settling any issues of Patrick and/or Joseph Ward’s interest, and instructing that assigning guardianship of the other children was required before a sale could occur. Indeed, currently in the index card file of the Kings County Surrogate Court Records there is a record that a Guardianship hearing was held on April 18, 1856 for Elizabeth, Catherine Matthew TJ, and Bridget Keenan.There is a notation on the cards that there were no records of Letters found for that case, only a recording of the Bonds that were posted . Unfortunately even the book that listed the Bonds now seems to have been lost or misplaced. Knowing who posted the bonds might have told us who was granted Guardianship, but surely the most likely candidate  would have been James McDermott (or possibly James Nicholas Keenan if the Court did not consider that a conflict of interest.)

     Though we can’t know for sure who was assigned Guardianship, we do know the outcome of the public auction that was held on April 30th. This records of this transaction was, it turns out, very difficult to locate. There was no conveyance of a deed listed in the Grantor (seller) index under Keenan for that time period.

     Strangely, I did find a conveyance listed on March 12, 1856 from Louisa Underhill to Mary Keenan and her children, selling the Underhill property to them for $1.00. This I believe was due to an irregularity in the original deed that James Underhill (Louisa’s deceased husband) had issued when he divided and sold the lots of the original tract. This conveyance was apparently a means of clearing the title for a sale. The same thing had come up as an issue when Patrick and Mary sold the Bergen St. property to Julian Gauton. And since the Underhill document was dated over two weeks prior to Mary’s death it seems clear that the plan to auction the property had been in place for some time.

    But the actual sale of the property at the auction remained hidden. That was because, as I eventually found out, the conveyance was indexed not under the Keenan name, but under that of Alex Hadden, the appointed Court Referee.

    And when the property did go up for sale it turned out that the highest bidder at the auction was, not surprisingly, James McDermott.  Mary’s father  had stepped in and purchased the property for $1200,  thus keeping the house in the family, while providing a certain amount of cash for James Nicholas and the other siblings.

     I believe that the agreement James Nicholas reached with his grandfather permitted him to continue living at 58 Underhill for a number of years, together with his siblings, until he could arrange for their care, or they had reached an age sufficient to be on their own. The Street Directories list James as living at “Underhill n. Bergen” through 1859. The 1859-60 Directory has him living at “Underhill n. Dean”. It is unclear whether this was a mistake of the Directory (the house was close to the center of the block) or whether James had moved up the block to a rental. I rather think it was the latter, because in the 1860 Census (taken October 7) James N. had moved to an entirely new location.

      And what of Patrick Ward? The 1857 and 1858 directories showed him living back at his old residence, 9 Chapel St, next to St James Church. But by the 1860 Census Patrick had taken a new wife named Bridget, with an 8 year old son Robert, and they were living in a house that Patrick owned, located (through cross-referencing) somewhere around Nostrand Street towards Flushing Ave  in the 9th Ward. Patrick and Mary’s son Joseph was not listed in the census, and so I assume he did not survive.

     While 1856 brought about monumental changes for the Keenan family, it was 1858 that really marked the end of an era. Sarah Keenan died on July 22 of that year . We have no record of her last resting spot but it was without doubt in Holy Cross Cemetery, where both Matthew and Elizabeth were buried. Her death certificate says she died of old age at 92 years of age.