Miller vs. Miller

The Life & Times of John Q. Miller
A family dispute reaches the Maryland High Court

copright (c) 2003 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Although genealogists enjoy discovering and interpreting family records, the truth is that most of these records, birth, marriage, death, census, while providing valuable information, do little to tell us about the day-to-day lives of our ancestors. The exceptions to this general rule are Civil War pension files and certain estate administrations. While pension files often provide family information not found in other sources, estate administrations sometimes provide researchers with a glimpse in the day-to-day lives of our ancestors by providing a list of household goods sold at estate auctions.

The estate of my great-great-great grandfather, John Q. Miller (1790-1874), of Westminster, Maryland, provides one of these intimate looks into the lives of our ancestors, not only because of his extensive estate inventory, but because of the legal battles that took place following his death. The documents that resulted from the family squabble that took place over his estate are extensive and quite revealing in regards to the primary combatants. The dispute was eventually taken all the way to the Maryland Court of Appeals, and remains on the law books today (Miller v. Miller, 1875), the details of which would rank with the best of today's Hollywood soap operas.

At issue was the interpretation of certain language contained in a deed of trust signed by John Miller and his second wife Amanda on May 13, 1871. The dispute was between Amanda and her stepsons William and George Miller, children of John's first marriage. In the end, the courts sided with the sons, who showed little mercy towards their mother-in-law and her children in enforcing the provisions of the deed and in the administration of their father's estate.

Census returns indicate that John Q. Miller was born in Virginia circa 1790. Sometime before 1810 he moved from Virginia to Westminster Maryland in what was then still Baltimore County. Records indicate that John Miller took part in the war of 1812, serving a short stint with a local regiment formed in Baltimore County, and being honorably discharged thereafter. John's first wife was named Mary Ann and by this marriage he had six children who have been identified, with only three, William, George and Margaret, living to maturity. Mary died in 1845 and was buried in the Westminster cemetery. In 1837 Carroll County was formed from portions of Frederick and Baltimore counties, and John Miller appears as a landowner in the newly formed county's first tax assessment taken that same year. In fact, in the years to come, John was able to purchase tracts of land in several locations in and around Westminster, and by the time of the 1860 census these holdings were valued at an impressive $17,000.00.

Also by 1860, all of John's children had either died, or had married and on their own, leaving John basically alone on his large farm. Perhaps for this reason in early 1863 John remarried a woman named Amanda J. Frock. Amanda was the daughter of Peter and Lydia Frock of Carroll county. Family tradition says that the Frocks were descended from German soldiers who had fought with the British during the Revolutionary War. Interestingly, Amanda's maiden and married name were both Frock, as her first husband (who is unknown) was apparently a cousin. We can imagine that John's marriage to Amanda may not have been warmly received by John's children. In 1863 John was 73, while Amanda was only 29, meaning that two of John's children were older than their new stepmother. Amanda brought to the marriage her six children from her previous marriage, and they became part of the Miller household, eventually adopting the surname Miller. In addition, the first of John and Amanda's three children, Alice Jane Miller, was born barely nine months following the marriage. John and Amanda's other children were Emily and Curtis, the latter being born in 1869 when John was in his late seventies! Again, although we can't be certain how John's sons William and George Miller felt about their father's second marriage, their subsequent actions are an indication that they had not approved of their father's new wife.

Census and estate records indicate that the 153-acre John Miller home farm was a valuable piece of real estate situated just outside the city limits of Westminster, and close to the Manchester road and the Western Maryland Railroad line. Perhaps John had married Amanda with the intention of having her and their children help out on the farm, thereby keeping the property in the family. The problem was that John Miller was what was referred to as "land rich but cash poor". In other words, although he owned a lot of real estate, he had little cash for life's other necessities. As such, the Miller family began purchasing certain items from town merchants "on account." Unfortunately, by the mid-1860s, these bills had become substantial, and John began defaulting on his payments. John's creditors, including his own sons William and George, took John to court in an effort collect what was due them. With their financial situation basically out of control, John and Amanda had little choice but to sign a deed of trust, whereby sons William and George took control of their father's property in order to settle all the outstanding claims against them.

On May 13, 1871, John and Amanda signed the aforementioned deed of trust naming John's eldest sons William and George as trustees. In the document, John states that the reason for the document is that:

"I, John Miller, am indebted unto persons on various accounts and being unable to pay me debts at this present time and being desirous to make arrangements to settle and liquidate all my said indebtedness, do give and grant unto William Miller and George W. Miller, all the said John Miller estate, real, personal and mixed, for the following uses: to sell any part of my said estate to pay said indebtedness."

The deed also allowed William and George to provide John and his family with living money, "the cost of same to be a lien and charge on said land." Finally, after all of John's debts were paid off, "the balance of the estate to be hereby conveyed or the proceeds thereof, to the said John Miller, his heirs and assignees. The rights of the same Amanda J. Miller his wife to be the same in said balance as if this deed had not been made." It was this final clause that was ultimately used to settle the dispute between Amanda and her son-in-laws.

By this agreement then, John was able to provide support for his family, while turning his complicated legal troubles over to his sons. The trust agreement was to continue in force until all claims against John and Amanda were settled. William and George pledged a bond in the amount of $30,000.00 as trustees, and immediately began carrying out the terms of the agreement. The language of the deed makes it clear that John was trying to also provide for his wife and children after his death, however it is unclear exactly how John wanted to do this. Nor did he likely suspect that his sons William and George, both educated and affluent men, would use the power they had obtained over his affairs in such ruthless fashion against Amanda and her children.

Clearly the most valuable possession owned by John Miller was the family farm located just outside the city limits of Westminster. The sale of this piece of land brought in more money than the sale of all his other real estate and personal property combined. After the deed of trust was executed, John, Amanda and her children had moved to another one of John's properties, a smaller house located on Foundry Avenue in Westminster, not far from the Westminster cemetery. The John Miller farm was initially rented to a John Tracey prior to being offered for public sale. Eventually, William and George Miller put the property up for sale, advertising in the local paper:

Valuable Real Estate at Public Auction

First, the home farm of the said john Miller now occupied by John Tracey, adjoining Westminster, bounding the Manchester roods and the Western Maryland Railroad, containing 153 acres, 3 roods and 35 perches, of which 50 acres are first class woodland, hickory and oak. The improvements consist of a large three story weatherboard house in good condition, filled in with stone, a new bank barn, spring house, hog house and other necessary outbuildings and a never failing spring of water at the door.

This description of the Miller farm actually enables us to picture the house and land where the family had resided, and, if the description is accurate, the property indeed would have been very attractive to potential buyers. However, the initial bids for the farm were rejected by William and George as too low, and they withdrew the property from the market until they found a buyer who met their price. They eventually did, and the farm was sold on October 20, 1873 to John K. Longwell for $11,085.75, a price that confirms the property's appeal and value.

By this time William and George Miller had begun paying off their father's debts. All creditors of John and Amanda Miller were first required to provide copies of unpaid bills of sale to the Miller family in support of their claims, and it is this evidence that provides a rare glimpse of the family's day-to-day lives. Well over one hundred claims were presented as evidence, including bills for groceries, farm equipment, livestock feed, lumber, hardware, school books, doctor services, cloths making, as well as bills for various odd jobs such as mending fences and other repair work on the Miller farm.

John's largest creditors were his sons William and George, who gave their father an allowance of about $10.00 a week beginning in 1872, and continuing until his death in early 1874. Ten dollars a week was a substantial amount of money in those days, and one has to wonder why John needed such a large sum. Were John and his family still living beyond their means, or were William and George feeding their father money in the hopes of maximizing their returns after his death? Either way, the fact that William and George were able to pay their father $10.00 a week, is certainly an indication of their own wealth.

By mid-1873, John Miller's health was deteriorating badly as he approached his 84th year, a fact that is confirmed by his worsening handwriting on the notes he signed for his weekly allowance. His final signature appears on a note dated June 6, 1873. From that point until his death, he signed using only an "X" as by that time he had become too weak to sign his full name. The last of these was dated February 16, 1874, a little more than a month before his death.

John Q. Miller died on March 22, 1874 at the age of 83 years. He was buried in the Westminster cemetery next to his first wife Mary Ann and their three children who had died as young adults, within sight of his house on Foundry Avenue. At the time of his death the deed of trust had not yet been fulfilled; William and George had not yet paid off all of John and Amanda's creditors. As such, on March 31, 1874 William and George were made co-executors of their father's estate. On November 7, 1874 William and George returned the first of three accounts of their father's estate. As was the law for people who died without a will, the Orphan's Court ordered that John's property (real and personal) be sold at auction and that the proceeds be divided among his heirs. The John Miller estate was eventually valued at a little over $13,000.00, a tremendous sum for those times. Of that amount, some $8,600.00 was given to William Miller to pay off the remaining creditors and for the notes he held against his father for John's weekly allowance money. William also charged the estate interest for notes he held against his father. Additionally, he was granted $421.00 as administrator, and an additional $230.00 as his father's lawful heir. The fact that William took his fair share as administrator and charged interest on the notes he held against his father, would appear to be the first indication that William was determined to get every penny he could out of the estate. After all the necessary payments were made from the estate to settle all claims, their remained $3,400.00 to be distributed among John's heirs. Widow Amanda was awarded one-eighth of this amount, while the children were awarded a one-thirteenth of the remaining balance, and herein lies the beginning of the dispute between Amanda and her son-in-laws, a dispute that further enflamed what was already likely a bad relationship.

Amanda filed her objection to William and George's administration on November 30, 1874, claiming that as her husband's widow she was entitled to a one-third share of the estate, not the one-eighth William and George had allotted her, "according to the laws of this state and the fair and legal construction of the said deed of trust". Amanda also claimed that the final administration was "defective, irregular and erroneous," a clear indication that she felt that her stepsons were cheating both her and the estate. As such, she asked that court that the administration not be confirmed. Amanda was in fact correct in saying that the law allowed widows a one-third share of her husband's estate, but only in regards to the sale of personal property. In the matter of the sale of real estate, which made up the bulk of the John Miller estate, a widow was only entitled to a one-eighth share. Amanda's argument was that by signing the deed of trust, it had been her husband's intention to sell all of his real estate so that the resulting proceeds would be treated as personal property, thus allowing Amanda a one-third share of these proceeds following his death.

The Circuit Court for Carroll County heard the case (equity case #1429) during the November 1874 term, and rendered its decision on January 14, 1875. In doing so, the presiding judge made the following comments:

In my opinion this question must be determined by the construction of the deed of trust and that instrument must be the rule to determine the rights of the parties.

The judge noted that the majority of the John Miller estate was derived from the sale of real estate rather than personal property, and he made his decision based on the final clause of the deed, noting:

"Mark the words - the balance of the estate hereby conveyed or the proceeds thereof (shall be distributed how?) conveyed or paid over to the said John Miller, his heirs or assignees. If they had intended to treat the surplus money arising from the sale of the land as personal property, they certainly would have used apt words for that purpose and would have provided that it should be paid over to the said John Miller his executors or administrators - but not so- they used the words heirs or assignees which are applicable to realty only. If the deed had not been made, her husband dying intestate, she would have been entitled to dower in said balance so far as the same is distributed in this cause has been allowed to her in the audit, and I am therefore of the opinion that her exceptions to the ratification thereof must be overruled."

With this ruling, Amanda was left with the 1/8th share allotted to her by William and George, but it seems she was determined to take the issue further. Amanda decided to take her case to the Maryland Court of Appeals. The case, Miller v. Miller, 42-MD 631-32, was heard during the April term, 1875. A decision was rendered on June 11, 1875, and unfortunately for Amanda, the higher court affirmed the findings of the lower court. In commenting on the case, the Court of Appeals held:

"That the wife was entitled to an allowance from the surplus in lieu of dower, and not to a third of the surplus under the statute of distributions."

"The rights of the appellant, both in the real estate unsold by the trustees and in the surplus remaining in their hands after payments of the grantor's debts, are thus expressly defined by the deed. In and to each her rights remain the same, as if the deed had not been made. This, of course, could not be, unless the surplus be considered as real estate. If it (were to) be treated as personal estate, the rights of the appellant would not be the same as if the deed had not been executed. For these reasons, the order below will be affirmed."

Amanda had lost. Was Amanda simply trying to get something she wasn't entitled to, or had her husband really intended for her to have a third of all his real and personal property? Was John aware what the deed meant for his wife's portion of his estate, or had William and George worded the deed to thwart their father's intentions and protect their own interests? Was John Miller even sophisticated enough to know that he was doing? The fact that John Miller left no will is likely an indication that either he wasn't too concerned about the fate of his wife and children, or that he simply trusted his sons to do the right thing in carrying out his wishes. Whether his sons actually did the latter is what is open to debate. Whatever John Miller's intentions had been, the court ruling meant that Amanda had to settle with the 1/8th share allotted by the final administration, an amount which initially stood at $430.00.

If the story had ended here it would have been interesting enough, however the battles were not yet over, and, if things had been nasty before, they were about to get downright ugly. What happened subsequent to the ruling by the Court of Appeals is perhaps the best indicator of William and George Miller's disregard for the welfare of their stepmother and her children. As a result of what happened next (part of which was Amanda's doing), her initial share of her husband's estate ($430.00) was reduced to a mere $72.00.

Part of the John Miller estate auction was the aforementioned house on Foundry Avenue where the Miller family lived in John's final days. Amanda knew that she could not afford to purchase the property on her own, and she also knew that William and George would likely hold out for a price that was beyond her means. As such, before the house was sold, Amanda wisely petitioned the court to allow her use some of the funds that were being held on behalf of her minor children as their share of their father's estate, for the purpose of purchasing the property. This time the court decided in Amanda favor (the only time she ever prevailed in court), and the court agreed to allow her a total of $1,000 towards the purchase price of the property. The auction was held on August 21, 1875. William was well aware of the court's allowance to Amanda, and, although no other bids were placed on the house, William refused to accept a bid of less than $1,000.00, taking all of his stepmother's allowance. It had taken some maneuvering, but Amanda had managed to at least secure a home for her and her children, or so it seemed.

Although things should have ended here, it was not to be. A few months later Amanda married a man named George Kirby, her third husband and some twenty years her junior. The 1880 census tells us that George Kirby was a junk dealer, and he and Amanda had at least one child after their marriage. The problem was that apparently some of Amanda's own children objected strongly to this, their mother's third marriage. We don't know why this was so, however her children John and Samuel Miller were upset enough that they petitioned the court to allow them to withdraw their inheritance that Amanda had used to purchase the house. What happened as a result is found in a petition filed by George Kirby on behalf of his wife Amanda on October 9, 1875 (equity case #1538).

"Your petitioner further shows that the prospect for carrying out said plan (Amanda using her children's money to purchase the house) successfully was good until her subsequent marriage to her present husband, which gave grave offense, it appears, to the children of the last deceased husband. Two of her minor children, viz. the said John F. Miller and Samuel Miller, were induced to abandon their homes with her, and opposed the investment of their funds in said property as fact, so great was the estrangement produced and so slight the prospect of matters being restored to their former condition, that the project was abandoned as hopeless, and consequently your petitioner was utterly unable to comply with the terms of the sale."

Because her marriage to George Kirby had cost her the financial support of two of her children, Amanda defaulted on the purchase of her house. As such, she thought that the sale would simply be invalidated, but not so. In swooped William and George Miller who resold the house for $821.00 then charged Amanda the difference between that sale and the original sale price of $1,000.00, plus interest! In her petition to the court protesting this action by her stepsons, Amanda would seem to have a valid argument, but again, the law turned a deaf ear to her plight. She had made several improvements to the property since the original sale, and in reselling the property William and George had accepted a lower bid, when they had refused to do so originally when they knew Amanda wanted to buy the house. In other words, Amanda too had originally offered a bid lower than $1,000, but William and George had refused to accept it. In her petition to the court, she states that:

"If $821.00 is all the said property will now bring with the valuable improvements and additions, then she could have bought the property at the first sale for even less than the $821.00, had not said trustees, knowing the circumstances, wrongfully refused to sell the said property at less than $1,000.00."

In addition to charging Amanda with the difference in sales proceeds plus interest, William and George also charged their stepmother for the commission costs in reselling the property, the newspaper advertising announcing the sale, and their costs associated with Amanda's appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals. Additional other small claims had already reduced Amanda's 1/8th share to $392.46, against which William and George now claimed an additional $364.85 per the above costs. In the end, the judge allowed all of these additional charges, except the Court of Appeals court costs of $44.45, which left Amanda with a grand total of $72.06, as the entire share of her late husband's estate.

With this ruling, and with the final ratification of John Miller's estate administration in early 1877, William and George Miller moved quickly to evict Amanda and her family from the house on Foundry Avenue. Amanda, stubborn and determined to hold onto her home, simply refused to leave, even after the house had been legally sold to someone else. The new buyer was a George A. Miller (no relation) who petitioned the court on 12 March 1877 to have George and Amanda Kirby removed from his property.

"and they refuse and each of them refuses to give it up (the property) although possession has been dewarded of them and each of them on several occasions. Your petitioner therefore prays that an order be passed by your honorable court directed at the said Amanda J. Kirby and George W. Kirby her husband, requiring them and each of them to give your petitioner possession of said premises mentioned."

Records show that sheriff James White served the eviction notice that same day, and that Amanda and her husband finally gave up the property shortly thereafter. It seems as though William and George Miller's plan of ruin for their stepmother was finally complete. They had reduced Amanda's share of their father's estate to $72.00 and engineered her eviction from her home. But, Amanda's financial troubles were not yet over, and the details of her next set of troubles are contained in yet a third equity case, number 2633.

After they were evicted from the house on Foundry avenue, George and Amanda Kirby were still able to purchase a new piece of property located at the intersection of what are today Manchester and Webster streets. There they built a new house, but had to mortgage the property and the house to the builder Edward Lynch, to do so. The mortgage deed was dated October 15, 1878. The cost of the house was $130.00, and the mortgage deed stated that Amanda was responsible for eventually repaying the mortgage and paying the property taxes on the house. Default on any of the terms of the mortgage gave Lynch the right to resell the property. Things went fine for the first few years, however in the mid-1880s Amanda began missing her property tax payments, and had made no payments towards the mortgage. She was therefore once again hauled into court for non-payment. The court ordered that the property be sold (here we go again!) but this time Amanda's daughter Emma J. Miller came to her mother's rescue, and purchased the mortgage for $200.00. Amanda was thus allowed to remain in her home.

The Miller house at the corner of Manchester and Webster was eventually purchased by Amanda's daughter (and Emma's sister) Alice J. Miller, just before her marriage to Charles L. Groft. Alice and Charlie Groft then lived in the house for many years; their children were born there, and they eventually built three additional adjacent houses along the Manchester road. All of these houses still stand today.

Amanda Kirby died on 11 March 1889, and was buried next to her second husband John Miller in the Westminster cemetery. Her husband George Kirby spent his last years drifting around town, at one time working as a servant in a large household. He eventually remarried, and died on 22 July 1924. George is buried on the other side of Amanda in the Westminster cemetery. As sad as this all may seem, again, the documentation that was generated as a result of these disputes provides what amounts a rare and remarkable insight into the lives and actions of these individuals.

In the end, we must ask ourselves if we can we draw any conclusions about the participants involved in this family feud, based on the documents contained in the equity case files. Although it is impossible to know the minds of the individual involved, some of their actions do allow for certain conclusions. First, there is no doubt that in his later years, John Miller and his wife Amanda ran up bills in Westminster that they were unable to pay. Why this happened we shall never know, however John was fortunate to have accumulated enough property in his lifetime that he was able to dig out from under this heavy debt with the help of his sons William and George. Otherwise, he would have probably gone to jail. As such, there is no doubt that William and George helped their father and stepmother out of a difficult financial situation that would have ruined most families. However, salvation for John and Amanda Miller came at a heavy price. In taking control of his father's affairs during his lifetime, and by administering his estate following his death, William Miller ensured that he would become the primary beneficiary of father's assets. By feeding John Miller $10.00 a week (for what?), then charging interest on the notes, William ensured himself a handsome return on his investment. By taking control of their father's real estate, William and George were able to get the price they wanted for their father's land, to the benefit of his estate, but at the expense of their stepmother Amanda.

And what of the stormy relationship between Amanda Miller and her stepsons? Were William and George simply trying to protect their father's assets from their irresponsible or greedy stepmother, or was there some other motivation behind Amanda's seemingly harsh treatment at the hands of her stepsons? While the brothers can't be blamed for attempting to maximize the value of their father's estate, there can be little doubt about the disregard they demonstrated for their stepmother's well-being following the death of their father. Again, William and George seemed to go out of their way to make life difficult for Amanda, and being men of learning and wealth, they ultimately succeeded. In these actions the brothers went beyond what would be considered normal behavior. In fact, it seems safe to say that William and George disliked or even hated their stepmother, and felt compelled to engineer her financial ruin. But why?

On the other hand, Amanda was far from innocent in the events that brought about her downfall. The most obvious pattern we see repeated during her life is her lack of ability to repay practically any creditor. This lack of responsibility in living beyond her means and meeting her credit obligations began while she was married to John Miller, and continued through her marriage to George Kirby. Clearly, Amanda had little understanding of the importance or the consequences of meeting one's financial obligations. And what about her marriage to George Kirby? For whatever reason the marriage upset two of Amanda's children to the point that they were induced (by who?) to withdraw their financial support from their mother's effort to purchase the home on Foundry avenue, resulting in her eviction. What was it about Amanda's marriage to George Kirby that so upset her children? Why did she marry George Kirby in the first place, a man of questionable reputation? Going back, what was it about Amanda's marriage to John Miller that caused her stepsons such great offense? Had Amanda married John Miller for love, to help raise her children from her first marriage, or to simply avail herself of his assets? Was there something about Amanda herself and the circumstances under which she married that was offensive, inappropriate, or devious?

The other question is how much did Amanda really comprehend about her complicated legal affairs? Was she the one responsible for all the objections and appeals, or was there someone else working through her behind the scenes? After all, Amanda was not a learned woman; she could neither read nor write. Nor did she bother showing up at her hearing before the Maryland Court of Appeals. Was Amanda the innocent victim of her stepsons, or was she a conniving woman who had designs on John Miller's money from the beginning? Unfortunately, these and other questions regarding Miller v. Miller can only be answered by those already long in their graves, and at last check, they weren't talking.

P.S. It should be noted that practically all of the antagonists involved in Miller v. Miller were eventually buried in the Westminster cemetery. John Miller is buried between his two wives Mary Ann and Amanda, while John and Mary Ann's children Henry, Maria and James are buried to the right of Mary Ann. George Kirby is buried to the left of Amanda. All of the above are found together in the same row close to the entrance to the cemetery. William Miller and his family, and George Miller and his family are buried nearby, as is Amanda's son Samuel Miller, one of her two sons who withdrew his financial support after she remarried George Kirby.

May they all Rest in Peace.

Jeffrey L. Thomas
1990, rewritten 2003

Below: the graves of John & Amanda Miller & the Miller plot,
Westminster Cemetery, Carroll Co., MD


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