HARTFORD, Conn. – One hundred and fifty years after their great-great-grandfather served as secretary of the Navy under Abraham Lincoln, his descendants will battle in a Connecticut courtroom this week over the existence of family heirlooms that include a rare rifle fired by the president himself.
In a civil trial beginning in Rockville on Tuesday, Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza must decide if it was legal three years ago for a probate judge in Coventry, Conn., to reopen the 1955 estate of Ruth Trost Welles, who was married to Thomas Welles, the grandson of Civil War Navy Secretary Gideon Welles.
The judge in 2010 wanted to determine if all of her estate – which members of the Welles family claim should have included numerous historical artifacts tied to Lincoln – was actually accounted for.
Those artifacts include an unused ticket connected to the Gettysburg Address, personal notes from Lincoln to Welles, and the table upon which General Edward Ord signed the surrender at Appomattox.
Also in question is what happened to the Spencer repeating carbine, supposedly the 16th ever made, that was given to Welles after Lincoln fired it once. The Welles side of the family claims that a member of the Brainard side sold the gun and reaped the profits.
When Ruth Trost Welles died in 1955, she left the family’s property on South Street in Coventry, known as Melody Farms, to her three children: Ruth Welles Smith (wife of Donald Smith), Suzanne Welles Brainard (wife of Jesse Brainard), and Thomas Gideon Welles Jr. (husband of Jane Welles). All three are now dead, as is Jesse Brainard, and for at least the past 30 years, one of Suzanne Welles Brainard’s four sons has lived in the house.
Attorneys for the Welleses claim that there was an oral agreement never made part of the original probate case that left the Brainards to keep any historical items in trust until they could be distributed to the entire family. The Welleses are accusing some of the Brainards of secretly selling off Gideon Welles’ artifacts without telling anyone else in the family or sharing any of the profits.
The ugly battle has been raging in probate courts in eastern Connecticut and Superior Court in Rockville for so long that the last two children of Ruth and Thomas Welles have died, leaving the fight to younger generations of the two families, many of whom are expected to testify at the trial.
The fight started with a seven-paragraph article in a 2004 American Society of Appraisers magazine about a treasure trove of Lincoln letters. In the article, Robert Connelly of Binghamton, N.Y., who specializes in authenticating presidential documents, said that he “stumbled” upon the Lincoln correspondence when asked by an unnamed private collector to look at boxes belonging to Gideon Welles.
Connelly said he rummaged through a trunk that he found in the attic of a Coventry house – belonging to heir Ruth Trost Welles – and cataloged 713 letters or notes from Lincoln to Welles. Many were written on odd-size pieces of paper, which was typical of Lincoln.
Connelly also said he saw a finely cut glass wine decanter set that he believed was used by Lincoln at the White House.
The article sent shock waves through the world of antiques and collectibles. Some said that it might explain the curious four-year gap in previously discovered correspondence between Lincoln and Welles amid the Civil War.
“The 713 number makes sense because that would have been between three or four notes a week from Lincoln to Welles during that time frame, which would have been normal for Lincoln,” said Jonathan Sellers, an archivist at the Library of Congress, in a previous interview with The Hartford Courant.
“But there are so many scoundrels involved in this, it’s hard to know what was really in that attic,” Sellers said.
Connelly is listed as a witness for the Welles family but is unlikely to appear. Attorneys will try to get his previously recorded deposition admitted as evidence. The Brainards have attacked Connelly’s credibility and said that his story is not true.
Another incident likely to be a key part of the trial is a mysterious theft in 2006 in the parking lot of a Super 8 motel in Perryville, Mo.
Great-great-grandson John Brainard, one of the plaintiffs in this case, was making a cross-country move from Florida to Moscow, Idaho, when he stopped at a Super 8 motel for an overnight rest. The next morning, he discovered that a back seat window had been smashed and some items stolen, among them two boxes of historical documents that included correspondence that belonged to Gideon Welles.
Brainard made sure that the Missouri police realized the significance of what was in the boxes in his written summary of what he lost.
“All of the foregoing material is essentially unpublished. It all, particularly some of the Gideon Welles material, has, despite its being family material which I have possessed for more than 40 years, great monetary value,” he wrote. “Especially in light of upcoming events relating to the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.”
Police never made an arrest in the case and never found any of the stolen documents.
Gideon Welles was secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869.