“The whole parish of Cordal was related to Mary Frances White”
– Pat Jo McAuliffe, Cordal native, 8 August 2022
In 1939, news of the last will of Mary Frances White caused a sensation in the Castleisland district. More than eighty years on, the story was almost lost to posterity until a flash of memory brought it back to Johnnie Roche, Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage. Below is his account of the episode, followed by a more detailed record of the affair.
The period around 1940 in Southern Ireland was the worst, socially and economically, since the Great Famine. The vast majority of the population was living on the verge of destitution due to the Economic War with Britain and World War Two. It left Ireland isolated with no outlet for its produce, and livestock lost its value. No price for a cow, but her skin was valued at fifty pence. Animals were slaughtered wholesale for their skins.
Imagine the euphoria then when simple country folk saw an advertisement in the papers looking for relatives of an American lady named White of Irish descent who had left them $1,000 each in her will: “$1000 each to all my cousins – regardless of the remoteness of the relationship” (or words to that effect). It was a mind-boggling sum at the time which could erase all financial worries in one fell swoop.
In rural hinterlands like Cordal and Ballinard on the outskirts of the town of Castleisland, most families could claim relations to a large percentage of the local population when it came to third and fourth generations.
The White family holding was nestled in a shady nook under the hill in the townland of Ballinard, flanked by Knockatee and Coom to the east and south. We might speculate on how the clause “regardless of the remoteness of the relationship” found its way into the Will for, as they say around here, “A fool wouldn’t do it!” I believe a smart and devious schemer did it. It might be argued that Mary Frances White got a strange sense of satisfaction in throwing the cat amongst the pigeons in Cordal, but the evidence would suggest otherwise. She willed tens of thousands of dollars to different Catholic Churches and charities so it is clear she still held dear the faith she inherited from her Castleisland parents. Her devotion would hardly allow an unchristian motive.
But could an American attorney back in those days say the same? Would a cat lick cream? Mary Frances White died within the year of the will being drawn up, and after a respectable time had elapsed, an advertisement appeared in the Irish papers announcing the great news and seeking those ‘long lost relatives.’
I lived through that period, and only people my age or older can begin to understand the magnitude of the prospect of a $1,000 lump sum coming into their lives. To most people today $100,000 wouldn’t have the same effect.
People regarded as local leaders in every townland were besieged for their knowledge in tracing family relations. I’ll mention two who lived a half mile at either side of the old White homestead in Coom, Cordal. One was Jack Dan Walsh in KIlmurry, the other was Tom Reddy Walsh in Coom (my father-in-law). Both of those men were highly regarded in their area and throughout Cordal where the great bulk of the White relatives still lived. They were besieged in their homes nightly for months as ‘would-be prospectors’ sought their seal of approval for the ‘proof of relation document.’ Of course, huge numbers had emigrated also, and they were equally exercised with the prospect of a windfall from a distant relative! All in all, the final figure of remote, and not-so-remote, relatives who expressed an interest came to approximately two thousand.
In 1939, I believe virtually nothing else was discussed. I have vivid memories from my younger days of ‘the will’ being discussed around the fire in succeeding years. I remember one story about a fourth cousin who doubted his eligibility until reminded of the terms of the will, “regardless of the remoteness of the relationship.” He submitted his application!
Crunch time came when an advertisement informed the populace that a ‘Mr Attorney’ from America ‘would be in attendance’ at the Carnegie building in Castleisland on such a date. All would-be cousins could submit their ‘proof of relationship’ document along with the ‘small’ fee of 10 shillings (50p) – equal then to one week’s old age pension!
Pat Joe McAuliffe, a near neighbour of the White family with an excellent memory and clear recollection of the legacy events, solved the problem of finding someone who remembered the furore at the Carnegie. Now in his 92nd year, Pat Joe, accompanied by his daughters Betsy and Maureen, recently made the trip from Washington DC where he lives to his old home place in Coom, as he’s been doing for nearly 70 years. He gave a clear vision of the events of the time, and described the day of reckoning as “a queue down the street from the Carnegie Library.” He remembers hearing that “the attorney had to put his two hands on the pile of 10 shilling notes and force ‘em down into whatever container he was placing them in.”
John Walsh, a grandson of the aforementioned Jack Dan Walsh, Kilmurry, has a collection of the relevant White documentation, including a copy of the famous will. He and Neilus McAuliffe, Pat Joe’s younger brother, recently explored the old White homestead and the ‘butt’ of nearby Knockatee. The area is steeped in local lore. It is said that a substantial Hedge School was located under the hill in Knockatee, just across the stream from where White’s house stood, but that’s a story for another day.
Pat Joe recalled the real first cousins of Mary Frances White, two sisters and two brothers, as living in penury at that time. He remembered Council bailiffs coming and taking their few cattle in lieu of rates (he believes Mr Walsh redeemed them from the pound in town). The White family was totally dependent on the pensions of the two in the household who were eligible for it. We can only ponder what the legacy of $1,000 each would have done for them in their old age. They were genuine first cousins on her father’s side and we have yet to discover if she had similar first cousins on the side of her mother’s family.
Mary Frances White (1863-1939)
Mary Frances White was born in Washington on 13 May 1863, daughter of James White of Cool (Cuil), Kilmurry and Mary Josephine Reidy of Castleisland. The marriage of James White, son of Robert White, to Mary Josephine, daughter of Maurice Reidy, took place in Castleisland on 1 March 1862.
From this it appears that Mary and James went to America soon after their marriage for Mary Frances White was born in Washington the following year. An inscription taken from the headstone of Robert White in Kilmurry Cemetery, Cordal, shows that James did return to Ireland on at least one occasion:
Sacred Jesus to
the Memory of Robert White
Who died August 8th 1860
Aged 73 years Peace to his
Erected by his son James White on
A Visit from America as a mark
Of Esteem to the memory of a
James, who worked as a grocer in Washington, died there on 5 April 1916 at the age of 84. Mary Josephine (Reidy) White died in Washington in the same year. Little is known about the life of their daughter, Mary Frances White of 1136 12th Street, District of Columbia. It was in death that great attention was focussed upon her.
In 1938, the year before she died, Mary Frances White made her will. It would cause a sensation in the Castleisland district, and over 2000 cousins would make a claim on her estate. Mary Frances White, spinster, passed away on 26 April 1939 at 7.35pm at age 76 and 11 months. She was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, Washington.
The main beneficiary of the will of Mary Frances White was the Catholic University of America which was bequeathed $100,000. Among a total of eleven bequests, one was an unspecified sum to be paid in amounts of $1000 to each of her cousins:
I give and bequeath to each one of my cousins living at the time of my death, irrespective of the remoteness of the relationship and irrespective of whether his or her parent cousin may be living one thousand dollars ($1000).
Word about this unusual bequest spread rapidly – thousands came forward with a claim. Indeed, it was reported that the desk of Colonel Theodore L Cogswell, Register of Wills, was ‘covered with more than 2,000 applications of kin claimers – hundreds from Ireland and some from New Zealand.’
Distribution of the Estate
Three years later in the United States Court of Appeals 2000 remote cousins from many sections of the United States, Ireland and New Zealand, lost their fight for a share in the $500,000 estate.
Unfortunately for the thousands of cousins who stepped forward for their rightful inheritance, this particular clause in the will was contested, and appealed. The United States Court of Appeals was asked to determine ‘what did the testatrix mean by clause 11’ and if she intended to make bequests ‘to all the thousands of unknown persons who were distantly related to her.’
Ultimately it was found that:
It would exhaust the estate, and thereby prevent payment of more than a fractional part of the bequests to married friends, relatives and religious organizations, which she made in clauses 1 to 10. It would prevent the persons whom she undertook to benefit by her residuary clause from receiving anything under it. By ‘my cousins’ she does not appear to have meant any definite category of persons. We are not at liberty to guess what individuals, if any, she had in mind. Since clause 11 can be given no definite meaning, it is void for uncertainty.
It will be asked how Mary Frances White acquired such a vast sum of money. It may be conjured that she inherited it from her brother, Robert Patrick White, a businessman, who died in 1936:
Robert P. White, 61, of 1136 Twelfth street, retired business man, died last night after a long illness in Emergency Hospital. A lifelong resident of this city, Mr White was the son of the late James and Mary Josephine White. He was educated here at St. John’s College. He is survived by a sister, Miss Mary Frances White. Funeral services will be held at 10 am Friday in Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Burial will be in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
The White family of Ballinard were neighbours of the McAuliffe family of Coom in Cordal. Nonagenarian Pat Jo McAuliffe, who has lived in America for almost seventy years, can recall the excitement of the bequest when the news broke in his boyhood years. As he put it, ‘The whole parish of Cordal was related to Mary Frances White.’
Pat Jo, who has recently visited his native parish with his two daughters, Maureen and Betsy, recalled the queue outside the Carnegie to pay ten shillings to an attorney to register a claim on the estate. Pat Jo’s uncles were in Washington at the time, and the news of a large sum of money available to so many families was akin to a lottery win.
Pat Jo’s younger brother, Neilus, who remained in Cordal, has memories of the White siblings, Jack, Thade and Nance, and their home set on land far back from road access.
Neilus recalls how in the field on the rise above the White residence, in the shadow of ‘Lucid’s Lacca’ at Knockatee, was once a hedge-school. He pointed to a nearby shelf of smooth rock to where the students were taken for their writing exercises, and also indicated the site of old walls (since demolished) which the old people always referred to as ‘the school-house.’ Neilus laughed when he recalled how there was always a rabbit in the building whenever he passed it.
John R Walsh of Kilmurry, Castleisland, Co Kerry, who died in 1844 aged 78 years, was a grand uncle of Mary Frances White. The grave of his son Thomas Walsh, who died in 1837, lies near that of Robert White. Thomas was killed in an incident at Cordal House, Cordal, Co Kerry, when struck by a backband (horse carriage chain) by one of ‘Twish’s men’ as he tried to retrieve his cattle. A story in The Schools’ Collection seems to allude to the incident:
The old fashioned archway in the very old, but well kept bohereen leading into Peter Kearney’s house is the only evidence left of Cordal Great House which was inhabited about 100 years ago. The Twishes [Twiss] a protestant family lived there. They were land agents over Cordal and Brehig. They served Lord Ventry. Thomas Walsh a tenant coming home late one night found his cattle seized by Twish. He found them in the pound which was about half a mile east of Cordal chapel. The landlord on discovering his attempt to recover the cattle pursued him, and hit him a blow of a stick. Walsh broke it in his hand, and took Twish under his arm to the pound gate which he opened with a bang of the knee, and let the cows walk out over the prostrate figure of Twish. Meantime, Foster, Twishes right hand man, gave Walsh a blow of a backband in the head thus stunning him. Nevertheless Walsh brought home the cattle but died three months after this. This man’s death occurred in 1837 and shortly afterwards the Twishes left the great house.
The ‘Washington’ Whites
Patrick White, the eldest of seven known children born to Robert White and Mary Walsh, was born in Castleisland in 1829. He was the first to go to America in the aftermath of the Famine. He went to Washington in 1849 at the age of twenty where he worked as a merchant and then a grocer. In 1859, he married Mary Ann O’Brien (1835-1910) of Nenagh and had five sons and one daughter. He died on 25 March 1871; his youngest child, Charles Albert White, was born (posthumously) in Baltimore in October 1871.
James White (1832-1916), and his brother Robert R White (1846-1922), followed in the early 1860s; Robert worked as a grocer’s clerk and then a merchant. He married Julia McMahon, a widow, whose son was John Redmond Walsh (born in 1875).
Johanna White, born in 1851, followed her brothers Patrick, James and Robert. She never married and died in Washington on 1 June 1928.
Youngest son, John J White, born in 1853, emigrated to Washington c1880 where he worked as a retail grocer and restaurateur. He married Anna E Corcoran in 1881 and had Robert Emmett White and Mary E White. He died in Washington on 11 October 1903.
Richard White, born in 1837, seems to have remained in Ireland. In February 1865, in Castleisland, he married Catherine Flynn and they had a son, Robert Patrick, in 1875. By the time of the Census of Ireland 1901, Catherine was widowed, and was head of the household at Ballinard with her son Robert and teenage niece Mary Lyons.
The Ballinard Whites
There were other branches of the White family at Ballinard. The last of them there was Timothy ‘Thade’ White, who never married, and died in the 1960s. It is still recalled locally how his corpse, as in the old tradition, was washed and laid out on a table in the single-storey cottage he occupied.
Timothy White sold the land some years before he died to a Flynn relative, though he continued to live in his homestead. Nothing now remains of the house; nobody by the name of White is known in the district.
Special thanks to Marie H Wilson for genealogical research.
 James White was baptised in Castleisland on 2 January 1832.  See Irish Genealogy. The marriage was performed by Rev J O’Leary and witnessed by Maurice Reidy and John Divane. James White was the son of Robert White and Mary Walsh. Mary Reidy was the daughter of Maurice Reidy and Catherine Flynn.  The informant of her death was her cousin, Mary A White.  The Catholic University of America in Washington has no record of why Mary Frances White gave a portion of her estate to the university nor does it have record of where funds were directed on campus. Information courtesy Nate Matteson, Executive Project Coordinator, University Advancement Office, Catholic University of America, by email dated 27 September 2022.  There were bequests to Francis P White, C Albert White, Louis C White, Stella White and Mary Freund ... George I Borger trustee. Also to Mrs Charles W Downing Francis P White died in 1944: ‘Francis P White, 80, retired Treasury Department employee and a native of Washington, died last night at his home, 3620 New Hampshire Avenue, N. W. Mr White entered the Treasury Department in 1914 after service with the Interior Department. He worked in the war risk insurance division from 1917 to 1920, when he transferred to the Bureau of Internal Revenue. He was retired from his position of assistant accountant and auditor in the Bureau of Internal Revenue in 1920. At the time of his death Mr White was an executor for the estate of his first cousin, Mary Frances White, who died in April 1939, bequeathing each of her cousins ‘irrespective of the remoteness of their relationship’ $1000 each … For many years after his retirement from government service, Mr White was engaged in the real estate business. A graduate of Georgetown University and Manhattan University Law School, New York, he was a member of the District Bar Association. His brother, the late Albert C White, was treasurer of the Columbia Building Association. He is survived by a sister, Miss Stella White, who lives at the New Hampshire avenue address, and a brother, Louis C White, San Francisco. Funeral services will be held Friday at the Hines funeral home, with burial in Mount Olivet Cemetery’ (The Evening Star, Washington, 19 July 1944).  The will, filed 2 May 1939, Theodore Cogswell, Register of Wills DC, Clerk of Probate Court, and in which Miss White left her mark (no signature), had a codicil: My cousin C Albert White having recently died without leaving issue surviving him ... Michael J Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore or his successor for masses for the repose of the soul of my father, mother, myself and other members of our family.  Washington Star, 24 May 1940. Reference courtesy Nate Matteson, Catholic University of America Archives, Washington, by email 27 September 2022). Colonel Theodore Lawrence Cogswell DSC (WW1) was appointed register of wills for the District of Columbia in 1927. He resigned in 1942. President Franklin D Roosevelt wrote to Cogswell on 24 November 1942, accepting his resignation, ‘I note with interest that your thirty years in service there have been interrupted only for the two-year period you served as an officer in the American Expeditionary Forces in the First World War … I can well understand your desire to return to active military duty when the ideals for which we fought then are again challenged.’ As far as can be seen, Corporal Theodore Cogswell was awarded the Silver Star for service in World War II.  The Evening Star, Washington, 19 July 1944.  ‘Dalton v White United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, 22 June 1942. This is a suit to construe the will of the late Mary Frances White of Washington DC. Clauses 1 to 10 of the will make bequests to certain friends, relatives, and religious organizations. Clause 11 reads, ‘I give and bequeath to each one of my cousins living at the time of my death, irrespective of the remoteness of their relationship and irrespective of whether his or her parent cousin may be living one thousand dollars.’ The first cousins of the testatrix, who were her heirs and next of kin, were named in clause 12 as residuary legatees. She had remoter cousins living in Washington of whose exact relationship she was uncertain. She made bequests to a few of them by name.’ The five first cousins winning the suit were Francis P White, M Stella White and Mary Freund of Washington, Louis C White of San Francisco and Robert W White of New York. ‘A literal interpretation of the phrase “irrespective of their relationship,” it was claimed by attorneys for five first cousins, would include the whole human race, since all could trace their descent back to Adam and Eve’ (Washington Post, 23 June 1942). Reference courtesy Nate Matteson, Catholic University of America Archives, Washington, by email 27 September 2022).  ‘Dalton v White United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, 22 June 1942. ‘About two thousand persons, living in various places, filed claims under clause 11. More than one thousand have intervened in this suit. The District Court ruled that clause 11 is incapable of execution and therefore void. Certain claimants under that clause appeal. When there is no evidence of a different intention the word ‘cousins’ is often taken to mean first cousins. But the phrases ‘irrespective of the remoteness of their relationship’ and ‘irrespective of whether his or her parent cousin may be living’ show that appellant did not mean to limit her bequest to first cousins, or to persons who were related to her or to a common ancestor in any particular degree. Broad words like ‘relatives’ are often interpreted, when there is no evidence of a different intention, as limited to next of kin; those relatives who would be entitled to take on intestacy. But clause 11 shows a different intention, since persons cannot be next of kin, or entitled to take on intestacy ‘irrespective of the remoteness of their relationship.’ It is quite as clear that the testatrix had no thought of incorporating in her will the limit fixed by the escheat statute of the District of Columbia, which provides that intestate property shall pass to the District when there are no relations within the fifth degree. That statute is primarily concerned not with who may, but with who may not, take on intestacy. It has no bearing on the question in this case, which is, what did the testatrix mean by clause 11? We have to determine that question in the light of her entire will. We cannot infer that she meant to make bequests to all the thousands of unknown persons who were distantly related to her. That construction would defeat intentions which she plainly expressed in other clauses of the will. It would exhaust the estate, and thereby prevent payment of more than a fractional part of the bequests to married friends, relatives and religious organizations, which she made in clauses 1 to 10. It would prevent the persons whom she undertook to benefit by her residuary clause from receiving anything under it. By ‘my cousins’ she does not appear to have meant any definite category of persons. We are not at liberty to guess what individuals, if any, she had in mind. Since clause 11 can be given no definite meaning, it is void for uncertainty.’  ‘Retired Business Man dies at Home Here,’ The Evening Star, 16 September 1936. There were two other children of James and Mary, Catherine Agnes White, born in 1868 who died after 1930, and a daughter who died in the year of her birth, 1876.  Knockatee, otherwise Cnoc an Tí, ‘hill of the house.’ See logainm.ie for notes on the townland, known in earlier times as Knockathymore.  The schoolhouse was situated in an Inch between Lucid’s Lacca and the river. The area between the base of a lacca and a river is generally known as Inch.  The headstone is inscribed: Here lieth The Body of Thomas Walsh Who Departed Life AD 1837 NB This Was Erected by Patrick J Walsh Ballinard & John T Walsh Ball[illeg] [illeg] [var: Ballinard, Ballynard, Ballenard, Ballanard, at Mount Eagle]  The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0449, Pages 080-082. The account continues: ‘It was in Cordal great house that the water from Tobar na bhFíonn refused to boil till the trout was returned to the wall. The servants used firkin cans for drawing water. One servant named Mrs Doyle usually carried a firkin on her head, and one under each arm. Cordal great house was supposed to be haunted. Mrs Doyle's husband who was very humourous was prevailed upon by the other servants to stay one night. He refused to go to bed, but eventually growing very tired he stretched into a big settle bed which was in the kitchen. He was not long there until he saw two women spinning, one at his head and the other at his feet. They were pointing their fingers every second turn at him, he caught the tail of coat and threw it over his eyes. The entrance gate is also supposed to be haunted. A man was trying to get into the orchard one night, when a woman in white appeared at the gate, and he dared not move any further. Two people coming from Scartaglen one night in a pony and trap thought that while passing the gate the shafts of the trap suddenly lowered themselves to the ground, and on passing it immediately resumed their position. When one mentioned what he thought to be an optical illusion the other said "Did you think that too." A man who was dead for a number of years was often seen riding up to the gate. When a man was passing the spot one night he felt the breath on his cheek from the back. Presently a stranger thrust his head out over his shoulders, tilted the man’s head towards his, stared into his face and disappeared. The man rushed home "took the catch of the door, and went into bed clothes and all. He was never in the better of it afterwards. An old man noticed a football match in the field one night. The ball struck him accidentally on the leg, and it was swollen for months afterwards.’  There is on record at Irish Genealogy the marriage of Robert White to Mary Walsh in Castleisland on 17 February 1828, the marriage performed by Rev J Collins and witnessed by Johanna Walsh and Patrick Walsh. Known children born to Robert and Mary White were Patrick White, born in Castleisland 1829, died in Washington 25 March 1871; James White, baptised in Castleisland on 2 January 1832; Ann White, baptised 20 April 1834, died in Washington 5 July 1876; Richard White, baptised 9 February 1837; Robert R White (1846-1922), died in Washington; Johanna White (1851-1928) died in Washington 1 June 1928; John J White, baptised 7 April 1853, died in Washington 11 October 1903. Address on church baptism records was Ballinard or Ballynard. ‘Lands of Ballinard and Knockatee, Castleisland. Instructed by the representatives of John White, Deceased, to sell by public auction the lands of Ballinard and Knockatee, Castleisland, comprising 28 acres one rood 10 perches in the townland of Ballinard and 3 acres 0 rood 20 perches in the townland of Knockatee together with the rights appurtenant thereto on other lands of Ballinard measuring 639 acres 0 rood 37 perches or thereabouts statute measurement all held under Receivable Order No D715/28 Record No 367733 County Kerry. The lands, together with the dwelling house and out-offices on offer are subject ot an Irish Land Commission Annuity of £4/16/10; Poor Law Valuation £13/10/0. Sale at Auctioneer’s Address on Thursday 26 July 1951 at 3pm. Patrick Woulfe LLB Solicitor, Maurice T Prendiville, Auctioneer, Castleisland’ (Kerryman, 7 July 1951).  Robert White (1859-1871), Francis Patrick White (1860-1944), James Raymond White (1863-1932), Mary Stella White (born 1865), Louis/Lewis Clement White (born 1866); Charles Albert White (1871-c1938). All (with dates given) died in Washington apart from Louis Clement White, who died in San Francisco.  For example, Irish Genealogy holds records of the children of James White and Janet Morris baptized in the 1830s and 40s. In 1866, James White of Ballinard, son of James White and Joanna Morrissey, married Margaret, daughter of John Flynn of Cordal and Catherine Clifford. In 1871, the marriage of John White of Ballenard, son of James White, to Catherine, daughter of Thomas Flynn, took place in Castleisland.  ‘Lands of Ballinard and Knockatee, Castleisland. Instructed by the representatives of John White, Deceased, to sell by public auction the lands of Ballinard and Knockatee, Castleisland, comprising 28 acres one rood 10 perches in the townland of Ballinard and 3 acres 0 rood 20 perches in the townland of Knockatee together with the rights appurtenant thereto on other lands of Ballinard measuring 639 acres 0 rood 37 perches or thereabouts statute measurement all held under Receivable Order No D715/28 Record No 367733 County Kerry. The lands, together with the dwelling house and out-offices on offer are subject to an Irish Land Commission Annuity of £4/16/10; Poor Law Valuation £13/10/0. Sale at Auctioneer’s Address on Thursday 26 July 1951 at 3pm. Patrick Woulfe LLB Solicitor, Maurice T Prendiville, Auctioneer, Castleisland’ (Kerryman, 7 July 1951).