The Importance of Being Ernest

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Bay City, Bay, Michigan, United States

Ernest Butt died in 1983 at the age of 80. He left a considerable estate of over $200,000, a nice sum today and even more valuable in 1983. His wife had died earlier and they had no children. A case was brought by Lemoyne Pfeffer who sought to prove that she was the sole surviving relative of Ernest and should therefore receive the estate. To prove her case she offered much genealogical data. Ernest’s mother was Caroline Butt. Lemoyne was the granddaughter of Caroline’s sister Lucy and therefore Ernest’s second cousin. Caroline and Lucy were the children of Charles Butt Sr and Mary Van Stone.

Buried in all of those dry old records was an old family secret. Lemoyne was a closer cousin than first suspected. Lemoyne’s mother Helen wasn’t just Ernest’s cousin, Helen was also Ernest’s sister! To understand you need to go back the turn of the century. In 1900, Mary Van Stone Butt was suffering from the The Van Stone Family Curse, Huntington’s chorea. Daughter Caroline was thirteen in 1900. Her mother’s condition must have been devastating to her. She may have known her grandfather (John Van Stone) had died the same way, and probably knew he had killed one of his own children. Eventually, Mary was moved to the Sanitarium to live out her days. In 1902, older sister Lucy had been married for seven years to Fred Viet. Caroline’s older sisters Amelia and Mariah were twenty-one and twenty years old respectively and probably didn’t have a lot of influence in their younger sister’s life. Caroline was now fifteen, her mother was in a hospital, dying of a horrible family disease and she was largely alone.

Lucy’s husband, Caroline’s brother-in-law Fred Viet was twenty-seven in 1902. Apparently, he was able to comfort Caroline. Four days before Christmas in 1902 fifteen year-old Caroline brought his son Ernest into the world. The family somehow weathered the turmoil and Lucy and Fred stayed together. Lucy had three children under the age of four and had just lost her one year old daughter Lemoine about two months before Ernest was born, so she was probably motivated to forgive Fred.

According to family story, Fred gave Caroline $500 on Ernest’s behalf. Of course, Caroline being a minor still, the money went to her father Charles. Charles is said to have taken Ernest’s money and traveled to England to visit his cousins. Nice.

Caroline must have remained lonely. Not long after Ernest was born, her mother died. Soon after Caroline bore another illegitimate child, this time a daughter named Ruth. It is not known who the father was. Ruth was adopted by a Thomas Van Stone. Caroline had an Uncle Thomas Van Stone, her mother’s brother. It is very likely that it was this uncle who took in Ruth. How Ernest was taken care of during childhood is unknown. A few years later at the age of nineteen, Caroline married Carl Murphy. Carl’s father was said to be the police chief of Bay City. Ironically, Carl and Caroline had no children together. Ernest is not listed with them in either the 1910 or 1920 census. However, Caroline’s father Charles is listed in the 1920 census, living with the Murphy’s.

In the end everything turned out well. Caroline got married. Ernest lived a long, obviously successful and hopefully happy life. Ruth was taken care of. Lucy and Fred stayed together and raised their family. Of course Lucy’s fate and that of her son Johnson was to suffer horrible death by chorea, but that was unrelated to the incident that led to the birth of Ernest.

Last but not least, did cousin Lemoyne get the money? All’s well that ends well. Yes she did.

Evidence from the Case

"Fred said Ernest was brother, and also his cousin"

"Fred (Son) my husband, at first told me when we went to visit him in Canada, Ernest was his cousin, and then later he told me Ernest was also his half brother. They had the same father."