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Lucy Barr’s ‘fortune’ was fleeting

At the time of her death, Lucy Barr was living with the La Cossitt Hendren family in Miller Township, Marion County. The house is now owned and occupied by Robert and Hong Kilmer. This doorway leads to what this author speculates to be the bedroom that Lucy Barr occupied during the last 11 years of her life. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

Note, court documents quoted in this story are politically incorrect by today’s standards, but right or wrong, are reflective of the era in which they were recorded.


The scenario of Lucy Barr’s adult life could be compared to the lot of a slave, except for the fact that Lucy was born after the abolishment of slavery in Missouri.

Born to Sam Barr in Shelby County circa 1865, by 1880 the family had moved east to Marion County, where Mr. Barr worked as a laborer. Lucy was among, if not the oldest, of the children, who according to census records also included May, Patsy, Ada, Clemey and Ella Barr.

Circa 1886, Lucy went to work as a cook and servant for John A. Priest, a prominent farmer of Clay Township, Ralls County, Mo., and his wife, Hellen Chinn Priest.

Mr. Priest owned two farms; the one upon he lived, which was mortgage free, and a second, known as the old Sanders place.

Lucy Barr would continue working for and living with the Priest family for 23 years, until Mr. Priest’s death in 1909. The 1900 census listed Lucy’s last name as Priest, rather than Barr, while also noting that she could neither read nor write. Others in the household at the time included John A. Priest, 73, Hellen Priest, 70, and their daughter, Alma Priest, age 30. Lucy Barr was 35.

Mr. Priest paid her regularly for the first eight years she was in his employ, she maintained, but then the payments stopped.

After Mr. Priest’s death in 1909, Lucy Barr filed a claim against his estate in probate court at Hannibal. The Quincy Daily Whig carried a story about the trial outcome.

Represented by attorneys Charles E. Rendlen and John G. Cable, she filed a claim for 15 years of service at the rate of $2.50 per week.

“It was a hotly contested case from beginning to end,” the newspaper reported. Judge Reuben F. Roy of New London served as attorney for the estate, and he contended: “the plaintiff was fairly recompensed for her services by furnishing her with her meals.”

Attorney Cable reviewed the evidence on behalf of his client, “and endeavored to impress the jury with the fact that the old colored woman did all the house work for the family, helped to raise the children, and that $2.50 per week was only a fair compensation for her services.”

Her attorneys tried to show that she wasn’t paid because Mr. Priest couldn’t afford to pay her, due to a mortgage he owed on one of the two farms he owned.

The attorney for the estate, however, argued that he didn’t pay her, because she wasn’t able to perform many household tasks.

The jury, consisting of John H. Rogers, Henry Wachendorfer, W. W. Howard, Michael Doyle, Daniel Archdeacon, L.A. Munson, Charles M. Richards, L.Y. Bragg, Thomas B. London, Philip Riley, John Marshall and Samuel Richardson, agreed.

Miss Barr was granted $1,950 in past wages. The headline on the newspaper article read: “Colored woman has a fortune”.

But, it wasn’t to be.

A new trial

Judge Roy, on behalf of the Priest estate, asked to transfer the case to the Hannibal Court of Common Pleas. His request was granted. Later, at the mutual consent of both sides, the case was assigned to Judge William T. Ragland in Circuit Court, and was scheduled for trial in the courthouse at Hannibal on Feb. 22, 1911. The lawyers argued about whether Lucy Barr’s contributions to the household where she lived were deserving of monetary compensation above and beyond room and board.

The jury sided with the estate, and denied Miss Barr’s claim for compensation. The circuit court judge later granted her request for a new trial based upon jury instructions. But that decision was reversed by the St. Louis Court of Appeals during its March term, 1913.

Appellate Court Judge J. Allen wrote, in summarizing the case, that:

“On behalf of the defendant it was shown that the plaintiff was a large woman, afflicted with rheumatism, could not get around very well, and was not able to do much work; that she was not a cook, and that she did not do the feeding and milking at deceased’s place. It was also shown that the washing and ironing for deceased and his family were done, to a considerable extent at least, by others. Plaintiff was an old servant in the family, and during the period for which she claims she received her food and lodging from deceased; and it did not appear that she had any income, or that there was any other source from which she might obtain her clothing and other necessities. She, of course, did not testify.”

Mrs. Priest

Mr. Priest’s wife, Hellen, died in 1913, and was preceded in death by her two children. The remainder of her estate was divided among nieces and nephews, including Walter R. Chinn, who lived in Hannibal.

L.C. Hendren

By 1910, Lucy Barr was working for La Cossitt Hendren, a prominent farmer in the Mt. Zion area of Marion County.

Lucy Barr died at the Hendren home, on Feb. 4, 1921, at about the age of 65.

Mr. Hendren was the informant for Lucy Barr’s death certificate. She was buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery.

Hendren Farm, Route 2, Hannibal. Historic view found in the house; circa 1870. Negative located Hannibal Arts Council. Historic view of the house from the south. Lucy Barr lived in the house the last 11 years of her life. Information prepared by Esley Hamilton for the National Register of Historic Places Inventory, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

L.C. Hendren wrote a letter to his sister, Corrinne Laura Hendren Baskett, on Feb. 3, 1921, the day before Lucy Barr died. He mentioned the frail condition of his housekeeper in the letter, and described her condition. Lucy died the next day, and was buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery, west of Hannibal. No gravestone has been located. The letter is contained in archives possessed by Robert and Hong Kilmer. Robert is a descendant of Corrinne Baskett.

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