Penguin no. C1889: The Greer Case, part 2

     There are faults in observation and failings in memory. There are honest mistakes and outright falsehoods. Who is telling the truth? Whose powers of observation and recollection can be trusted? What discount should be made of certain testimony in consideration of the witness's interest in the outcome of the case?
     No standard of judgement can be called on to decide theses questions other than the elastic one of experience. One cannot go to the library, as the judge can usually do about the law, and look up the answers. That is why the common denominator of a jury is valuable and comfortable in determining the facts.

Harold Segur was not successful in his contest of the will. The decision was made largely on the basis of Mrs Greer's age, for although the witnesses had been unable to agree on whether she looked her age, or ten years older, with the disagreement about her appearance extending throughout her adult life, all existing records suggested she was born somewhere between 1881 and 1884. These were dates she had provided herself, but if they were believed, they ruled out any possibility of her being the mother of Harold Segur.

However, there were other aspects of Harold Segur's story which failed to align with what was known of Mrs Greer's child. His adoption papers had indicated that he had been born in the Boston Lying-In Hospital, rather than in a boarding house, and his earliest memories were of being named Harry A. Baker, and living in a boarding house with Mary Teresa O'Donnell. Mary O'Donnell later married Dr Willard Segur who then adopted Harold.

Mary O'Donnell's story is perhaps even more intriguing. She kept house for a man named Baker, and having miscarried his baby while he was in Mexico, she adopted a baby from the Boston Lying-In Hospital to pass off as her own. Records showed that the baby she adopted was the child of Addie Weston and Willard Segur. You can only speculate on how it was that she came to later marry the father of her adopted child, but the marriage was an unhappy one. When Addie Weston was found to have existed (another teenage mother of an illegitimate child who managed to keep her secret until the grave), it became clear that Harold Segur was the real son of Dr Willard Segur, but he was probably not the child of Mabel Greer (née Seymour).

And then about a month after the case had been decided, a lawyer's clerk noticed a death notice for a 53 year old man named Willard Seymour, who had died in the Boston City Hospital from a disease associated with alcoholism, and been buried in a pauper's grave. The coincidence of the names and the city encouraged one of the lawyers to investigate further.

Willard Seymour had led an unfortunate life, but as it had involved state care, time in gaol, and the receipt of social security, he had left a trail. He had been born in Boston and lived with his mother for a few years until she boarded him out, but when she ceased paying for his care, his foster mother had him declared a neglected child and he was committed to the State Board of Charity. His mother saw him occasionally during his childhood, but the last time he heard from her was in 1905 when he was 11. It was clear from the records that his mother was Mabel Greer, that she had been 22 when he was born, and that Dr Willard Segur had denied paternity. Willard Seymour, who had had a difficult life and who had been unemployable and living in an hostel when his mother died, was the real heir to her fortune. And Mrs Greer had clearly been much older than she claimed, and old enough to have been the mother of Harold Segur.

The two lawyers involved in the case advanced different hypotheses to explain this divergence between Mrs Greer's story and the uncovered facts. It was the story of Harold Segur, the child assumed to not be hers, that she had shared with her staff and her friends over the years, and so perhaps she had lived with the doctor for many years and been the mother of both children, and he had subsequently adopted the one he recognised as his own. Or perhaps the fact that she had abandoned her child in order to pursue a better life for herself was too difficult to face, and just as she presented herself as a much younger woman, she presented herself as a more caring woman than she was. Or maybe she had a calculating nature, and was simply preparing the ground in case her abandoned son should ever show up.

Willard Seymour's death after his mother's meant that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts now had a claim on the estate as well. The proceeds were eventually divided between Massachusetts and Harvard.


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