“Malice is at the bottom”: Family Drama in the Litigation of the Thomas W. Evans Estate

It took less than twenty-four hours for the will of Dr. Thomas Evans to be legally contested. On May 31, 1898, the very day the wealthy dentist’s will was filed in the United States, Evans’ niece, Clara E. Davis, made a formal objection to the stipulations of the document. This legal action was only the first in a long series of bitter lawsuits over the Evans estate that dragged on for over a decade. By the end of 1898, heirs, executors and the City of Philadelphia (Evans’ intended recipient of the bulk of the fortune) were locked in a vitriolic legal contest, to which Joseph W. Catharine, the Assistant City Solicitor for Philadelphia, was soon to be subjected and which his papers document.

Dr. Thomas Wiltberger Evans was a famous dentist, born in Philadelphia in 1823 but professionally active in Paris. At the peak of his practice, Evans was treating most of Europe’s sovereigns, from Queen Victoria to the Sultan of Turkey. Evans shared a close friendship with Emperor Napoleon III, and managed to smuggle the Empress Eugenie out of Paris in his private coach when the masses rioted after the Battle of Sedan. To call Evans “wealthy” would be a considerable understatement. The dentist’s friends in high places, rather than his medical practice, were responsible for his massive fortune. In the 1850s and 1860s, when Napoleon III launched a comprehensive urban re-planning of Paris, Evans was tipped off to the areas of the city that were soon to be transformed from labyrinthine networks of medieval alleys to spacious and stately boulevards. Strategically buying cheap properties in these quarters, Evans saw the value of his real estate skyrocket as development moved forward. When Evans died in 1897, his estate was valued (conservatively) at $4,000,000, or about $110,000,000 in 2016.

The subsequent disputation of Evans’ will was not caused by any ambiguity of the document. Rather it seems that his millions were simply too alluring for his relatives to give up without a fight. Evans left two wills, one to be valid under French law and the other in the United States, but they both described the same wishes for the distribution of his capital. Evans set aside a total of $275,000 for his wife, mistress and some other relatives (he had no children), and left the rest of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia, for the establishment of the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute, an institution which he required be “not inferior to any in the city.”

An 1882 portrait of Madame Laurent, by Edouard Manet.

An 1882 portrait of Madame Laurent, by Edouard Manet.

The social and economic ripple effects of the dispensation of Evans’ estate are exemplified in one of several amusing anecdotes reported in American newspapers. Evans left a large sum of money to his mistress, Méry Laurent, an active figure in Paris’ artistic circles (she modeled for the impressionist painter Edouard Manet and entertained Proust and Zola at her salon). Laurent was a great appreciator of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and decided to pass along her portion of the estate to his daughter. According to a reporter commenting on the gift, “during the few days since it has become known that the young lady is in safe possession of $100, 000 [not an accurate figure] she has had twenty offers of marriage from as many Counts. In fact, her windfall is interfering with the American marriage market.”

Evans’ other heirs, however, were less magnanimous than Mme. Laurent. They contested the provisions of the will on several accounts, first questioning its validity and then the right of the City of Philadelphia to receive funds from the estate given that the Museum and Dental Institute had yet to be officially established. Wisely intuiting that the litigation of the estate was about to get very, very messy, Philadelphia Mayor Charles Warwick secretly dispatched Joseph W. Catharine, the Assistant City Solicitor, to Paris, where most of the heirs lived. Catharine’s task was to defend the interests of Philadelphia, mainly by making sure that Evans’ heirs didn’t siphon away too much of the money meant for the Museum and Dental Institute.

He's determined! An undated photograph of Joseph W. Catharine.

He’s determined! An undated photograph of Joseph W. Catharine.

Though thrown into a legal case whose milieu was the most elite tiers of Parisian society, Catherine himself was from relatively modest background. He was born at sea in 1859 on the Carrier Dove a clipper ship owned by his father, which ran between Philadelphia and several Southern ports, and, according to a later biography, “a common school education was his lot.” Catharine began his career at the Philadelphia Treasurer’s office whilst he read law, and later joined the Solicitor’s office, where he successfully argued several important cases.

Catherine’s professional aptitude served him well in Paris, and over the course of a few months he was able to defeat almost all of the heirs in court. Despite this, Evans’ relatives walked away with a total of $800,000 in addition to their original $275,000: in 1900, the executors and the City agreed to grant the heirs a bonus if they forfeited their right to further contest the will in the French courts.

Yet the appeasement of the heirs did not mean the settlement of the estate. The suits lumbered on, now between the City and the estate executors, and got particularly nasty in 1906, when Catharine and his colleagues accused three of the executors of mismanaging the estate for their personal financial benefit. In the words of G. Heide Norris, one of the City’s lawyers:

“The many and devious methods adopted by the French executors, in order to delay settlement and maintain possession of the estate both in France and in this country, should be fully exploited at this time… The object of the executors in holding on to the estate and in delaying settlement, has always been a matter of inquiry, but the sequel seems to disclose the answer very clearly. It is now entirely apparent why Mr. Valois, the principal of the French executors could never be found when wanted for discussion, why he avoided interviews with counsel for the city, why he has interfered with and delayed any attempt to deal with the American executors, why he has delayed promised accounting…”

The executors filed countersuits, but also responded on more personal terms. Sarah Gray Crane, whose late husband, Edward Crane, was one of the indicted, wrote directly to Catherine, that “I feel sure Mr. Catharine, although you accuse him of a crime, that in your heart you do not believe him guilty of any misdemeanor. You are led by… a faction of the family of the late Dr. Evans- who are very jealous of both my husband and myself- malice is at the bottom.”

An early photograph of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

An early photograph of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

Amidst the hundreds of letters and dozens of legal memoranda that make up this collection, it’s hard to get a sense of what Catharine was like, personally. If anything sheds light on his character, it’s an assortment of newspaper clippings. Quoted in these articles he seems first dogged, but gradually more pessimistic about the outcome of the case. Indeed, I doubt Catharine had any idea in 1898 that the Evans estate litigation would last about fourteen years, demand he make at least six trips to Paris and provoke in him three “health crises.” Yet Catharine must have maintained at least some of his initial determination because, eventually, the City received the necessary funds from Evans’ estate to establish the Museum and Dental Institute. In 1915, the Institute opened its doors to a first class of students, and still operates today, at its original location on 40th and Spruce Street, as the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

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