‘Miss Mary’s Money’

MISS MARY’S MONEY: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, 1760-1924. By H.G. Jones, with David Southern. McFarland and Co. 224 pages. $29.95.

Mary Smith had only 40 cents in her purse when she died in 1885, seeming evidence of her financially perilous state. But it was more of an indication of the fierce frugality with which she managed her household. Her estate actually included 3,500 acres and thousands of dollars owed by small landowners, who had turned to Miss Mary for small loans to stay afloat during the hardscrabble years after the Civil War.

Her unrelenting self-sacrifice enabled her to keep the family holdings intact, during the Civil War and in the difficult years that followed. And ultimately, it made her a major benefactor to two colleges and a diocese, as well as to her unconventional family.

Her steely resolve is the shining thread that runs through a grim story of a genteel Southern family on the way to ruin.

Told by H.G. Jones, one of North Carolina’s pre-eminent historians, and David Southern of Duke University Press, this richly detailed and meticulously researched book looks at the life and legacy of a remarkable woman, who steadfastly worked to maintain the well-being of her extended family in the face of daunting obstacles.

Before the Civil War, the problems were caused by her own family members, including her father, a physician and Whig congressman from Hillsborough, N.C. A political opportunist and social climber, Dr. Smith was also a speculator who continually threatened the family fortune that he had attained by marriage to the daughter of a plantation owner.

Far worse were the excesses of her two brothers, which included drunkenness, financial profligacy and, horrifyingly, rape. Together, the two brothers sired four children by a family slave, after the elder brother chased her common-law husband, a freedman, off the family plantation.

Appalled by her brothers’ treatment of the slave Harriet, Miss Mary acknowledged those children as family, to the extent she was able. Though they were born into slavery, she brought them up in the family home and had them educated. She insisted that they accompany her in the family carriage to church. And she left each of the children a farm in her will.

While Miss Mary had almost no money on hand when she died, the collection of the debts owed her and the dispersal of her property to the primary beneficiaries paid major dividends to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. The long and difficult task of settling the estate fell to Kirk Battle, then president of UNC and Miss Mary’s longtime friend and legal adviser.

The book describes how Battle’s tireless stewardship resulted in the creation of a fund from Miss Mary’s legacy that enabled the installation of electricity and water works at the cash-starved university. Meanwhile, a portion of the assets given the diocese helped rescue St. Mary’s College in Raleigh from bankruptcy in 1897.

While the authors don’t draw a moral lesson from this tormented family history, the evidence starkly shows the difference between lives ruinously thrown away and a difficult life, determinedly well-lived. “Miss Mary’s Money” shows a sordid side of Southern plantation life that by contrast made her achievement even more commendable. As the epitaph on her tombstone read: “She hath done what she could.”

Reviewer Charles Rowe is editorial page editor of The Post and Courier.