The Mysterious Death of Francis Degen: Part 3

If you haven’t read the previous posts, you might want to go back now and read them. Otherwise, you might be a bit lost here.

When our story ended last time, Francis Degen was dead. His blind wife Helene was given charge over his estate. And his body was exhumed but nothing found.

“Fifty dollars and other valuable considerations. ..”

But what of the faithful servant Hugh McNeil?

Well, shortly after Helene was made administrix of the Degen estate, McNeil had her power of attorney signed over to him. Within twelve days of Francis’ death, Helene sold him the Belmore property for “the sum of fifty-dollars and other considerations.” Between March, 1890 and February 28th, 1891, Helene and Hugh dutifully took care of settling Francis’ estate.

By the time of his burial, the stock Francis held was worth $1,000.00. His land shares and mining shares were worthless. His deposits in Marble Bank amounted to $1,900.00 and he had a note owed him by W. L. Raht for $700.00. Without considering his furniture the estate amounted to $3,600.00. For the time, this was a comfortable sum of money (though not the $22,000.00 quoted by one newspaper of the day). Helene was declared sole heir of the entire amount.

Helene died March 6, 1891 at 91 Guernsey Street in Brooklyn, exactly one week after settling her husband’s estate. Her body was supposed to have been taken back to Florida for burial, but no records exist to indicate such a burial happened.

“Final discharge from said administration…”

According to newspaper reports written after her death, Helene and Hugh had come to New York hoping to get treatment for her lost eyesight. They apparently made several trips between Florida and New York in the months after Francis died. During one November trip Helene had a will drawn up.

This will of course left everything to McNeil. However, Helene never actually signed the will. The will was marked with an “X”. Her nephews, Eric and Frederick Rothgart contested the will in September of 1891. In early 1892, after several delays, witnesses came all the way from Florida to appear in the case.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 o’clock Edition, May 25, 1891

The first witness called to the stand was Bernard J. Douras, the attorney for the will. He testified that he drawn up the will for Helene at 195 Guernsey Street. Witnessing the will were George Wilson and Morris Barnett.

Mr. Douras was a friend of Hugh McNeil and met Helene through him. According to his testimony Helene wanted “Mac” to have all her property when she died. The will was signed on November 29, 1890. There is dispute about whether the witnesses actually saw her make her mark or if they were in a separate room at the time.

Mr. Douras further testified that Helene “had told him twenty-five times at least that “Mac” was entitled to her estate.” She also told him that Francis had reletives who accused her of having poisoned Francis. She had no relatives of her own, according to Mr. Douras, and she wanted everything to go to McNeil.

The case was decided in McNeil’s favor and the nephews filed an appeal in Clay County. The attorneys weren’t too interested in fighting hard for Bavarians who were on the other side of the world and the case didn’t make it much further. McNeil was the sole heir of the Degen estate.

Not only do we not know what happened to Helene’s body, we don’t know much about Hugh McNeil after this whole ordeal. The last record I have been able to find is an 1892 census record indicating the he lived in New York with a wife named Anne. No previous records indicate that he was married.

Was Anne a trophy wife for the 54 year old heir to a small fortune? Was Hugh a secret lover to Helene during the year they spent together in Rutland before traveling out to meet Francis in Utah? Did they plot Francis’ death together? Did he betray her and poison her into blindness? Did they poison Francis as is relatives suspected? Did McNeil trick the blind widow into signing her fortune to him, or did she still love him and the mark on the will was truly hers?

There are many unanswered questions. Perhaps some of Joseph Degen’s descendents can answer them. Anyone know a Degen? Maybe they know where Helene is. Maybe they know what happened to McNeil. Maybe they would want to restore the grave of Francis Marion Degen to its former glory.

We can only wonder…

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The Mysterious Death of Francis Degen, Part 2

In my previous post I told you about the founding of Belmore City and the promise it gave its many investors, including the retiree Francis Degen. In this post we meet the man who lies in Belmore State Forest.

Francis Marion Degen was born in Bonn, Rhenish Prussia on October 10, 1829 to parents Johann Heinrich (John Henry) and Anna Helena (nee. Hittorff) Degen. He spent his childhood as Franz, Francis would be the name he adopted as a 20 year old immigrant to the United States.

Passenger list of the Isaac Bell

In late June of 1851, Franz and his 23 year old brother Joseph set sail aboard the Isaac Bell from the port in La Harve, France. They arrived in New York City on July 2. Other records indicate that Francis may have come to America in 1847 on the ship Emigrant.

Whether he came as a 20 year old or a 15 year old, in his first years in the United States, Francis moved to High Lake, Pennsylvania, and became a leather merchant. Joseph meanwhile became a dentist and settled in the Bronx, New York.

Lydia Helene Rothgart was born around 1834 in Alsen, Schleswig Holstein. She came to America around 1854 and soon became acquainted with Francis. They married in 1857. Because Francis was an engineer, the couple moved to West Rutland, Vermont, to get involved in the marble mining industry.

There is one record of a Francis M Degen joining the Navy late in the Civil War. The enlistment record shows him enlisting in November of 1864. Whether or not he saw action in the final months of the war, or even if this is the same Francis M Degen remains unknown.

Francis M Degen, Stone Cutter

While in Rutland, the Degens met Hugh McNeil, an Irish immigrant and marble stone cutter. McNeil would become a trusted confidant of the Degens until the end of both their lives.

Francis was a successful engineer in the Rutland mines. In 1880 he decided to take his mining knowledge out west to the silver mines of Frisco, Utah. Helene and McNeil stayed behind in Rutland until Francis had set up a home in Utah.

William Raht’s Patent

While in Frisco, Francis became friends with William Raht, a patent holder for a process to treat ores. Raht would later be a witness to Degen’s will, drawn up in 1887.

The Degens enjoyed their time in the rough town of Frisco. Francis joined the Freemasons there, along with McNeil, and became the Junior Warden of the number eight St. John’s lodge. Interestingly, for reasons not recorded, Hugh McNeil was dimitted from the lodge in 1882.

Francis worked as an engineer in the Horn mine and accumulated quite a bit of wealth as well as stock in the Globe Mining Company. He already had several deposits with the Marble Bank in Rutland, he added more money to his estate in Utah.

The mines of Frisco suffered a massive collapse in 1885. While they recovered in late 1886 and early 1887, Francis decided it was time to move on. He decided that Belmore City, Florida was the place he wanted to retire.

Hugh was sent to the Degen’s lot in early 1889 to set up a homestead and plant an orange grove. Francis and Helene came to the property late that year but their retirement was short lived.

In December of 1889, Helene went blind, whether from illness or stroke or something more sinister, we will never know. Six weeks after her blindness struck, on February 12th, 1890, Francis dropped dead in the family garden. He was laid to rest on the homestead.

In his will, Francis left his entire estate to Helene, “in consideration of the faithful service (she had given him) in accumulating (his) property”. Despite her blindness she was naned admininistrix of the estate.

Given the sudden nature of his death, his brother Joseph asked for an examination of the body for signs of foul play. Six weeks after Francis died his body was exhumed and an autopsy performed. Records indicate that chemists found nothing amiss and Francis was decided to have died of heart failure.

Stay tuned for the real crazy story…

The Mysterious Death of Francis Degen, Part 1

The grave in 2010.

Deep in Clay County, within the boundaries of Belmore State Forest there lies a grave for one Francis Marion Degen. The only information on this grave is a name, a date (February 12, 1890) and a Freemasonry symbol.

This is a bit of a departure from my normal type of post, but this subject is a bit near and dear for me. The first time I encountered Mr. Degen’s grave was around 2007 or 2008. At the time it was surrounded by cables and was somewhat undisturbed. By the time I took a job on the forest in 2011 the cables had been stolen and the gravestone partially knocked over.

Seeing his grave site in disarray I grew curious about the history of this man. Was he important? What brought him to his final resting place in the middle of the woods? How did he die? Did he leave anyone behind who might want to care for his grave?

Thankfully, the internet was a helpful tool for researching such questions. Not only was I able to dig up bits and pieces of information, I managed to get in touch with the Clay County historian. She was able to find me original documents regarding Mr. Degen’s estate. Through some of her connections we were able to find enough information about him to create a narrative of his life and death and the interesting events which took place afterwards.

I’ll get to all that eventually. But first: a little background.

Around the year 1885, The Belmore Florida Land Company of Chicago purchased nearly 4,000 acres in Clay County and touted it as a paradise for Northern souls hoping to escape the miseries of Northern winters (something I can identify with).

At the time, it was predicted that the entire tract would one day be settled and sown in orange trees and other fruits and vegetables.

“A Safe And Certain Investment”

The investors were so hopeful about their purchase that they platted out a new city and offered 40×100 foot lots for $3 a piece. In order to help attract and educate new settlers they published a pamphlet discussing how to plant an orange grove and what other plants would be valuable to grow there. The city was platted out in a grid complete with parks and a public school.

Five acre orange groves were platted out to the north of the city. These were offered for $15-50 per acre and touted to bring in $100 or much more a year in profit. Similar towns had sprung up all over the state with differing success rates. Optimistic investors were found and many of the lots were sold.

It was this promise of profit and healthy living that attracted a 59 year old Francis to purchase 14 acres in 1889 and send his servant, Hugh McNeil, to start an orange grove. The plan was to retire and enjoy fine Florida living.

That plan however, didn’t work out…

Next week we’ll tell you a bit about Mr. Degen himself. Keep reading!