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The infamous McDonald family trial

While on occasion criminal trials grip the attention of the entire area, it is extremely rare that a civil case will gain such attention. While it was more common in earlier years when Minden had a smaller population, today’s Echo of Our past will look at a civil trial that garnered an amazing amount of coverage by both the local and Shreveport media. That trial, held here in Minden in June 1921, involved a dispute among the heirs of the late John W. McDonald over the terms of Mr. McDonald’s will. Before it was over the trial involved a physical altercation between the heirs that resulted in a criminal case in Caddo Parish and brought a battery of distinguished attorneys to Minden, including a former Governor of Louisiana.

John Watkins McDonald was born on December 24, 1859, the youngest son of James Wesley and Amedia Hill McDonald. James Wesley McDonald was an attorney and political leader of local and statewide reputation; he served several terms in the Louisiana Legislature both before and after the Civil War and was on one occasion the Democratic Nominee of State Superintendent of Education. John Watkins McDonald was educated at the Minden Male Academy and after completing his education entered the banking business here in Minden. At the founding of the Bank of Webster in the 1890s, he was one of the leading stockholders and served as Cashier of that organization from its opening until his death. In addition to his banking activities, McDonald was also very active in other business matters including the cotton and timber industries, along with investments in mercantile operations in Minden. He was among the most active members of the First Methodist Church of Minden and served that congregation in many positions of leadership. Raised in the family home that is today the residence of Frances Irving, Mr. McDonald never married, but in about 1908, he built a new home that is best known locally as the home of Mrs. Miriam Monk. He had the home rebuilt and remodeled by an architect from Knoxville, Tennessee in 1910. McDonald regularly entertained and for more formal gatherings one of his two sisters usually served as hostesses. Pearl McDonald Fort had married Walton Fort and lived nearby in the McDonald family home. An older sister, Alice Love McDonald Dubose, the wife of Chester Dubose, lived in New York City, but often came for lengthy visits.

John McDonald died unexpectedly on March 7, 1921 at the age of 61. According to his obituary in the Webster Signal: “Mr. McDonald was of the old school of citizens, always courteous and genteel. He was slow to make friends but the many who counted him a friend found that he always lived up to the true meaning of that word. His friendship did not consist of merely liking people, but took a more concrete form as financial need when it was needed. Such a man will live long in the memory of his friends. Webster Parish and Minden have lost a pioneer, a good citizen, and the Methodist Church of this place has lost a member of long and good standing.” Pearl McDonald Fort had died in May 1919 and Alice McDonald Dubose had died in December 1920. Thus at the time of his death, the only surviving heirs to the fortune of John McDonald were his nieces and nephews, 12 of which lived in the immediate Minden area. After the death of his last sibling in December 1920, McDonald had written a new will in the 4-month period before his death.

Apparently the distribution of the property in this new will changed substantially from the previous will written while Pearl and Alice were still living. Several of the relatives that found their expected inheritance had been reduced filed suit in the 2nd District Court challenging the will on the basis that John McDonald was mentally unstable at the time of his death. In the days leading up to the trial in Minden, tempers grew short between the warring groups of relatives. W. W. McDonald of Shreveport, formerly a Minden attorney, was attacked by three of his cousins and one of the three attackers had been brought up on charges in City Court in Shreveport.

The spectacle of quarrelling family members combined with the reputed size of John McDonald’s estate piqued public interest. When the trial opened, capacity crowds filled the courtroom in the old Webster Parish Courthouse to hear the details of the estate and the will discussed in open court. Adding to the attraction of the case were the attorneys representing each side. The plaintiffs, seeking to overturn the last will, were represented by former Governor Luther E. Hall, the firm of Drew, Drew & Wallace, and one of the plaintiffs, W. W. McDonald. The defendants in the case were represented by Judge Lynn K. Watkins, formerly of the State Court of Appeals. The trial was being heard by District Judge Robert Roberts, without a jury.

The single issue of dispute in this case was the mental capacity of John McDonald at the time he wrote the new will, shortly before his death. The opening phase of the trial began with the medical testimony of two physicians, one called as a witness by each side. Dr. R. C. Tompkins, McDonald’s personal physician, was called by the plaintiffs. He testified to having noticed signs of mental incapacity in John McDonald over the last few years prior to his death.

However, Tompkins was not prepared to state that McDonald was legally incompetent. In rebuttal, the defense called Dr. E. C. Herrington, who had been with McDonald when he died. Herrington’s testimony was that McDonald showed no signs of mental deficiency and was in full possession of all his faculties at the time of his passing. Following this first phase of the trial, court was adjourned for a week so Governor Hall could go to New Orleans to plead another case before the Louisiana State Supreme Court.

When the trial resumed, the defense called as witnesses the various members of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Webster. McDonald had attended a meeting of the Board a day or two before his death, in addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations of the bank. Each of the board members swore that not only was McDonald not mentally incapacitated at the time of his death, that he was doing his usual excellent job of operating the bank. The assumption the defense drew from this testimony was that the same capability would have extended into his personal affairs. The plaintiffs, produced additional medical witnesses, who using Dr. Tompkins testimony as a basis, speculated on the type of mental disorder McDonald might have been suffering and how it would have changed his decision making process. However, while these witnesses were experts in the field, the defense was able to undermine their opinions since none of the experts had ever examined Mr. McDonald. After three weeks, including two weeks of actual testimony, the case was turned over to Judge Roberts.

On Thursday, June 29, Roberts rendered his decision. He upheld the final will of John Wesley McDonald. He found that no evidence had been presented of a “single act of insanity committed by the deceased” and that the testimony of Dr. Tompkins, the only evidence based on direct examination that even suggested incapacity, was “not sufficient to prove mental incapacity.” He found that the will was written in the hand of the deceased and the dispositions of his property were reasonable and distributed to those who “most deserved the beneficence.” In addition, Roberts held that a man who could manage the affairs of a bank and his own private business matters so effectively was “eminently capable of making a disposition of his own property.”

The plaintiffs appealed the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court. However, before that court heard the case, Governor Hall died while arguing a case in District Court in Baton Rouge. A new appeal was filed by was rejected by the court in its 1922-23 session. In reading the transcript and summary of this Supreme Court hearing the “untold” element of the trial was reveal. Local newspapers did not discuss this aspect of the topic because it was considered scandalous to be discussed in a family newspaper. (Hope Josh doesn’t decide me mentioning it also violates that principle 88 years later.) The reason John McDonald’s mental capacity was called into question and the reason Dr. Tompkins had been called to the stand and “grilled” was because of a “family secret”. A few years prior to his death, John McDonald had contracted a sexually transmitted disease that had for a period seriously impacted his mental capacity.

The prospective heirs knew this story and when they didn’t like the new will, they brought that situation to the attention of the court. Although Tompkins testimony and medical records showed that McDonald had not shown signs of mental incapacity for some period before his death, but the family knew that Tompkins, under oath, would have to testify about the earlier disease induced mental problems would become fodder for a possible verdict in their favor.

In the end, the “new” will of John Wesley McDonald was upheld and the majority of his property was divided among the children of his favorite sisters. The disposition of the house is another unique story. Mr. McDonald and Mr. H. L. Bridges, Sr., were close friends who walked to work together each morning. Mr. Bridges, later mayor of Minden, often joked with McDonald, asking, “Why don’t you go ahead and die so I can buy your house.” Apparently this story had been passed on to some of the heirs, as after the case was settled, the home was sold to Mr. Bridges who lived in the home with his family for several years. Later the Flewellyn family owned the house and the next owner was Mrs. Miriam Monk, today the house is owned by Mrs. Monk’s daughter. So when you pass this beautiful home you now know some of the story that goes along with the dwelling all of which is part of the Echoes of Our Past.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.