'Marry me'

From Susanna Howard's estate papers

Oh, Susanna, will you marry me? And she said yes, three times, maybe four! I knew about the first three husbands, but who was the fourth, if indeed there was one?

The Susanna in this question is Susanna Johnson,[1] who married first in 1770 Lieut. Samuel Cony and had five children. After his death in 1779, she married Captain James Howard, a man forty-five years her senior with four children: John, Samuel, Margaret, and William. Then James and Susanna’s two children, Isabella and James, came along, creating a scandal and generations of legal wranglings over inheritance. After James’ death at age 85 in 1787, Susanna said yes again to a marriage proposal from William Brooks,[2] Husband Number Three.

Recently some probate records appeared which at first glance seemed to indicate to some researchers that Susanna had married a fourth time, to William Howard, her stepson. Oh!  Susanna! Really?

Then James and Susanna’s two children, Isabella and James, came along, creating a scandal and generations of legal wranglings over inheritance.

Ever the cynic, I was determined to either prove or disprove that theory. I had to be sure that the theory fit the facts, and not try to make the facts fit the theory that Susanna had married her stepson. The genealogical section in James North’s local history[3] gives no information that Captain Howard’s son William, a local trader, had married anyone other than his cousin Martha Howard. I’ve found no supporting records nor any indication of his marriage to anyone else.

The probate documents I had to work with were (1) a petition for administration of William Howard’s estate by his widow, Susanna Howard, dated the 13th day of December, 1824; (2) a petition by widow Susanna Howard for an allowance from William’s estate, dated 10 May 1825; (3) the appointment of Pitt Dillingham as the administrator of the estate of Susanna Howard, who died intestate (without a will), dated 29 November 1825; (4) an establishment of a $1,000 bond for the administrator dated 29 November 1825; (5) various probate court orders concerning the estate of Susanna Howard dated between 29 November 1825 and 31 January 1826; (6) an accounting of charges of Susanna’s estate dated 31 January 1826; (7) a petition of distribution to Susanna’s heirs; and (8) a supporting affidavit to the petition for distribution.

Captain James’ son William died in 1810; it’s doubtful that the family would wait fourteen years to probate his estate!

The facts noted in the first reading of the documents contradicted the Susanna (Johnson) (Cony) (Howard) Brooks theory because she lived until 1830, while this Susanna died between May and November 1825. Captain James’ son William died in 1810; it’s doubtful that the family would wait fourteen years to probate his estate!

This Susanna was not my Susanna, so who was she? Susanna, William, and Howard were common names, and there were at least four people with those same names living here at the time.

The petition of distribution and accompanying affidavit are, of course, the keys. They clearly state that Susanna’s only living relatives are “a brother and sister of her deceased mother,” Colonel Arthur Lithgow and Mrs. Mary (Lithgow) Davidson, and that she had “no child nor any father or mother, brother or sister” living to inherit. Susanna Brooks had living children during the period 1824–26.

Further research showed that the only sister of Arthur and Mary Lithgow who had a daughter named Susanna was Susanna (Lithgow) Murray, wife of Rev. John Murray. Susanna (Lithgow) Murray had one daughter, Susanna Murray, born 2 November 1779, who married 23 January 1800 Captain William Howard, a master mariner, born in 1771 to Captain Samuel Howard and Sarah (Lithgow) Howard, and Captain James Howard’s grandson. They are cousins, sharing the same maternal grandfather, Colonel William Lithgow. This Susanna and William had four children, three of whom died within a year of birth; the fourth died before 1825.

It was then clear that these documents were for the estates of Susanna (Murray) Howard and Captain William Howard, son of Samuel Howard.

While I checked all other details throughout, I had my answer almost immediately: that Susanna Brooks was not the subject of this probate action. If she had indeed married her stepson William Howard as her fourth husband, it would have been quite a revelation in that family’s history. I did find a newspaper obituary for Susanna Brooks, calling her the “affectionate consort” of three husbands.

One Susanna had a long, full life, the other a more tragic, short life.

You are now dead and buried; Oh, Susanna(s), don’t you cry.


[1] 1747–1830, daughter of David and Susanna (Willis) Johnson.

[2] 1757–1824, son of Joshua and Lydia (Wheeler) Brooks.

[3] James W. North, The History of Augusta, Maine (Somersworth, N.H.: New England History Press, 1981).

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.View all posts by Jan Doerr