The Civil War, Bigamy, and Syphilis

Occasionally, in the course of everyday events, one encounters the most unusual stories. Recently, while researching a family tree for a friend, I found an ancestor, my friend’s fourth-great-grandfather, who can only be described as a “colorful character”: William Braddock Lingo.

William was born on July 22, 1832 in Rockingham County, North Carolina to Dolly (née Morgan) Lingo and Reeves Lingo, a wagonmaker from an old North Carolina family. He was the oldest of six children, and had three brothers (John, George, and James) and two sisters (Sarah Jane and Ellen). By the 1850’s, he had moved to the Van Buren Township in Crawford County, Arkansas, and on May 15, 1852, he married Nancy Jane Henderson, who was by all accounts an attentive wife, maintaining their homestead and raising their five children, John, Mary, Milton, Malissa, and Matthew; I guess they had a penchant for names that start with “M” after John.

Apparently not completely contented with his wife, William had a long-standing tryst with Nancy Jane’s sister, Martha Ellen Henderson. Martha gave birth to William’s daughter, Alcendia, on September 19, 1856, not long after his firstborn, John, who was born in 1855. That William was Alcendia’s father appears to have been common knowledge. Alcendia carried the surname “Lingo” until her marriage, and noted her mother’s relationship with William and her parentage in pension depositions following the Civil War.

Alcendia Elizabeth Lingo


I wish I had a picture of William, but it seems he was camera shy; then again, this was a pre-selfie era. I do have pictures of two of his sons with Nancy Jane: Matthew Elzy Lingo and Milton Lingo, both quite dapper looking fellows. One can imagine that their striking good looks echoed those of their father, which presumably had been engaging enough to tempt William’s sister-in-law into his bed.

Matthew Elzy Lingo

Milton Lingo


On July 4, 1862, William left to join “The War of the Rebellion”, as Southerners refer to it, leaving Nancy Jane at home with four children under seven-years-old, and one more on the way. William was a Private in the First Arkansas Cavalry, Company D, and by 1863, was assigned to the Regimental Band. Good looking, virile, and a musician to boot! Unfortunately for Nancy Jane, he didn’t return to Arkansas following his service. On August 30, 1890, Nancy Jane applied for his pension as a war widow – a logical course of action given the circumstances: If he was dead, she’d receive his pension; If not she’d at least learn of his whereabouts. Nancy seems to have learned something of William after the war, as per her deposition to the Bureau of Pensions in 1900:

“In 1865, he took up with another woman named Mrs. Ellis, and left with her and I never heard from him directly afterwards.” 

So, who was this “Mrs. Ellis” with whom William had taken up? The 1870 census shows a thirty-eight-year-old William living in Boeuf Township in Franklin County, Missouri with forty-year-old Elisabeth Ellis and fourteen-year-old Mary Henry.

1870 Census of Boeuf Township, Missouri

Nancy Jane’s application for his pension did indeed bring William out of the proverbial woodwork. He returned when an investigation began regarding his pension, and attempted to convince Nancy Jane to deed her farm back to him, a proposal which she refused. Also from her deposition to the Bureau of Pensions:

“…he came to Chester (Ark.), this county on or about Nov. 16, 1890, and lived with me as my husband on up till March, 1891, when he went away. On June 2, 1891, he returned, and on the midnight train of that same day, June 2, 1891, he left again. While he was away between March and June, 1891, I got uneasy about him and wrote a letter of inquiry to the Post-master at Mays [sic], Sedgwick Co., Kansas, who wrote that William B. Lingo came there in 1870, and had lived there with his wife (Mary Lingo, guardian minor heirs) and children ever since; except when in Arkansas for his health. When he returned in June, I at once informed him of what I had learned about his having another wife living in Kansas. He went away, and I never heard from him any more until I was informed of his death.”

Mary!? Who the heck is Mary? Remember that fourteen-year-old girl who was living in the same household with William and that homewrecker, Elisabeth Ellis in the 1870 Census? Yup – the very same, and Elisabeth’s cousin. William married Mary Henry on December 15, 1871, in Kansas City, Missouri, the day after Mary’s sixteenth birthday. They settled on a farm in Maize, Kansas, and by all accounts he was well respected in their community. In all they had eleven children: Ida, Sarah, William Jr., Alma, James, Kathryn, George, John, Charles, Ralph, and lastly Martha, who went by “Mattie”.

As if it wasn’t already clear, William was no prize as a husband. In August of 1890, he was arrested and charged with being “murderously insane” after lining his wife and children up outside their home and, with a loaded gun in hand, threatening to shoot them if they moved.

From the “Atchison Daily Patriot”, August 9, 1890

In 1891, poor Mary was expecting Mattie, child number eleven, when the news came back to her that there was more than one “Mrs. William Braddock Lingo”. It seems that William had told Mary that he had to visit Arkansas periodically “for his health”, and she had no idea that he had another wife and children in Arkansas. [Insert your own snarky remark here.] Mary was also deposed by the Bureau of Pensions, and her statement includes the following:

“I was married to the soldier Dec. 15, 1871, at Kansas City, by I. C. Brown, a Justice of the Peace; maiden name Mary Henry. I got a divorce from him Sept. 1891, and never lived with him as his wife after that. The sheriff of this county got a letter from the sheriff in Arkansas and he told me that the solider had another wife living there. So I got a divorce.”

Mary didn’t waste any time getting that divorce either. The following notice appeared in the Wichita, Kansas newspaper on July 19, 1891.

From “The Wichita Daily Eagle”, July 19, 1891

At least Mary went through the proper processes of publishing notices and contacting William to let him know she was divorcing him. William had no such qualms about following the letter of the law. It seems that once he was charged with bigamy, and since Nancy Jane refused to deed the farm in Arkansas back to him, he divorced Nancy Jane in order to avoid prosecution and perhaps also out of spite. However, he neglected to inform Nancy Jane of the dissolution of their marriage. You see, William’s attorney, W. D. Halfhill, was also deposed by the Bureau of Pensions, and told a story you have to read to believe:

“I remember Wm. B. Lingo very well. I was his attorney in a divorce suit against his wife who lived somewhere in Arkansas… I do know absolutely and positively that she never got either the copy of the petition or the notice that was published, and it was not intended that she should. He mailed it in a United States Post Office box, and I by a ruse intercepted it in the post office of Winfield, Kansas, before it went out. But he was able to go on the stand and swear that he had complied with the statute and mailed her the notice and petition. But he was afraid the Arkansas wife would fight the divorce. I saw him mail the package that I gave him addressed to his Arkansas wife containing a copy of the petition and the publication notice; and I assured him that I would take means to prevent it reaching her.”

I wonder if Mr. Halfhill, Esquire, feigned surprise that Nancy Jane hadn’t shown up in court on the appointed day of the hearing, as his client had duly sworn that he had mailed the petition and publications to her. Thankfully for Nancy Jane, this testimony allowed her to claim William’s pension as his widow after his death, as the divorce was declared invalid.

But, William wasn’t finished making trouble for poor, long-suffering Mary and their eleven children. Throughout the years after their divorce, William would resurface from time to time whenever he needed money. In August of 1897, he was arrested for “Disturbing the Peace” when he came to her home, ostensibly to visit with his son-in-law, but asserting that he loved his former wife and wanted to live with her again. He was unable to pay his court fines and spent time in jail as, despite his military pension, he “lives it up as fast as he gets it.” One could be forgiven for believing that William’s need for a roof over his head and money for whiskey was a more compelling reason for his return to Mary than true love. One newspaper article about this incident blames the consumption of whiskey on his continuing problems:

“Singularly enough Lingo’s troubles began with his securing of a pension about seven years ago. In the investigation of his case it was brought out that he had a second wife [e.g. Nancy Jane] who lived in the south. He had since the war married at Maize [e.g. Mary] and had a large family and as soon as she heard of it the Kansas wife applied for and received a divorce. Since then his troubles have been many and he has largely added to them by intemperate habits… He had no money when he appeared before the justice this morning and could find no friends so when he pleaded not guilty and his case was continued until Thursday, he was committed to the county jail in default of $100 bail.”

Pleading “not guilty” didn’t seem to work out for William, though. He received a fine and a jail sentence for the Disturbing the Peace charge, and the local newspaper article paints a colorful picture of the offence and his behavior both in and out of court, ending with the quote, “He is daft.”

From “The Wichita Daily Eagle”, August 13, 1897

“Daft” is an understatement. He had already been admitted to a home for disabled veterans in Leavenworth, Kansas, back on June 4, 1892, no doubt suffering from the stress of his two wives and the law discovering his bigamy. Following the “Disturbing the Peace” charge, he returned briefly to the veteran’s home, and was quickly transferred to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. on August 19, 1897.

Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane

Nancy Jane Lingo, wife number one, survived admirably. Records following William going off to war and his return from the dead show her as the head of the household on the farm she and William settled at in Van Buren, Arkansas. She passed away at the home of her son, Matthew in Crawford, Arkansas, on March 2, 1909.

Martha Henderson, mistress number one and Nancy Jane’s sister, married William Hargrove Jackson in 1860, and they settled in Virginia, where both Nancy Jane and Martha had been born. They added three more children to their brood. Martha’s happiness was short-lived, and she passed away in 1870.

Elisabeth Ellis, mistress number two and Mary’s cousin, moved to Maize, Kansas, with William and Mary. She lived in their home throughout their marriage, and stayed with Mary after Mary’s divorce from William and until her own death in 1892. Elizabeth is buried near Mary in the Maize Park Cemetery.

Mary Lingo never remarried – Who can blame her?? – and did well for herself on the eighty acres of land William had deeded to her before his bigamy came to light. Later censuses show her still living on the farm in Maize, and working “on her own account”. Mary died on January 14, 1925, on the farm in Maize, and in a twist of irony, her headstone reads, “Mother, Mary, Wife of Wm. B. Lingo” The picture below, taken about 1915, shows Mary with her mother, daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter.

Back row: Margaret Parkingson Wilson (granddaughter), Sarah Lingo Parkingson (daughter). Front row: Mary Henry Lingo, Frances Wilson Tricky (great-granddaughter), Martha Knoble Henry (mother)

William Braddock Lingo passed away on November 2, 1898, at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane from “convulsions arising in the course of an organic disease of the brain with which he had long been afflicted” — a euphemism for “advanced syphilis”. This is certainly not a startling diagnosis for a man who juggled two wives and two mistresses… that we know of!