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Billy Meredith--An Eccentric Millionaire

The lengthy obituary of William R. “Billy” Meredith (1843-1926) was printed on the front page of The Washington Herald newspaper. It described the late 83-year-old, prominent Washington businessman as “probably the richest man . . . in Daviess County.” The obituary noted that Mr. Meredith never married, had no children, and did not belong to any church.  It reported he “was never known to drink, gamble or dissipate in any form” and was respected for his “frugality.”  Although Mr. Meredith was involved in several business ventures during his long life, there was no mention of any business partner. The obituary said Billy “made friends slowly.”


Billy Meredith was the only child of William S. Meredith (1818-1895) and Carolyn (Springer) Meredith (1816-1854). The only time he lived outside of Daviess County was during the Civil War. At age 18 Billy enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and served with the 65th Indiana Infantry Regiment and later with the 120th Indiana Infantry Regiment. He fought at the Battle of Franklin outside Nashville, Tennessee in 1864, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

 

After the war Billy came back to his hometown and started his business career by buying and trading horses, mules, and carriages. He branched out into real estate and bought and sold lots in Washington and farm ground in Daviess County. He was conservative and an astute investor. At one time Billy Meredith was reportedly the largest single landowner in the county.


When his father died in 1895, Billy inherited the Meredith House in Washington, a stately three-story brick hotel at the corner of East 2nd and Main Street. He lived in the hotel the last several years of his life. Billy’s “quiet and simple” funeral was conducted in the hotel’s lobby.

      Meredith Hotel (ca. 1910) where Billy Meredith lived and where his funeral was held.       

Among his eccentricities, Billy Meredith refused to have his photograph taken.  The only known photo of him (printed below) was taken late in his life as he was entering the Daviess County Courthouse. It is clear from Billy’s expression the snapshot was taken without his consent.

William R. “Billy” Meredith (ca. 1925)

Mr. Meredith’s estate was valued at $1.25 million—the equivalent of $22 million in 2024—consisting of the Meredith Hotel, real estate holdings throughout Daviess County and federal, state, and local government bonds. His 1912 will—drafted by a Vincennes attorney—was probated in the Daviess Circuit Court. The document was described in one newspaper as being “remarkable for its brevity” considering the size of Billy’s estate.

Mr. Meredith left $1,000 to Bridget Coyle, a long-time employee at the Meredith Hotel. The rest of his estate he bequeathed to “my first cousins and my second cousins living at the time of my death” with the first cousins to receive “twice the amount” as the second cousins.


The problem was that Mr. Meredith failed to specifically name his cousins in the will. This oversight caused a flood of litigation. Claims were filed in the estate by scores of people from all over the country asserting they were Billy’s first or second cousin. Multiple lawsuits and countersuits were filed, 126 attorneys became involved, depositions were taken in Indiana, Texas, Missouri and Kansas, and several court trials were held trying to sort out who was entitled to a piece of the estate. 


A 1933 Indiana Court of Appeals decision finally resolved the seven-year legal dispute. Fifteen first cousins and 136 second cousins were determined to be eligible heirs. The claims of 21 people were denied. Following the sale of the last of the estate’s assets, the final distribution was made in 1937. After payment of the Indiana inheritance taxes, court costs, and executor and attorney fees, the 15 first cousins each received $13,446 ($290,000 in current value) and the 136 second cousins each collected $6,723 ($145,000 in current value).


This article was compiled by Bruce Smith, a member of the Daviess County Historian Team.

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Ospite
16 mag

Very interesting!

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