Zygonia Shearer’s guardianship

Today’s post is about a trio of documents that resulted from some archival research that my wife arranged for me as a present right before we became parents 3½ years ago. It’s taken that long for me to get back to this. I was looking for anything I could find on the life and death of my biological patrilineal great-grandfather, Zygonia Ray Shearer. What I got back from the Wayne County, Iowa, archivist was a brief unprovenienced obituary for Ray, and a set of three papers with a post-it note that read “Found among our guardianship papers.”

These papers tell a story of Zygonia’s childhood about six years after his father died suddenly and tragically by falling off of his house and bursting his abdomen open by landing on a stump. Zygonia wasn’t even 2½ years old when his father died, and he would have been about 8–9 years old when the following legal proceedings were recorded in 1903. His younger sister wasn’t even born when her father died; Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer was just three months pregnant with Annetta when Gilbert Matthew Shearer died in 1897.

There are some legal concepts involved in these papers that I don’t pretend to fully understand, so for my readers who happen to be lawyers, please do let me know of any context that I may be missing. For instance, why would two minor children need a Guardian ad Litem if their mother was around to make decisions for them?

In March, 1903, Zygonia Ray Shearer was eight years old. His sister Annetta Fern “Anita” Shearer was five years old. Their mother, Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer Stokes was 27 years old. Mary Belle had been widowed since May 23, 1897, after her husband Gilbert Matthew Shearer fell off of their house, burst his abdomen open, and died (presumably of septic shock) five days later.

Zygonia and Anneta’s mother Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer was married again on April 29, 1900, to Milton Burton (“Bert”) Stokes, a man who just happened to be the first cousin of her deceased husband.

From the following documents, it appears that at some point prior to 1903, the court appointed a Guardian ad Litem to represent the best interests of her two children. Why? Had she fallen on hard times and had to temporarily give up custody of her children? Was a young widow judged too unstable to look after two young children while she grieved? Or did she maintain custody of her children throughout, but remarriage legally triggered the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem? I really don’t know at this point, so if you have any historico-legal insight into the reasons for this, please do share it in the comments below.
It’s interesting that the Guardian ad Litem (Orilla J. Rogers) states “that said children have no permanent home…” According to my late great-aunt Anelia (Shearer) Hays, in a letter she wrote me in 1994 (to be the subject of a future post), the home that Gilbert Matthew Shearer fell from (and that precipitated his death) was his own home that he was building for his family. So his death apparently deprived his young family not only of a father and a breadwinner, but also of a home. Perhaps this is why the Guardian ad Litem was appointed?

But surely after marrying Bert Stokes, they had a home? Apparently not, according to the document above. Perhaps the young couple could afford no home of their own and were staying with family?

Six months later, in October, 1903, a judgment was entered in the matter of purchasing a new home for Zygonia, Annetta, Mary Belle, and Bert Stokes.

Wait…what? C. W. Elson is being appointed Guardian ad Litem? Perhaps “Guardian” in these papers isn’t the same as “Guardian ad Litem?”

Around this same time—October, 1903—the new Guardian ad Litem for Zygonia and Annetta, C. W. Elson, was apparently accused by Guardian (ad Litem?) Orilla J. Rogers of multiple unspecified allegations, and he/she denied all of them. Was C.W. Elson, the Guardian ad Litem for the children, being accused of not acting sufficiently in the interests of Zygonia and Annetta, by Guardian (but not Guardian ad Litem) Orilla J. Rogers? Or was this just the usual and customary, formal, legal language used in such cases?

So Orilla J. Rogers is the Guardian of Zygonia and Annetta in March, 1903. He or she petitions the court to use the $200 that he/she is holding in trust for the children to purchase a parcel of land and a house for the children, to give them their own home. The court subsequently decides in favor of this action, and appoints C. W. Elson as the Guardian ad Litem. Then Orilla accuses C. W. Elson of some unspecified things, and C. W. Elson denies each and every allegation?

I’m hoping this behavior makes sense to someone out there who can help me by putting this in context.

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