After Lee’s death an intense legal battle ensued among the elite of the South Carolina Bar to settle the estate. To contest the will, the heirs at law employed James R. Ervin, Abram Blanding, and William Harper, three of the state’s most prominent lawyers.
One of South Carolina’s most famous legal disputes derived from a celebrated eccentric, Mason Lee (ca. 1775–ca. 1823), and the legal proceedings surrounding the probate of his will. Lee lived in Marlboro District and devised his property to the states of Tennessee and South Carolina in order to defeat inheritance by any of his relations. He directed that proceeds from his large estate be disposed of so that no part of it would be inherited by any of his relations “while wood grows or water runs.” Lee authorized his executors to defend his will with the best legal defense that money could buy “again, again, and again.”
Originally from North Carolina, Lee, at age thirty, was allegedly struck by lightning that may have first caused his idiosyncrasies. He then moved to Georgia, where he was charged with murder, and he afterward located as a fugitive to Marlboro District, South Carolina. While in Marlboro, Lee accumulated great wealth, but his eccentricities became more pronounced. He slept in a hollow gum log and wore no buttons on his clothes. He believed that all women were witches and that his relatives were in his teeth and used supernatural powers to bewitch. He cut off the quarters of his shoes and drilled holes in his hat to drive the devil from his feet and head.
After Lee’s death an intense legal battle ensued among the elite of the South Carolina Bar to settle the estate. To contest the will, the heirs at law employed James R. Ervin, Abram Blanding, and William Harper, three of the state’s most prominent lawyers. Lee’s executor, Robertson Carloss, engaged Josiah J. Evans and William Campbell Preston, both future U.S. senators, to argue for the will. The state court of appeals affirmed, holding that eccentricity, however great, is not the same as insanity and thus is insufficient to invalidate a will.
Subsequently, the state of Tennessee sold all its interest in the Lee estate to the estate of Robert B. Campbell, a member of Congress from South Carolina. The state of South Carolina through legislation gave its share to Lee’s heirs at law. By this time, however, there was little left in the estate since the proceeds had been dissipated by legal fees and the second executor’s excesses. The hollow log in which Lee slept is in the Marlborough Historical Society Museum in Bennettsville.
Heirs at Law of Mason Lee v. Ex. of Mason Lee, 15 S.C.L. (4 McCord) 183 (1830).
McColl, D. D. Sketches of Old Marlboro. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1916.
Thomas, J. A. W. A History of Marlboro County, with Traditions and Sketches of Numerous Families. 1897. Reprint, Baltimore: Regional Publishing, 1971.