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Hidden History: The Battle Over Mary Telfair's Will and Women's "Madness"

The 19th century was a time in America when women were literally getting away with murder at times in criminal court, appealing to gender stereotypes of the “madwoman,” when in civil courts, wealthier women were fighting to be found mentally competent. Among these was Savannah native Mary Telfair. Dr. Felicity Turner, professor of History at Armstrong State University, says Mary’s distant male relatives and would-be heirs contested her will, claiming that Mary was mad.

“This is a point in time when women are making claims for the vote, not just in Georgia but around the nation, so any threats to their mental competency are seen as problematic,” explained Turner. “The will contest goes back and forth for eight years and it goes all the way to the United States Supreme Court.”

“Those of us who live in Savannah are very grateful to Mary Telfair because most of her money ends up funding institutions in the city: the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, which forms the Telfair Museum today. Also, she established a hospital for women. So those were the two main charitable bequests,” “She also left some money to the Independent Presbyterian Church and some other charities in Savannah. And (she) left some money for some female relatives for their education. Then finally, finally, finally she leaves a little bit for these distant male relatives, so they’re the ones that challenge the will.”

Dr. Turner will speak more about “The Madness of Mary Telfair” at a free community lecture this Friday, March 25, at the Ogeechee Theatre in the Student Union at Armstrong State University. Click here for more information. Follow the audio link below to hear more of our conversation.