Carolyn P. Brown: The Tragic Story Behind a Familiar Name

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

SC2For the time being, you can still see where the portraits of John Scruggs Brown and his wife, Carolyn P. Brown, were; they left dark rectangular patches on the paneling in the lobby of the 1954 University Center, which is about to be demolished. The paintings are now in storage, across the street at Hoskins Library. But the big plaque is still there, in the foyer: “THE UNIVERSITY CENTER FOR STUDENTS AND FACULTY IS THE GIFT OF JOHN SCRUGGS BROWN AS AN ENDURING MEMORIAL TO HIS BELOVED WIFE, CAROLYN P. BROWN.”

If the wording is poignant, considering the short shelf life of a memorial, it’s also misleading. Mr. Brown died in 1934, and never heard of any university-center project. And although he was a proud alumnus, he would have been surprised that so much of his fortune went to the university. The bequest that endowed the UC was the denouement of a grim and harrowing tale of family estrangement, premature death, and legal action, a Bronte novel rewritten by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Although hers has been one of the most familiar names at UT in the postwar era, Carolyn P. Brown was not a UT alum. When she was college age, in fact, UT did not accept female students. Some details about her youth are elusive. Sources disagree about her birth date, but she was born around 1866, in Hot Springs, N.C., where her dad ran a resort hotel.

She was briefly part of a presidential family: the niece-in-law, perhaps, of an ex-president. Her older sister Bessie married Andrew Johnson Jr., the troubled newspaperman who died at 26.

Like her sister, Carolyn Powell Rumbough married a political son: George Marshall, whose father was the former governor of Minnesota. She bore a child, Alice. Either while she was pregnant, as one story has it, or when Alice was a baby, her husband shot himself to death. Carolyn and Alice lived with the Marshall family, who had moved to Pasadena, but as soon as Alice was old enough for school, they moved back to North Carolina. One story has single mother and daughter moving to Knoxville, staying in a rental apartment downtown.

Somewhere along the way, Carolyn P. Marshall met one of Knoxville’s most eligible bachelors, 40ish John Scruggs Brown, a graduate of what was then East Tennessee University, one of only 15 men in the Class of 1877—and a successful hardware merchant who ran his dad’s store on Gay Street.

They married in 1900. When daughter Alice was about 14, they moved into Bleak House, the antebellum brick home on Kingston Pike. It was a war-scarred, recently neglected wreck of a house, the siege headquarters of Gen. Longstreet, showing a variety of cavities left by bullets and cannonballs, and alleged bloodstains in the tower. The war had nothing to do with its tragic-sounding name, which was apparently builder Robert Armstrong’s droll joke. The Dickens novel of that title was about a court case that lasted for generations and consumed a fortune.

Preferring a fresh start, the Browns called it “Casa Modena,” reflecting the house’s Italianate style. During their time there, Casa Modena was a Knoxville showplace. Carolyn’s terraced gardens cascaded down toward the river, adorned with fountains and lily ponds and birdbaths. She became known for her skill and imagination.

Casa Modena would seem hard to leave, but restless Alice didn’t stay there long. Sometimes described as a “famous beauty,” she married Col. Chester P. Mills, who along with his father, helped lead the occupation forces in the Philippines during the era of U.S. occupation of that island nation after the Spanish-American War. Their daughter, Marshall, was born in Manila in 1915.

Motherhood didn’t suit Alice. She returned to Knoxville with her baby, introduced Marshall to her grandparents, and went back to Manila alone. John Brown never had a child of his own, but suddenly found himself pushing 60, with a baby in the house.

Meanwhile, Brown had made a very lucky friendship with a brilliant young inventor named Weston Fulton, whose “sylphon,” a flexible metal bellows, had proven useful in a wide variety of automatic devices, from air conditioners to depth charges. Fulton needed money to build a factory; Brown had money to invest. Fulton built his factory on Third Creek and was soon churning out sylphons and gauges for a global market. As the story has it, it took only about a dozen years for Brown’s $15,000 investment to turn into well over $2 million. Adjust that for inflation however you like.

Though he remained low-profile—even in the 1920s, many Knoxvillians had never heard of John S. Brown—he was one of Knoxville’s wealthiest men. Keeping Casa Modena, the Browns acquired a 200-acre estate at Flat Rock, N.C., and called it Chateau Beaumont.

In 1922, Alice divorced Col. Mills, and married sewing-machine heir Nathaniel Wheeler, of Connecticut, where she went to live and bore a second child, who died as an infant. After two years, she’d had enough of Wheeler, and married a Louisville man named Phil McGovern. She was able to abide him for about four years. By then it was obvious that she was alcoholic.

Alice’s Knoxville parents raised her Manila-born daughter, Marshall, at Casa Modena. Marshall Mills became known as a beauty, and a golfer, winning a city championship. High-spirited and often described as “colorful,” she loved fast sports cars and even learned to fly. She enjoyed her social debut at her grandparents’ house.

Unlike her grandmother, Marshall could have attended UT, but attended private women’s colleges, Mississippi’s Gulf Park and Martha Washington College in Abingdon.

John Scruggs Brown died in 1934, at age 77. UT got wind of the fact that the university was a conditional beneficiary. But Brown’s fortune, administered through a trust based in New York, was aimed at his family, including Brown’s widow, stepdaughter, and granddaughter. All three appeared to be healthy, and the vigorous granddaughter was of childbearing age. Beyond those beneficiaries, there was a proposal, in his will, to use the bulk of his fortune to establish a new school for girls, preferably in Knox County, to be named for his wife.

After all that, if Brown and his wife had no living descendants, and if trustees decided a Carolyn P. Brown School for Girls couldn’t be founded, UT was a prospective beneficiary. UT officials looked at the document and decided the prospects of getting anything from it were so remote, they didn’t think it was worth the cost of a New York lawyer to pursue it.

By 1938, errant Alice was on her fourth husband, a North Carolina man named Jack Atkinson. Like a lot of real-estate men, he could pass for pleasant, and had held a public-works position in the city of Asheville. Somehow this family newcomer obtained power of attorney over the Brown estate.

In her 70s, Carolyn discovered that her own daughter and new son-in-law had boxed her out of Chateau Beaumont, and seemed on their way to wresting her fortune away from her. When Carolyn confronted her daughter about it, Alice reportedly pushed her mother down the stairs.

In April, 1940, Carolyn P. Brown filed a lawsuit against her daughter, over Brown’s fortune, alleging Alice and her second husband were conspiring against Carolyn, wresting her inheritance from her by “coercion,” while engaging in “lavish and riotous living.” She charged Jack Atkinson had repeatedly interfered with official audits of their accounts. Carolyn alleged that she feared bodily harm.

The Sunday night before the case was to commence, Alice, who had seemed healthy earlier that weekend, suddenly died, at Chateau Beaumont, at age 50.

Her husband claimed he had had an autopsy conducted and it was a case of “anemia.” Her body was promptly cremated. The practice was still unusual in those days; he had to send Alice’s body to a crematorium in Cincinnati. Tom DeWitt, the Knoxville lawyer who had helped the elder Browns over the years, found the circumstances suspicious, but it’s not clear that anyone challenged Atkinson’s account.

By then, the elderly Carolyn P. Brown had sold Casa Modena and moved to Tryon, N.C., near Flat Rock. Jack Atkinson wasn’t ready to leave that family without a piece of their fortune. He got a settlement equivalent to several years’ worth of real-estate income.

With Atkinson out of the way, Carolyn P. Brown was assured that her late husband’s somewhat diminished fortune would flow toward her own welfare and toward her granddaughter, Marshall.

Not long after Alice died, Marshall had married. Like her mother—the first time—she married an Army officer who would be stationed in Asia. Maj. Randall W. Barton spent most of their six-year marriage overseas during World War II, finally with the occupation forces of Japan.

The Bartons’ longest time together was their honeymoon, a round-the-world cruise. Afterwards, Marshall herself remained in Knoxville, living alone on Towanda Trail in Sequoyah Hills.

As she turned 32, in early 1947, Marshall took ill, and checked into St. Mary’s Hospital. When she improved, she went back home. When she felt bad again, she went to Kingston Pike Hospital, the old brick house known as Oakwood at the corner of Concord Street. There she died. Her husband flew home to see her, but she was already unconscious. The newspapers didn’t name her illness.

Carolyn was too ill to attend her granddaughter’s funeral. She was suddenly, in her 80s, alone in the world. Both the men she had married had died, as had her only child and both grandchildren. Her older sister Bessie, who had married a successful Paris banker, grew estranged from her own daughter, apparently over money. Bessie had died in 1930, an apparent suicide.

Carolyn P. Brown, who had been born before the telephone and electric light, who had once been part of the extended family of Andrew Johnson, lived into the nuclear age. She had no close relatives when she died on July 4, 1949.

She was buried under a stone cross at Highland Memorial in Bearden, alongside her husband and granddaughter, Marshall. Alice’s resting place, if one exists, is unknown.

Carolyn P. Brown had never been personally associated with UT. Neither she nor her daughter nor granddaughter attended. Her expectation was that her husband’s fortune would go to establish a new girls’ school in Knoxville.

UT President C.E. Brehm argued persuasively that it should go to the university. Tennessee had plenty of girls’ schools, he said, and didn’t need another. Moreover, Brown’s original intent was to leave the money to mature to $25 million before endowing the Carolyn P. Brown School for Girls. Brehm did some calculating, and figured that wouldn’t happen until 2048.

He convinced the New York trustees. Some Knoxville trustees insisted that the girls’ school idea had merit. Chattanooga had a private girls’ school; Knoxville didn’t. But starting a new school is hard.

Within a few months after Mrs. Brown’s death, the pro-UT trustees prevailed; less than a year after Carolyn’s death, it was announced that the money would go toward a new UT student center. Brown’s fortune had eroded a bit, in allowances and settlements and a wide range of legal and accounting and bank fees, and was now just under $1.5 million. They built what was then UT’s biggest building with almost exactly the amount of money available from the Brown estate.

Attorney DeWitt, one of the few people Carolyn P. Brown had reason to trust—he did everything, for years, pro bono—wrote some about his most perplexing case. Going back to his first discussions with John S. Brown in the 1920s, DeWitt remarked, “If I had known what I know at this time, I would have told Mr. Brown to throw his entire fortune into the Tennessee River.”

The original source of John Brown’s wealth was that he had capitalized the production of Weston Fulton’s invention. By a crazy coincidence, Brown’s legacy will be torn down along with Fulton’s only remaining residence, the once-stylish old house on Temple Street, later known as Volunteer Boulevard, that he gave to UT in the late 1920s as a memorial to his son, a UT student killed in a Kingston Pike car wreck. Fulton’s home, where the inventor lived with his family before they moved into the more-famously extravagant mansion on Lyons View, has been used as a construction headquarters for the new student-union project. But it will be torn down along with the student center his close friend John Brown never knew he endowed.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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