As those who are familiar with the goings-on at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse know, one of the more intriguing characters to pass through its doors was a veiled lady named Sarah Slater, a courier for the Confederate government who traveled on several occasions with Mary’s son John. Known as the “French lady” because of her excellent command of the language, Sarah frequently made the journey from Richmond to Montreal, where a number of Confederate operatives were stationed and where Sarah could use her linguistic skills to pass herself off as a local.
Although Sarah’s name was brought up frequently during the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial, she was never imprisoned or called as a witness. During the trial, Connecticut newspapers identified the mysterious veiled lady as the former Sarah Antoinette Gilbert, born on January 12, 1843, at Middletown, Connecticut, and married to a North Carolina-born dancing master, Rowan Slater, but no one else followed up on this scoop at the time, and Sarah remained literally veiled in mystery until 1982, when famed assassination researcher James O. Hall painstakingly traced her history from birth until her disappearance from the scene in 1865.
Nearly thirty years passed until two other researchers, John F. Stanton and Dr. Jeanne Christie, added further details to Sarah Slater’s story. Having settled in New York City, Sarah divorced her husband, Rowan Slater, in 1866. Subsequently, she married a Mr. Long, and then a William W. Spencer, both of whom she survived. She died on June 20, 1920, in the unexotic locale of Poughkeepsie, New York, and was buried in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery beside her mother and her sister.
Sarah left a will, dated April 8, 1920. As wills are a favorite topic of this blog, I thought I’d give you some highlights of Sarah’s–and as a further treat, I’m placing a scanned image of the original, held at the Dutchess County, New York, Courthouse, on this site.
Sarah first provided for headstones for her own grave and for those of her sister and her mother. As you can see here, they were duly erected–but note the discrepancy between the year of birth on the tombstone and that mentioned above. Either the person who gave instructions to the stonemason was confused, the stonemason made a mistake, or Sarah, like many ladies of her time, saw no reason to be strictly truthful about her age.
Next, Sarah (who was childless) distributed some of her personal belongings. To her friend Frank H. Sincerbeaux, she left two vases in French gilt, painted by Jerome. Margaret Derr, who served as Sarah’s executor, received a gold lorgnette and chain. Helen Drummond got a pair of diamond earrings, a gold watch set in diamonds, and all of Sarah’s souvenir spoons. Mrs. James Warring Gilbert was willed a tortoise shell comb with a gold back, a gold thimble, and an old ivory fan. Frances C. Kolla, Sarah’s niece, got a gold chain and locket set with diamonds, a bracelet, and a stickpin with pearls. James W. Gilbert and Joseph W. Gilbert, Sarah’s nephews, received all of Sarah’s pictures, including her photograph albums.
Sarah then left a number of cash bequests: $1,000 to Margaret Derr; $150 to Mrs. Jennie Fellows; $150 to nephew James W. Gilbert; $300 to nephew Joseph W. Gilbert; $150 each to nephews Robert Gilbert and Oliver Gilbert; and $200 to niece Frances C. Kolla. Sarah directed that her clothing be divided between Margaret Derr and Frances Kolla.
The rest of Sarah’s real and personal property (the “residue”, as it is known in legalese) went to Frances Kolla, Joseph Gilbert, and James Gilbert.
The years and the deaths of various family members had left Sarah comfortably off. Sarah owned land in Hudson County, New Jersey, and in Lenoir County, North Carolina; she also held a mortgage on 8659 19th Street in Brooklyn. James W. Gilbert’s attorney claimed that Sarah owned land in Florida as well. In the same document, he listed numerous items of jewelry that Sarah owned, including a diamond locket, an ebony pearl pin, a watch fob with the initial “S”, her third husband’s service pin, cameo pins, watch fobs, and cuff buttons, gold lockets, and a garnet brooch. As for Sarah’s souvenir spoons, although it is pleasant to think of her picking up spoons for her collection as she traveled from place to place carrying her clandestine messages, such spoons did not become popular until the 1890’s.
Sarah did not owe significant debts at her death. The biggest expense was $593.30 for Ida Chatterton, who had attended Sarah for a couple of months during her final illness.
The beneficiaries who were not related to Sarah came from differing walks of life. Frank H. Sincerbeaux, who had a wife and children and who was active in the Boy Scouts, was a Yale-educated lawyer with a handsome home in Forest Hills, Queens. Twenty-year-old Helen Drummond lived with her parents in East Orange, New Jersey; by 1930, she was working as a magazine editor. Thirty-one-year-old Mrs. James W. Gilbert was the wife of Sarah’s nephew James. Mrs. Gilbert, whose first name was Chloe, lived in Hazleton, Pennsylvania with her husband, a salesman for a brokerage firm, and their eight-year-old son. Jennie Fellows (nee Hogan) born around 1859, was the widow of John Albert Fellows, and lived in East Orange. Margaret Derr, who was born around 1865 and lived on 47 E. 21st Street in Manhattan with her husband George Derr, ran a large boardinghouse at that address. As Sarah chose her for her executor, she must have been particularly close to her, or had a high regard for her administrative abilities. What brought Sarah in touch with this diverse group of people is anyone’s guess. Equally unknown is what these friends and her relatives knew of her adventurous past.
Sarah never did take to the lecture circuit or publish her memoirs, and her will gives little sense of a connection between her older and her younger selves. Perhaps, though, in two of the friends she chose to remember in her will–an older woman running her own business and a younger woman about to embark upon a career–we can get a glimpse of the daring rebel who carried secrets from Richmond to Canada.
James O. Hall, “The Saga of Sarah Slater.” Reprinted in In Pursuit of: Continuing Research in the Field of the Lincoln Assassination (Surratt Society, 1990).
John F. Stanton, “A Mystery No Longer: The Lady in the Veil.” Surratt Courier, August 2011 and October 2011.
Will and probate file for Sarah A. Spencer, Surrogate’s Court, Dutchess County, NY.
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