A Spendy Scoundrel Hiding in the Branches

Please note that due to new findings, updated information about Richard Dicken is posted here.

Richard Dicken, my 5th great-grandfather has always been a bit of a cipher, not having left much of a paper trail. However, there were bits and pieces here and there which I noted down as I ran across them. Now that I am putting it all together, it looks like another scoundrel is peeking out of the branches.

Richard first appears in his father, Benjamin Dicken’s, will, dated 1790. While the other sons (and even one grandson) inherited land immediately, Richard does not inherit his share until after his mother’s death. This may simply be because he was the youngest son (though I don’t think that is the case), or it may have been thought wiser to leave his mother holding the reins for the foreseeable future.

I give and bequeath to my Son Richard Dicken all my land and plantation whereon I now live, that is after his mother’s death, one Negro boy named Andrew, one horse, Bridle & Saddle, one feather bed and furniture, & one half of the stock upon the plantation to have his Negro, his Stock & Ground to work until his Mother’s death, to him & his heirs forever.

Richard’s mother, Anne Dicken was still alive in 1800, however, in that same year, Richard is found in Edgecombe County with his young family. This is not with his mother or on the land bequeathed to him by his father, which was in Halifax County.

However, in 1810, he is found in Halifax, with a larger household, including 11 enslaved people. This still does not appear to be his inheritance however, as Nathan Harris mentions in his will, made in 1809,

I give my daughter Polly Dicken during her life one hundred acres of land lying on the watery branch where Richard Dicken lives.

Though Nathan was allowing Richard and Polly to live on his land, he makes very clear in his will that his estate is to go to Polly (apparently his only living child) and her children, and that Richard, referred to as “said son in law,” is not to get his hands on it under any circumstances.

My will and desire is that in case of said son in law be alive at a time when it will be necessary to divide my estate that the part apportioned to my daughter Polly if living to be kept in the hands of my Executors or Executor for the support of said daughter during life not being my will that said son in law Richard Dicken should ever have any of my estate get into his possession.

Alas, this strategy did not work. In 1811, Richard somehow got his wife to sign off on selling her inheritance (Mary was her legal name, Polly was a nickname).

Halifax DB 22 p 4
18 Mar 1811

Richard Dicken and his wife Mary Dicken of Edgecombe to Benjamin Dicken of Halifax $2,220 for 444 acres North side of Fishing Creek Includes land that was part of a grant to James Cotten on 4 Jun 1741 and a 90-acre grant to Benjamin Dicken on 9 Oct 1783 Cotten’s old corner, Lewis Dicken’s orphans corner, Drew Smith, Littleberry Abington, Arthur Crocker Wits: William Lowry, Robert Cochran, William Dancy (Darcy?)

This land, which I have identified by landmarks and grants, was composed of Polly’s 100 acres, Benjamin Dicken’s original 1760 plantation that Richard inherited at his mother’s death, and another 90-acre tract that Benjamin was granted in 1783 adjoining his plantation.

As far as I can tell, this was all the land that Richard and Polly owned in the world. The Benjamin Dicken who bought the land is likely Richard’s nephew, son of Lewis Dicken, who also lived nearby in Halifax County. Perhaps he was effectively bailing out Richard and Polly in buying the land, but keeping it in the family.

This is followed a few months later by an odd pair of transactions. First, no doubt using the proceeds from the sale of the land above, Richard bought this tract.

Edgecombe DB 15 pp 34-35
7 Mar 1812

Benjamin Bradley to Richard Dicken 277.25 pounds for 117.25 acres South side of Maple swamp, north side of M (?) Swamp. Bradley’s old field, John Pickering’s line, Denton’s corner, Stephen Bradley’s corner Wits Levi Denton E Coker

Then, two year later, he sells that same tract back to Bradley, along with another parcel of land!

Edgecombe DB 15 p 9
18 Feb 1814

Richard Dicken to Benjamin Bradley 171 pounds 1 shilling and seven penny for two tracts 1.) 184.25 acres south side Maple Swamp James Hammond, Denton’s line, Benjamin Bradley’s other line, Jonathan Bradley, David Coffield 2.) 117.25 acres Benjamin’s old field, Stephen Bradley’s line, Levy Denton’s corner, Stephen Bradley’s corner Wits [illegible] Thos Wiggins

So, Richard paid 277.25 pounds for the one 117.25 acre tract, then two years later sold that tract plus another larger one for 171 pounds. This represents a very large financial loss by the standards of the time.

In November of 1814, Edgecombe court records show that Richard was summoned to pay 78 pounds of debt to the estate of Nathan Harris by Nathan’s administrator, David Coffield. It seems likely that this is Coffield holding Dicken to account for selling off the tract that he was specifically prohibited from selling by the provisions of the will. And that David Coffield was suing to obtain funds to support Polly and her children from the estate, as he had been directed to do by Harris five years previously.

Finally, another court record states that two months later, in January of 1815, Richard Dicken was jailed for failure to pay this debt to Nathan Harris.

(It is unclear when Mary/Polly Harris Dicken died, but her last child was born in 1815, and she was certainly gone by 1819.)

So, to recap: Richard Dicken was not trusted by either his father or his father-in-law—apparently with good reason. He sold off all his land, including his wife’s inheritance in an semi-legal transaction, some how blew through over $2,000 in proceeds within four years of that sale, including some very poor investments in real estate, and finally ended up broke, widowed, and debtors’ prison, where he likely died, as his children are named as orphans by 1819.

It could be that Richard had some kind of mental of physical disability that led to this downfall, however, he was never named as an “idiot” or “lunatic,” in any record that I have found. It seems more likely that he either wasn’t very bright, was a gambler or an alcoholic, or some combination thereof. It’s pretty clear, though, that his relatives considered him a scoundrel.

Richard’s daughter, Martha “Patsey” Dicken married Thomas Bembry around 1817, when she was about 16 years old. Thomas became her legal guardian either then, or shortly thereafter when her parents died. There followed a series of lawsuits between the Bembrys and Dickens over the remains of Nathan Harris’ estate.

The Harris and Dicken families seemed to have washed their hands of the entire matter. Though there were several close (and prosperous) relatives to the Dicken children living nearby, when their guardian David Coffield died in 1823, Elias Bryan (no known relation) was named as their guardian by the courts. In 1827, Kenneth Bembry, Thomas Bembry’s brother, replaced Bryan, apparently simply because he was an in-law and a man of property (an “Esquire”). Which led to a whole ‘nother story.






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