It must have been terrifying for her at 63, facing the loss of everything she had including her name. These were the stakes when Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw returned to Santa Rosa in the first days of 1910 to answer a lawsuit filed by her late husband’s wife.

For about 25 years centered on the turn of the century, Anna Finlaw represented culture and betterment in a town without much of either. Admired speakers came to Santa Rosa because of her, as did classical music performers. She was the force behind the musical Etude Club and the Saturday Afternoon Club where women presented original talks on literature and world events. Soirees at her home were the social event of the year, and the gourmet grub served at her dining table was legend. Her husband, Dr. William Finlaw, was a respected physician and Civil War veteran who raised and sold race horses as a hobby. Aside for the death of their only child in a shooting accident, theirs was a life on even keel.

(RIGHT: Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw at the August, 1908 groundbreaking for the Saturday Afternoon Club, two months before she applied for a widow’s pension)

Dr. Finlaw died in 1905 without a will, and Anna inherited everything as his widow and sole heir. With an estate worth around $50,000 – the equivalent of some $2.5 million today – she was left without want. Anna was free to tour the great cities of Europe soaking up the arts, always stopping en route to the East Coast at her sister’s home in Kansas. It was from there in 1908 she applied to the government for the pension due the widow of a Civil War veteran. Anna continued on to her vacation in Italy, unaware she had triggered events she would soon enormously regret.

Why did she wait almost three years after his death to file for a pension – and why did she apply at all, considering the payout was a measly twelve bucks a month? No explanation is certain, but it’s significant that the application specified she was filing under the “Act of April 19, 1908.” This change in the law raised the entitlement from $8/mo to $12/mo, but importantly in Finlaw’s case, removed any examination of “pecuniary circumstances” to qualify – in other words, she did not have to prove she was destitute. She probably also believed this was her last chance to bite at the apple, as the law passed with some controversy.*

The Bureau of Pensions was swamped with applications because of the new law and it was a few months before they began processing Anna’s paperwork. But when a clerk opened the file jacket for Finlaw, William C., he found a curious thing: There was already a widow’s application in it. In 1903 another woman had applied for his pension, claiming he had deserted her at the close of the Civil War, never to be heard from again. The Bureau denied her claim as there was no proof William was deceased. Now they had evidence that he was, in fact, dead – but there was also now the problem of the two Mrs. Finlaws.

A federal investigation was opened, as the matter dealt with a military pension. The bare facts were these: William married Jane in 1862 and they had a son. There was no known divorce. He married Anna in 1865.

Before continuing, I must point out that much of the following history lay hidden until Heidi and Neil Blazey of Santa Rosa requisitioned a small paper mountain of Finlaw records from the National Archives. What appears here is a condensed version of a very rich story the Blazeys want to write about the Finlaws.

Informed of the investigation Anna did not rush home from Europe (she spent the entire year of 1909 away), leaving the matter in the hands of her attorney, James Wyatt Oates. In the meantime, an investigator from the Special Examination Division of the Pension Bureau gathered evidence and testimony from Jane Finlaw in Cincinnati. The investigator inappropriately let slip where William had lived. “Jane then sent an attorney to Santa Rosa to discover if the doctor had left any property,” another Special Examiner summed up events in a letter to the Commissioner. “And he, finding such a large estate and no will, began suit to oust Anna.”

The Santa Rosa newspapers had kept the bigamy allegations hushed up, but they couldn’t stay quiet after Jane’s lawsuit made the front pages in San Francisco. Aside from the scandal angle, it didn’t hurt that Jane’s granddaughter was a pretty showgirl. “A San Francisco paper of Friday morning devotes considerable space to the affair, and accompanying the story is the picture of an actress, Miss Marie Baxter,” the Press Democrat commented in a lengthy article on the case. “Miss Baxter is shown in several graceful poses, which indicates that, professionally or otherwise, she is not averse to furnishing the newspapers with as many photographs of herself as they can conveniently use.”

Jane demanded everything down to the polish on Anna’s shoes. She wanted all the California property, $6,000 from Anna for back rent and another $6,000 in damages for unlawful occupancy. Jane even sued people who had business dealings with Anna.

With Jane’s attorney hoping that Anna would gift them with damaging testimony to Pension Bureau investigators, it’s no surprise that Anna said as little as possible in her deposition. No, she didn’t know what year her husband was born, his middle name or names of any members of his family. No, she didn’t recognize him in an old photo. No, she didn’t recognize his handwriting in letters to Jane. And, of course, she had no idea her late husband had another wife. And child.

If not for the absence of divorce papers, Jane had a shaky case. She could not explain why she waited almost forty years to file for the pension. Although she claimed their son was born a year after their marriage and just before Dr. Finlaw “left for the front,” he was actually born out of wedlock, two years earlier. The very few letters from her husband shown to investigators suggested Jane had abandoned him, not the reverse.

Anna stewed as attorneys dickered over her fate. She was upset with herself for filing a widow’s pension claim and starting the gears in motion, and angry at investigators for “stirring up this muss” by revealing too much to Jane. Several months later, a deal was struck: Anna would keep the California property and pay Jane $3,000 in lawyer’s fees. Jane was awarded the pension.

Then in March, 1911 came the cruel last blow: A letter to Anna from the Commissioner of Pensions informing her “you were never his lawful wife and have no status as his widow.” The reaction of Mrs. William Finlaw was not recorded. That is, the former Mrs. William Finlaw.

*Politicians at that time were wont to treat veterans generously, and in 1907 had increased veteran’s pensions while relaxing military service requirements to qualify. But when the issue of pensions for widows arose early the following year, the nation was reeling from the Panic of 1907 and the near collapse of the banking system. The country was running the first federal deficit in a decade and the widow benefits were projected to increase the pension budget by about $12 million a year, even while the government was closing regional pension offices to scrimp. Besides treasury concerns over a sizable new entitlement, there was political opposition to the widow’s bill; it was sponsored by House Speaker Joseph Cannon, who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Complaints were also made in newspaper editorials that widows now only had to be married prior to the summer of 1890, which led to innuendo that youthful fortune hunters would be rushing to marry old men for pension booty.

Eastern Woman Asks Court to Dispossess Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw of all Property Left by Late Dr. Wm. Finlaw of this City

A very sensational suit involving the property rights of Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw, widow of the late Dr. William Finlaw of this city, was begun Friday in the United States Circuit court of San Francisco. The complainant, who signs herself Jane Bradley Finlaw, alleges that she became the wife of Dr. Finlaw in 1862, and that the marriage has never been abrogated or annulled.

According to the allegations as contained in the complaint, the marriage occurred while Dr. Finlaw was still in college and but twenty-three years of age, and shortly afterwards he enlisted in the army as a surgeon, since which time, except for a brief period immediately after his departure, she has been unable to locate him. The complaint fails to state just what efforts were made in that direction, or why the location of a man of Dr. Finlaw’s reputation and prominence as a physician and in the army should have been such a difficult matter.

A further allegation of the complaint is that as a result of the union of “William C. Finlaw” and Jane Bradley, one son, William H. Finlaw, was born at Dover, Delaware. The exact date of this child’s birth is not stated, other than to allege that the event occurred after Dr. Finlaw “left for the front.” Dr. Finlaw answered the call for volunteers early in 1863, enlisting in the Fifth United States Volunteer Infantry as a major surgeon. He served with much credit throughout the war, finally becoming assistant surgeon in the Second Missouri Light Artillery and later finding still further advancement. Being captured in battle, he was confined for nine months in a Confederate prison. He often spoke here of the kindly manner in which he was treated during this period.

A San Francisco paper of Friday morning devotes considerable space to the affair, and accompanying the story is the picture of an actress, Miss Marie Baxter. She says her real name is Mary B. Finlaw, and that she is a grand-daughter of Jane Bradley Finlaw and the late Dr. William Finlaw of this city. Miss Baxter is shown in several graceful poses, which indicates that, professionally or otherwise, she is not averse to furnishing the newspapers with as many photographs of herself as they can conveniently use.

The complaint goes on to say that Jane Bradley Finlaw only learned by accident of the death of “Dr. William C. Finlaw.” She says that after waiting forty-four years and hearing nothing of him, she came to the conclusion that he must be dead and thereupon filed a claim for a widow’s pension. Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw of this city also failed a pension claim about the same time, and according to the allegations of the complaint it was through the filing of the latter document that the complainant first learned of the existence of Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw of this city.

The suit brought is one praying that Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw be ejected from the possession of any and all property now in her possession and which came to her through the late Dr. William Finlaw. A further demand is made for $6,000 damages for unlawful occupancy of the property and $6,000 back rents. As is well known, Dr. Finlaw left a considerable estate. Estimates vary as to its value, but it is believed that somewhere betwee forty and fifty thousand dollars would cover the amount. The San Francisco paper above referred to placed the figure at sixty thousand dollars, but this is too high. The estate was officially appraised at $43,000.

The late Dr. William Finlaw was one of Santa Rosa’s best-known pioneer physicians. Together with his wife, Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw, and their son, Wainright Finlaw, they settled in Santa Rosa in 1876, or thirty-three years ago. A few years after coming to this city, Wainright Finlaw was accidentally killed by a companion about his own age while playing with a loaded revolver. Both Dr. and Mrs. Finlaw took their son’s death much to heart, as he was their only child. Dr. Finlaw was a quiet man, and industrious, and he soon built up a lucrative practice. No man in Santa Rosa stood higher in the estimation of his fellows, and in every way he merited the esteem accorded him. His hobby was fine horses, and for a number of years he maintained the Rosedale Stock Farm near this city. A half-mile track for training purposes was a feature of this farm, and every day Dr. Finlaw drove out to see his trotters work. He sold and shipped horses to many parts of the world, Australia being an especially good filed for the output of his farm.

Dr. Finlaw died without leaving a will, and his estate reverted to his wife as community property. In recognition of his military record he was buried at the Presidio. Since the settlement of the estate Mrs. Finlaw has spent most of her time in Europe, and she is there now, sojourning in southern Italy.

Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw is one of Santa Rosa’s most prominent women socially. She organized and was the first president of the Saturday Afternoon Club, and she also organized the Etude Club, a musical organization which, after the formation of the Saturday Afternoon Club, affiliated with and became part of the latter organization. She has always been especially prominent in musical and literary circles, and it was largely through her efforts that many of the club’s soloists and lecturers were brought here.

Dr. William Finlaw and Anna Love Snyder were married at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1865. For a number of years they lived there and at Junction City, Kansas, which was also the home of her sister and brother-in-law, Captain and Mrs. Bertram Rockwell. Lieutenant-General Adna R. Chaffee is also a brother-in-law of Mrs. Finlaw, so through their army connection as well as otherwise she and the late Dr. Finlaw were both well-known and prominent people.

In the complaint filed Friday in San Francisco, Councilman Aubrey Barham of this city is also made a defendant with Mrs. Finlaw in the case, he having purchased part of the property left to Mrs. Finlaw by her late husband. Several well-known attorneys when seen yesterday expressed the opinion that nothing would come of this, Mr. Barham being an innocent purchaser. The opinion was also expressed that, the estate having been long ago duly settled by the courts, the woman now claiming to be Mrs. Jane Bradley Finlaw would never be able to bring her suit to a successful conclusion. Dr. Finlaw died on November 17, 1905, and his estate was finally settled something like three years ago.

– Press Democrat, October 3, 1909
Mrs. Finlaw Returns

Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw returned to this city yesterday afternoon, and is a guest at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards. This is her first visit here in thirteen months, and her many friends will be delighted to see her again. Some time since Mrs. Finlaw returned to Kansas City after spending a number of months in Europe, principally in Spain. She was accompanied to Santa Rosa from Kansas City by her brother-in-law, Captain B. Rockwell, who is Mrs. Edwards’ father.

– Press Democrat, January 12, 1910


San Francisco, June 6–It was announced here today that the suit brought some time ago by Mrs. Jane Baxter Finlaw against the estate of the late Dr. William Finlaw of Santa Rosa had been settled out of court. It is understood that the contestant gets little more than enough to settle with her attorneys, having been unable to substantiate claims.

– Press Democrat, June 7, 1910

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