History of Kurtz: The Prather-England scandal of 1899


On June 19, 1898, 20-year-old William Prather married 16-year-old Lillie England, who was likely already two months pregnant.

Both Kurtz residents were children of prominent Owen Township families. Less than a year later, the families would endure a very messy and complicated divorce that became a public scandal and drove citizens to the courthouse just to view the spectacle.

Almost immediately after the wedding, the relationship turned sour. In early September, Will opened a saloon in Kurtz and soon brought Frank Lane on as a partner. According to court records, on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 1898, just three months after the marriage, Will told Lillie “in the presence of others that he made a mistake in marrying her, that he did not love her and could never be happy with her.”

Lillie claimed that six days later, Will left her sick in bed in order to take a “certain young lady” to the Seymour Street Fair. He boasted that he planned to marry the young lady as soon as he could arrange a divorce. Upon returning home late that night, Will taunted his teenage wife that he had enjoyed a “good time” with “his girl.” According to Lillie, Will threatened to “kill himself to get out” of the marriage. “He told me that if I didn’t destroy the child, he would…”

On one occasion, Lillie locked herself in a room during an argument, and Will allegedly pulled “his revolver on me,” she said, “but I unlocked the door and left the room.” Will threatened to kill her if she told anyone. On another occasion, “he tried… to get me to kill myself,” Lillie stated. “Said if I would, he would kill himself” immediately after.

Lillie also complained about mistreatment at the hands of Will’s parents, Alexander and Julia Ann Prather. “His mother told me repeatedly that I would be the cause of his death… She said she had seen him take medicine several times to kill himself, and if I stayed, he would kill himself someday sure…,” Lillie reported.

According to court records, on Dec. 10, Will allegedly cursed and abused Lillie “and drew his revolver on her,” threatening to kill her. On Dec. 31, Will deserted her while confined to her sickbed for 15 days straight, knowing she was due to give birth any day. And when she asked what would become of her and the infant, he replied, “I don’t give a damn what becomes of you. I don’t care if you starve to death. You will never see me anymore.” Lillie said, “The morning he left, he told me to sue for divorce and he (would) pay for half of it…”

On Jan. 16, 1899, Lillie gave birth to a baby girl, Lena Prather. But the marriage was not salvageable. Will’s drinking had become an open problem. He faced charges for public intoxication in February.

On Feb. 8, Lillie filed a lawsuit against Will’s parents for seduction and sought damages in the amount of $2,500. Seduction was a sex crime typically charging a man with the coercion of a woman — usually an underage woman or child — into intercourse through the promise of marriage, money or other enticement and often resulting in his abandonment of the woman when pregnant.

Lillie alleged that Will’s parents were complicit in their son’s coercion and abandonment. Almost simultaneously, Lillie sued Will for fraudulent marriage. But Will’s troubles were only beginning.

In April, Will traveled to Bloomington to attend a funeral of his cousin, Albert Brown, who was killed in a traffic accident. By May, the divorce had become a public spectacle. The teenage daughter of a Civil War veteran was accusing her saloon-keeper husband of physical and verbal abuse, death threats with a revolver, coercion to force her to commit suicide while pregnant, philandering with other women and abandonment while sick in bed two weeks before delivering their child.

The additional allegations of the parents’ complicity in a sex crime drove spectators to the courthouse to witness the show. The Kurtz columnist for The Banner wrote, “Quite a number of people were at Brownstown the first week on the Prather and England case.”

To make matters worse for both families, Will and Lillie’s newborn daughter died the same week. Perhaps as a window into the community’s mindset, the Kurtz columnist for The Banner was silent on Will’s paternity. “Lena, the little daughter of Lillian Prather, departed from this life last Wednesday night at 11 o’clock.”

The court dismissed both of Lillie’s cases for seduction against the parents and fraudulent marriage against Will. Then on Aug. 24, 1899, Lillie sued Will for divorce on grounds of “cruel and inhuman treatment” and demanded alimony of $500, the complete value of his saloon.

Will Prather’s partner, Frank Lane, may have sympathized with Lillie. The teen’s written statement to her attorney read, “My last witness… is Frank Lane. Will tried to hire him to insult me and… said if he would, it would clear him in this case… He (Frank) knows more than anyone about the way Prather has talked about and treated me…”

The divorce was granted in December 1899. Lillie returned home to live with her parents and eventually remarried. But Will’s saloon-keeper days were over. He went to Linton for work for a while but eventually returned to Kurtz to become the town’s barber. Records indicate he never officially married, but over time, Zora Fleetwood became his common law wife.

Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. You can visit the Living with Cancer weekly blog at marvingray.org and write him at [email protected].

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