Irish Historical Mysteries: The Sheehan Intestacy Case


Exhumation of the body of Ellen Sheehan at Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, January 2004


The city of Savannah, Georgia, is notable for the beauty of its architecture, a certain air of mystery and some colourful, not to say eccentric citizens. One of best known of Savannah's characters was Jim Williams, a buildings preservationist and art dealer who was tried but acquitted three times for the murder of his lover Danny Hansford, only to die suddenly himself in 1980. Williams is the anti-hero of John Berendt's haunting factional novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, turned into an enthralling movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Strange things happen in Savannah, and as we shall now see, few can be stranger than the Sheehan intestacy case, which involves a family of Irish origin, an unclaimed fortune left by its last surviving member and a dogged campaign by an Irish claimant.
        When Mary (Ellen) Sheehan died in Savannah on 16 November 1983 she was to all appearances a poverty stricken recluse, her food reportedly sometimes suspended by string from the ceiling of her home in York Street in order to keep it away from the bugs. (1) Mary was the last of four unmarried children of Savannah policeman William Sheehan and his wife Ellen Regan, and after her death it became clear that she was in fact possessed of significant wealth. William Sheehan had been born in County Cork, emigrated to the United States and secured employment with the Savannah police force. The city administration and its patronage were controlled by a political machine headed by 'bosses', the best known of whom was John Bouhan (1881-1971), also of Irish extraction. Policemen in Savannah were not well paid, often needing second jobs and reportedly sometimes succumbing to temptations of bribery. (2) William Sheehan of course may simply have been thrifty and a wise investor, but by the time of his death in 1922 he had amassed considerable wealth in the form of properties in Savannah. William's wife Ellen Regan was also an Irish immigrant from County Cork, and lived on in Savannah until her death in 1941. Following the deaths of Mary Sheehan's surviving siblings, the family estate passed to her.


William Sheehan and Ellen Regan

        Mary Sheehan had no known relatives in Savannah or the United States, so the administrators of her estate, Bouhan, Williams and Levy, decided after her death to extend the search to her parents' country, Ireland. This law firm had been founded by the above mentioned John Bouhan and is headquartered in the Armstrong House on Bull and Gaston Streets in Savannah, a beautifully restored building which had been purchased from Jim Williams. To complete the connection, Williams's lawyer during the latter phase of his murder trials was a partner in the firm, Frank 'Sonny' Seiler. (3) Bouhan, Williams and Levy engaged a Cork law firm, Ronan, Daly, Jermyn, to place advertisements in Irish newspapers, looking for anyone who could prove a close relationship to Mary Sheehan's parents and who would therefore have a claim on the estate. (4) Also prominent in the search for Irish heirs was Fr Jeremiah McCarthy, a priest at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Savannah.
        The publicity campaign not surprisingly attracted a lot of attention, and dozens of claims had been received by Ronan, Daly, Jermyn by 1988. It was at this point that the present writer became involved, being commissioned to check the genealogical data of the claimants and report to Bouhan, Williams and Levy in Savannah. While my particular attention was directed to evidence supplied in relation to a number of cousins of Ellen Regan surnamed Hall, I subjected all the files forwarded to me to impartial analysis. I noticed that one claimant in particular, Dermot O'Regan, a businessman based in Ovens, County Cork, was particularly insistent, even going so far as to forward a submission to me personally. (5)

        The conclusion of my research was that the Hall group of claimants had established the closest documented relationship to William Sheehan's wife Ellen Regan, specifically, that their grandfather Patrick Hall had in 1868 married Elizabeth Donovan, an aunt of Ellen. While Ellen had a number of siblings, including a brother William, it appeared that they had died without issue. Among Mary Sheehan's possessions in Savannah was found a letter to her dated 14 April 1941 from a William O'Regan in Gubbeen, Schull, County Cork, referring to her mother's death and signed 'Your Uncle'. It was clear that this must be Ellen's brother, who like many others had restored the dropped 'O' prefix to his surname. Also presented to me was a birth certificate for Ellen Sheehan, born 21 November 1864 in Gubbeen to parents John Regan and Anne Donovan, which I considered did indeed refer to Mary Sheehan's mother. Despite my best efforts, I could find no relatives of Mary's father William Sheehan, and although it was known that he was born in County Cork about 1857-63 and that his father was also named William, it was never established exactly where in the county his family resided. (6)

        I could not find that any of the other claimants, including Dermot O'Regan, had documented a relationship to Mary Sheehan. Assisted by his genealogist Jim Herlihy, Mr O'Regan claimed that his grand aunt Ellen Regan, born 26 March 1882 in Bandon, was in fact the one who had married William Sheehan in Savannah in 1898. It was stated that this Ellen had added some years to her age when marrying William Sheehan, and that on the other hand, the Ellen born in 1864 was far too old to be the individual in question. I could not see that any of the documentation presented by Dermot O'Regan proved his case that his Ellen was the correct one. Genealogists learn to expect fluctuations in stated ages, but these of course can go in both directions. The children of William Sheehan and Ellen Regan were born between 1901-06, when the Ellen born in 1864 would have between 37-42 years, not at all an impossible age range for child bearing. (7)

        I submitted a final report to Bouhan, Williams and Levy on 28 November 1988, stating my opinion that the Hall group of claimants were the closest located relatives to the deceased Mary Sheehan, and on 18 December 1989 I gave testimony to this effect by telephone to the Probate Court of Chatham County, in which Savannah is located. The court issued an order on 5 March 1990 determining that the heirs of Mary Sheehan were the claimants in the the Hall group, and furthermore the claim of Dermot O'Regan was denied. This decision was based 'on the preponderance of the evidence submitted, including but not limited to the "Uncle William Letter", which the Court found most persuasive' (see copy of order below).

        Dermot O'Regan was by no means content to accept this ruling, and he continued to press his claim in the years that followed. Thus in a newspaper article on the case in 1994, O'Regan and Jim Herlihy were quoted as still casting doubts on the Savannah Probate Court verdict, alleging that a crucial genealogist's report discounting the evidence presented to the court had been suppressed. Claiming that he had spent £100,000 in legal fees and expenses, O'Regan stated that on the basis of the evidence gathered, he was 'absolutely convinced' that Ellen Sheehan was his relative. (8) The courts were not impressed by the supposedly new evidence, so that the Savannah ruling on the estate stood, and it seemed that the challenge could not be maintained. Undaunted by the cost in time and money, O'Regan began to press for exhumation of bodies in Savannah in an effort to secure DNA evidence in support of his case. Having secured legal sanction, in January 2004 the body of Ellen Sheehan was exhumed in Savannah's historic Bonvaventure Cemetery. Bone samples were then taken for analysis by Karen Burns of the University of Georgia, a leading forensic anthropologist. (9)
        On the other side of the Atlantic, an order was also obtained to exhume the body of Dermot O'Regan's grandfather in St Finbar's Cemetery, Cork, and further bone samples were passed to Burns in May 2004. (10) The whole process appeared, to say the least, somewhat unedifying, and in Savannah Fr McCarthy was quoted as commenting bluntly,
'Have you ever seen such foolishness in your life?'. After a suspenseful wait and to much less media fanfare, Burns's results were released in July 2004, and they proved to be . . . negative. In short, the DNA samples from Savannah and Cork did not match. (11) The integrity of the Savannah Probate Court decision, and the present writer's research, had thus been vindicated. It has also emerged that the Sheehan Estate in Savannah was much more modest than had been claimed, being in the region of hundreds of thousands rather than tens of millions of dollars. As they were legally obliged to do, the administrators had sold the estate after Mary Sheehan's death at then market values, and the inflated total was inferred from later property values.
        There the matter might have been expected to have been laid to rest, and the long running story concluded once and for all. However, in a documentary on the case broadcast on Irish television in January 2005, it was revealed that further exhumation orders may be sought, in that it is alleged that the wrong bodies might have been dug up! This documentary dealt with my research in a rather dismissive way, and I was given no opportunity to put my point of view by way of interview. (12) It is also relevant to point out that on several occasions I have been promised copies of the supposedly conclusive documentary evidence in support of Dermot O'Regan's claim, some of it allegedly withheld during the Savannah court proceedings, but I have yet to receive any such material. In these circumstances I feel entitled to place the present factual account of the Sheehan case in the public domain, particularly as one or perhaps two books on the affair are promised. In conclusion, one can only hope that whatever else happens, the dead will not be
further disturbed.


Sean J Murphy
30 May 2005



(1) 'Family unearths kin in quest for fortune', Associated Press, Savannah, May 2004.

(2) Timothy Daiss, Rebels, Saints and Sinners: Savannah's Rich History and Colorful Personalities, Gretna, Louisiana, 2002, page 62.

(3) John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story, New York 1999 Edition, page 263 and following (factional account).

(4) 'Hunt for Irish heirs to huge fortune as deadline nears', Irish Independent, 15 September 1987.

(5) Dermot O'Regan to author, 24 February 1989.

(6) There are about 50 County Cork householders named William Sheehan listed in a mid-nineteenth century property tax record (Family Tree Maker, Index to Griffith's Valuation of Ireland, 1848-64, CD-ROM).

(7) Case files in writer's possession.

(8) Sunday Independent, 20 March 1994.

(9) 'Body at Bonaventure exhumed to prove lineage', Savannah Morning News, 17 January 2004, online at

(10) 'We want to get to the bottom of this', Irish Examiner, 15 May 2004.

(11) Irish Times, 23 July 2004.

(12) Liberty Films, The Family Silver, Radio Telifís Éireann, 6 January 2005.

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