Asylum and Bigamy and Vanishing..…Oh My!

See bottom of Blog for names of those in the picture.
See bottom of Blog for names of those in the picture.

Looking at this photo it looks like a very nice, typical 1900s era family. Here you see a husband and wife with their 8 sons. They had two daughters who ran out of the frame just before the photo was taken. Who would think, by viewing this picture, that there could be so much heartbreak and deceit behind it?

John Daniel Willard was born May 21, 1847, in Adams County, Illinois.  He met and married the beautiful Vaninet “Evanda” Decker (born in 1848 in Illinois) on January 5, 1869. Shortly after their marriage, they moved to Easley, Macon Co, Missouri. Over the next 14 years, they had 4 sons. During this time Evanda began talking to herself constantly and acting very erratic. She would just wander off leaving her young children alone. It got increasingly worse after the birth of her 4th son in August of 1883. John felt the only option was to have Evanda committed. Sometime before the end of 1883 she was admitted into the Missouri State Mental Hospital in Fulton, MO.

John Willard and Rosa Noble Marriage License.
John Willard and Rosa Noble Marriage License.

Early in 1884, John petitioned the court to be granted a divorce from Evanda but it was denied. This did not stop John from finding a new wife. On March 16, 1884, he married a Miss Rosa Noble in Adair, MO. He was 36 years old and she was under the age of 18. Her father had to give permission for them to marry.  Not much is known about this marriage. What we do know is that Rosa moved into John’s house and took care of his 4 sons. All of a sudden there are no more records of Rosa. No divorce papers, no other marriage licenses, and no death certificates. One day she is there and the next day she is gone!

John WIllard and Sarah Pinkerton Marriage License.
John Willard and Sarah Pinkerton Marriage License.

On December 26, 1886, John marries his 3rd and final wife, Sarah Jane Pinkerton born in the month of August 1863. She was 23 years old and he was 39. A little less than 9 months later they welcomed their first child, a little girl. They went on to have a total of 6 children, 2 girls, and 4 boys. After they were married they moved the family to the mining community of Willard, MO which is just north of Springfield, MO.

After Sarah died in 1910, John and the younger children moved to Lexington, MO where the older boys had moved. On January 25, 1914, at the age of 66, John died of liver cancer. He is buried in the Dover Cemetery in Dover, MO.  In the 27 years since he had Evanda committed he never went to visit her. He never divorced any of his wives and he never revealed what happened to Rosa. This was indeed a very mysterious man. It is unknown if Rosa and Sarah knew that John never divorced Evanda, therefore they were never really married to the man.

Evanda Decker Willard died in the State Mental Hospital on November 15, 1925, at the age of 77.

The Willard Family Picture:

Back row L-R

William Albert Willard, Charles Andrew Willard, George Earnest Willard, and John Henry Willard

Front row L-R

Sarah Jane (Pinkerton), John Daniel Willard, Jim H. Willard (on lap), Mitchell Lee Willard, Benjamin Harrison Willard, and Joseph Andrew Willard.

I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, crafter, reader, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.

20 thoughts on “Asylum and Bigamy and Vanishing..…Oh My!

  1. That is a dramatic story, to be sure! Was John’s divorce ever officially granted? I wonder whatever happened to Rosa… And poor Evanda living out so many years in the asylum.

    1. Melanie,

      Thanks for reading the Blog. No John never got a divorce. Once the State refused to grant one he never tried again. I wonder about Rosa also. I hope someday I can find something about her.


  2. A very sad story, and a little dark too. Such a shame about Evanda, I would be a bit suspicious about Mr John Willard. 🙂
    I have an ancestor of which both husband and wife abandoned all of their children in the East End of London. The father ended up in an Asylum for attempted murder of his daughter-in-law.
    Hope you discover something about Rosa. Do police missing person records survive I wonder.
    Or would a missing person be mentioned in a local newspaper. Especially if you can’t trace any records of her.
    Good luck with your search.

    1. Stephen,

      Thanks for reading the Blog! I have searched the newspapers but not the police records. Thanks for the suggestion. I’m not sure if the records are still available but it is worth a try. Wow, abandoned children? that is horrible.


  3. How interesting! I hope you are able to find out what happened to Rosa!

    I am researching a relative who also ended up in a Missouri State Asylum, but this one was in Nevada. I understand the records are hard to get! Anyway, this is a sister of my great, great grandmother. Her husband hit her in the head with a piece of wood and left her ‘insane.’ He borrowed money from his brother-in-law (a brother of my great, great grandmother) who ended up killing him! It’s been a crazy(& sad!) story to follow.

    1. Dana,

      Wow what an interesting story! Thank you for sharing it! Maybe someday we both can get the records we need from the Hospitals in MO. That would be great.

      I will continue to look for Rosa and keep my fingers crossed.

      Thanks for reading the Blog!


  4. Valerie, Come by again sometime. I can give you a lot of stories about our Aunt Rosie. She was an extra grandmother to her sister’s and brother’s children. I have part of her picture album.

  5. Valerie,

    This was a very interesting read! I don’t mean to get too off topic here, but this is the first article I have come across to mention Vaninet “Evanda” Decker. I am a great great grandson of Ida Mae Hayes through her daughter Elsie Mae. There were a lot of family stories told about her Native America ancestry. I can not find any good information to confirm such stories though. I notice in this picture many of these children are darker complected than their father. Is their any chance that you could confirm that Vaninet “Evanda” Decker has a native ancestry?

    Thank you Valarie, again this blog is great I came for the one story and have read about ten now lol.

    1. Jason, Hi Cousin! Ida Mae and my Grandmother Virginia Bell Hayes were sisters! On Evanda’s death certificate it states that she is “white” but that doesn’t mean anything. Up until the 1950’s most Native Americans and Mexicans are listed this way. There is one cousin who knows more about the family than I do, I will ask her about Evandas heritage.


      1. Wow that’s really neat, I knew there were some relations between us but I didn’t realize they were so close! The last name Decker sounds pretty English to me, so I wasn’t sure, but Elsie’s (Ida’s Daughter) paternal Willard line is pretty well documented and there just isn’t too evidence to point to recent native ancestry. It was always said that she was a quarter Native, but you know how family tales grow. The “Brick Wall” for me has always been Evanda, can’t seem to find much on her. Thanks so much, not only for helping me with this request but for posting all of these family tidbits I probably would have never came across and for the wonderful research tips!

      2. I just found Evanda’s parents names. Her father was Sylvana Decker born about 1823 and her mothers name was Lydia Stewart born about 1823. Sylvana was a farmer in Burton, Adams Co, Illinois. I found this information in the 1850 Census.

    1. Found this and thought you may have some interest.

      The following excerpt comes from Back To God’s Country, The Twenty First Missouri, pages 112 – 113.
      “Wherever the officers went, they were followed by unfinished business. Upon reaching Canton, Missouri McGonigle learned that a ‘pension and bounty agent’ from Quincy, Illinois was on his trail. ‘Ex-Private Sylvanus Decker, a fifty year old veteran of Company D wounded in the left arm at Shiloh, had lately been discharged when a surgeon found him afflicted with an osseous union of radius and ulna. Before Decker could establish elgibility for pension benefits, he needed a ‘final statement.’ Having no luck writing McGonigle, Decker enlisted expert help. A Quincy attorney, Council Greeley, had foreseen lucrative possibilities in the coming epedemic of soldier’s claims. He even had a ‘traveling agent’ working up business. At any rate, November 12 McGonigle opened his letter to discover Greeley’s peremptory demand for the final statement and descriptive roll. McGonigle was given to understand that if monkeyed around any longer, General Curtis would hear of it. ‘Now we will wait only a reasonable time to receive that roll.’
      McGonigle fired back a huffy refusal: ‘I would like to know by what authority you make a demand on me for anything connected with the military. I think it is very insolent to say the least of it.’ Greeley made good his threat, spilling the beans to Curtis two days later. The General did not bestir himself to strongarm the captain about it, but in early January, the papers did reach Decker.”

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