Richard Watkins v. Oliver Holman

Decision Date01 January 1842
Citation16 Pet. 25,10 L.Ed. 873,41 U.S. 25
PartiesRICHARD J. WATKINS, Plaintiff in error, v. The Lessee of OLIVER HOLMAN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 25-27 intentionally omitted] ERROR to the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Alabama. This was an action of ejectment, brought by the defendants, who were plaintiffs in the courts below, to recover possession of stores and a lot of ground in the city of Mobile. The declaration was in the common form; the plea, the general issue. A verdict was rendered in the circuit court for the plaintiffs, and the defendant prosecuted this writ of error.

Upon trial, the plaintiffs below proved, that one Geronio was in possession of a lot, in the city of Mobile, at the corner of St. Francis and Royal streets; that he occupied the same till his death, when he gave the same to one Lucy Landry; that about the year 1788, Simon Landry took charge of the lot for his daughter Lucy, and when she came to woman's estate, she used and occupied the same as her property. The plaintiff further proved, that in 1818, Lucy Landry conveyed the lot to McKinzie and Swett, by a deed, in which the eastern boundary was laid down as the Mobile river, and included the premises in question in this case. On the same day, McKinzie and Swett conveyed the property to Oliver Holman, who took possession in 1818, and erected houses and a wharf upon the lot, and occupied the same as a merchant, in copartnership with one Charles Brown; Brown residing in Boston, and Holman in Mobile. Holman died in December 1822, leaving three children. Oliver, with a grandchild of Holman, were the legal heirs of Oliver Holman, deceased, and the lessors of the defendants in error.

The defendants in the circuit court, in order to show title in them to one equal undivided moiety of the premises in question, exhibited a bond, executed by Oliver Holman, the ancestor of the plaintiffs in the ejectment, on the 29th September 1821, to Charles Brown; by which Oliver Holman bound himself to give to Charles Brown a quit-claim deed of one half of the land he had purchased from McKinzie and Swett—the ground in question; the deed to be executed two years from date, if Charles Brown requested. Oliver Holman died soon afterwards, without executing the deed.

Sarah Holman, the widow of Oliver Holman, removed to Boston Massachusetts, and there took out letters of administration on the estate of her deceased husband. Charles Brown presented a petition to the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts, setting forth, that Oliver Holman had executed to him the bond before stated, by which he bound himself to convey certain property in Mobile to him, being the part of the premises for which this suit was instituted; and that he was prevented conveying the same by death; and praying the court would grant license to, and would empower, Sarah Holman, the widow and administratrix of Oliver Holman, to execute to him such conveyance of the premises, as Oliver Holman would have been obliged to make and execute, if he were then living. The widow and administratrix, Sarah Holman, certified to the court, that 'she had read and had notice of the petition, and had no objections to offer why the prayer thereof should not be granted; and signified her consent to the same.' Elisha Read, guardian of Sarah Holman and Oliver Holman, minors, and Catharine Holman, daughter of Oliver Holman, certified, that they had read and had notice of the petition, and believed the statement therein to be correct, and had no cause to show why the prayer of the petitioner should not be granted, and signified their consent to the same. The court thereupon ordered, that Sarah Holman should be licensed to make and execute a deed to Charles Brown of the premises: and accordingly, on the 10th of March 1824, a deed was executed to the petitioner for the property described in the title-bond.

The defendants in the circuit court, also gave in evidence an act of the legislature of Alabama, in the following terms:

'An act to authorize the administratrix of Oliver Holman, deceased, late of the county of Mobile, to sell real estate.

'§ 1. Be it enacted, &c., That the administratrix of the late Oliver Holman, resident in the city of Boston, in the state of Massachusetts, be and she is hereby authorized to sell, by Nathaniel Littlefield and Gorham Davenport, her attorneys in fact, the real estate of which the said Oliver Holman died seised, in the city Mobile, on such terms and in such manner as may be deemed most advantageous to the estate of the deceased.

'§ 2. And be it further enacted, that the said administratrix be and she is hereby authorized, by her attorneys aforesaid, on the sale of the said estate, to make and deliver to the purchaser or purchasers, as the case may be, a legal conveyance of the same, which shall be as binding as if the same had been made by the said Oliver Holman in his lifetime.

'§ 3. And be it further enacted, that Nathaniel Littlefield and Gorham Davenport, before the sale of the estate aforesaid, shall enter into bond, with sufficient security, payable to the judge of the county court of Mobile county, for the true and faithful payment of the money arising from the sale of the said estate into the hands of the administratrix thereof, to be appropriated to the payment of the debts due by the said decedent.'

On the 24th day of April 1824, by a deed executed in conformity with the law, in consideration of the sum of $15,000 paid to the administratrix of Oliver Holman, the other moiety of the property was conveyed to Charles Brown. The defendants in the circuit court claimed to hold all the premises in controversy by conveyances from the grantee of Charles Brown, made under the license of the supreme court of Massachusetts, and the act of the assembly of Alabama. It was further in evidence, that Oliver Holman erected stores on the lot, and used them for four years, when he died.

The lot, which was proved to have been in the actual possession of Geronio, was inclosed, there being a line of fence running from the street on the north, to the southern boundary of the lot, and followed by the meanders of high tide water-mark. There was no person who ever inclosed to the east of this lot, or who had ever set up any claim upon it, except so far as the facts disclosed the claim of Lucy Landry, under Geronio. The ground in dispute was more than one hundred feet distant from the inclosure of Lucy Landry, and was at all times subject to the influx of the tide, prior to the improvements of Holman. It was in evidence, that all the land east of Lucy Landry's inclosure, before the improvements of Holman, had been used, as all the land on the same line from St. Francis street to Government street, on the same line, had been used, as a public landing-place, by the people, under the Spanish government: and that no improvements or obstructions had been erected upon that tract of land.

The circuit court decided, that the bond from Holman to Brown, and the proceedings of the supreme court of Massachusetts, and the deed under those proceedings, were not sufficient to confer any legal title upon the defendants; these proceedings were without authority and of no effect, and they were admissible as evidence, only to show the nature of the defendants' claim of possession. The court also charged the jury, that the act of the legislature, and all proceedings under it, were void, and the evidence was competent only to show the defendants' claim and possession; to which decision, as well as to the charge, the defendants' counsel excepted.

The defendants then offered in evidence a map obtained from the general land-office at Washington city, purporting to have been made in 1761, and which was certified to have been on file there, made by one _____ _____, surveyor. This map indicated, that the city was then laid off unto regular squares, and bounded by streets; that there was a space between the front square and the margin of the river, not divided, and that this space was marked in the two halves, with the word quai. The defendant gave evidence, conducing to prove that the lands sued for were embraced within that space, and that it continued to be public and open, till Holman's possession and improvements in 1818; and so contended before the jury. The defendants further gave evidence, that Holman & Brown were merchants, and that the carpenters who built the houses on the lands in dispute were sent out by the said Brown; that Brown & Holman were in partnership as merchants, and that in carrying on their business, these buildings were used as store-houses; that Brown resided in Boston, and had never been in Mobile, and that Holman resided in Mobile; that the store-houses were reputed to be Holman's, and not Holman & Brown's. After the death of Holman, agents of Holman went into possession; whether instantly, or after the execution of the deeds aforesaid, his agents or vendees had enjoyed entire and exclusive possession of the premises. It was further in evidence, that the house in possession of defendants, fronted on Water street, one of the streets of the city.

Whereupon the court charged the jury, that if they believed from the evidence, that Geronio claimed title to the premises in question, and was in actual possession of a part of the lot of land to which they were then attached and remained in possession, claiming title, from and prior to the year 1785, till the time of his death; and that before his death, he gave the whole of said lot to Lucy Landry; and that her father thereupon took and held possession of it for her, until she arrived at full age, when she took possession, and claimed title to the full extent of the boundaries in the deed from her to McKinsie and Swett; and that since the possession of Mobile by the United States, the streets and quai had been so altered by the municipal authorities of said city, that the said quai had been discontinued or...

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