Williams v. Paine
169 U.S. 55 (1897)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Williams v. Paine, 169 U.S. 55 (1897)

Williams v. Paine

No. 114

Argued November 29-30, 1897

Decided January 10, 1897

169 U.S. 55

Syllabus

Under the laws of Maryland, which were in force in the District of Columbia in 1859, it was competent for a married woman, outside of the District, to execute, with her husband, a power of attorney to convey her lands therein, which, when acknowledged by her according to the statute relating to the acknowledgment by married women of deeds conveying their real property in the District, thereby became a valid and sufficient instrument to authorize the conveyance by attorney, and the first section of the Act of March 3, 1865, c. 110, 13 Stat. 531, contains a clear legislative recognition of the right to execute such power.

Such a power of attorney, executed in one of the Northern states before the civil war by a married woman then residing there, was not revoked by the fact that, when that war broke out, she and her husband removed to the Southern states, where he entered the Confederate service, and where she resided to the close of the war.

When the purchase money for land sold under such a power is received by the principal, to permit her heirs after her death to repudiate the transaction on the ground that the power of attorney had been revoked by the war, would be in conflict with every principle of equity and fair dealing.

A majority of the Court think that the deed made under the power of attorney which is in controversy in this suit, and which is printed at length in the statement of the case, below, was in the nature of a conveyance of the legal title, though defectively executed, and that it came within the provisions of the Act of March 3, 1865, and its defective execution was thereby cured.

By this disposition of the whole case upon the merits, the Court is not to be considered as deciding that parties situated as the plaintiff's were in this case, out of possession, can maintain an action for partition.

The appellants herein brought this suit in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for the purpose of obtaining

Page 169 U. S. 56

partition of certain lands in the City of Washington, known as square 53 of the ground plan of that city.

Upon the trial, it appeared that the common source of title was one George W. Peter, who in January, 1837, conveyed the premises to Henry Huntt and Benjamin Ogle Tayloe as tenants in common. Mr. Huntt died in 1838 intestate, leaving two daughters, Fannie and Mary, and a son named George Gibson Huntt, to whom his undivided interest in these lands descended. Fannie married an officer in the United States army named Gibson, and Mary married an officer in that army named Robert Ransom, Jr. In May, 1859, Lieutenant Ransom was stationed at Carlisle Barracks, in Pennsylvania, and at that time he and his wife executed and acknowledged a power of attorney to the brother of Mrs. Ransom, to convey their interest in the land, the material part of which power reads as follows:

"Know all men by these presents, whereas, Lieutenant Robert Ransom, Jr., of the United States army, and Mary, his wife, in right of the said Mary, are seised in fee simple, as tenants in common with the sister and brother of the said Mary, to-wit, Fanny Huntt and George Gibson Huntt and with B. O. Tayloe, of certain lots of ground in the City of Washington, in the District of Columbia, which are described as follows: [Describing, among others, the lots in question.] To provide for the contingency of our absence, we, the said Robert Ransom, Jr., and Mary, my wife, do by these presents constitute and appoint, and in our place put and depute, the said George Gibson Huntt, of Washington City aforesaid, to be our true and lawful attorney-in-fact for us, and in our name, place, and stead, to control, manage, grant, bargain, and sell, and in that event convey, all our right, title, and interest in and to the said lots and square of ground, or any part or parts thereof, or to join in, and for us, and in our name, to sign, any proceedings in partition of the said lots and square, or to appear for us in court for that purpose, and in regard to the said real estate to do, execute, and perform every act and thing necessary to be done as fully and amply as we might or could do if personally present,

Page 169 U. S. 57

and we do hereby ratify and confirm all and whatsoever our said attorney-in-fact may legally do in the premises."

"In witness whereof we, the said parties to these presents, have hereunto set our hands and seals this twenty-third day of May, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and fifty-nine."

"R. Ransom, Jr. [Seal.]"

"M. H. Ransom [Seal]"

"Witnesses present:"

"S. H. Graham"

"A. L. Sponsler"

This paper was duly acknowledged by both Lieutenant Ransom and his wife, the latter of whom made the acknowledgment necessary to be made in the District of Columbia in order to convey real estate by a married woman.

The acknowledgment and the certificate thereof are full and complete, and taken and certified by a proper officer.

The premises in question at that time were vacant lots. Soon after the execution of this power of attorney, Lieutenant Ransom was ordered away, and, with his wife, he left the station at Carlisle Barracks, and went to Fort Lyon, in the western country. He was a native of one of the Southern states, and when the war broke out, he resigned his commission in the army and entered the Confederate service, and at the conclusion of the war he had risen in that service to the rank of general. Mrs. Ransom's brother, George Gibson Huntt, to whom the power of attorney above mentioned was given, remained in the old army. At the conclusion of the war, Gen. Ransom returned with his wife to his native state, North Carolina, where she died in February, 1881, leaving a number of children, who are complainants herein. He remained in that state until his death, in January, 1892.

During the continuance of the war, the children of the deceased Mr. Huntt became anxious to sell their interest in the premises in question, as the land was still vacant and unimproved, and a source of expense in the way of the payment of taxes. It was more particularly on account of Mrs. Ransom that the sale was desired, in order to aid her as far as possible by turning her interest in the lands into money. Negotiations for the sale of the property were therefore commenced

Page 169 U. S. 58

sometime in 1864 through a real estate agent employed by Mr. Walter S. Cox, a distant relative of the parties and then a practicing lawyer at the bar of the District, now one of the justices of the Supreme Court thereof. These negotiations resulted in the sale of all their interest in the property to Mr. Tayloe, the owner of the other half interest therein, and deeds were duly given therefor by Mrs. Gibson and Mr. Huntt to Mr. Tayloe, and on the 29th of November, 1864, Mr. Huntt, assuming to act under the power of attorney already mentioned, executed, acknowledged, and delivered to Mr. Benjamin O. Tayloe a paper which reads as follows:

"Know all men by these presents that I, George Gibson Huntt, by virtue of the annexed power of attorney to me from Robert Ransom, Jr., and Mary Ransom, his wife, and for and in consideration of the sum of eight hundred and thirty-three 33/100 dollars to me in hand paid by Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, of the City of Washington, in the District of Columbia, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, have bargained and sold to said B. O. Tayloe, his heirs and assigns, all the right, title, and estate of them, the said Robert Ransom, Jr., and Mary Ransom, being one undivided third part of, in, and to those pieces of ground, in the City of Washington aforesaid, known and described as lots Nos. one and three in square No. five, lot No. ten in square fourteen, lots Nos. five and nine in square No. seventeen, lots Nos. three and four in square No. twenty-eight, lot No. three in square No. thirty, and the whole of square No. fifty-three, with the improvements and appurtenances, and I hereby further agree, in behalf of said Robert and Mary Ransom, that they shall and will, as soon as convenient, make and execute a proper deed of conveyance of said premises to said Benj'n O. Tayloe, in fee simple."

"In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 29th day of November, A.D. 1864."

"George Gibson Huntt [Seal]"

"[Stamp, $1. G.G.H. Jan.4th, '65.]"

"Witness: W. Kline"

This paper was acknowledged by Huntt before officers different

Page 169 U. S. 59

from those before whom proof of the power of attorney was made. It was also, and on the 14th day of January, 1865, recorded in the proper land records office in the District of Columbia, together with the power of attorney already referred to.

The purchase price of the lands was paid to Mr. Cox, who promptly paid over her share to Mrs. Gibson, and also included in such payment the share belonging to Mrs. Ransom, and Mrs. Gibson duly paid over Mrs. Ransom's share to her or expended the same for her benefit and with her approval. This was done prior to the close of the war, while Mrs. Ransom was within the line of the Southern army with her husband, and Mrs. Gibson was in one of the Northern states.

After the death of Mr. Tayloe, which occurred in 1868, one of his daughters, Julia Tayloe, in November, 1870, succeeded, under proceedings in partition, to all the interest of her father in the premises. She married, in 1865, the defendant John W. Paine, and the other three defendants are the children of such marriage. From the time of the division of the estate of Mrs. Paine's father, Mr. Tayloe, which took place in 1870, his daughter, Mrs. Paine, claimed to be the owner of the property, and was in possession thereof, renting it through her husband and his agents, for a coal yard and for other purposes, and paying the taxes upon the same up to the time of her death in 1872, since which time her husband has been in possession, claiming the right as tenant by the curtesy, and his three children claim title in fee, subject to the life estate of their father.

Prior to the filing of this bill, Mr. Paine had expended large sums of money in building 22 dwelling houses on the property at a cost of about $125,000, and has received the rents from such houses, and paid the taxes on the property, the whole property being now estimated to be worth about $250,000. The sum at which the property was sold, in 1864, was a fair price for the same, and the best that could be secured after earnest efforts made to sell it.

After the death of Robert Ransom and his wife, this bill was filed by their children, and the relief sought is to have

Page 169 U. S. 60

the paper executed by Mrs. Ransom's brother, George Gibson Huntt, under the power of attorney given by her husband and herself, declared null and void as a cloud upon the title of the complainants in this property, and the bill then asks that the right of the complainants to a one-sixth (Mrs. Ransom's alleged) interest in the land in fee as tenants in common with the defendants may be established against all the defendants, as well the life tenant as the reversioners, and the land partitioned accordingly.

Upon these facts, the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia dismissed the bill with costs, and, its judgment to that effect having been affirmed by the Court of Appeals of the District,7 App.D.C. 116, the case is now here upon the complainants' appeal from that judgment of affirmance.

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