Jackson v. Ashton
36 U.S. 229 (1837)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Jackson v. Ashton, 36 U.S. 11 Pet. 229 229 (1837)

Jackson v. Ashton

36 U.S. (11 Pet.) 229

Syllabus

The appellants filed a bill in the Circuit Court of Pennsylvania, claiming to have a bond and mortgage cancelled and delivered up to them. They alleged that the same was given without consideration, was induced by threats of a prosecution for a criminal offense against the husband of the mortgagor, and that the instruments were therefore void, and that they were obtained by the influence the mortgagee exercised over the mortgagor, he being a clergyman and her religious visitor, and her mind being weak or impaired. The circuit Court of Pennsylvania dismissed the bill, and on appeal to this Court the decree of the circuit court was affirmed.

A court of chancery will often refuse to enforce a contract when it would also refuse to annul it. In such a case, the parties are left to their remedy at law.

No admissions in an answer to a bill in chancery can under any circumstances lay the foundation for relief under any specific head of equity unless it be substantially set forth in the bill.

The principal facts of the case, as stated in the opinion of the court, were as follows:

The appellants, who were the devisees of Maria Goodwin, brought their bill to set aside a bond and mortgage executed by Maria Goodwin, and her trustee, Kenneth Jewell, to the defendant, on 5 January 1829, to secure the payment of $3,000. The bill represented that the mortgage was given without consideration; that shortly after the decease of Thomas Goodwin, the husband of Mrs. Goodwin, which took place in February, 1828, the defendant stated to her that he had a demand against her husband, to whom she had been much attached and who had treated him extremely ill; that he had it in his power to render his memory odious by exposing his conduct; but that he would conceal the transaction if she would execute a mortgage to him on her own property to secure the debt; that she refused to execute the mortgage or give any other security by the advice of her counsel, and afterwards avoided his visits to get clear of his importunities; that shortly after this, Mrs. Goodwin was

Page 36 U. S. 230

taken ill, and being executrix, her husband's affairs pressed much upon her and she fell into a low nervous state of spirits which impaired her memory and affected her mind; that whilst she was in this state, the defendant renewed his visits and, professing great kindness for her, took upon himself the management of her business, and having gained her confidence, prevailed upon her, in the absence of any friend and legal adviser, to execute the mortgage, and a corresponding bond, and to direct that her trustee should join in the execution; the defendant, as a clergyman, saying she ought to do so; that these representations had great influence on Mrs. Goodwin, who was a woman of devout religious feelings. The complainants further represented that at the time the bond and mortgage were executed, Mrs. Goodwin was utterly incapable of understanding or comprehending their meaning and effect; that after the death of Mrs. Goodwin, the defendant stated to the complainants that the mortgage was executed as collateral security for any sum that might be due to him from the estate of Thomas Goodwin, deceased.

In his answer, the defendant admitted the execution of the bond and mortgage and stated that in 1822, being about to receive a sum of money, he consulted Thomas Goodwin, who was then a broker in Philadelphia, in what way he could most advantageously invest it. That Goodwin advised him to leave the money in his hands and that he would loan it out on good security. That the defendant, in pursuance of this advice, placed $3,400 in his hands, and also loaned him $275, and took his notes by way of acknowledgment. That Goodwin received a bond and mortgage for $2,600 in favor of defendant from Samuel Jones, covering an estate which was under prior mortgages for $2,500, which, with the money of the defendant, Goodwin was to satisfy, but that he paid but $1,000 of the amount, and fraudulently withheld the balance. And to cover this fraud, that he obtained from the recorder of deeds copies of the prior mortgages on the estate of Jones, and at the foot of the certificate of the recorder wrote himself "paid and satisfied," and then exhibited the papers to Jones and the defendant to show that he had discharged the mortgages. And as there also remained on the estate a prior lien of a

Page 36 U. S. 231

judgment for $700, that Goodwin took a bond of indemnity from Jones against it. That defendant often solicited Goodwin to deliver up to him the mortgage, which, under various pretexts, he declined doing, but assured the defendant that he had discharged the prior mortgages; at length, the defendant becoming uneasy, he called at the recorder's office, and there found that the mortgage for $1,500 had not been discharged and that the endorsement upon it of "paid and satisfied" must have been made by Goodwin. On the same day that the defendant made this discovery, Goodwin informed him that he was about to stop payment, but he assured the defendant that he should not lose a cent.

Goodwin admitted to the defendant that he had used the money for his own purposes instead of paying off the mortgage, and that he had deceived both the defendant and Jones. And at the same time Goodwin placed a mortgage in the hands of the defendant for $2,575 to secure him against the mortgage on the property of Jones which should have been discharged. That Goodwin assured him the property mortgaged was unencumbered, which was untrue, and the defendant reproached Goodwin with having again deceived him and threatened him with an exposure unless he should make payment or give security. Goodwin replied, "what can you do? if you push me, I will take the benefit of the insolvent law;" the defendant rejoined,

"Have you forgotten the certificate which you forged? My attorney informs me that if Mr. Jones or myself shall come into court with that certificate, that you would be sentenced to hard labor."

Goodwin became alarmed and stated that he would sell the property and make good the deficiency if the defendant would not expose him. This conversation took place in the presence of Mrs. Goodwin, who, when the defendant was leaving the house, accompanied him to the door, appealed to his friendship for her, entreated him not to expose the transaction, declared that she would not have it known, especially in the church and among the congregation at Blockley for any consideration whatever. She added that Mr. Goodwin would sell the property and make provision for the payment, and that she would make up the deficiency out of her separate estate, and that neither the defendant nor his child, whose deceased mother she greatly esteemed, should lose anything.

A few days after this, Mrs. Goodwin saw the certificate and

Page 36 U. S. 232

acknowledged that it was in the handwriting of her husband, and she again entreated the defendant not to expose him and said she would pay him if her husband did not. This assurance was frequently repeated on various occasions up to the death of Goodwin, which took place suddenly in February 1828. At the moment of his death, Mrs. Goodwin sent for the defendant, desired him to superintend the interment, and she threw herself upon his kindness for consolation. After the interment, the defendant spent the evening with Mrs. Goodwin engaged in religious conversation, and being about to leave, she said

"Mr. Ashton, I hope you will not forsake me. If you cannot come in the day time, come in the evening and pray with me. I will be pleased to see you at any time, and as soon as I get a little over my trouble, I will fulfill my promise and settle with you."

The defendant replied that he hoped she would not let his concern trouble her at that time; that it gave him not a moment's uneasiness. This promise was repeated by Mrs. Goodwin again and again, and on one occasion, when the defendant was ill, she expressed uneasiness lest he might die before the matter was arranged. On consulting counsel, she was advised to do nothing with her property for a year, and he refused to draw a deed. But she said the advice was unjust, that she would pay the defendant, and felt herself bound to do so as a Christian. And she delivered a covenant to the defendant binding herself to make good the deficiency, should there be one, on the sale of her husband's estate. Up to this time, the defendant had not expressed a desire to Mrs. Goodwin that she should pay any part of her husband's debt.

In December, 1828, the defendant stated to Mrs. Goodwin that she had acted voluntarily in the matter, and not through his persuasion. That if he might be permitted for the first time to become active in the business, he would suggest that as her property was held in trust, the covenant which she had executed to him was not valid. She expressed surprise and a willingness to secure him, and the bond and mortgage in controversy were prepared and executed at the office of Thomas Mitchell, a scrivener. An agreement was executed by the defendant declaring that the bond and mortgage were given as collateral security, &c.

With the exception of the execution of the bond and mortgage, the defendant denied all the material allegations of the bill.

Page 36 U. S. 233

The other facts are stated in the opinion of the Court and by the counsel in the argument.

Page 36 U. S. 244

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