Watkins v. Holman
41 U.S. 25 (1842)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Watkins v. Holman, 41 U.S. 16 Pet. 25 25 (1842)

Watkins v. Holman

1 U.S. (16 Pet.) 25

Syllabus

Ejectment to recover possession of a lot in the City of Mobile, Alabama. The defendants, in the circuit court, claimed title to the land under Lucy Landry, who was the devisee of one Geronio, who having been in possession of the lot at the corner of St. Francis and Royal Streets, occupied it until his death. On the arrival of Lucy Landry at age, she occupied the lot as her own property, and in 1818 she sold and conveyed it by deed to certain persons, stating the eastern boundary in the deed to be the Mobile River. These persons on the same day conveyed the premises to Oliver Holman, who entered on it and improved it by erecting houses and a wharf upon it, and continued to occupy it as a merchant in co-partnership with one Charles Brown, who lived in Boston, until December, 1822, when he died, leaving as his heirs the lessors of the plaintiff. The possession of Lucy Landry of the lot commenced in 1800 and extended on Royal Street, and on the east, followed the high water mark on the river. The land was not subject to inundation, though in many places the water ran across it. Until the improvements made by Holman, the lot was not susceptible of occupancy. There was a ridge of high land formed of shells and artificial deposits, to the east of which, to the river, the lot was situated, and the ridge was protected by the Spanish authorities, no person being permitted by them to improve on the ground or to remove the earth. It was called "The King's highway," or landing place. Questions as to the title of the proprietors of the adjacent lots above Water Street to the lots extending to the river prevailed until 1824, when on 26 May, 1824, a law was passed which granted the lots known as water lots under the Spanish government to the owners of the adjacent grounds. The improvements were made by Holman in 1819 or 1820. The defendants below gave in evidence, to maintain their title, the title to them from Lucy Landry, through her grantees to Oliver Holman, a title bond from Holman to Brown for half of the lot in controversy, by which a deed was to be executed two years after the date of the bond, and an act of the Legislature of Alabama, passed in December, 1823, after the decease of Holman, authorizing the administratrix of Holman, then residing in Boston, where administration of the estate of the deceased had been granted to her, to sell the real estate of which he died seized, in the City of Mobile, for the payment of his debts, the estate being insolvent, a deed made in pursuance of a sale of the premises under the act of assembly and in conformity to the provisions thereof, and also the record of certain proceedings in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts wherein a license was given to the administratrix to make a deed in pursuance of the title bond to Brown, and the deed made under this authority. The questions which arose in the case and on which the court decided were first, whether the act of the Legislature of Alabama authorizing the sale of the estate of Holman was constitutional and valid; second, whether the proceedings in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts were operative and authorized the administratrix to convey the title; third, whether a volume of state papers published under the authority of Congress was evidence; fourth, whether the lessors of the plaintiff below had established a legal title; fifth,

Page 41 U. S. 26

whether the defendants in the circuit court had not established a title in themselves independent of and adverse to the title they had derived under Oliver Holman.

The relation of landlord and tenant in nowise exists between the vendor and vendee, and this is especially the case where a conveyance has been executed.

A mere intruder on land is limited to his actual possession, and the rights of a riparian proprietor do not attach to him. The case of Mayor of New Orleans v. United States, 10 Pet. 662, cited.

The Act of Congress of 26 May, 1824, relinquished the rights of the United States, whatever they were, in the lot in question, to the proprietor of the front lot.

A volume of state papers published under the authority of an act of Congress and containing the authentication required by the act is legal evidence. In the United States, in all public matters, the journals of Congress, and of the state legislatures are evidence, and also the reports which have been sanctioned and published by authority. This publication does not make that evidence which intrinsically is not so, but it gives in a most authentic form certain papers and documents. The very highest authority attaches to state papers published under the sanction of Congress.

The deed executed by the administratrix of Holman, in pursuance of the license given by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, by which nearly a moiety of the property of Holman, in Mobile, described in the title bond to Brown, was conveyed to Brown, was inoperative. The deed was executed under a decree or order of the Supreme Court in Massachusetts and by virtue of a statute of that state. It is not pretended that it was authorized by any law of Alabama, and no principle is better settled that the disposition of real estate, whether by deed, descent, or by any other mode, must be governed by the laws of the state where the land is situated.

A court of chancery, acting in personam, may well decree the conveyance of land in any other state, and may enforce their decree by process against the defendant. But neither the decree itself nor any conveyance under it except by the person in whom the title is vested can operate beyond the jurisdiction of the court.

It is not perceived why a court of law should regard a resulting trust more than any other equitable rights, and any attempt to give effect to these rights at law through the instrumentality of a jury must lead to confusion and uncertainty. Equitable and legal jurisdictions have been wisely separated, and the soundest maxims of jurisprudence require each to be exercised in its appropriate sphere.

The act of the Legislature of Alabama which authorized Sarah Holman, resident in Boston, the administratrix of Oliver Holman, to sell the estate of which Holman died seized in the City of Mobile was a valid act, and the deed made under that statute, according to its provisions, was legal and operative, and was authorized by the Constitution of Alabama.

On the death of the ancestor, the land owned by him descends to his heirs. They hold it subject to the payment of the debts of the ancestor, in those states where it is liable to such debts. The heirs cannot alien the land to the prejudice of creditors. In fact, and in law, they have no right to the real estate of their ancestors except that of possession until the creditors shall be paid.

No objection is perceived to the power of the legislature to subjecting the lands of a deceased person to the payment of his debts, to the exclusion of the personal property. The legislature regulates descents and the conveyance of real estate. To define the rights of debtor and creditor is their common duty; the whole range of remedies lies within their province.

Page 41 U. S. 27

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 co-partnership 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 29 September 1821, to Charles Brown, by which Oliver Holman bound himself to give to Charles Brown a quitclaim 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,

Page 41 U. S. 28

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 10 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 . . . 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 seized in the City of 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

Page 41 U. S. 29

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 24 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 enclosed, 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 tidewater mark. There was no person who ever enclosed 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 enclosure 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 enclosure, 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

Page 41 U. S. 30

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 storehouses, 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

Page 41 U. S. 31

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 otherwise abolished, and the said Water Street erected in lieu of it, and that the premises in question were within the boundaries of the said lot conveyed, as aforesaid, by Lucy Landry to McKinsie and Swett and by them to Oliver Holman, and that said Holman entered upon and remained in possession of the said premises from the date of his purchase until the time of his death; the plaintiffs were entitled to a verdict unless the jury believed from the evidence that actual possession was delivered by said Holman to Brown under said bond for title, and that said Brown had remained in possession, and that the possession had been regularly transmitted through those claiming under him to the defendant. The defendant contended that the premises in question were not embraced within the claim of Lucy Landry, but formed a portion of the public quai; that the entry of Holman under the title derived from Lucy Landry, and the building of stores on the lot, gave him no title, and that his heirs could not maintain an ejectment for the lot against those claiming under his partner, Brown. This the court overruled, and the counsel for the defendant excepted.

The defendant's counsel contended that from the bond, the proof in the cause, and the admission of Catharine Holman in the record of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts thereto attached, it appeared that Holman & Brown were jointly interested in the premises at the period of his entry, that although Brown never was upon the land, the same was held by Holman for their joint benefit, and that though no actual possession was delivered under the bond for title, if those facts were found, Brown or those claiming under him could not be sued for the moiety in the bond without a demand and notice to quit. This the court overruled.

Page 41 U. S. 51

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