Baker v. Morton
79 U.S. 150 (1870)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Baker v. Morton, 79 U.S. 12 Wall. 150 150 (1870)

Baker v. Morton

79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 150

Syllabus

1. A deed procured through fear of loss of life, produced by threats of the grantee, may be avoided for duress.

2. A judgment being but a general lien and the creditor under it obtaining no encumbrance but on such estate as his debtor really had, the equity of such creditor gives way before the superior right of an owner in the land who had conveyed it to the debtor only by duress and who never parted with possession.

3. <|7 Wall. 205|>Brown v. Pierce, 7 Wall. 205, identical with this case in principle and almost identical with it also in fact and circumstance, affirmed.

In the spring of 1857, there existed, near Omaha, in the then Territory of Nebraska, an organization known as the Omaha Claim Club. The object and purpose of the club was to nullify the land laws of the United States, to the end that the members of the club, who were engaged in land speculations, might hold and control the public lands in the vicinity of Omaha to the exclusion of actual settlers. The club numbered from 100 to 200 men. It made laws and promulgated decrees to suit its purposes, and enforced their observance with revolvers, guns, bayonets, ropes, and other appliances. It was regularly officered. The sheriff of the county, secretary of the territory, mayor of the city, and register and receiver of the land office, all held high positions in the club. It had stated meetings, and when any supposed exigency should arrive, the band would assemble at an hour's notice and be ready for business. It drove actual settlers from their claims, burned down their cabins, and marched

Page 79 U. S. 151

the settlers, surrounded by armed men, to the land office of the United States and compelled them to withdraw their applications for land. If the subject was obstinate, he was taken to the Missouri River, and, with a rope around his neck, thrown in and pulled out, and thrown in again, and the operation repeated as often as might be necessary in order "to bring the subject to his senses, so he would agree to abide the law of the land." The character and objects of the club, while it lasted, were notorious.

In this state of things Baker, in the spring of 1857, settled upon and improved a quarter of a section of land near Omaha; erected a house and continued to occupy it until August 10, 1857, when he entered the land under the provisions of the preemption laws of the United States. Having acquired title and being thus in possession, one Pierce, at that time a member of this club and a man of influence in it, though then and subsequently a citizen of New York, claimed the land by virtue of its laws and regulations, and taking several members of the club with him, went to Baker's house and demanded a deed of the land. Baker, on the 10th of August, 1857, executed to him such a deed; Pierce, however, suffering Baker to remain in possession either of this or of an adjoining tract (which he had got in the same way that he did this), under some sort of lease. Pierce being thus invested with a paper title, Morton, a respectable banker of New York, where, as already said, Pierce resided, lent him money, and the debt not being paid, sued him and got judgment.

In this state of things, Baker, in September, 1860, still residing in Nebraska, filed a bill in the territorial court of that territory against Pierce as grantee, and Morton as claiming an interest, to set aside the deed as obtained by duress and without consideration. It set forth the respective residences of himself in Nebraska and of Pierce and Morton in New York, the demand for the deed by Pierce and execution of it by Baker to him. It alleged that when Pierce and his company demanded the deed, they threatened to take Baker's life by hanging or drowning him if he did

Page 79 U. S. 152

not comply with the demand; that the club had posted handbills calling the members together to take action against Baker; and that he made the deed knowing all this, and in actual fear of his life or of great bodily harm; that he received no consideration whatever for the deed.

Pierce did not appear to the bill, which was taken pro confesso against him, and decree rendered accordingly. Morton answered alleging that he had no knowledge as to the circumstances under which the deed had been procured and that he could not answer to the charge, on belief or otherwise; but upon information he denied the same and alleged that the deed was freely and voluntarily made and that Pierce was the true and lawful owner of the premises, free from all claim.

The cause was heard on pleading and proofs in the District Court for Nebraska Territory by the then Chief Justice, who rendered a decree dismissing the bill. It was then carried by appeal to the supreme court of the territory, where it was pending when Nebraska was admitted into the Union. Thereupon, owing to the citizenship of the parties -- the complainant in the State of Nebraska and the defendants in New York -- and according to the usual rule by which cases that, by reason of the character of the parties, belong most naturally to the federal courts, are transferred into those courts, and those which cannot be taken into them are transferred to the state courts, this case was removed into the circuit court of the United States. Here it was heard again and a decree given dismissing the bill. The complainant appealed to this Court.

The reader who has read and remembers the case of Brown v. Pierce, which came before this Court two terms ago and is reported in <|7 Wall. 205|>7th Wall. 205, will have seen, of course, that the case is identical in principle and scarcely at all variant in fact from that one.

The facts alleged by the bill being considered by the Court, here as there, fully proved by the evidence, the only questions which remained were:

1. Whether a deed executed without any consideration

Page 79 U. S. 153

and only because the party making it is put in fear of his life or of great bodily harm may be avoided.

2. Whether the case made was one for relief as against Morton, whose good faith in lending his money was not to be questioned.

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