Wheeler v. Smith,
50 U.S. 55 (1850)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Wheeler v. Smith, 50 U.S. 9 How. 55 55 (1850)

Wheeler v. Smith

50 U.S. (9 How.) 55


The statute of 43d Elizabeth, respecting charitable uses, having been repealed in Virginia, the courts of chancery have no jurisdiction to decree charities where the objects are indefinite and uncertain.

Therefore, where a bequest was made to trustees for such purposes as they considered might promise to be most beneficial to the Town and trade of Alexandria, such bequest was void.

Where the heir at law, who was young, needy, and hurried, executed a release, in consideration of a sum of money, to the executors, who were men of high character and who assured the heir that the bequest was considered to be good, such release was held to be invalid.

This was a bill filed by Wheeler under the following circumstances. He was the nephew of Charles Bennett, who died in 1839, leaving neither father nor mother nor brothers nor sisters, nor any descendant of any brother or sister except Wheeler, who, as above stated, was his nephew. Previous to 1839, he had been assisted by his uncle, but had fallen into bad and extravagant habits, and removed to the State of Pennsylvania. Bennett had placed some land and $20,000 in the hands of two trustees for Wheeler's benefit.

In this state of things, Bennett died, leaving a will from which the following are extracts, viz.:

"15th. To Francis E. Rozer and John M. Lisle I leave the direction of all relating to William Wheeler. I have vested with the latter the funds intended for his use in consequence of being obliged to take possession of his estate and blend it with my own; he is at liberty, and is enjoined, whenever he considers said William may be safely trusted, to give him possession of all left for his use. The landed estate I wish preserved if it can be; it stands deeded in the name of Francis E. Rozer and John M. Lisle, and is under the management of John I. Jenkins, in Charles County, Maryland. Having come through William's family two hundred years ago, I should regret its not continuing."

"20th. The residue of my estate is left in trust of Hugh Smith, Robert I. Taylor, and Phineas Janney for such purposes as they consider promises to be most beneficial to the

Page 50 U. S. 56

Town and trade of Alexandria; if any difficulty occurs in construction as to any of my bequests, R. I. Taylor is specially charged to give said construction."

Then followed several papers in the nature of codicils, one of which was as follows:

"Now in the enclosure I leave the residue of my estate, after paying all bequests and appropriations, to some disposition thereof which my executors may consider as promising most to benefit the Town and trade of Alexandria. Now I leave the same entirely to their disposition of it, in such manner as appears to them promises to yield the greatest good."


The will, with seven codicils, was admitted to probate on 4 May, 1839, and letters testamentary granted to Hugh Smith, Robert I. Taylor, and Phineas Janney, named as executors is the will. At the same time were filed the following release and receipt:

"Whereas, Charles Bennett, Esq., late of Alexandria, deceased, by his last will and testament, after bequeathing sundry pecuniary legacies, devised as follows:"

" The residue of my estate is left in trust of Hugh Smith, Robert I. Taylor, and Phineas Janney for such purposes as they consider promise to be most beneficial to the Town and trade of Alexandria; if any difficulty occurs in construing as to any of my bequests, R. I. Taylor is specially charged to give the said construction,"

"and in a codicil to his said will expresses himself as follows:"

" Now in the enclosure, I leave the residue of my estate, after paying all my bequests and appropriations, to some disposition thereof which my executors may consider as promising most to benefit the Town and trade of Alexandria. Now I leave the same entirely to their disposition of it in such manner as appears to them promises to yield the greatest good."

"And whereas the validity of the said devise and bequest has been controverted by William Wheeler, now of Chester County, in the State of Pennsylvania, claiming to be the nephew and sole heir of the said Charles Bennett. Now the said executors, taking on themselves the burden of the execution of the said will and of the trusts aforesaid, and the said William Wheeler, to avoid the delay and expense of litigation, and finally to settle and adjust all doubts and difficulties which might arise on the effect of the said will, so as to leave the said executors to execute the same without delay or impediment, have agreed on the following terms of compromise. "

Page 50 U. S. 57

"1st. That the said executors shall, within one year from the date hereof at all events, or sooner if funds in cash remain in their hands after the payments of the money legacies bequeathed by the said will, pay to the said William Wheeler or his order the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars."

"2dly. That they shall release to the said William Wheeler all claims, if any they have, to any property, real or personal, heretofore conveyed or settled in any way by the said Charles Bennett, in his lifetime, for the use of the said William Wheeler."

"3dly. That the said William Wheeler, on his part, shall release to the said executors all his claims, in law or equity, to the estate, real and personal, devised and bequeathed or intended to be devised or bequeathed by the said Charles Bennett by his said will, to be held and disposed of by the said executors in the manner in and by the said will prescribed. And that the said executors shall be at liberty, if any specification of the objects to which the residuary fund is to be applied to thought necessary, to apply the same to aid in finishing the Alexandria Canal, either by a direct subscription to its stock or by purchasing in the stock of the Alexandria Corporation issued or to be issued in payment of the subscription of the said corporation to the said canal, to the extinguishment of the debt of the Corporation of Alexandria, to introduce into the town for the use of the inhabitants a supply of pure and wholesome water, and to subscribe to any railroad or other roads communicating with the said town, to any or to all of the above purposes in such way as the said executors or the survivors may think most conducive to the prosperity and welfare of the town."

"Now therefore the said executors do hereby covenant with the said William Wheeler that they will, within twelve months from the date hereof or sooner if cash funds remain after paying the pecuniary legacies, pay to him or his assigns the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars."

"And the said executors do hereby forever release to the said William Wheeler, his heirs and assigns all claims and demands they have or may have hereafter under the said will to any estate, real and personal, heretofore given, settled, or conveyed by the said Charles Bennett in his lifetime to the said William Wheeler or to any person or persons in trust for him, and more especially to twenty thousand dollars stock of the State of Pennsylvania, standing in the name of John Lisle and John K. Mitchell for the use of the said William, and they do moreover covenant to execute and deliver all further deeds or other instruments necessary to carry into effect this arrangement. And the said William Wheeler does on his part hereby forever release to the said executors all his right, title, claim,

Page 50 U. S. 58

and demand in and to all the estate, real and personal, devised or intended to be devised by the said Charles Bennett by his said will for the purposes expressed in his will, with power to the said executors to appropriate the residuary fund as before specified, if any particular designation of the purposes be necessary. And the said William Wheeler, for himself and his heirs, does hereby covenant with the said executors and their representatives to execute and deliver all such further deeds of conveyance and release as may be found necessary more fully to carry into full effect this agreement."

"In witness whereof, the parties to this instrument have hereto set their hands and seals, this 4 May, 1839."





"Sealed and delivered in presence of"




"Received from Hugh Smith, Robert I. Taylor, and Phineas Janney, executors of Charles Bennett, deceased, five thousand dollars in part payment of the sum covenanted to be paid by the above agreement. May 4, 1839."

"[$5,000] WM. WHEELER"

The circumstances under which the above release was executed are thus stated in the bill of the complainant, Wheeler:

"At the time of his uncle's death in April, 1839, your orator resided, as he does at present, in Chester County in Pennsylvania, in very cramped and straitened circumstances. It is true that the income settled upon him by his uncle was sufficient, with proper economy, to afford him a comfortable and independent subsistence. But he found it difficult -- nay, impracticable -- to divest himself entirely of those expensive habits which he had formed while he was presumptive heir and expectant of great wealth, for Mr. Bennett's wealth, as is usual in such cases, was considerably overrated."

"Whatever was the cause of his embarrassments, however, the fact was as he has stated and is susceptible of the most ample proof. Whether the fact of his necessitous condition had come to the knowledge of his uncle's executors, through Mr. James R. Riddle, of Alexandria, with whom your orator kept up a correspondence, he does not know. He thinks it more than

Page 50 U. S. 59

probable, and he charges such knowledge, so far as it is necessary to make such charge, in order to let in evidence of the fact."

"Such was his situation when, about the end of April, 1839, he received a letter from Mr. Riddle, written at the instance of the executors, informing him that his uncle had died on the 24th of that month, that his will would be offered for probate in the Orphans' Court of Alexandria on 4 May, and that the presence of your orator on that occasion, as next of kin and heir at law of the decedent, was desirable or was necessary. He received by the same mail the Alexandria Gazette, in which it was stated that Mr. Bennett, having made provision for his immediate relations in his lifetime, had left a will by which, after giving a number of legacies to his friends &c., he had devised the residue of his property to the Town of Alexandria. The letter of Mr. Riddle is lost or destroyed, and your orator cannot recollect its precise date or the precise day on which it was received, but he well recollects that the notice given to him was very short and that the difficulty of reaching Alexandria on so short a notice was enhanced by his moneyless condition and the necessity of borrowing $50 to defray the expenses of the journey. With all the exertion he could make, it was noon on 2 May before he arrived at Alexandria."

"He quickly communicated to Mr. Riddle, who handed to him on his arrival a copy of his uncle's will, his determination to contest the validity of the residuary devise. In an interview which he had on the same afternoon with Hugh Smith, Esq., one of the executors, that determination, which had been communicated to Mr. Smith by Mr. Riddle, was the subject of conversation. At that interview, Mr. Smith manifested a kindly feeling towards your orator, and appeared to be almost nervously anxious that a law suit should be avoided. He did not, however, express any fears about the result. On the contrary, he stated that the executors had consulted counsel, whose opinion was in favor of the validity of the whole will, and seemed to have entire confidence in the correctness of the opinion. But he intimated delicately that the executors entertained a friendly feeling for your orator, and were disposed to act liberally with him, and admitted that they greatly deprecated the delay which would attend a litigation. He spoke much and earnestly about the inevitable delay and vexation of a suit. He said that a smart and ingenious lawyer could pick a hole in almost any instrument of writing. That no doubt such an one could be found who would undertake

Page 50 U. S. 60

your orator's case, and then the will would be thrown into chancery, where it would remain for years. Your orator remarked that at that time, he was not able to fee a lawyer, but that he could obtain assistance from his friends. Mr. Smith proceeded to say that he thought a course might be taken by which expense and delay might both be avoided. He suggested, in short, that the executors were willing to pay a sum of money to your orator for a release of all claims on the estate, and proposed a conference between your orator and all three of the executors on the forenoon of Friday, 3 May, at the late residence of Mr. Bennett, which was accordingly appointed to take place."

"The amount which the executors were disposed to give for a release was not specified at the preliminary interview, but your orator learned from a credible source, after the release had been executed and the will had been admitted to probate, that the executors had at that time, and before the arrival of your orator, determined to offer him ten thousand dollars and no more. He also learned from the same source and at the same time that the executors (or some one or more of them -- your orator cannot recollect) which had called upon him (your orator's informant) before your orator's arrival, to learn his character, and that he or they seemed to be impressed with the belief that your orator was of an easy disposition, and not over smart or intelligent, and that he would gladly accept their offers at once. Your orator's informant added that to undeceive them, he read to them parts of your orator's correspondence with him."

"At the conference of May 3, at which were present the three executors, Mr. Riddle and your orator, and no other person, your orator very briefly stated, in substance, that his opinion or impression was that the residuary devise in the will was void, and that he had determined to test its validity by legal proceedings. On the part of the executors, Mr. Taylor was the principal and almost the only spokesman."

"He insisted much on sundry written opinions of counsel in favor of the legal validity of the residuary devise, which he offered to show to your orator. He conveyed to your orator's mind (but by what language or phrases he cannot recollect the clear and distinct impression) that there was but one opinion among the lawyers consulted on this question -- or in other words that they were unanimous in favor of the legal validity of the residuary devise. But as Mr. Taylor had not stated that he concurred in opinion with the counsel whom the executors had consulted, and as your orator regarded him as counsel of

Page 50 U. S. 61

the highest legal ability, he (your orator) asked him without ceremony what his opinion was on the subject."

"His reply was that your orator ought not to have asked his opinion, but as he had been asked, he would give it. The substance and effect of his opinion was that the devise in question was a legal and valid disposition of the residue of the estate. When your orator, now greatly disheartened, intimated deferentially that he had taken up a contrary opinion, Mr. Taylor said that he admitted that in Pennsylvania such a devise would not be good, but that it was good under the old law of Virginia as it existed at the time of the cession of the County of Alexandria by Virginia, which law was the law of the County of Alexandria up to the time of Mr. Bennett's death."

"But while an undoubting confidence was expressed by the executors, through Mr. Taylor, in the ultimate result of any litigation about the validity of the residuary devise, they admitted, and accounted for their anxiety to obtain an immediate release of your orator's claim, by insisting on the great importance to the Town of Alexandria of an immediate application of the residuary fund to the completion of the canal, more especially, and to other useful and important objects. To avoid the delay of a law suit, they were willing to pay for a release of your orator's claim, however untenable and desperate. Your orator does not mean here to quote the language of Mr. Taylor, but to state the impression made on his mind by the language used."

"It were tedious to tell much more that was said at this conference. Suffice it to say, that Mr. Taylor was a man of commanding intellect and that, under the most favorable circumstances, your orator would have been wholly unequal to the intellectual conflict in which he found himself involved with one so gifted and for whom he entertained an habitual and profound respect. But having no distinct or settled views of the legal question thus suddenly forced upon him, or time to form any, fevered by a rapid journey, his spirits depressed by the recent death of his last kinsman, to whom he had been tenderly attached, and flurried and confused by the magnitude of the question he was called on to decide, and the necessity of deciding it at once, your orator felt himself wholly overpowered, and strongly inclined to succumb to the views so forcibly presented to him. And these views were moreover recommended to his favorable consideration by the offer, so tempting to a man in his situation, of a large sum of money without delay or further trouble."

"In this state of mental ferment, your orator, scarcely knowing

Page 50 U. S. 62

what to do or say next, asked the executors what sum they proposed to give him for a release. They answered that it was for him to say what he would be willing to take, and the conference closed with a request on the part of the executors that your orator would consider the matter and let them know his decision in the course of the day."

"But how could he, in the time allowed him, give to the subject the consideration its importance deserved, or any consideration? His personal incompetency to decide the question or even to consider the subject in so short a time he has already stated truly, and without exaggeration. He was so much flurried that his mind could not act. Why not, then, resort to learned and able counsel having no personal interest in the question for advice and direction? The answer is that the executors, by the shortness of the notice which they had given him, or in other words by appointing so early a day for the probate, had effectually precluded him from pursuing this obvious and only rational course. A brief reference to the facts of the case will show conclusively the correctness of this assertion."

"It was now past noon on 3 May, and your orator was given to understand that on the next day the will would and must be offered for probate. Counsel was in the meantime to be sought for in Alexandria, where the whole population was interested in sustaining the will, and where, without derogating from the professional merit of the rest of the bar, it may be said that the first jurist of the town was committed against him. And if it be conceded that good counsel could have been had in Alexandria, it is still perfectly obvious that he could not have had time to examine and give an advised opinion on a question involving above one hundred thousand dollars, and if not one of great difficulty, still one requiring a very great and deliberate consideration. No counsel would have taken on himself the responsibility of giving a final opinion on such a question in the time that was allowed to your orator for his decision. He was therefore compelled to decide, without the aid of counsel, whether he would make the legal validity or the legal invalidity of the devise the basis of his action, and being entirely in the dark, he concluded that the only safe course was to consider the devise valid and take what he could get for a release. But he was required to name a sum, and what sum he should name and demand was the remaining question."

"And here again, such was the precipitation with which this important business was conducted that he had no certain premises

Page 50 U. S. 63

on which to act, for he had neglected to ask the executors, and they had not informed him, what would probably be the amount, after deducting legacies and expenses of administration, of the residuary interest which he was asked to surrender, so that while he was apparently offered an election whether to go for the whole or to take some definite amount in lieu of his chance of getting the whole, it was an election between a known quantity and an unknown quantity. That is to say it was no election at all, but a mere proposition that he should guess what sum he would be content to receive or at what point he ought to take his stand and refuse to fall lower in his demands. Under this duress of circumstances he made a guess, and informed the executors in the course of the day that he would release his claim for $30,000. Their reply was an offer of $20,000, an answer to which was required on the following morning, the day of probate. In the morning of the following day, your orator called on Mr. Smith, and told him that 'he would be better satisfied with $25,000.' The executors agreed to give that sum, and so the matter ended."

"The agreement between your orator and the executors was forthwith committed to writing and executed -- that is to say signed and sealed -- by the parties. A certified copy is herewith presented, as a part of this bill."

The bill then proceeded to account for the delay in bringing the suit, and concluded in the usual form.

The bill was filed in May, 1844.

In January, 1845, the defendants demurred to the bill.

In October, 1846, the complainant filed an amended bill, making the Common Council of Alexandria a defendant. The circuit court, upon argument, sustained the demurrer and dismissed the bill, from which decree an appeal brought the case up to this Court.

Page 50 U. S. 76

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