Where a will was established in New Orleans in 1792 by order of
the alcalde, an officer who had jurisdiction over the subject
matter, his decree must be considered as a judicial act, not now to
be called into question.
Page 59 U. S. 471
The courts of the United States have no probate jurisdiction,
and must receive the sentences of the courts to which the
jurisdiction over testamentary matters is committed as conclusive
of the validity and contents of a will. An original bill cannot be
sustained upon an allegation that the probate of a will is contrary
Moreover, the fraud charged in this case is not established by
The principal circumstances of the case, which furnished the
basis of the judgment of this Court, are set forth in the
The entire case was one which covered a vast deal of ground. For
the appellants there was a brief filed by Mr. S. Paul of nearly 150
pages, which was adopted by Mr. Taylor, and one by Mr. Taylor
himself of the same size. On the part of the appellees, the brief
of Mr. Janin was only 30 pages. These papers contained a vast deal
of research into the civil law upon many points of the case which
were not noticed in the opinion of the Court, whose judgment rested
upon a single point as disposing of the case. It is not necessary,
therefore, to report them.
MR. JUSTICE CAMPBELL delivered the opinion of the Court.
The plaintiff filed her bill in chancery to recover a share of
the succession of Marie Josepha Deslondes, wife of Bertrand
Gravier, who died at New Orleans, in November, 1792, without lineal
heirs, she claiming to be one of the heirs at law of said decedent.
After the death of his wife, Bertrand Gravier placed a petition
before the first alcalde of New Orleans, stating that his wife had
made a will before a notary and three assisting witnesses; that the
testamentary dispositions, as set down, conformed to her
instructions, and were given while she was of a sound mind, but she
had lost her consciousness before she had signed the paper, and
prayed that the assisting witnesses might be examined to prove the
will and that the same might be declared valid in all its parts in
the same manner as if she had signed it. An order was made by the
alcalde on this petition, with the approbation of the assessor of
the intendancy and the sanction of the governor and
intendant-general, directing the notary to take the examination of
the witnesses as the petitioner had solicited. The witnesses, on
their examination, testified that the notary had drawn the will in
accordance with the directions of the testatrix, and they were
given when her mind and memory were sound, but that before the
formal writing was finished, she had lost her consciousness, and
did not therefore
Page 59 U. S. 472
sign the same. Upon the return of the depositions to the
alcalde, he entered the following decree:
"Under advisement [vistos
]. The will, proved by a
legalized notarial act to have been made by Dona Maria Josefa
Deslondes, who was the lawful wife of Don Bertrand Gravier, is
declared valid and subsisting; let it be kept and executed in all
its parts; and in order that this declaration, relative to said
will, may remain permanent, there shall be placed on the notarial
register, and on the original will a note referring to the
proceedings, giving to the parties interested certified copies of
both documents whenever they may ask for them. And whereas the said
Don Bertrand Gravier, sole heir, has attained the years of
majority, and that the property is notoriously large, there is for
this reason no necessity for judicial proceedings; and for security
for payment of the six thousand dollars to the absent heirs, he
Gravier will immediately mortgage the plantation until final
payment or till otherwise agreed to by the parties. Whereupon,
these proceedings terminated, let the costs be taxed by D'n Louis
Liotaud after acceptance and oath, and let them be paid by the
heir, twenty-four reals having been received as the assessor's
"[Signed] PEDRO DE MARIGNY"
"LICENTIATE MANUEL SERRANO"
"Thus decreed by D'n Pedro de Marigny, Knight of the Order of
St. Louis and First Alcalde for his Majesty, having original
jurisdiction in this city and its judicial precincts, with the
approbatory opinion of D'n Manuel Serrano, Assessor General of this
intendancy, and he signed the same in the City of New Orleans the
21st November, 1792."
"[Signed] PEDRO PEDESCLAUX"
By this will, the testatrix bestowed legacies in favor of a
number of her relations, and instituted her husband for her sole
and universal heir in order that after her death he should inherit
the remainder of her property. The defendants claim the property
described in the bill under titles derived from this heir.
The bill charges that Bertrand Gravier, fraudulently induced the
notary to prepare a will for his wife, and witnesses to attest the
act, and although the legal formalities were wanting which were
necessary to its validity, a "sham decree" of probate was procured
from the alcalde by the corrupt agency of the said instituted heir.
The defendants deny these allegations, and they
Page 59 U. S. 473
have not been supported by testimony. The will has remained
without contestation for above a half century. The alcalde,
assessor, notary, and witnesses maintained during their lives a
good reputation for probity. The property of the testatrix was
distributed without opposition according to the provisions of the
will, and is now held under titles derived from the instituted
heir. This evidence disposes of the allegations of the bill except
those which impugn the sufficiency of the act as a legal
That question, in our opinion, is closed by the decree of the
alcalde. That decree declares the will to be valid and subsisting
and directs its execution. We are obliged to treat the decree as
the judicial act of a court of competent jurisdiction. In fact it
was the only judicial authority in the Province of Louisiana except
that exercised by the governor.
This decree remains in full force, never having been impeached
except in this collateral way. The courts of the United States have
no probate jurisdiction, and must receive the sentences of the
courts to which the jurisdiction over testamentary matters is
committed as conclusive of the validity and contents of a will; an
original bill cannot be sustained upon an allegation that the
probate of a will is contrary to law. If any error was committed in
allowing the probate, the remedy is in the state courts according
to their appropriate modes of proceeding; such was the decision of
this Court in Tarver v.
9 Pet. 174.
The decision of this question is sufficient to dispose of the
case, and we decline any inquiry in reference to any other which
was discussed at the hearing.
Decree of the circuit court affirmed.