The Courts Took 78 Years To Figure Out One Guy's Will
Daniel Clark was a politician and businessman who died in New Orleans in 1813, leaving behind a bunch of money. He willed it all to his mother, which is just about as simple a will as you can get. But he also might have had a second will, leaving money to his daughter, Myra Clark Gaines. And this daughter might have been illegitimate. Or, she might have been legitimate, depending on the exact nature of the relationship between Clark and her mother. So she might have been owed money, will or no will.
Sorry for being so vague. But to explain everything in more detail, we'd have to tell you all the back-and-forth conclusions from 78 years of wrangling following Clark's death. Myra Gaines sued to inherit Clark's estate, then sued again, then sued again. The case turned into scores of individual cases, against a bunch of people who bought land from the estate, and it went before the US Supreme Court 17 different times.
The case lasted so long that it spanned vast changes in the legal system. At the start, Louisiana had a different system of law from the rest of the country, complicating matters. Some witnesses talked in English, while others talked in French. No juror understood both, each juror had to leave the room when someone spoke in the other language, and they had to come to a verdict having understood just half the testimony.
Most notably, at the start, women weren't allowed to file suits in their own names or even to testify as witnesses. So at the start, the plaintiff was Mary's husband, the lawyer William Whitney. One early judge decided against him so hard that the guy was sentenced to prison for libel (a criminal offense at the time). Whitney died in 1837 when Yellow Fever hit New Orleans, and Mary went on suing on her own.
When the case was finally decided once and for all, the year was 1891. In case it's not obvious how much time had passed, imagine this all happened in the 20th century and picture the difference between 1913 and 1991. The court awarded Mary close to a million dollars. Nearly all of it went to legal fees. She'd probably have been furious with her lawyers ... but she never heard the news, having died six years earlier.
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Top image: Historic New Orleans Collection