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WILLIAM C. S. VENTRESS ET AL., EXECUTORS OF LOVIC VENTRESS, DECEASED, PLAINTIFFS IN ERROR, v. NEAL SMITH

January 1, 1836

WILLIAM C. S. VENTRESS ET AL., EXECUTORS OF LOVIC VENTRESS, DECEASED, PLAINTIFFS IN ERROR,
v.
NEAL SMITH, ADMINISTRATOR OF JOHN CLARK, DECEASED.



IN error to the district court of the United States for the district of Mississippi. John Clark, of the state of Alabama, died in 1818, owning and possessed of certain slaves; and after his decease, administration of his estate was granted to his widow. She afterwards intermarried with John Farrington, and an inventory of the estate was filed, the slaves being included in the same. On the first day of November, 1819, Neal Smith, and his co-security for the administratrix, by an application to the proper court, had the letters of administration revoked, on the ground that the administratrix and her husband were embezzling the estate of John Clark; and they stated that the negroes had been sold. Administration was granted to Neal Smith. The slaves were carried from the state of Alabama to the state of Mississippi, and were there sold. The county court of Clark county, in the state of Alabama, in August, 1819, authorized the administratrix of John Clark to sell all the personal property of the intestate, except the slaves; and it did not appear that any order to sell the slaves had ever been obtained. Neal Smith, sometime after he had been appointed administrator of the estate of John Clark, in Alabama, procured letters of administration, ad colligendum, from the probate court of Wilkinson county, in the state of Mississippi. They were in the following terms: 'State of Mississippi, Wilkinson county. To all to whom these presents shall come, greeting: Know ye, that whereas John Clark, of Clark county, in the state of Alabama, as it is said, had, at his decease, personal property within this state, the administration whereof cannot immediately, be granted, but which, if speedy care be not taken, maybe lost, destroyed, or diminished; to the end, therefore, that the same may be preserved for those who shall appear to have a legal right or interest therein, we do hereby request and authorize Neal Smith to secure and collect the said property, wheresoever the same may be, in this state or in Wilkinson county, whether it be goods, chattels, debts, or credits, and to make, or cause to be made, a true and perfect inventory thereof, and to exhibit the same, with all convenient speed, together with a reasonable account of his collection, in the office of the register of the orphans' court of the county of Wilkinson. Witness, the honorable Thomas H. Prosser, judge of probates of Wilkinson county. [No seal of office.] C. C. WEST, Reg. W. C. P.' Neal Smith, under the authority of the letters of administration ad colligendum, on the 5th of April, 1822, instituted, in the district court of the United States for Mississippi, an action of trover against Lovic Ventress, for the recovery of the slaves which had belonged to his intestate; and with the declaration in trover, a copy of the letters of administration ad colligendum was filed. The defendant appeared and pleaded to the suit, and it was continued to April term 1823, when the death of the defendant was suggested, the case continued, and a scire facias was issued to Elizabeth Ventress, his administratrix. The administratrix appeared, by her attorney, at the succeeding October term, and the cause was 'legally continued' until April term, 1825; when the death of the administratrix was suggested, and the cause again continued. On the 21st day of February, 1827, a scire facias was issued to William C. S. Ventress and others, the plaintiffs in error, executors of the last will and testament of Lovic Ventress, and at January term of the district court, they appeared, and the case was tried by a jury; and a verdict was rendered in favor of the plaintiff, on which judgment was entered by the district court. On the trial, the defendant offered no evidence other than a bill of sale for the slaves, made by James McDonald to Lovic Ventress, in consideration of $1,900; with proof that the same was paid at the time of sale, and that it was deemed a fair value for the slaves. The plaintiffs offered in evidence the deposition of Neil McNair, and the defendant objected to the admission of a part of the same. The court overruled the objection, and the following bill of exceptions was sealed: 'On the trial of this cause, the plaintiff offered in evidence the deposition of Neil McNair, the answer of which witness to the 10th cross interrogatory–(10th cross interrogatory: Were they not sent away, or intrusted to some person to be removed and sold, by the administrator or administratrix, or other personal reprepresentative of said John Clark, in the state of Alabama? Answer. Deponent saith that he hath reason to believe, and doth believe, that the said negroes were removed and sold, not by the authority or request of the administratrix or any other person representing said estate)–the defendants, by their counsel, objected to as evidence to the jury, on the ground of being inadmissible from the manner of its answer, and moved the court to rule it out as inadmissible testimony. But the court overruled the application of the defendant's counsel, and permitted the said answer to be read to the jury as evidence in the cause.' Upon the submission of the cause to the jury, the plaintiff's counsel requested the court to charge the jury–– 1. That it must appear in evidence to the jury, that Abigail Clark was authorized, by an order of the court in Alabama, to sell the slaves, or she could convey no legal title to the defendant. 2. That it must also appear by evidence to the jury, that James McDonald was authorized, either by a legal purchase or by a power from the administratrix, to sell the slaves, or his conveyance could not divest the estate of Clark of the legal title in his representatives. 3. That unless both of the above facts appeared, to wit, the authority of the administratrix to sell, and the authority of McDonald, either by a legal purchase or power of attorney from the administratrix, that the title to the slaves still remained in the legal representatives of John Clark, deceased. 4. That if the plaintiffs were entitled to recover, they were entitled to the value of the hire of the slaves, by way of damages, from the time the slaves came into the possession of Ventress. The defendants' counsel also presented the court with the following points in writing, which they requested the court to give in charge to the jury: 1. That if the jury shall believe, from the evidence before them, that Abigail Clark became the administratrix of the estate John Clark, deceased, in the state of Alabama, and, as such administratrix, held and possessed the slaves sued for, till her intermarriage with John Farrington, and that said Farrington and wife, in virtue of the administration of said Abigail, were also possessed of the slaves sued for; and that the possession of these defendants, or their testator, of the slaves sued for, was acquired by, through, or from the said Farrington and wife, either directly or indirectly; then the plaintiff, as administrator to collect the estate of John Clark, deceased, has no right to recover in this action against these defendants. 2. Will charge the jury–if they shall believe, from the evidence, that the slaves sued for in this action were, since the death of said John Clark, held and possessed by Abigail Clark, his administratrix, in the state of Alabama, and that during her administration, she intermarried with John Farrington, and that Farrington and wife possessing said slaves by virtue of the administration of said Abigail, eloigned, wasted, embezzled, sold, or otherwise converted or disposed of them, in violation of their duties as administrators of said Clark's estate, by which devastavit of said administrators, the slaves sued for passed to the possession of one James McDonald, who brought them to this state and sold them for a full and bona fide consideration, to Lovic Ventress, defendants' testator, who purchased in good faith, and without notice of such devastavit of said administrator; then the testator, Lovic Ventress, acquired a good title as against the plaintiff, and the verdict should be for the defendants. 3. Will charge the jury–that if they believe, from the evidence, the slaves sued for belonged to the estate of John Clark, deceased, at the time of his death, and passed into the possession of his administrators, in the state of Alabama, who embezzled and disposed of the same, in disregard of their duties as administrators; but that defendants' testator, Lovic Ventress, became an innocent purchaser of said slaves, (in this state,) for a valuable consideration, without notice of the mal-administration of said Clark's estate in Alabama; then they should find their verdict for the defendants. The court refused to instruct the jury in all or either of the several points as sought for and requested by the defendants' counsel, as aforesaid; but did charge the jury as requested by the plaintiff, except upon the fourth point; in which the court was of opinion that hire, as damages, could be recovered only from the commencement of the suit. The counsel of the defendants excepted to the opinion of the court in charging as requested by the counsel for the plaintiff, and refusing to charge the jury as requested by them, on behalf of the defendants. The defendants prosecuted this writ of error. The case was argued by Mr. Jones for the plaintiffs, and by Mr. Key for the defendant in error. Mr. Jones, for the plaintiff, maintained–– 1. That the letters ad coll egendum from the court of probates in Mississippi vested not in the plaintiff below, but in terms excluded, any title to the possession of, or to maintain any possessory action for the property in question, under the peculiar circumstances and relations of that property and of these parties; even if a good title were shown in the legal representatives of Clark in Alabama. 2. That the process of the suit in the record shows a discontinuance and a mis-trial. 3. That the evidence excepted to by defendants in the first bill of exceptions, and admitted by the court, was inadmissible. 4. That the right of Ventress (defendants' testator) by purchase, bona fide, for a valuable and full consideration, without any notice of breach of trust or other fraud in the vendors, who had possession and the right of possession, clothed with a legal title; a purchase consummated long before the second letters of administration granted to the plaintiff in Alabama, and his letters ad coll egendum in Mississippi, and whilst the original letters of administration, granted to the vendor in Alabama, stood unrevoked and in full force; were valid and indefeasible: consequently, that the several opinions and instructions, both those delivered and those rejected by the court below, and both affirmatively and negatively disparaging that title, and sustaining the plaintiffs' title, are erroneous. Upon the first point, Mr. Jones cited Stat. Edward 3, ch. 11. Lord Coke's Commentaries on the Stat. of Edw. 3, 2 Inst. 397, 398, Stat. 4 Edw. 3, 31 Edw. 3, 1 Comy. Dig. Adm. E. 13, 2 Doug. Rep. 545, 1 Hen. Black. 184, 1 Bos. and Pull. 330, 1 Maul and Selw. 409. Upon the 4th point, Mr. Jones cited 4 T. Rep. 625, 621, 1 Bos. and Pul. 293, 7 Ves. 152, 8 Ves. 209, Williams on Executors and Administrators 1 vol. 303. Mr. Key, for the defendant in error, contended, that the testimony objected in the first exception was peoperly admitted. The instruction prayed for by appellee properly given; and those asked by appellant properly refused. He cited 1 Williams on Executors and Administrators 333, 609, 611, Statutes of Mississippi 281, Walker's Rep. 386, Holt's Nisi Prius Reports 485, 1 Payne's Rep. 400, 2 Wheaton's Rep. 263, Randolph's Rep. 195, 4 Mumford 194, Laws of Alabama (Toulmin's Digest) 334, act of 1809.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Thompson delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case comes up from the district court of the district of Mississippi, upon a writ of error. It is an action of detinue, to recover five negro slaves, of which John Clark, deceased, was the owner. The plaintiff, in the court below, prosecuted, as administrator ad colligendum, under letters of administration granted by the judge of probate of Wilkinson county, in the state of Mississippi. The action appears, by the record, to have been commenced in the year 1822 against Lovic Ventress; and after the cause was at issue, and before trial, Lovic Ventress died, and a scire facias, tested the first Monday in April 1823, was issued against Elizabeth Ventress, administratrix, &c., who afterwards appeared in court, and the cause, as is stated upon the record, was legally continued. At a subsequent term of the court, the cause being legally continued, as is alleged, the death of the defendant, Elizabeth Ventress, the administratrix, was suggested and admitted to be true; and thereupon a scire facias was issued to the present defendants in the court below, as executors of Lovic Ventress, tested the first Monday in October 1826, and due service thereof upon the defendants was returned. The record then states that afterwards, in January term 1834, to which term the cause was regularly continued by consent, the parties appeared by their attorneys, and the cause was tried, and a verdict found for the plaintiff. Upon the trial two bills of exceptions were taken. One in relation to the admissibility of evidence, and the other upon instructions given by the court to the jury upon the merits of the case; which will be noticed hereafter.

It will be necessary, in the first place, to dispose of two objections, arising upon the record, which have been raised against the plaintiff's right to maintain the present action:

1. That the letters of administration ad collegendum, granted by the court of probates in Mississippi, did not vest in the plaintiff any right or title to the possession of the property in question, or authorize him to maintain an action to recover it, even if a good title was shown in the legal representatives of John Clark in Alabama.

2. That the record shows a discontinuance of the cause, and a mis-trial.

It may be proper to observe, with respect to the first of these exceptions, that as it rests upon the disability of the plaintiff to sue, it ought to have been pleaded in abatement; but as we think the objection untenable, in whatever form it is raised, we shall proceed to notice it in the manner in which it is now presented.

These letters of administration recite, that John Clark, of Clark county, in the state of Alabama, as it is said, had, at his decease, personal property within this state, the administration whereof cannot be immediately granted, but which, if speedy care be not taken, may be lost, destroyed, or diminished; to the end, therefore, that the same may be preserved for those who shall appear to have a legal right or interest therein, we do hereby request and authorize Neal Smith to secure and collect the said property, wheresoever the same may be in this state, or in Wilkinson county, whether it be goods, chattels, debts, or credits, and to make a true and perfect inventory thereof, &c.

These letters of administration were granted under the authority of an act of the legislature of Mississippi, (Laws of Mississippi, 281,) which empowers the chief justice of the orphans' court, in the county in which such justice resides, whenever he may deem it necessary, to appoint an administrator to collect together the goods of the deceased, for the purpose of depositing them in the hands of the chief justice; out of which he shall pay the debts of the deceased, and be liable, in law, as other administrators. The argument at the bar is, that the power given to the administrator, does not authorize him to bring a suit. That no such power is expressly given, nor is it implied in the power to collect. The words of the statute are, general, to collect together the goods of the deceased. The power vested in the magistrate to appoint such administrator, is discretionary whenever he may deem it necessary. And if the words of the act, upon any reasonable interpretation, will admit of a construction which will uphold the authority given by the letters of administration, they ought not to be so construed as to impute to the magistrate an unauthorized exercise of power. And if we look to the letters of administration, the power to sue is necessarily implied in the language there used: 'We do hereby authorize the said Neal Smith to secure and collect the said property, whether it be goods, chattels, debts, or credits,' &c. These words are amply sufficient to authorize the bringing of suits, if necessary for the purpose of executing the power, and is certainly no forced interpretation of the word collect, as used in the statute, to consider it as implying the authority to bring suits. In the case of Irwin and Wright v. Peak, Walker Rep. 386, decided in the supreme court of Mississippi, in the year 1831, it was held that an administrator ad colligendum, may bring suits. This power, however, in the view of the court, rested upon a statute referred to in the opinion, but which has not been produced on the argument of this case. But the decision is so recent, and referring expressly to the statute, we think we may safely rely upon it as an authority to sustain the right to sue, under the power given by the letters of administration in this case. And we the more readily adopt this conclusion, because we think the right to sue is necessarily implied in the authority to collect the goods, chattels, rights, and credits. The grant of the power carries with it all the usual, ordinary, and necessary means to effectuate the beneficial exercise of the power.

2. The proceedings, as stated upon the record to continue the cause, appear to have been in conformity to a statute of that state, (Mississippi Statutes 238,) which provides that, when any suit shall be depending in any court, and either of the parties shall die before judgment, the executors or administrators of the deceased, in case the cause of action by law survives, shall have full power to prosecute or defend such action; and the court is authorized and required to render judgment for or against the executor or administrator, as the case may require; and a scire facias is authorized to be issued to call in the executor or administrator to make himself a party; and such was the course adopted in the present case, as appears from the record. Upon the death of Lovic Ventress, a scire facias issued to Elizabeth Ventress, the administratrix, who appeared and became a party to the suit, and the cause was continued; and upon the death of the administratrix another scire facias issued, to call in the defendants, the executors of Lovic Ventress, who appeared and became parties to the suit, which, according to the record, was regularly continued, by consent, to the term of the court when the cause was tried. For what reason or under what circumstances Elizabeth Ventress was appointed administratrix of Lovic Ventress, when the defendants were his executors, does not appear. But the court will not intend that it was without authority. Circumstances may readily be supposed to have existed, that would require the appointment of an administration for some special purpose. Whether she was a general administratrix, or only one with limited powers for some special purpose, does not appear. But when the record states that the cause was regularly continued, by consent of the present parties, who were fully competent to give such consent, there can be no ground upon which this court can now consider the cause discontinued.

3. The next objection arises upon a bill of exceptions taken at the trial, relative to the admission of evidence.

The plaintiff offered in evidence the deposition of Neal McNair, and the objection arises upon the answer to the tenth cross-interrogatory, which is as follows: 'Were they not sent away, or intrusted to some person to be removed and sold by the administrator or administratrix, or other personal representative of John Clark, in the State of Alabama?' Answer: 'Deponent saith he has reason to believe, and doth believe, that the said negroes were removed and sold, not by the authority or request of the administratrix or any other person representing said estate.' This answer was objected to on the part of the defendant, but admitted by the court, to be read to the jury. The whole deposition is not set out in the bill of exceptions; and this question and the answer standing alone, unconnected with the antecedent and subsequent interrogatories and answers, are in a great measure unintelligible. The very form of the interrogatory, shows the question to have had relation to some antecedent inquiry, and is vague and indefinite. 'Were they not sent away, or intrusted to some person (naming no one) to be removed and sold by the administrator or administratrix, or other personsal representative of John Clark?' It seemed to be a fishing inquiry, that would hardly admit of a direct and positive answer. Had it been a direct question to some specific fact, the belief of the witness would be no legal answer. The belief of a witness is a conclusion from facts. The witness should state facts, and the conclusion to be drawn from them, rests with the jury. Although this answer, standing alone, may not be strictly admissible; yet, when connected with other facts of the deposition, it might not not be objectionable. Subsequent inquiries might have drawn from the witness the facts upon which his belief was founded; and all being submitted to the jury, the belief of the witness might be at least rendered harmless. It does not appear how or under what authority this deposition was taken, or whether the parties were present or not. If they were, and no objection was made to the answer, it ought to be considered a waiver; and the exception not allowed at the trial. It is incumbent on the plaintiff to make out the error clearly and satisfactorily; every reasonable intendment should be in favor of the judgment; and we think the exception too vague to justify a reversal of the judgment.

4. This second bill of exceptions embraces the merits of the case, and turns upon the validity of the purchase of the slaves by Lovic Ventress in his lifetime. The facts upon which the court was called upon to instruct the j ury on this question, are briefly these:

The slaves in controversy, were the property of John Clark, of Alabama, and in his possession at the time of his death, in the year 1818. This widow, Abigail Clark, was appointed administratrix of his estate, and in May 1819, intermarried with John Farrington, and in June 1819, filed an inventory of John Clark's estate, including therein the slaves in question. On the first of November of the same year, the letters of administration to her were revoked, and administration granted to Neal Smith, the present plaintiff, in the court below. In August, 1819, the county court of Clark county, in the state of Alabama, authorized Abigail Farrington, the administratrix of John Clark, to sell all the personal property of John Clark except the negroes; and it does not appear that any order of sale of the slaves of John Clark had been obtained. The defendants offered no other evidence of title to the slaves, then a bill of sale from James McDonald to the defendants' testator, in Wilkinson county, in the state of Mississippi, dated November 2, 1819, for the consideration of nineteen hundred dollars, which was paid at the time of sale, and which was deemed a full and fair value of the slaves. Upon this evidence the plaintiffs' counsel requested the court to charge the jury––

1. That it must appear in evidence to the jury, that Abigail Clark was authorized by an order of the court of Alabama, to sell the slaves, or ...


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