The Myra Clark Gaines Cases: “The Most Remarkable in the Records of its Courts.”

Stop 6 of 11 in the 200 Years of Louisiana Supreme Court History tour

While located in the Cabildo, the Louisiana Supreme Court decided several cases in the Myra Clark Gaines litigation. Lasting for more than fifty years, the Myra Clark Gaines litigation is known as the longest case in US history, beginning around 1834 and culminating in a ruling in her favor and against the City of New Orleans in 1889. Unfortunately, Myra Clark Gaines died on January 9, 1885, at age 78, before the US Supreme Court ruled in her favor.

Myra Clark Gaines was born on December 27, 1806, the daughter of Zulime Carriere and Daniel Clark, a wealthy New Orleans businessman and the first congressman from the Territory of Orleans, before Louisiana became a state. Unaware of her biological parents, Myra Clark Gaines was raised by Col. and Mrs. Samuel B. Davis, friends of Daniel Clark. At the time of her first marriage to William Wallace Whitney, Myra discovered that Daniel Clark was her father.

She filed suit in both Louisiana state court and federal court, arguing that she was the legitimate daughter of Daniel Clark and the heir of his fortune. After Whitney passed away, Myra married Gen. E. P. Gaines, who supported her in her legal claims. Myra eventually sued the City of New Orleans to reclaim her property. While this action was still pending, Myra Clark Gaines died after a short illness in New Orleans. On May 13, 1889, four years after Myra Clark Gaines’ death, the US Supreme Court ruled against the City of New Orleans and awarded her heirs $576,707.92.

The controversy centered on two wills allegedly executed by Daniel Clark before his death on August 16, 1813, in New Orleans. The first will, dated in 1810, left the bulk of Daniel Clark’s estate to his mother, Mary Clark, with his business associates Relf and Chew as the executors. The second will, allegedly hand-written, dated on July 13, 1813, left his fortune to Myra Clark Gaines, with different executors. Daniel Clark had spoken of his second will prior to his death, stating that he was leaving everything to his daughter. After his death, the second will mysteriously disappeared, and the first will was probated.

In 1856, more than forty years after Clark executed his 1813 will, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Daniel Clark’s handwritten will in a decision by Chief Justice Edwin T. Merrick. The Louisiana Supreme Court commented on this lengthy litigation:

We are not insensible to the argument that this claim has remained for forty years, without being set up in a court of justice in a form to be prosecuted to effect, and that rights have been acquired under the sales made under the will of 1811. The staleness of petitioner's suit is best answered by the reference to the litigation in which petitioner's alleged rights have been prosecuted in other forms, and we may suppose it did not become necessary to resort to the unusual proceeding of applying for the probate of a last will until after those cases were decided (Succession of Clark).

Two years later, the Louisiana Supreme Court allowed the heirs of Daniel Clark's mother to contest Daniel Clark’s 1813 will. Concurring in the decision, Chief Justice Merrick explained the seeming inconsistency with the Court’s ruling two years earlier:

The plaintiffs in this action were not parties to the proceeding in which the will of 1813 was admitted to probate. They are, therefore, not only not concluded by the decree, but their right to contest the will in a direct action was expressly conceded in the opinion and reasoning of the court in that case, 11 La. Ann. 131. The only advantage the defendant gained by the decree, as between these parties, was the status of universal legatee, which throws the burden of proof upon the party seeking to deprive her of her position as such (Heirs of Clark v. Gaines).

The US Supreme Court, which ruled in approximately nine cases involving Myra Clark Gaines, issued its final ruling on May 13, 1889, four years after Myra Clark Gaines’ death, awarding her heirs $576,707.92 against the City of New Orleans (New Orleans v. Gaines's Adm'r).

Twenty-eight years earlier, in 1861, the US Supreme Court decided that this case was “the most remarkable in the records of its courts,” ruling that Myra Clark Gaines was Daniel Clark’s heir and entitled to her father’s succession:

Our judgment is, that by the law of Louisiana Mrs. Gaines is entitled to a legal filiation as the child of Daniel Clark and Marie Julia Carriere, begotten in lawful wedlock; that she was made by her father in his last will his universal legatee; and that the Civil Code of Louisiana, and the decisions and judgments given upon the same by the Supreme Court of that State, entitle her to her father's succession, subject to the payment of legacies mentioned in the record. We shall direct a mandate to be issued accordingly, with a reversal of the decree of the court below, and directing such a decree to be made by that court in the premises as it ought to have done. Thus, after a litigation of thirty years, has this court adjudicated the principles applicable to her rights in her father's estate. They are now finally settled.

When hereafter some distinguished American lawyer shall retire from his practice to write the history of his country's jurisprudence, this case will be registered by him as the most remarkable in the records of its courts (Gaines v. Hennen).

Images

Cabildo

Cabildo

The Cabildo as it appeared in approximately 1900. The Louisiana Supreme Court decided the Myra Clark Gaines' cases in the Cabildo. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

Myra Clark Gaines

Myra Clark Gaines

This 1850 daguerreotype portrait of Myra Clark Gaines can be seen at the Louisiana State Museum. It is signed "Whitehurst" on the lower right corner of the mat. The case is embossed with gold leaf, has two catches and is lined with red velvet. Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum. View File Details Page

Myra Clark Gaines

Myra Clark Gaines

Myra Clark Gaines in her 50s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

Edwin Thomas Merrick

Edwin Thomas Merrick

Chief Justice Edwin Thomas Merrick presided over the Louisiana Supreme Court, which upheld the validity of Daniel Clark's 1813 will, bequeathing his fortune to his daughter, Myra Clark Gaines. Courtesy of The Louisiana Supreme Court. View File Details Page

Obituary (1 of 2)

Obituary (1 of 2)

The obituary of Myra Clark Gaines, who died on January 9, 1885. Courtesy of the Times-Picayune. View File Details Page

Obituary (2 of 2)

Obituary (2 of 2)

The obituary of Myra Clark Gaines, who died on January 9, 1885. Courtesy of the Times-Picayune. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Mary Ann Wegmann, The Law Library of Louisiana, and University of New Orleans History Department, “The Myra Clark Gaines Cases: “The Most Remarkable in the Records of its Courts.”,” New Orleans Historical, accessed July 26, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/799.
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