William W. Christmas: The Myra Clark Gaines Case
For a period of more than 50 years in the nineteenth century, Myra Clark Gaines was the most famous woman in America. In theory, she was also the richest woman in the country. At one point, the value of her potential assets was estimated at 35 million dollars, exceeding the worth of the recognized millionaires of the century. But Myra never was able to enjoy her fortune; and in New Orleans, she was the most reviled and feared public figure in the city�s history.
Myra struggled for her whole adult life to regain her legacy as the legitimate heir of her father, Daniel Clark. She was the plaintiff in over 300 separate cases that all derived from that root claim, collectively known as the �Myra Clark Gaines Case.� Counting appeals, her case was decided in the United States Supreme Court on seventeen separate occasions, and five times in the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The lands to which she laid claim included hundreds of acres in New Orleans; plantations; slaves, bank accounts; stocks; and other investments that had been dispersed when her father died in 1813. The cases began being heard in 1834, and continued past Myra�s death in 1885.
In pursuing her fight for legitimacy, Myra lost two husbands to death and ran through their personal fortunes in legal fees. Several cases had to be retried when Louisiana seceded from the United States during the Civil War; and retried again after Louisiana rejoined the Union. The pressure of the case is said to have driven her son into an asylum; it estranged her from her foster father; it pitted her against an older sister she only learned existed during the course of the case; and resulted in a murder within her family.
The literary analogy to �Jarndyce and Jarndyce,� the interminable court case that is the centerpiece of Charles Dickens Bleak House, is uncanny. Dickens described that case in these terms:
�Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.�
However, whereas Jarndyce and Jarndyce dragged out seemingly without purpose or hope, the Myra Clark Gaines case was sustained by steadfast resolve and no shortage of expectation.
The details behind the case read like the plot of a nineteenth century melodrama. Daniel Clark was a British-born merchant transplanted to New Orleans, where he flourished by negotiating shipping interests through the labyrinthine tariffs and customs of Louisiana�s Spanish administration, French administration, and ultimately American administration. He developed wealth and influence in his adopted city, and maintained intimate ties to the rest of the business community in New Orleans. One of his clients was a small businessman with a questionable background, Jerome DesGrange. When DesGrange was called upon to travel back to France to look after his family interests, he asked Clark to check in on his wife, a beautiful young Creole woman named Zulime Carriere.
Clark was entranced by Zulime and they developed an intimate relationship during Jerome�s protracted absence. Zulime became pregnant and went to Philadelphia to give birth. A girl, Caroline, was born there in 1801. Testimonies diverge on the circumstances of that pregnancy and the reason for the trip to Philadelphia. Myra�s legal opponents argued that Caroline was the product of Daniel and Zulime�s relationship, and that Clark admitted the daughter was his to his Philadelphia partner and requested his help in making arrangements for her upbringing. In following years he even introduced Caroline to his own mother, and acknowledged that Caroline was his natural, though illegitimate, daughter.
Myra, on the other hand, bolstered by testimony from Zulime�s sisters, argued that Caroline�s father was DesGrange; and that the reason for the trip to Philadelphia was to investigate and confirm rumors of DesGrange�s bigamy. Once that bigamy was proven, Myra�s lawyers asserted, she was free to marry Clark, which she did later during that stay on the East coast. Eventually, both Daniel and Zulime returned to New Orleans, where their relationship continued. The marriage was kept secret in order not to derail Clark�s hopes to be named the new American governor of Louisiana. Zulime gave birth in 1804 to a second�legitimate�daughter Myra; and Clark arranged for Myra to be raised by his friend, Samuel Davis, far from Louisiana.
Daniel and Zulime�s tempestuous relationship ended in 1807. Clark intimidated Zulime by threatening to disavow their marriage if it ever came to light; and urged her to marry another, which she did. Daniel composed a will in 1811 that left his property to his mother and her heirs. Two pillars of the New Orleans business community, Richard Relf and Beverly Chew, were named executors of that will. When Clark died in 1813, Relf and Chew began to disperse the estate, and did so over a period of years in a manner that brought very limited income to the Clark family. Relf and Chew did not properly account for all the transactions required of them as executors; and had financial pressures of their own that made quick settlement of Clark�s estate advantageous to their business.
Several old associates of Daniel Clark later testified that a second will was written shortly before he died. They swore that it named Myra as the primary beneficiary, that they had read it themselves, and that they knew where in Clark�s house the will had been stored. As Clark lay on his deathbed in 1813, access to his last conscious moments was strictly controlled by Richard Relf. When his other friends searched the house later for the newer will, they found it gone.
It was not until 1830 that Myra came across papers in her foster father�s home that caused her to doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Davis were not her real parents. In 1832 she married William Whitney, son of a Revolutionary War general who founded the city of Binghamton, New York. William Whitney encouraged her to discover the full truth about her heritage, despite the protests of Samuel Davis against doing so. The couple traveled to New Orleans and began talking to her father�s former associates. The more they heard, the greater sense of injustice they felt. They also suspected that Relf and Chew mishandled the estate with criminal intent. They made their accusations public, and as a result William Whitney was imprisoned for libel in 1834 in horrid conditions. He later died of yellow fever. Myra had two children during those trying years. Her outrage and determination only grew stronger after William�s death.
The main and incidental Gaines cases then dragged through various courts for decades. The central legal point was not the existence of the second will (which never resurfaced), but rather was the legitimacy of Myra�s status as Clark�s daughter. Her right to inherit depended on family law�laws that defined legal states of marriage, bigamy, and divorce�in an era that had moved those determinations from Church to State before adequate civil registration bureaucracies were in place to record them. Consequently, many jurisdictions recognized �common law� marriages and divorces that depended only upon varying standards of evidence. Also, as Louisiana was transferred from Spanish to French to American administration, its laws were brought into line with other American states--except in areas of family law. Ultimately, Myra�s defense rested on eyewitness testimony to her parent�s marriage and to recollections of others of Daniel Clark�s declaring Myra�s status as his legitimate heir.
As the case dragged on following William Whitney�s death, Myra remarried a much older man, General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gaines was a hero of the War of 1812, and was in a position to encourage and finance her continued legal battles. Moreover, he was an insider to the workings of the federal government. Gen. Gaines and Myra became celebrities of Washington D.C. society. They launched a series of successful public lectures on the subject of national defense, but Myra herself was the main attraction�everyone was curious to see the face behind the famous court case. These public displays occurred at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to address a mixed sex audience.
General Gaines died in 1849, leaving Myra to finish the upbringing of her children, Rhoda Whitney and William Whitney, Jr. At the same time, she pursued her many lawsuits and fended off countersuits. Her closest friends were her lawyers. Her patience was such that when Federal courts and the Supreme Court ruled against her, she bided her time and worked political circles to encourage the appointment of more sympathetic judges. Her enemies plagued her in other ways. During the Civil War, she tried to get an officer�s commission for her son William. That effort was blocked by old court opponents, and William was forced to fight for the Confederacy as a private. Myra herself was portrayed as an �enemy alien� by defendants in the Confederacy courts.
Myra's daughter Rhoda divorced her first husband, Robert Strother, who later died during the Civil War. Rhoda remarried James Yancey Christmas, a son of a long line of North Carolina gentry and a former Confederate Colonel on Maj. General Robert Ransom�s staff. However, Christmas had no great wealth to call his own. Rhoda bore three children by James Y. Christmas: a son, William Whitney Christmas, in 1865; a daughter, Rhoda Whitney Christmas, born in 1868; and a second son, James Miller Christmas, in 1873. Concerning her eldest child, William Whitney Christmas, Rhoda once wrote: "[He] has very black eyes, golden-red hair also very fair. [He] is held as an example to his brother and sister for truthfulness and good conduct, we have never known him to exaggerate in the smallest degree - nor make use of a bad word."
To Myra�s distress, her daughter Rhoda died in 1879. This left her husband James Y. Christmas with three children to bring up, which he did with Myra acting as matron of the household.
Myra�s other child, William Whitney, emerged from the Civil War in fragile condition. For the remainder of his life he suffered from epileptic fits. At one point he was hospitalized in an asylum for his nerves. While there, he met a nurse named Harriet Hall and their relationship bloomed into marriage. Harriet came from a humble farming family, and some conjectured that her devotion to William was sealed when he admitted that he would be worth $5,000,000 when the Gaines case was settled. Harriet bore William three children, and they were given names sure to please matriarch Myra: William Wallace Whitney (after Myra�s first husband); Myra Clark Whitney (after Myra); and Zulime H. Whitney (after Myra�s mother).
In the late 1870s, James Y. Christmas and William Whitney went into business together as curled hair manufacturers. This was an enterprise that took horsehair, processed it, and sold it to furniture makers as stuffing. James was raised among horse farms, so he likely brought that acumen to the business. Their business was barely lucrative, and the former colonel and the former private did not get along well. Following Rhoda�s death in 1879, both families moved as boarders into the former Catacazy Mansion in Washington, D.C. Myra, James and his three children, and William and Harriet and their three children now all shared Myra�s purgatory existence as claimants to the Clark legacy. The mansion in which they lived had been the residence of the former Russian Ambassador to the United States who, along with his vivacious wife, scandalized Washington society. When Myra and her family took rooms there, the house was already said to be a home to restless spirits.
As the 1880s loomed, the mansion was about to become more haunted.
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