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May 19, 1902



Fuller, Brewer, Brown, Shiras, Jr., White, Peckham, McKenna; Mr. Justice Harlan and Mr. Justice Gray did not hear the argument and took no part in the decision of this case.

Author: Brewer

[ 186 U.S. Page 118]

 MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after making the above statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

The appellant contends, first, that the Supreme Court of the District, sitting as a court of equity, had no jurisdiction of this cause; second, that the verdict of the jury was not sustained by the evidence; and, third, that there was duress and coercion of the jury by the court, which resulted in an unjust verdict.

We pass the first question with the observation that, whatever might have been the conclusion if the defendants had stood upon their challenge of the jurisdiction, the agreement of the parties to submit certain questions to a jury, the trial before the jury and the stipulation for returning the testimony there taken to the equity court for consideration by the judge thereof, must be held a waiver of the objection to the jurisdiction. Under the Federal system the same judge may preside whether the court is sitting in equity or as a common law court. While the pleadings and procedure are dissimilar and the rights of the parties, especially in respect to juries, are different, yet in many cases a party who appears in one branch of the court and consents to a hearing and adjudication, according to the practice there prevailing, of an issue presented by the pleadings and in respect to a subject-matter, which is within the general scope of its jurisdiction, may be estopped from thereafter and in an appellate court challenging such jurisdiction. Reynes v. Dumont, 130 U.S. 354, 395. This is such a case. The determination of the title to real estate is within the scope of the general jurisdiction of a court of equity. The issue of undue influence in respect to any transaction such a court is competent to determine. The proceeding consented to, and in fact had, was practically the trial of a feigned issue out of chancery. It is too late now to raise the question of jurisdiction.

Passing to the second question, we premise by saying that

[ 186 U.S. Page 119]

     it is well settled that when the trial and the appellate courts agree as to the facts established on the trial, this court will accept their conclusion and not attempt to weigh conflicting testimony. Stuart v. Hayden, 169 U.S. 1, 14, and authorities cited in the opinion. And this rule of concurrence with the conclusions of the trial and appellate courts is given more weight when in the first instance the facts are found by a master or a jury. Furrer v. Ferris, 145 U.S. 132, and cases cited in the opinion. These propositions we have often affirmed. At the same time there has always been recognized the right and the duty of this court to examine the record, and if it finds that the conclusions are wholly unwarranted by the testimony it will set the verdict or report aside and direct a reexamination. And after having carefully examined the record in this case we are constrained to the conclusion that there is no testimony which justified the answer returned to the second question. On the contrary, if a will is set aside upon such a flimsy showing as was made of undue influence, few wills can hope to stand.

The facts are these: The testatrix was a woman sixty-five years of age; had been married forty-five years, but was childless; here relations with her husband and sisters were pleasant; her near relatives were two sisters, Caroline LeFevre, the present appellee, and Mrs. Maus, the mother of Helen B. Johnson. Another sister had died many years ago, leaving two children, Charles Lewis Smith (known in the record as Louis Beyer, Junior) and Helen C. Fenton. Louis Beyer, Junior, while a little child, and on the death of his mother, was taken by the testatrix and brought up as her son. There does not appear to have been any formal adoption, but he went by the name of Louis Beyer, Junior, and was recognized and treated as her son. He was twenty-seven years old at the time of her death. Helen B. Johnson was, as stated, the daughter of Mrs. Maus, a sister of testatrix. She, too, lived with the testatrix the most of her life, although it does not appear that she had been recognized as a daughter. The testatrix died of cancer in the abdomen. The first indications of trouble were in December, 1893, though at that time the appearances were of an ordinary

[ 186 U.S. Page 120]

     case of indigestion, and the fact that it was cancer was not developed until some time in the early part of 1896, the year in which she died. In the month of June of that year she went on a visit to the home of Helen Johnson's mother-in-law, twelve miles south of Richmond. She returned about the first of July, was about the house for a week or so after her return, and then took to her bed, dying on July 26. When spoken to, at different times prior to her visit to Richmond, about making a will she had declined, saying she intended the property should go to her husband; but being advised, either before or after her visit to Richmond, that in case she died without a will the property would go to her sisters and their descendants, she decided to have a will made, and so informed Louis Beyer, Junior, on Sunday, July 12; she also inquired if a will made on Sunday was valid, and was told by him, after an examination of a cyclopaedia, that it would be. He suggested an attorney living near, to whom she objected, whereupon he proposed to call in Mr. Brennan, who occupied an office in the same building in which he was employed. This was satisfactory. Mr. Brennan was sent for. Witnesses were asked to attend, among them her regular physician. Mr. Brennan came in the afternoon, found her lying in bed, received instructions from her how she wanted the will drawn, and wrote it then and there. It was thereafter read to her, signed and acknowledged by her in the presence of himself, the regular physician, and a Mr. Sullivan, and signed by them as witnesses. That will was similar to the one finally executed, except that it devised the property to Louis Beyer, Junior, alone. Mr. Brennan took the will to his office. On examination he found that he had left out the word "heirs," so that, as he thought, only a life estate would pass to the devisee, and on Monday prepared a new will, exactly like the one which had been executed, with the addition of the word "heirs." He called on the testatrix and explained the change he had made; she then said that, inasmuch as there had to be a new will executed, she would like to have Mrs. Johnson included with Louis Beyer, Junior. Whereupon Mr. Brennan went to his office and wrote a will the third time, and on Tuesday went back to the house, and there it was executed.

[ 186 U.S. Page 121]

     That is the will in dispute. It was taken by him to his office and kept in his hands until after her death. That the contents of this will were known to her at the time of its execution, and that she was "of sound and disposing mind, memory and understanding, and capable of executing a valid deed or contract," were found by the jury, and were abundantly proved by the testimony, among the witnesses thereto being her ...

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