Ralston v. Turpin
Clifford Anderson and Washington Dessau, for appellant.
A. O. Bacon and J. C. Rutherford, for appellee.
This suit was brought by the widow of the late James A. Ralston, Jr., to obtain a decree canceling certain deeds of gift of real estate, executed by her husband to the appellee, George B. Turpin, as trustee for his children. The original bill, filed August 7, 1883, sought this relief upon the ground that Turpin obtained the execution of the deeds by undue influence exercised by him over the grantor while the latter was in declining health, with a constitution seriously impaired by dissipation, and by the suppression of facts that were within his knowledge, and which, in view of his relations to the grantor, he was under obligation to disclose. In an amended bill, filed May 6, 1884, the grounds for cancellation were enlarged by an averment that at the time of signing the deeds the grantor was mentally incapable of comprehending and did not comprehend what he was doing, and that plaintiff gave her apparent consent to their execution, because, knowing Turpin's power 'over her husband, she feared to offend him, lest he might either work a separation between her and her said husband, or render their relations with each other insecure and unhappy;' and that 'she and her husband were both overreached and deceived by the said Turpin, and yielded because they were in effect powerless to resist.' By a subsequent amendment, made May 29, 1885, the plaintiff alleged as to the first deed that neither she nor her husband knew, at the time of its execution, whether it was a will or a deed, or what its legal effect was, and that both of them were so completely under Turpin's influence, and so anxious to conciliate and gratify him, that they did not stop to consider its character or effect, and had no opportunity to consult counsel with reference thereto. The answer put in issue all the material averments of the bill and amended bills. The circuit court dismissed the suit, placing its decision upon two grounds: First, that when the deeds were made the grantor was capable of disposing of his property as he thought proper; second, that its disposition was in conformity with the long-settled and cherished purpose of his life, and was not brought about by a betrayal of trust or any improper influence upon the part of the grantee. 25 Fed. Rep. 7.
The relations between the grantor and Turpin will appear from the following facts, some of which are conceded, while the others are established by a clear preponderance of evidence. James A. Ralston, Sr., died in 1864, possessed of considerable property, principally real estate in Macon. Ga., which passed, in equal parts, to his widow, and sole surviving child, James A. Ralston, Jr. During the life-time of the father Turpin attended to a large part of his business, and held towards him relations of close friendship and confidence. After his death the management of the estate was committed by the legal representative of the father to Turpin, who collected rents, leased property, and directed necessary repairs. In 1867, the son, then about 19 years of age, and having the right, under the laws of Georgia, to select his guardian, chose Turpin, without his solicitation, for that position. The latter qualified on the 2d of August, 1867. In the same year Mrs. Ralston, the mother, intermarried with Dr. Bozeman, of New York. On the 3d of May, 1869, Turpin, having made a final settlement of his accounts as guardian before the proper court, and turned over to his ward, who had then reached his majority, the property and assets belonging to the latter, received from that court a formal letter discharging him from the guardianship. Immediately after the relations of guardian and ward were thus severed, Turpin and his partner, Ogden, composing the firm of Turpin & Ogden, were employed by young Ralston to take charge of his real estate, and to collect rents, make repairs, etc. In addition to the relations between him and Turpin, arising out of this employment, there existed between them a warm personal affection. In 1873, the mother of Ralston died, leaving a will by which a considerable part of her estate was devised to him; and this, also, was committed by him to the management of Turpin & Ogden. By her will Turpin was made executor. He qualified, and in 1878, having fully administered her estate, was discharged as executor. In this connection it may be stated that Mrs. Bozeman told Turpin that he was not remembered in her will, because 'Jimmie had or would do so in his;' she observing, at the time, that he had been a good friend to the family. This is stated by Turpin in his deposition, and there is no reason to doubt the truth of his statement. On the 11th of May, 1874, Ralston being about 26 years of age, and then competent to dispose of his property, and having an estate yielding him an annual income of about $15,000, made at Macon, Ga., and without suggestion by Turpin, his will and testament, whereby he directed that a monument, suitable to his condition and circumstances of life, be erected over his grave, and requested that his 'friend, George B. Turpin, and his children after him,' would see to it that his 'monument and grave shall always during their lives be suitably kept and cared for.' By that will he also directed that, after the payment of his debts, his entire estate be divided into two equal parts,-one part to go to George B. Turpin, in trust for the sole benefit and use of the testator's aunt, Mrs. Laura B. Smith, and her children, James, Annie, Daisy, and Charles, during her natural life, and after her death for the joint and sole use and benefit of those children, and their respective descendants, during the life of the child longest surviving, and, upon the death of the last survivor, to the heirs at law of his aunt. The other part was devised to Turpin for the sole benefit and use of himself and children (born, and to be born) for and during his life; the trust to cease at his death, and the property to vest in his children then in life, the descendants of any deceased child to share in the division per stirpes. Turpin and Ogden were constituted his executors. On the 15th of December, 1879, Ralston, then nearly 32 years of age, made, at the city of New York, a second will, revoking all other wills, and devising to Turpin, 'in trust for his children, William C. Turpin, Frank M. Turpin, George R. Turpin, Lizzie Turpin, and Walter H. Turpin,' the building at the corner of Cherry and Third streets, in Macon, known as 'Ralston Hall,' together with the adjoining lots 66, 68, and 70, subject only to such liens and incumbrances as might be created thereon during his life-time. This property is variously estimated to have been worth between $40,000 and $50,000, and constituted, at that time, according to the weight of the evidence, less than one-half in value of his estate. He then devised to 'Ida Blanchard, by which name she is now known, and whose original name was Sarah or Sally J. Harten, formerly of Philadelphia, Pa.,' four stores in Macon, and all the watches and jewelry of which he should die possessed. To his aunt, Mrs. Smith, during her natural life, and at her death to her children in feesimple, he bequeathed his undivided onehalf interest in the Ralston mansion-house in Macon. To his grandmother, during her natural life, he devised all of the family pictures of which he should die possessed, and at her death 'to my friend George B. Turpin, of Macon, Ga., having enjoyed his friendship for a long course of years. I feel that they will be safe and kept intact in his hands.' To Ogden he devised all of the household furniture in the Ralston mansion-house.
It is here necessary to state that the plaintiff, under the name of Ida Blanchard, went to Macon in 1869, and lived continuously in houses of public prostitution. While prosecuting that mode of life, young Ralston made her acquaintance, and for several years, without intermission, and much to the grief of relatives and friends, held improper relations with her. They often quarreled and had drunken broils with each other in different places of bad repute where they met. During her residence in Macon, Turpin used every effort to induce Ralston to abandon the reckless and immoral life he was leading, and to cease the use of strong drink. But his efforts and warnings were unattended with success, except for brief intervals. No change occurred in the relations of Ralston and the plaintiff while in Macon. She states that he intended to marry her as far back as 1876. In the fall of 1879 they went to New York, and on the 23d of January, 1880, within less than three weeks after the will of 1879 was made, they were married. The fact of their marriage was not known in Macon until some months afterwards. In April, 1880, they removed to Stamford, Conn. In the summer of that year, Turpin, while at Saratoga Springs, received information of the marriage, and that they were living in Stamford. He went to the latter place in August, 1880, to ascertain if such were the fact, and, if it were, to inform Ralston that his marriage had, by the laws of Georgia, revoked the will made in favor of Turpin's children, and to suggest the propriety, if he still desired to do something for them, of making a formal deed for their benefit. There is some conflict between the statements of the plaintiff and Turpin as to what occurred at Stamford. But it is evident that nothing was said or done by Turpin, on that occasion, calculated to influence Ralston or his wife to take any course not entirely in accordance with their wishes. Nor is there any ground to suppose that the plaintiff acquiesced in what her husband did from fear that Turpin might expose her course of life or effect a separation between herself and husband. It does not appear that she stood in fear of anybody. It is clearly shown that, as the result of the interview at Stamford, Ralston and wife went to New York, and, before a commissioner of the state of Georgia, freely and voluntarily executed and acknowledged a deed, in fee-simple, dated August 26, 1880, conveying to Turpin, as trustee for his children, William, Frank George, Lizzie, and Walter, the identical property devised to him as trustee by the will of 1879, subject, however, to the condition that Ralston should receive annually its rents, uses, and profits, after deducting taxes and insurance thereon, and expenses for collecting the rents and making repairs, and subject to a mortgage of $5,000 made by Ralston to Ross, on one of the stores conveyed to Turpin as trustee. Two days afterwards, August 28, 1880, another deed, covering the same property and containing the same conditions, was executed and acknowledged by Ralston; the first deed having been discovered, or being supposed, to be informal in some respects. On the day of the execution of each of these deeds the plaintiff executed and acknowledged, before the same commissioner, a separate instrument in writing, stating that she freely and voluntarily ratified and confirmed the deed made by her husband. In the year 1881, Turpin, having been advised by counsel that the former deeds for the benefit of his children were defective, in that their clauses, or some of them, were of a testamentary character, inclosed another deed for Ralston to execute, which the latter did on the 19th of April, 1881; the plaintiff executing on the same day a separate writing ratifying and confirming that deed, and renouncing and conveying to the trustee for the uses therein named all her right of dower and other interests in the property conveyed. This deed conveyed to Turpin in trust for his children named in those instruments the same property as that described in the will of 1879, and in the deeds of August 26, 1880, and August 28, 1880. In this connection it may be stated that prior to the making of the will of 1879 Ralston became unfriendly to the husband of one of the daughters of Turpin, and for that reason she was omitted from that will as well as from all the deeds subsequently executed. He died at Montclair, N. J., on the 4th of July, 1883.
Mr. Justice HARLAN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.