Smithsonian Institution v. Meech

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

169 U.S. 398

Smithsonian Institution  v.  Meech

This was a bill by the Smithsonian Institution against Levi W. Meech and others to establish the right of complainant to certain property. There was a decree in its favor in the trial court, which was reversed by the court of appea § (8 App. D. C. 490), and from that decision it appeals.

On June 4, 1895, the appellant, as plaintiff, filed its bill in the supreme court of the District of Columbia to enforce certain rights claimed under a will made by Robert S. Avery, on July 22, 1893. In this will, after sundry bequests to his own relatives, is the following:

'I bequeath to the sister and brothers of my late wife one thousand dollars (1,000), to be equally divided between them. I have already given these last over a thousand dollars which my wife inherited from her father, also clothing and other gifts, thus equalizing substantially my gifts to her family and to mine. These bequests are all made upon the condition that the legatees acquiesce in this will, and I hereby bequeath the share or shares of any disputing this will to the residuary legatee hereinafter named.

'All the rest and residue of my estate, of whatsoever nature, real, personal, or mixed, and wheresoever situate. I hereby give, devise and bequeath unto the Smithsonian Institute, a body corporate by virtue of the laws of the United States, of which institution Samuel P. Langley is now secretary, having its legal residence in the District of Columbia, unto it and its successors, forever.

'Having always had a love for the sciences, and having acquired most of my property while toiling in humble capacities to extend and diffuse knowledge, I have concluded that the residuary gift above made to the Smithsonian Institution will best express my interest in science. As my labors have been directed to the invention and use of phonetic type, I desire, but do not require, that the income derived by the Smithsonian Institution from this gift may be applied, so far as it may determine, to promoting publications in such type of scientific publication, especially of such publications as may relate to phonetic type and printing. I also desire, but by no means require, that such part of said income as the said institution shall determine shall be applied to the publication of lectures and treatises upon and concerning those mechanical laws governing an etherial medium which are treated of in atomic chemistry, and which are supposed to govern phenomena of electricity, magnetism, light, and heat. Prizes might be given for essays on these subjects, and upon such other kindred subjects as may meet the approval of the institution. I would like, however, to have published first the multiplying table and also IV-plate logarithms, publication of the table of squares, cubes, square roots, cube roots, reciprocals, prime numbers and factors, some of which I have written out. If the institution shall approve, the fund derived from the residuary bequest shall be called the 'Avery Fund' or the 'Fund Contributed by Robert S. Avery and His Wife, Lydia T. Avery, for the Extension of the Sciences'; and all publications made from the fund shall bear this inscription.

'The property known as part of lot 2 (two) in square 787 in the city of Washington, D. C., being premises No. 326 A street, S. E., is my property, although the title stands in my wife's name. I include it in the residuary bequest to the Smithsonian Institution.'

The testator died childless, on September 12, 1894. The will was probated February 2, 1895. He and his wife had lived for many years in Washington, he being in the employ of the government in the coast survey office. During these years he lived a quiet and retired life, devoting himself to scientific research, and experimenting chiefly in the matter of phonetic type. His wife was younger than he, and was, until shortly before her death, on November 18, 1890, in apparently good health. While they were both living, and on April 20, 1885, the real estate described in the last paragraph quoted from the will was purchased, the title being conveyed to Mrs. Avery.

The bill alleged that the lot was paid for with the money of Robert Avery; that the title was taken in the name of Mrs. Avery because it was supposed that she would outlive her husband, and upon an understanding and agreement that the property should, after their deaths, pass to the Smithsonian Institution, in pursuance of a mutual desire to make their gift to this institution as large as possible; that, notwithstanding these facts, the defendants, other than the executrix, claimed title to the property as the heirs of Mrs. Avery, and had demanded possession. The prayer was for a finding and decree that the equitable title was in Robert Avery, and passed to the plaintiff by his last will; that the defendants be enjoined from claiming any title thereto; and that the executrix be directed to treat the $1,000 bequeathed to the sister and brothers as forfeited for breach of condition annexed to said legacy, and as having fallen into the residuum. After answer, testimony was taken, and the case was heard before Justice Hagner, of the supreme court, who rendered a decree in accordance with the prayer of the bill so far as respects the lot, but denying the relief sought as to the legacy on condition of the defendants executing a release of all claims to the realty. 24 Wash. Law Rep. 326. On appeal by all of the defendants, except the executrix, the court of appeals reversed the decree of the supreme court, and remanded the case, with directions to dismiss the bill (8 App. D. C. 490); whereupon the plaintiff appealed to this court.

Frank W. Hackett, for appellant.

Franklin H. Mackey, for appellees.

Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).