Myra Clark Gaines

From eualexander@DELTA.IS.TCU.EDU Tue Feb 17 01:22:05 1998
Date: Mon, 01 Sep 1997 10:10:07 -0500 (CDT)
From: eualexander@DELTA.IS.TCU.EDU
To: Hal Morris
Subject: Re: myra clark gaines

Mr. Morris:

Thank you for your prompt response. I am delighted to tell you a little about a woman who I think is one of the most interesting and most overlooked individual in nineteenth century American history.

Myra Clark Gaines was the plaintiff in the longest-running legal case in the history of the United States court system. From 1834 to her death in 1885 she fought to establish herself as the legal heir of her father, Daniel Clark, a wealthy New Orleans merchant who died in 1813. Myra was the daughter of Clark and a young Frenchwoman, Zulime Carriere. Her mother was married in 1796 to a French emigrant, Jerome Des Granges (or a variant of that spelling) when she met Clark. According to Myra Gaines' lawsuits, her mother discovered evidence that her marriage to Des Granges was bigamous because he had been previously married and not divorced. Believing that she was legally free to contract another marriage, Zulime married Clark in Philadelphia in 1802 or 1803. For reasons that were never completely clear, Clark delayed announcing their marriage; in New Orleans the couple lived separately, and most of Clark's friends believed she was only his mistress. Some people did apparently know of the marriage and later testified to its existence. In 1807 Clark and Zulime separated, perhaps due to meddling by Clark's business associaties who informed Zulime that Clark never intended to acknowledge her and actually planned to offer marriage to another woman. Clark died in 1813. His will made in 1811 probated in the New Orleans probate court left his considerable fortune to his mother. Myra believed that Clark had made a later will (in June of 1813, two months before he died) that designated her as his legitimate daughter and legal heir.

The lawsuit that began in 1834 ultimately challenged Clark's estate on two accounts. Louisiana law prevented a father from disinheriting a legitimate child--the law held that a legitimate child must receive at least 4/5 of the estate. In addition, Myra claimed that the 1811 will was invalid because of the later will. Unfortunately for her case, that 1813 will had disappeared. Myra claimed that the executors of the 1811 will had destroyed the second will since it removed the estate from their jursidiction.

These allegations of fraud, missing heirs, and lost wills made the "Great Gaines Case" frontpage newspaper copy for more than fifty years. Myra was a master at using the press to present her case to the public. She really became one of the first true celebrities. Between December of 1840 and February of 1841 she and her second husband, Edmund Pendleton Gaines ("the hero of Fort Erie" in the War of 1812) went on an extensive lecture tour, speaking in citie from Cincinnati and St. Louis to Balimore and Philadelphia. His speech proposed the "Plan for National Defence" that he had tried to present to the War Department. Her speech was "The Horrors of War." Newspapers reported that crowds thronged the lecture halls to hear the couple, and most of the interest centered on the tiny figure of Myra Clark Gaines. People came to see her, not to hear her speech on war, but just to see the woman whose name was already so famous.

It was unusual for women in 1841 to speak in public to "promiscuous" audiences (both men and women), but Myra Gaines did not receive the opprobrium that other female speakers encountered. Most newspapers praised her as a woman trying to remove the stigma of licentiousness from her mother's name and the stain of bastardy from her own. Her speech itself, however, drew little praise. Most commentators remarked that she knew little of her subject and spent most of their column space describing her personal appearance or explaining the course of her lawsuit.

I'm tempted to let you wonder what happened to the Great Gaines Case, but in hopes that you will send me the text of that speech (and I think you can see why I want it), I'll tell you how it ended. Myra Gaines' case was ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court seventeen times, under one case name or another. Three rulings are particularly important. In 1843 the Court announced that Gaines was the legal heir of Clark. In 1852 the Court essentially reversed itself and declared no evidence of a legal marriage between Clark and Zulime exisited; therefore, Myra could not be Clark's heir. In 1861, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Court again changed its collective mind and decided that Myra Gaines was Clark's heir. After the war, that decision was confirmed by the Court in 1867. From that point on, additional rulings supported Myra as she fought delaying actions by those who had bought property sold by the executors of the revoked will. When she died in 1885 the case was still in the courts. The final ruling in the Gaines Case came in 1891, six years after her death. At the point of the 1861 Supreme Court decision, newspapers had proclaimed Myra as "the richest woman in America" and mentioned a figure of $35,000,000 as the total of Clark's estate. By the time she died, lawyers fees and other debts had reduced the total. She never received any great sums from her case, and her heirs split a total of about $100,000.

Facinating, isn't it? The Great Gaines Case is the subject of my dissertation, and--I hope--a book on Myra Clark Gaines. Very little has been written on Gaines, and nothing at all in the last fifty years. I would greatly appreciate any help you can give me in locating the text of her speech--no newspaper reprinted the full text. If you do publish "The Horrors of War" in your newsletter, could you include my name and university (TCU in Fort Worth) so that anyone with any other information about Gaines could reach me? Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Elizabeth Alexander
Texas Christian University
Fort Worth, TX
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