Personal Property Disputes
Land Trespass: Bad Fences and Bad Neighbors
In 19th-century Vermont, boundary disagreements often led to the courtroom, especially when trees were cut on another’s land, or when wandering livestock invaded fields and gardens.
One day in 1849 Swanton farmer Martin Corliss found Walter Comstock’s cows in his crops. He charged that they “eat up depastured trampled upon and spoiled…grass, corn, beans, peas and potatoes…of the value of one hundred dollars…” Referees Simeon Kellogg, Alanson Wright, Charles Rich awarded him $12 damages, court costs, and some neighborly advice: “They recommend to each of the parties to bear with patience the vexations and losses incident to having poor fences and roving unruly cattle.”
Trover and Replevin
The legal action of trover was used when private property was wrongfully obtained. The charge was not stealing, but illegitimate possession. The 19th-century legal language is odd and misleading, because it states that plaintiff “casually found” the property. In reality, most trover cases involved court officials seizing property from debtors, and the debtor disputing the taking. In trover cases, the plaintiff did not sue to have the actual property returned, but to recover damages for its value. If the plaintiff sought return of the property, the action of replevin was used instead of trover.
Claiming that he had a writ of execution to collect a debt, John Spencer of Peacham had Deputy Sheriff Salmon Elkins seize and sell John Lindsey’s household goods and clothing in 1805. The 31 items listed included “one white muslin gown, one pr of nankeen pantaloons, one pair of fire Dogs.” Lindsey sued for trover, and won in Caledonia County Court. The supreme court affirmed, awarding him $74.00 damages. Vermont’s supreme court held jury trials and ruled on all manner of disputes, from land titles to nankeen pantaloons, until the 1820’s. It gradually became almost exclusively a court of appeals, considering matters of law only.
In 1844 Orion Hull left his great coat, which he valued at $20, in Cyrus Brown’s Worcester tavern and asked Brown to send it with the stage driver to Morristown. The coat disappeared, and Hull sued for trover. Witnesses gave conflicting accounts as the two pursued their dispute through multiple trials. Brown finally prevailed in Lamoille supreme court. He won $79.76 court costs -- but may never have collected. The sheriff found no property of Hull’s to attach. We never learn what happened to Orion’s coat.
Most disputes over defective or damaged property involved horses or livestock. Agricultural products and manufactured goods that did not meet expectations might also lead to lawsuits. But any kind of property damage could be a matter for the courts -- even church pews.
Ira Foster purchased 200 sheep from Ira Caldwell for $250. Some were infected with foot rot, which spread to Foster’s other sheep, and he lost many of his flock. In 1846 he sued Caldwell’s estate in Franklin County Court, and won $82.29 damages and $140.83 costs -- much less than the $400 he asked for. Like many Vermonters, Foster lost money raising sheep. By the late 1840’s the state’s merino craze was waning, as protective tariffs ended and wool prices declined.
In May 1856, Archbishop of Burlington Louis de Goesbriand and two other men entered the Highgate Catholic church and tore out Thomas O’Hear’s pew. O’Hear claimed he owned the pew by original subscription, dating from the building of the church. The archbishop argued that an individual could not own church property, and that O’Hear had refused to pay pew rent. Depositions and the bill of exceptions by Judge Asa Owen Aldis detail the history of the Highgate Catholic church, differences over interpreting Church doctrine, and tensions between Irish and Canadian Catholics. The jury found for plaintiff after being instructed that “the law of the Catholic Church has no force in determining what the rights of these parties are except as the parties have made the law of that Church a part of their agreement.” The Franklin County supreme court affirmed in 1861.
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