« ForrigeFortsett »
before announced, I shall proceed to state the reasons there.
The main ground upon which relief is asked is the forgery alleged to have been committed by Leonard C. Crawford of the deed bearing date August 10th, 1878. In weighing the testimony bearing upon this point, it is proper to consider the relation which these parties bore to cach other, their age, mental condition and the surrounding circumstances. The complainant is the mother of Leonard C. Crawford, and lie is said by some of the witnesses to have been her favorite son. She was a lady over seventy years of age at the time the forgery is alleged to have been committed, and judging from her testimony her mind and memory must have been weakened by age, for it bears inherent evidence of intellectual decay and of the presence of infirmities incident to advanced years. She frequently contradicts herself and falls into errors without apparent cause. She was inquired of and testified to many things, such as admissions, conversations and transactions which were incompetent as evidence, being within the prohibition of the statute allowing parties to testify as witnesses in their own behalf. All such testimony we have excluded from our consideration. But the fact remains that she was a weak old woman, dependent upon the son for the management of her business and for the maintenance and support of herself, and that she placed great confidence in his integrity and disposition to do right in his transactions with her. In short, she had a mother's weakness for a favorite child. Her trust in him is illustrated by the testimony of Mr. Dowling, who was engaged by her to get a reconveyance of the property. She had accused her son of forging the deed, and Dowling lad obtained the consent of the son to reconvey the property upon certain conditions more particularly referred to hereafter. Dowling says that he was not acquainted with the descriptions, and he read the deed which her son proposed to execute to her to ascertain if it contained all, and he says she did not seem to know, and she said: “I guess they are all tlıcre; if iny son says so, it must he so.”
Such being the relation of the parties to the deed claimed to have been forged, a transaction whereby, as it is claimed, the mother voluntarily made a conveyance of all her property, variously estimated to be worth from twelve thousand to fifty thousand dollars, to her son, must be characterized by thė. utmost good faith, and the burden of establishing the fairness of the transaction is upon those wlio claim under the conveyance. Farmer's ex'r v. Farmer 39 N. J. Eq. 211; Condit v. Blackwell 22 N. J. Eq. 491; Porter v. Woodruff' 36 N. J. Eq. 174; Tate v. Williamson L. R. 1 Eq. 528; Rhodes v. Bate L. R. 1 Ch. App. 252; Billage v. Southee 9 Harc 534; Cowce v. Cornell 75 N. Y. 91. In the case last cited Mr. Justice IIand said: “It may be stated as universally true that fraud vitiates all contracts, but as a general thing it is not presiuned but must be proved. * * * Whenever, horrever, the relations between the contracting parties appear to be of such a character as to render it certain that they do not deal on terins of equality but that either on the one side from superior knowledge of the matter derived from a fiduciary relation, or from overmastering influence, or on the other from weakness, dependence, or trust justifiably reposed, unfair advantage in a transaction is rendered probable, there the burden is shifted, the transaction is presumed void, and it is incumbent upon the stronger party to show affirmatively that no deception was practiced, no undue influence was used, and that all was fair, open, voluntary and well understood.”
It is entirely clear that up to August 10th, 1878, Mrs. Crawford was the owner in fee of the valuable property in ques. tion. It is not claimed or pretended that Leonard C. Crawford ever purchased this property from his mother or paid her any consideration therefor, and yet a deed bearing date the 10th day of August, 1878, is produced, which, if gennine, vests the title of the whole of this property in the son for the noininal consideration of two thousand dollars. He suddenly becomes the ostensible owner, and his mother at the same instant becomes ostensibly a beggar. The proposition is startling, and calls for an explanation of the transaction from
the son. He is accused of forgery and fraud, and what is the explanation he gives ? To Mr. Carpenter he denied that he forged his mother's signature, but he admitted that he had obtained the deed by means perhaps ungracious, and justified himself by the plea that his brothers and sisters in Detroit had had more than their share of his mother's property; that there was some property in St. Paul that one of the children had the advantage of, and that he had worked hard at Crawford's Quarry, and that he thought the property there ought to belong to him. He also stated to Mr. Carpenter that the deed was taken to him entirely, only at the event of her death he should have it (the property) in preference to the other children. Mr. Carpenter then said to him that his mother now asked the property back; that he was invited up there by his mother, and he (Leonard) said the mother could have the property back upon this condition,—that upon her death she should give it to him in preference to the other children. To Mr. Dowling, another attorney employed by Mrs. Crawford to regain these lands, he said that his mother had claimed that she had never signed this deed, and he brought and exhibited to Dowling another conveyance to show the signature attached to it, and asked him to pass his opinion upon the two signatures as to whether they were alike or not. And he said: “This is the voluntary deed of my mother duly acknowledged and duly witnessed; there is no mistake about it whatever.” Dowling further testifies as follows: “I told him that his mother had requested me to have a talk with him abont the matter, and get him, if possible, to reconvey those lands to her, and lie refused to reconvey them. He said his mother was getting old, and that she had disposed of most of lier property, and she probably would dispose of those lands if he reconveyed them, and he did not think he had his share of her worldly wealth, and he intended to keep the lands and hold them under that deed, which was a voluntary deed on her part.” · If the testimony of Emma Crawford, Emma C. Jouret and C. Stenton is to be believed, the proof of forgery would be clearly established. Each of these witnesses testify that Leonard C. Crawford admitted in their presence that he had forged the deed in question, but at the same time they say that he asserted that he should rely on the deed and hold the property to the exclusion of the other children of Mrs. Crawford. It seems hardly credible that a person accused of forgery and threatened with a prosecution to recover the property should so freely adınit away his title to it, and at the same time express his determination to hold the property under the deed. Yet these statements may each and all be true. It may be possible that he boldly asserted to his sisters Mrs. Jouret and Mrs. Stenton that he had forged the deed and meant to keep the property, relying upon their desire to avoid a public scandal and disgrace in the family, and also upon his mother's fondness for him, to prevent a prosecution. If so, it exhibits a daring hardihood and a reckless disregard of consequences seldom met with outside of the criminal classes.
In reaching the conclusion that the deed in question is a forgery, I have laid aside the testimony of each of these wit. nesses as tinctured with an evident bias. The witnesses who were present at the transaction all agree that, at about the time this deed bears date, Mrs. Crawford signed her name to a certain instrument to which Mrs. Crawford and her son Leonard were parties; they all agree that Mrs. Williams was present on that occasion; they all agree that Mr. Alexander McDonald was a witness called to witness the signature of Mrs. Crawford to the paper then signed by her. The deed in question appears to be signed by Mrs. Crawford, and to be witnessed by Philip O'Farrell and A. McDonald, and the acknowledgment appears to have been taken before Philip O'Farrell as a notary public. The witnesses disagree as to the kind of paper then signed, as to its appearance, as to who were present, and as to what transpired on that occasion. It is to be remarked, however, that all agree that but one deed was ever made or executed of any lands in Presque Isle county between Mrs. Crawford and her son Leonard that Mr. McDonald was a witness to.
Mrs. Williams testifies that there were present Mrs. Craw
ford, her son Leonard, Mr. McDonald and herself, and that O'Farrell was not present. Mr. McDonald testifies that Mrs. Crawford, Leonard, Mrs. Williams, O'Farrell and himself were present. Mr. O'Farrell testifies the same as McDonald. He also testifies that he was there at the request of Leonard, who told him to prepare the deed of all Mrs. Crawford's lands that had not been conveyed, and told him his mother was going to deed these lands to him. He says he told Leonard that he did not think his inother would, because he had heard her speak to the contrary some time before; that he drew up the deed and took it to Mrs. Crawford's place to have it signed; that he spoke to her, and that she consented to sign it; and that he was greatly surprised. He says:
“In fact I told somebody that I would not be surprised if she had shot me more than I was when she consented to sign it. So I took her into a room of the house—at least, arranged to get her in there—and I explained it to her. Of course, I don't remember now what language was used; but I am very positive that my intention was to tell her that she was giving him what property she had in Presque Isle county. She went on to tell what he had promised to do with reference to giving her a certain amount of money—I don't remember the amount—and to make provision for the support of herself and his father, her husband. There was some talk about where the father should stay, whether it was to be in Detroit or up there, and they came to some conclusion abont it, but I don't remember what it was; and I don't know as I would remember as much as I do only for my surprise about her signing such an instrument at all. Well, then there was something said about what security she would have that he would carry out his agreeinent with her, and my recollection is, although I would not be very positive about it, that I suggested drawing up a bond or a contract, or something to that effect, and for hiin to give her a mortgage on the property to secure her in his carrying out this agreement about this support and money, and so on; but what became of that, or whether it was done there and then, I have no definite recollection. Then I remember that we went into another room, and in fact walked from one room to another talking about the matter. Mrs. Williams was called from another room, or from up stairs, in the same house, to be as a witness, and when Mrs. Williams came down she was called upon to be