By Jessie Serfilippi
|Eliza Schuyler Hamilton in 1787.|
The early 1800s were a trying time for Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. In 1801, Eliza’s sister, Peggy, died of what was likely stomach cancer, and her eldest son, Philip, was killed in a duel at the age of nineteen. In 1802, her nephew, Alexander Church, died at the age of ten, while in 1803, her mother died of a stroke. In July of 1804, her husband, Alexander Hamilton, died from the wound he received dueling Aaron Burr. Just four months later, in November of that year, her father, Philip Schuyler, died at his home in Albany. While the sheer number of losses she faced in the span of just four years was painful enough in and of itself, Eliza also faced massive debt, seven children to raise, and some unsupportive, selfish younger sisters—Cornelia Schuyler Morton and Caty Schuyler Malcolm.
Within a month of their father’s death, the Schuyler siblings were already fighting over money and land. Not long after interring their father in the Ten Broeck vault, Cornelia and Caty accused Eliza of accepting extra money from Schuyler in the months following Hamilton’s death. Eliza was greatly offended that her siblings even thought she might do so, and vehemently denied ever accepting money from him. As if that wasn’t enough, Cornelia and Caty then tried to take land that was rightfully Eliza’s. Overall, this battle between the sisters began in 1804, and did not end until 1810, even after Cornelia and her husband, Washington Morton, died in 1808 and 1810 respectively.
The first look we get at the effects of the fighting between Eliza and her younger sisters is in late
“I find the Current of Public Opinion here pretty strong against the executors of genl Schuyler for making any question about the deed to Mrs. Hamilton___ Her friends have advised her I am told to take no legal opinions on the subject but to demand the Deed and take posesion [sic] of the property”
Apparently, it was known in New York, where both Eliza and Cornelia lived, that there was a dispute over lands Eliza claimed to be hers. It seems as if, following the tragic death of Eliza’s husband, other New Yorkers were shocked that her better-situated siblings were attempting to take that land from her and that the executors of Schuyler’s will were not interceding on her behalf.
As Cooper recorded in the letter, consensus had it that the land was rightfully Eliza’s and that the executors should send her the deed, which was apparently executed to her, but not in her possession at the time Schuyler died. It was the fact that Eliza did not physically possess the deed that was giving her so much trouble.
Even if a deed is executed and signed to the intended grantee (Eliza, in this case), the physical delivery from grantor (Philip Schuyler) to grantee is necessary for the legal completion of the process because it denotes the willful transfer of the deed. While Schuyler had executed and signed the deed, it hadn’t been delivered to Eliza because she’d left for Manhattan before the deed was ready to be delivered. Without it being in her possession, Cornelia and Caty were technically within their legal rights to dispute Eliza’s claim to the land, despite every sign that their father had intended it go to Eliza.
|Cornelia Schuyler Morton in 1807.|
While Cornelia and Caty seemed to believe that they had a chance at getting the land because the deed had not been properly delivered, lawyers familiar with the dispute at the time Cooper wrote his letter to Stephen Van Rensselaer disagreed:
“the Lawyers here I am told are generally of the opinion […] myself though I have not carefully examined the Question___ at any Rate she is entitled to the Deed good or bad__ If possessing it will not give it validity_ I think therefore the Executors ought to send it to her”
The consensus among the lawyers Cooper knew was that Eliza was entitled to the deed. He even said that he believed the executors—which included Stephen—should send her the deed so the delivery process could be complete.
Not long after this letter was written, on January 10, 1805, Eliza herself wrote a letter to her younger brother, Philip Jeremiah, also an executor to his father’s will, in which she lamented the division within their family and laid the blame for the infighting at the feet of her two younger brothers-in-law, Washington Morton and Samuel Malcolm:
“This is our family situated, differences have arisen, and neither can recollect how much it is encumbent [sic] on them to be at peace […] as to myself I am satisfied you can arrange for me, but you see how we are here the two younger brother in laws will not meet…”
From this letter, it becomes evident that it was Washington Morton and Samuel Malcolm, neither of whom were executors of Schuyler’s will, who were causing issues during the settlement of the will.
Eliza turned to Philip Jeremiah for a reason: as an executor of the will, he could convince the other two executors, Stephen Van Rensselaer III and John Barker Church, Angelica’s husband, to settle the dispute. From what records survive of this tumultuous time, it seems as if the executors either could not or did not act. Why they failed to or were prevented from acting on Eliza’s behalf is unclear.
The dispute continued and, at some point between 1805 and 1807, went to court for the first time. Records of this first case are currently not known to survive, but they are mentioned in the later court case Eliza started. From what is described in the later proceedings, it seems as if Cornelia and Washington Morton went to court in 1807 to take the land from Eliza. The ruling on that case was not in the Mortons’ favor. On December 14, 1807, a judge overruled the Mortons’ claim and decreed that they must pay taxes, which probably meant they had to cover any legal fees. Even though the judge who presided over this case did not believe there was enough evidence to strip Eliza of her right to the land, it was also not the last time the siblings would go to court.
On May 19, 1810, Eliza brought her own case to court in order to prove that she had proper rights to the land. Even though the deed was executed to her, her siblings believed it rightfully fell under the “fee simple” section of Schuyler’s will, which gave them the option of claiming it as theirs as part of the “equal part eighth” that each child (or grandchild in place of a deceased child) was granted, as described in the will:
“…all the rest, residue and remainder of my real estate, whether in possession, remainder or reversion, or wheresoever situate, I devise and bequeath unto my dearly beloved Grandson Philip Schuyler, my dearly beloved son Philip Jeremiah Schuyler, my dearly beloved son Rensselaer Schuyler, and my dearly beloved grandson Stephen Van Rensselaer, and my dearly beloved Daughters, Angelica, Elizabeth, Cornelia and Catherine, to them their respective heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, as tenants in common in fee simple, and I do hereby authorize and empower my executors to make or cause to be made partition thereof between my said children, and grand children in such manner that each may become entitled to one equal eight part of the value as nearly as may be.”
As “tenants in common,” each person named in the will would receive an equal share of the land. The land Philip Schuyler willed to Eliza would normally have been included under the land the children would split “one equal eight part.” From the court proceedings, it’s clear that Eliza’s lawyer, Nathaniel Pendleton, explained how Eliza had come into possession of the land. He stated that Philip Schuyler
“did, by Indenture of bargain & sale bearing date the Fourteenth day of August in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred & four duly convey to the Compliant [Eliza] a certain price or parcel of land part of the farm whereon he then lived, described in fee simple, that the said Philip Schuyler the elder had previously made his will devising his estate generally among his children as Tennants [sic] in Common that the said Cornelia Morton and Catharine Malcom, were two of the children and devisors of the said Philip Schuyler deceased, and had set up a claim to the said land, in the said and mentioned under a pretence [sic] that the said deed had never been duly delivered to the Compliant”
The land referred to here is likely land to the front of the Schuyler Mansion, which sat on about 80 acres of farm land at the time Schuyler promised certain parcels of it to Eliza. Cornelia and Caty had “set up a claim to said land” and said the deed to the land in question had “never been duly delivered” to Eliza. That much, at least, is true. The proceedings go on to describe what happened with the deed:
“the said deed was duly executed & delivered & found among the papers of the said Philip Schuyler after his death, and was then put into the Complaint’s [Eliza’s] possession and she took possession of the lands there in mentioned”
What Eliza wanted from the suit was to claim the land by “perpetual injunction,” or a court order prohibiting her siblings’ claims. The claims her siblings had made to the land were preventing her from being able to dispose of it as she wished. Eliza wanted to sell the property, and it was because of the multiple claims to the land that no buyers would purchase it.
|Caty Schuyler Malcolm as a mother.|
While the case Eliza filed directly involved the Mortons and Malcolms, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, Peggy’s son, and Philip Schuyler, John Bradstreet Schuyler’s son, were mentioned as well. This was likely to prevent them from ever laying claim to the land, but the suit itself was not brought against them. Neither the Malcolms nor Mortons appeared in court that day. In fact, the Malcolms had failed to respond to the “Complaint’s bill,” and, as of July 3, 1809, were “Ordered to be taken pro confesso as against them on the hearing of the said cause.” In other words, because they failed to appear in court, the court considered the matter confessed to by the absent party.
The Mortons failed to appear as well, but they had a good excuse: they were both dead. So instead of the case being brought against them, it was brought against their “Infant children.” Those children—Catharine Van Rensselaer Morton, Alexander Hamilton Morton, Philip Schuyler Morton, Cornelia Lynch Morton, and Mary Regina Morton—were between the ages of twelve and two at the time. Their legal guardian— Thomas Smith, a clerk in Chancery—answered the suit for them. Their guardian did not seem to challenge Eliza’s claim to the land.
During the proceedings, it became clear that the land was rightfully Eliza’s. Samuel Stringer, who had been Schuyler’s physician for many years and had attended him in his final months, testified in court that he had witnessed Schuyler execute the deed in question on August 14th, 1804. Stringer said:
“…he [Stringer] knew the said Philip Schuyler in his lifetime and saw him sign, seal, and deliver, the said deed as his voluntary act for the purposes therein mentioned & that Philip Schuyler gave him the said deed & requested him to subscribe his name as a witness to the execution thereof”
With his testimony, the court decreed that “the land tenements, & hereditaments therein mentioned & described, did thereby pass to and became vested in the Complainant and her heirs in fee simple.”
Not only did the court rule in favor of Eliza, they also declared that if any of the Malcolms or Mortons attempted to take or claim the land, they would be fined $20,000. With that, the deed was officially “conveyed to the said Elizabeth Hamilton the Complainant,” and Caty and Samuel Malcolm had to “Pay the Complainant her Costs of this suit.”
As for the Morton children? They had until “six months after he or she shall have attained his or her age of Twenty one years, to show cause if any he or she hath against this decree.” There is no record that any of the children challenged it upon coming of age.
After five years of fighting, Eliza finally had the land that had been rightfully hers to begin with. By 1811, Eliza seemed to have sold the land to Benjamin Lattimore, who used it to found the “Albany School for Educating People of Color.”
In the end, Eliza may have won the land, but what did the court case do to her relationships with her siblings—especially Caty, who not only lost the suit, but had to cover Eliza’s legal fees? Look out for more on Eliza and Caty’s relationship after the court case in an upcoming blog post.