More on Early 20th Century Efforts by Jessup Family Members to Invalidate Deeds of Many Pelham Manor Homeowners
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"Voila!", Judge William F. Gay of Mount Vernon must have thought at that moment more than 110 years ago when his research seemed finally to have paid off. His research revealed a potential weakness in the chain of title involving a fifty-acre farm that had been sold many decades before for development in Pelham Manor. The estate was known as the Jessup Farm. The farm had been subdivided, the lots had been sold, and many fine residences had been built on some of the lots -- family homes of a large number of affluent Pelhamites.
Judge Gay developed a rather complex legal theory that required him to find a descendant of Edwin C. Jessup, an owner of the farm until his death in 1846. Although Edwin C. Jessup had several children before his death, his girls died childless. One son, however, had grown up and moved away, never to be heard from again by the family. All thought him dead.
Judge Gay had a problem. He had a theory that would permit him to exploit a potential weakness in the deeds of many Pelham Manor residents, but he had no plaintiff to pursue a lawsuit based on his theory. No one knew if Edwin C. Jessup, Jr. was alive or, if so, where he might be.
Though Judge Gay had a problem, he was a problem solver. In his view, this was simply another problem that needed solving. Judge Gay embarked on a nationwide search to find Edwin C. Jessup, Jr. (or, of course, any heir or heirs he might conveniently have left behind if he was, indeed, dead).
The search covered a "large part of the United States" and took "several years." Eventually, in November, 1907, Judge Gay found his man. Edwin C. Jessup was quietly farming a small acreage in northern Connecticut near the Massachusetts state line when he was found. He was living there with his wife, Josephine, and several children. When told he might be able to claim title to lands and homes worth up to $3,000,000, the poor farmer leaped at the chance. He authorized Judge Gay to sue on his behalf immediately to invalidate the titles of all those in Pelham Manor who owned plots once part of the Jessup Farm.
Location of the Jessup Farm
I have written before about this effort to invalidate titles of lands owned by many Pelham Manor residents. See Mon., May 17, 2010: Jessup Family Members Tried in 1909 to Take Back Some of the Lands Conveyed to Form the Lands Developed by the Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association.
The Jessup Farm was an area bounded by roughly where today's Wynnewood Road lies on the west, by today's Colonial Avenue on the north, by a line roughly parallel to the New Rochelle border slightly inside New Rochelle on the east, and by a line roughly parallel to today's Boston Post Road extending roughly up to the lands of today's Pelham Country Club. (See map detail below.)
An early owner of the farm was Edwin C. Jessup who died in 1846. The succession of title to the Jessup Farm after his death was rather complex. It was even sold at one point to Charles J. Stephens, a nephew of Silas H. Witherbee who was the principal financial backer of efforts by the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association in the early 1870s to develop Pelham Manor. Charles J. Stephens participated in that effort and made the Jessup Farm available for sale as part of the development effort. Due to a profound financial depression at the time, the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association failed. The Jessup farm was sold at foreclosure and was repurchased by Edwin C. Jessup's widow who since had remarried. Eventually the property was sold to a number of land development companies that, in turn, subdivided the lands and sold them to affluent New York City businessmen who build large homes on the property. By the first decade of the 20th century, several development companies still held lots that once were part of the Jessup Farm and quite a number of Pelham families lived in homes they had built on lots that once were part of the Jessup Farm.
Attorney William F. Gay Moves in for the Kill
During the last week of February, 1908, William Gay moved in for the kill. He commenced a lawsuit against three real estate holding companies that still owned some of the undeveloped land that once was part of the Jessup farm. By suing only the companies and not the families who had built homes on properties they had purchased from developers, he apparently hoped to mitigate, to some little extent, sympathy for families whose homes would be placed at risk by the effort to invalidate title. He made his point to those families, however, by filing lis pendens against all owners of all Pelham Manor properties that comprised what once was the Jessup farm (including the families whose homes were at risk). ("Lis pendens" is Latin for "a suit pending," a written notice that a lawsuit has been filed that concerns the title to real property or some interest in that real property.")
It was as if a bomb had been exploded in Pelham Manor. Newspapers throughout the region emphasized the "uneasiness" in Pelham Manor. At least two title insurance companies refused to insure titles to properties for sale in the Jessup farm section of Pelham Manor.
Gay also seems to have embarked on some form of public relations campaign. Newspapers as far away as Minnesota ran stories about a dirt-poor farmer from Connecticut whose inherited interest in lands that once belonged to his father had been sold without his consent and how he proceeded with suit as soon as he learned the lands had been taken from him.
Resolution of the Lawsuit
As the suit proceeded, the dirt-poor farmer Edwin C. Jessup, Jr. died. The lawsuit, however, was carried on by his heirs: his widow, Josephine, and their children. On June 3, 1909, New York Supreme Court Justice Tompkins released his decision in the case. Justice Tompkins rejected William Gay's legal theory, thereby sustaining the chain of title of all those who owned lands that were once part of the Jessup farm. He further noted that, in any event, the principle of adverse possession further protected the current owners' rights. ("Adverse possession" is a legal doctrine providing that when someone takes possession of another's land and uses it for a sufficiently-lengthy period in an open and notorious way that is incompatible with the owner's claim and use of the land, after expiration of the necessary period the adverse possessor is deemed the owner of the land.)
Research suggests that no appeal was taken from Justice Tompkins ruling. Yet another effort to invalidate titles to large swaths of valuable Pelham properties had been turned back.
* * * * *
Below is the text of a number of articles that address the subject of today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog. Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.
"MISSING HEIR TO VAST LANDS LOCATED NOW
He Is Edmund C. Jessup and May Own Fifty Acres Where Pelham Manor Stands
ATTORNEY GAY IS TO BRING SUIT TO TEST THE TITLES
Suit is about to be brought in the supreme court at White Plains by Attorney Will F. Gay, of this city, counsel for Edmund [sic; should be Edwin] C. Jessup, against three holding companies which have acquired title to the land comprised in the boundaries of Pelham Manor, a tract consisting of about fifty acres. The suit discloses the fact that the whereabouts of Mr. Jessup, who is the sole heir to the property, which is the original Jessup estate, have been unknown up to a few months ago, and that he had been virtually missing for nearly thirty years.
At the time that Mr. Jessup's father, Edwin Jessup, died, which was about forty years ago, the present heir, then a comparatively young man, was living in New Rochelle. Under the term of his father's will, he acquired a one-fourth interest in the property, but never paid any attention to his claim, did not press it, and apparently took no interest in securing his rights in the matter at all.
He evidently thought the land of so little value that it was not worth troubling over. The property was at that time all farm land and unimproved. Mr. Jessup left New Rochelle and was not seen around that city for about ten years. He then reappeared for a time, but soon left again, and his whereabouts had not been definitely known since then, until Attorney Gay, in searching the title to some of the property for the title company interested in it, at the request of that company, became convinced that there was a possibility of locating the missing heir.
Mr. Jessup, in the years that he has been unknown to this section of the country, has so far as known been living in various places. He was located about November 1 last by Attorney Gay in the northern part of Connecticut near the Massachusetts boundary line.
The lawyer immediately communicated with him, and apprised him of the facts in the case, and of the increased value of the property, which is now worth $1,000,000. Attorney Gay was then retained as counsel for Mr. Jessup, and said today that he was about to bring suit against the holding companies which acquired possession of the property in the belief that the heir was dead.
These companies are the Whitehall Land and Improvement Company, the New York and Westchester Town Site Company, and the Manor Heights Corporation. The property is now occupied by a large number of handsome residences, as many wealthy New York business men have bought land there and have put up homes for themselves within the last few years.
Attorney Gay was obliged to do a good deal of detective work in order to locate his man, and obtained some of the clews on which he worked from the New Rochelle police department. He followed one clew after another until he found the man and then went to see him."
Source: MISSING HEIR TO VAST LANDS LOCATED NOW - He Is Edmund C. Jessup and May Own Fifty Acres Where Pelham Manor Stands -- ATTORNEY GAY IS TO BRING SUIT TO TEST THE TITLES, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Feb. 28, 1908, No. 4861, p. 1, col. 2.
"SUES FOR $1,000,000 ESTATE.
Newly Discovered Heir to Pelham Manor Land Attacks Titles.
Suit has been brought in the Supreme Court in Westchester by Edmund [sic] C. Jessup through former Judge Will F. Gay of Mount Vernon against three holding companies of Pelham Manor to acquire title to about fifty acres of land which was sold by his sisters without his consent. Jessup is a poor farmer living in northern Connecticut, and the land he seeks to recover is estimated to be worth $1,000,000. It is said that Henry W. Taft, brother of Secretary of War Taft, being interested in the property, recently offered to settle for $20,000. Jessup refused the offer.
Jessup's father died forty years ago, leaving to him and his three sisters a fifty-acre farm in the most beautiful section of Pelham Manor. The property wasn't worth much in those days. Years afterward Jessup disappeared, and his sisters, thinking him dead, sold the farm without his consent. They died afterward unmarried, leaving him the sole heir to the entire estate, which now holds the homes of many wealthy New Yorkers.
In sales of this property two of the guaranty companies in Westchester county have refused to insure the titles. Former Judge Gay stumbled on the fact that Jessup was the sole heir to this property several years ago, and started a search for him which took in most of the United States. Finally Jessup was found on a small farm in Connecticut, and when informed by Judge Gay of his right to his father's farm he immediately began suit. The discovery of Jessup has caused great uneasiness in Pelham Manor. Gay says that his client is extremely poor, and that success in the suit will raise him to a millionaire's estate."
Source: SUES FOR $1,000,000 ESTATE -- Newly Discovered Heir to Pelham Manor Land Attacks Titles, The New York Press, Feb. 29, 1908, p. 5, col. 3.
"FARMER SUES FOR VALUABLE PROPERTY.
Pelham Manor, N. Y., Feb. 29. -- Edmund [sic] C. Jessup, a farmer living in Northern Connecticut, has brought suit against holders of fifty acres in Pelham Manor on which are built the houses of a number of prominent New Yorkers, to recover the property which he claims belongs to him. The property is valued at $3,000,000. Jessup's father owned the property and used it as a farm until he died and left it to the present plaintiff and his three sisters. Some years later Jessup disappeared from home and his three sisters, thinking him dead, sold the property which has since rapidly gained in value. The three sisters are now dead and neither of them having ever married, Jessup is the sole heir. His suit is based on the fact that he owned an undivided one-fourth of the land, and is now the sole heir of his sisters, and that he never consented to the sale of the property."
Source: FARMER SUES FOR VALUABLE PROPERTY, The Duluth Evening Herald [Duluth, MN], Feb. 29, 1908, p. 3, col. 7.
The first name on this list is the defendant, the second name is the plaintiff.
(From Feb. 21 to Feb. 27, inclusive)
Smith, Dominick. Jennie, Charles and Kate -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife -- New Rochelle and Pelham.
Willets, Howard, Guard'n, and Willets, Robert J., Guard'n of -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- New Rochelle and Pelham. . . .
Alexander, Alphonse D. -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Badt, Marens -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Company, N. Y. and W. Town Site -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Company, The Witherbee Real Estate Imp't -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Corporation, The Manor Heights -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Company, West'r and Bronx Title and Mortgage Guaranty -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Company, New Rochelle Trust -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Company, West'r Trust -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Heubner, Paul and Marian; Howard, George -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Jessup, Edwin C., Josephine P., Edwin C., Josephine C., Edwin C., Josephine P. -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife -- Pelham and New Rochelle.
Moses, Solomon; Malcolm, Janet; Maclay, Georgianna. -- Edwin C. Jessup and wife. -- Pelham and New Rochelle. . . ."
Source: LIS PENDENS, New Rochelle Pioneer, Mar. 7, 1908, p. 3, cols. 2-3. See also LIS PENDENS, The Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], Feb. 29, 1908, p. 2, cols. 7-8.
"POOR MAN'S DREAM OF WEALTH.
E. C. Jessup, a Farmer, Hopes to Prove That He Owns 50 Acres of Pelham Manor.
PELHAM MANOR, Feb. 28. -- Suit has been brought in the Supreme Court by Edmund G. Jessup [sic; should be Edwin C. Jessup], through his counsel, Judge Will F. Gay of Mount Vernon, against three holding companies of Pelham Manor to acquire title to about fifty acres of land which he says, was sold by his sisters without his consent. Jessup is a poor farmer living in northern Connecticut and the value of the land he seeks to recover is estimated at $3,000,000.
Jessup's father died forty years ago, leaving a fifty acre farm in the most beautiful section of Pelham Manor to him and his three sisters.
The property was not worth much in those days. Years later Jessup disappeared and his sisters, thinking him dead, sold the farm. Since then Jessup's three maiden sisters have died, making him the sole heir to the entire estate, which now comprises the homes of a score of wealthy New Yorkers. In passing title on the property two of the guaranty companies in Westchester county have refused to insure the deeds.
Judge Gay stumbled on the fact that Jessup was the sole heir to this property several years ago and started a search for him which took in a large part of the United States. Finally Jessup was found on a small farm in Connecticut and when told by Judge Gay of his right to his father's farm he immediately began suit."
Source: POOR MAN'S DREAM OF WEALTH -- E. C. Jessup, a Farmer, Hopes to Prove That He Owns 50 Acres of Pelham Manor, The Sun [NY, NY], Feb. 29, 1909, p. 12, col. 2.
"WITHERBEE ESTATE WILL RETAIN JESSUP PROPERTY
Decision by Supreme Court Over Title -- Large Property Interests in the Town of Pelham
White Plains, June 4. -- Justice Tompkins handed down yesterday an important decision in favor of the defendants in the action of Mrs. Josephine Jessup and her children for a partition of 19.74 acres of land in the town of Pelham, now owned by the Witherbee estate. The plaintiffs sought to recover the land in the village of Pelham Manor on the ground that it was not legally handed down or conveyed to the Witherbee estate. The case has been in litigation in the courts since last August. The decision is a very important one, Henry W. Taft, the brother of President Taft, was the one who conveyed the property to Silas Witherbee, who conveyed it to the defendants in the action. Justice Tompkins dismissed the complaint with costs.
The action was brought on August 30, 1908 ,by Mrs. Josephine Jessup, the widow of E. C. Jessup, and her children, against the Witherbee Realty and Improvement company. E. C. Jessup is a son of Edwin Jessup, who died July 28, 1846.
Mr. Jessup senior, formerly owned all the property in the village of Pelham Manor now held by the defendants. In his will he bequeathed to his wife and children, of whom E. C. Jessup was one, all of his property, and specified that if they thought best to sell any of it to invest the proceeds in bond and mortgage until his youngest children, Adella J. and Edwin J. Jessup should attain the full age of 21, the interest to be used for their maintenance.
On May 14, 1873, the widow married a Mr. Hinman and her children jointly conveyed their property to C. J. Stephens. Edwin C. Jessup, the husband and father of the plaintiffs in this action, joined in the conveyance, as did his wife Josephine, for $25,000. The sum of $16,666.66 was paid and for the rest a mortgage was taken.
In 1877, Mrs. Hinman and her daughters foreclosed the mortgage and at the foreclosure sale Mrs. Hinman bought the property back in her name and received a referee's deed.
It was claimed by the plaintiffs that in the will an express trust was created and that legal title to the property became vested in Richard Morris, as he was the only one who qualified as an executor, and as the widow did not qualify, the children could not convey to Stephens the property as they attempted to do in 1873, because the legal title was in the executor and that when the widow purchased the property in 1877, she took the property for her children, including Edwin C. Jessup.
In February, 1887, Mrs. Hinman and her daughters conveyed three-fourths part of the Jessup farm to Henry W. Taft, and in April, 1887, Mr. Taft conveyed to Silas H. Witherbee 19.74 acres of land.
The defendants claimed that there was no express trust in the will and if there was a trust it was not created for life.
In his decision, Justice Tompkins holds that if there was an express trust created by the Jessup will. It ended in 1867, when the youngest child became 21; that from the date of the execution of the deed to Stephens and his assignment to his mother and four sisters of his interest in the Stephens mortgage, no claim was ever made by Jessup or on his behalf that he had ever any interest in the premises or in the mortgage until the commencement of the action; that the evidence did not justify a finding that Mrs. Hinman purchased the premises at the foreclosure sale in trust for Edwin C. Jessup, Jr., or that for many years prior to his death he had or claimed any interest in the said premises.
The court pointed out other facts and said that it could not be claimed that E. C. Jessup became vested with the legal title by the deed of his mother to his three sisters."
Source: WITHERBEE ESTATE WILL RETAIN JESSUP PROPERTY -- Decision by Supreme Court Over Title -- Large Property Interests in the Town of Pelham, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jun. 4, 1909, No. 5947, p. 1, cols. 2-3.
"CLOUDED TITLE CLEARED.
JUSTICE TOMPKINS RENDERS DECISION AFFECTING PROPERTY IN PELHAM.
WHITE PLAINS, N. Y., June 5. -- Supreme Court Justice Tompkins, yesterday, filed a decision which removes a cloud from the title to property in Pelham and Larchmont [sic], which at one time was in the possession of Henry W. Taft, brother of President Taft. The action was that of Josephine Jessup and others against the Weatherbee [sic] Real Estate and Improvement Company.
Edwin Jessup died in 1846, leaving a large farm in Pelham and Larchmont [sic]. Richard R. Morris and the widow were appointed executors of the estate, but Mr. Morris was the only one who qualified.
In 1873 the widow and children joined in a deed to Charles J. Stevens, but the Executor did not join in the deed. A mortgage was given for part of the purchase money. A son of the original Jessup, Edwin Jessup, jr., joined in the deed with his mother and sisters, and later assigned his share of the mortgage to his mother and sisters.
Later this mortgage was foreclosed, and the widow and her daughters bought in the property. They then conveyed the property to Henry W. Taft, who transferred it to Silas Weatherbee [sic]. The latter died, and the property came into the hands of the Weatherbee Real Estate and Improvement Company, the present holders.
The plaintiffs in the action are the widow and children of Edwin Jessup, jr. They claimed that under the will of the elder Jessup an expressed trust was created for the benefit of the widow during her lifetime and for the benefit of the children. They, therefore, claim that the title to the property was vested in Richard R. Morris, the Executor who qualified and not in the widow and children and that, therefore the latter had no right to transfer the property. They asked for their legal share of their father's alleged interest in the property.
Justice Tompkins, in his decision, says that he could find no such trust, and that if there was it terminated when the youngest child reached her majority. Then the title to the property vested in the widow and children and their transfer was legal. It was also undisputed that the defendants and their predecessors in the record title had been in possession of the property since 1887, and the present action was not commenced until 1908, more than 20 years after. Their title, therefore, became good through adverse possession."
Source: CLOUDED TITLE CLEARED -- JUSTICE TOMPKINS RENDERS DECISION AFFECTING PROPERTY IN PELHAM, The Yonkers Statesman, Jun. 5, 1909, Vol. XXVI, No. 7837, p. 1, col. 5.