The Celebrated Case of Myra Clark Gaines
Publication Year: 2001
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
Series: Southern Biography Series
Series Page, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
On the second floor of the New Orleans Cabildo—an old government building now serving as a museum—stands a bust of a woman with a small card identifying her as "Myra Clark Gaines, plaintiff in more than three hundred lawsuits in the nineteenth century." No other memorial recognizes the woman who was...
Introduction: The Celebrated Case of Myra Clark Gaines
On the morning of January 10,1885, occupants of New Orleans breakfast tables put down their coffee and beignets, picked up their copies of the Daily Picayune, and read the obituary of Myra Clark Gaines. For years her wizened figure had been a familiar sight to residents of the Crescent City, always dressed in black...
I. A Journey of Discovery
When William Wallace Whitney wed Myra Elizabeth Davis on September 13, 1832, he was not quite twenty-two, several years younger than his bride. According to the recollections of a bridesmaid many years later, their marriage began with a dramatic twist well suited to the pages of a romance that would later enthrall...
II. The City by the River
In the spring of 1833 a ship carrying Myra and William Whitney entered the mouth of the Mississippi River at Balize Point. For William, it was his first view of Louisiana. Myra had returned to her birthplace at least twice with her adoptive parents, but never with such a sense of anticipation, nervousness...
III. "A Pair of Unscrupulous Adventurers"
Returning to New York in early summer 1833, Myra and William spent the next six months with Whitney's family in New York. General and Mrs. Whitney welcomed Myra wholeheartedly. The family held a ball to introduce their son's wife to Binghamton society—"the greatest social event that had ever been...
IV. A Man of "Energy, Intelligence, and Pliability"
As the testimony unfolded in the early courtroom appearances of the Gaines case, the relationship between Myra's parents became the center of the controversy. Daniel Clark and Zulime Carrière's love affair took place amid the turbulent atmosphere surrounding the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States...
V. A Life of Intrigue
The existence of a legal marriage between Daniel Clark and Zulime Carriere was the central focus of the fifty-seven years of litigation by their daughter. Letters, testimony, and notarial records reveal that in the years after the Louisiana Purchase the intersection of Daniel Clark's political, business, and romantic...
VI. A Romance in Real Life
In the years after Daniel Clark's death in 1813, as his friends and acquaintances reflected on the convergence of his public and private lives, they drew opposing pictures of this complex man. The ambiguity of his character required the judges, lawyers, participants, and spectators in the Gaines case to weigh the contradictory...
VII. A Most Unusual Woman
In the early 1840s Washington was a struggling small town, "unlike any other that was ever seen." One English visitor compared the United States capital to a Potemkin village—a "card-board city" that when Congress recessed was "taken down and packed up again til wanted." The large number of temporary structures...
VIII. A "Prolonged and Interesting Lawsuit"
The appeal of the Patterson case came before the Supreme Court in its January term, 1848. Since Myra Gaines, in conjunction with her husband, had decided to claim Daniel Clark's estate as his "forced heir" under the accepted will of 1811, the issue of Gaines's birth status became the center of controversy. Determination of legitimacy...
IX. The Supreme Court Changes Its Mind
In 1849 Myra and Edmund Gaines returned to New Orleans fresh from their victory in the Supreme Court. With Zachary Taylor in the White House, the general was once again back in favor, and his old friend reappointed him commander of the Department of the West. The Gaineses soon brought the...
X. Victory at Last
At the midpoint of the nineteenth century New Orleans was a bustling, brawling, sprawling port city—the fourth largest in the United States. Boom time came to the Cotton South, and New Orleans boomed along with it. Steamboats plied the Mississippi River, and newspaper reports of the accidents and explosions...
Conclusion: "The Most Remarkable Case"
When the Supreme Court convened for the 1867 winter term, two figures familiar to Myra Gaines were absent. Justice Catron had died in Nashville two years before, and Justice Wayne, Gaines's great advocate, had died of typhoid fever in the heat of the previous summer, on July 5,1867. Justices Taney and McLean were...