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Notorious Woman

The Celebrated Case of Myra Clark Gaines

Elizabeth Urban Alexander

Publication Year: 2001

The legal crusade of Myra Clark Gaines (1804?–1885) has all the trappings of classic melodrama — a lost heir, a missing will, an illicit relationship, a questionable marriage, a bigamous husband, and a murder. For a half century the daughter of New Orleans millionaire Daniel Clark struggled to justify her claim to his enormous fortune in a case that captivated the nineteenth-century public. Elizabeth Urban Alexander taps voluminous court records and letters to unravel the twists and turns of Gaines’s litigation and reveal the truth behind the mysterious saga of this notorious woman. Myra, the daughter of real estate heir Clark and Zulime Carrière, a beautiful young Frenchwoman, was raised by friends of Clark and kept ignorant of her real parentage until 1832, when she discovered her true lineage in letters among her foster father’s papers. She thereupon returned to Louisiana with tales of a lost will and a secret marriage between Clark and Carrière and claimed to be Clark’s missing heir. Was Myra the legitimate daughter of the prominent merchant or the “fruit of an adulterous union?” The courts would decide. The Great Gaines Case wound its tortuous path through the United States legal system from 1834 until 1891. It was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court seventeen times and pursued even after Gaines’s death by lawyers trying to recoup fees. By courageously bringing her case to the courtroom and doggedly keeping it there, Alexander asserts, Gaines helped instigate a new type of family law that provided special protection of women, children, and marriages. Though Gaines never recovered more than a tiny fraction of the rumored millions, this riveting chronicle of her struggle for legitimacy and legacy as told by Elizabeth Urban Alexander is a gold mine for anyone interested in legal history, women’s studies, or a good yarn superbly spun.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series


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p. 1-1

Series Page, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9


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pp. ix-11

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pp. xi-xiv

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...

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Introduction: The Celebrated Case of Myra Clark Gaines

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pp. 1-10

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...

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I. A Journey of Discovery

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pp. 11-29

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...

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II. The City by the River

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pp. 30-45

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...

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III. "A Pair of Unscrupulous Adventurers"

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pp. 46-62

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...

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IV. A Man of "Energy, Intelligence, and Pliability"

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pp. 63-92

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...

Image Plates

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pp. 110-117

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V. A Life of Intrigue

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pp. 93-127

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...

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VI. A Romance in Real Life

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pp. 128-155

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...

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VII. A Most Unusual Woman

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pp. 156-172

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...

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VIII. A "Prolonged and Interesting Lawsuit"

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pp. 173-189

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...

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IX. The Supreme Court Changes Its Mind

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pp. 190-213

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...

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X. Victory at Last

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pp. 214-232

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...

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Conclusion: "The Most Remarkable Case"

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pp. 233-243

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...


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pp. 245-284


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pp. 285-301

E-ISBN-13: 9780807153987
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807130247

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: Southern Biography Series