[note: This case was initially confusing because I assumed that Titus was tending to the estate of his father-in-law, Alanson, whose father was Aaron Jr. As I continued to read the court case it became clear that Aaron was actually Aaron III, another son of Aaron Jr. and father to a different Alanson, Thomas Alanson Thomas, cousin to Titus' wife, Deiadamia. Farm census reports show that Titus' and Aaron Jr.'s families had adjoining properties and were, undoubtedly, long-time friends.]
The court records show that Aaron had made plans in 1838 to sell all his property to his son Alanson although there was no record of the monetary exchange since, at the time, Alanson was unemployed due to a chronic eye ailment and was supported by his father. With Aaron living out the next ten years on the old homestead there, Alanson was deemed by all -neighbors, customers, friends and family- to be the rightful owner, running the farm and sometimes selling parcels of the land to others. Although the deed was recorded, it apparently was not scrutinized by anybody and so both father and son went to their graves believing that the deed was a valid reflection of the original patent of 437 6/100 acres (minus 100 acres already sold). What Titus discovered was that, when the deed was drafted in 1838, important acreage information was missing from the document and, as a consequence, only a small fraction of the farm was actually legally conveyed to Alanson. A plat presented in court revealed that only a small triangle of owned land was covered by the deed as written; four of the 14 originally-patented courses were missed. It was always understood and communicated by Aaron and Alanson that the deed was for the whole property, indicating this error was unintentional and undetected.
With notification of Titus' discovery, Aaron's widow, heirs, and the angry purchasers of property sold under this deed, went into a whirlwind of court actions attempting to right this wrong -each to their advantage. What resulted was a steady barrage of complaints by the purchasers requesting that the widow and heirs be restrained from reclaiming and/or reselling properties the land holders had bought from the defective, or some said, deceptive deed. Even Titus Dort filed a bill to have the deed description corrected but was denied since the whole matter was now under question.
In their attempt to build favor in the unresolved case, the widow Betsey (now remarried) along with at least one heir, sought to cast suspicion on both Aaron and Alanson by alleging that the property deed of 1838 was only made to defraud Aaron's creditors. With that, the door swung wide open to admit a steady stream of hearsay testimony into the courts that soon turned the original topic of clerical error and omission to scrutiny of a possible act of deception and fraud.
Despite the fact that witnesses consistently testified that Aaron made it clear that Alanson was the sole owner/operator of the farm and property, they also consistently revealed that "it was whispered in the neighborhood" that the property was conveyed to keep it safely out of reach of a specific creditor, Dr. Hurd.
Titus Dort also testified that as supervisor of Dearborn, he assessed the property under Alanson's name with the exception of a span of horses and a wagon claimed by the father. Dort reported that Aaron had told him that he did not intend to be "forced to pay" Dr. Hurd for physician costs but that he would pay the debt. (Hurd had filed suit against Aaron to recover payment for services provided and the judgement of $468 was awarded in 1834. The next year Aaron's property was levied to satisfy the unpaid judgement. But the battle must have been on-going between Hurd and Thomas because Aaron and Alanson signed affidavits in 1846 stating that the judgement had been satisfied by payment in farm produce from the property. The court deemed the debt satisfied.)
The widow Betsey continued to assert to the courts that Alanson never paid for the deeded property and that it was done simply to keep Dr. Hurd from getting anything from Aaron. Now here is where it starts getting interesting...Betsey also claimed that "it was understood" that Aaron expected the property to revert back to him when things were settled with Dr. Hurd. Although the property did not revert back to Aaron -even after the court found the debt settled in 1846- Betsey explained that was because there was "another liable claim" that prevented it returning to her husband. If so, it was never brought up in court. But, after Aaron's death, Betsey apparently threatened Alanson with legal action and, as a compromise, he paid her property taxes.
What seems most interesting is that the widow (who signed off on dowager rights when the deed was written) was so outspoken about the "deceptive deed" between her now-dead husband and her step-son Alanson. Wouldn't her knowledge of the proposed fraud from the start make her implicit in the act, too? Since that question didn't appear in the court record, I'm guessing that her testimony was not looked upon as fully credible or that the burden of proof wasn't met.
The opinions that follow the written record of this Michigan Supreme Court case reveal some basic findings:
- despite all the rumors and after twelve years of continuous ownership, Alanson was generally recognized as the owner of the property
- since the deed was recorded and available for inspection at any time, it was up to the land purchasers to verify the validity of the transaction prior to purchase; "buyer beware"
- fraud cannot be presumed; it must be proven beyond rumor and hearsay
- Aaron was steadfast in his conveyance of the deed to Alanson, even declaring under oath to that fact (which doesn't disprove fraud but does suggest the transaction wasn't just a ruse)
- when used to support testimony, rumor (of which the courts heard volumes) can be a "two-edged sword"
Michigan Reports: Cases Decided in the Supreme Court of Michigan, Volume 6 (Google eBook) October Term, 1858, Detroit
In the 1850 US Non-population Schedule (Farm Census) for Dearborn, the neighboring farms are listing as:
#3-Lorenzo Thomas (242 total acres)
#4-TITUS DORT (120 total acres)
#5-Betsey Thomas (80 total acres)
#6-TA(Alanson) Thomas (140 total acres)
and a little farther down the list:
#9-Edmund Quirk (one of the purchasers of Thomas' deeded land) Lawsuit "Quirk v Thomas"
#27-William Ford (80 total acres) 1846 immigrant and father of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company-who would later purchase up all the above properties (and more)