Monday, October 29, 2018

Aminidab Seekright v. Ferdinando Dreadnought

I was just reading a quite good history of a property in Virginia, thoroughly researched by someone who knows a lot about the society and customs of the time, when I came across this:
Three hundred and fifty acres of the tract of land that was to become the Balls' home had been rented to Aminidab Seekright for a term of ten years by George Carter on April 1, 1799. Aminidab Seekright was already in residence on the farm when the Balls arrived. Ferdinando Dreadnought was hired by Spencer Ball as a "Casual Ejector" to evict Seekright from the Carter farm. This he did with much zeal for Aminidab Seekright filed a complaint with the Dumfries District Court the following month against both George Carter and the Casual Ejector who:

. . . with force and arms entered into the said demised Premises with the Appurtenances and Ejected the said Aminidab then and there did to the great damage of the said Aminidab and against the Peace and Dignity of the Commonwealth. . .
Which is all fine and well, except that both Aminidab Seekright and Ferdinando Dreadnought are imaginary persons. These are made-up names, just more baroque versions of John Doe and Jane Roe. Which makes a paragraph a little farther down the page even more amusing:
Aminidab Seekright was indeed an unlucky tenant. Following his ejection, he rented a 200-acre farm from Betty Ball and George Carter's sister, Priscilla Mitchell. He spent four days at this Tenement when Ferdinando Dreadnought appeared and ejected him once again.
The poor guy; everywhere he went, that damn Dreadnought kept showing up and ejecting him.

This first time I encountered this error it was made by a poor person who actually went to the index for the District Court and commented, "This Dreadnought was a very litigious person, involved in several suits over the course of the decade in different parts of the county."


It's like saying, "this poor guy John Doe keeps being murdered and left by the side of the road."

There are of course many reasons why you would want to avoid using someone's real name at law, one of which gave us Roe v. Wade. In this case the issue was that to get a writ of ejection (disseisin in Latin) heard in a royal or colonial court you had to allege that it was done by "force and arms," a formula that goes back at least to the 12th century as vi et armis. But "by force and arms against the peace of the king" sounds like a felony, and you don't want to take the risk that someone might be accused of a felony because of your civil suit. First, this might get it transferred back to some local court for trial as an ordinary crime, and you just went to a lot of trouble to get your case into a higher court with more power to enforce its verdicts. Second, making a false accusation of felony was itself a crime, punishable by a large fine. So to avoid the risk that criminal matters might complicate  your case, you invented imaginary people, Ferdinando Dreadnought to commit the assault and Aminidab Seekright to make the accusation.

By the 18th century this was all just formulaic, but English lawyers loved their formulas. Many Americans probably learned to bring suits this way from William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), which was the most widely owned non-religious book in the colonies. Blackstone wrote:
The whole of it is at present become a mere matter of form; and John Doe and Richard Roe are always returned as the standing pledges for this purpose. The ancient use of them was to answer for the plaintiff; who in case he brought an action without cause, or failed in the prosecution of it when brought, was liable to an amercement from the crown for raising a false accusation. . . .
And there you have it.  There was no Amindab Seekright or Ferdinando Dreadnought, nor for that matter was there necessarily any force of arms used against the king's peace. These are just legal formulae.

I was moved to write this because I did a quick online search for both of our imaginary litigants and did not find anything that explained what this was about. So I wrote it. Of course it's a good idea to know something about any legal system before you draw historical conclusions from law cases, but we don't all have time to learn such arcana. And now maybe that this is online and easily findable future historians will google those strange names before they write their books and avoid this mistake.


pootrsox said...


But I also was intrigued by the family names Carter and Ball, both major players in Northern Neck history. So I was surprised to see Dumfries, which is quite a way NW of the Neck, as the court in question.

John said...

The conflict concerns Carters and Balls in the Manassas area, both descended from the big Northern Neck families but not in the main line.