The Lightning-Rod Salesman II
Bill Long 1/28/06
Two Legal Cases from the 1890s
Though Melville's story, told in the previous essay, excites our risibilities, the profession of lightning-rod salesman was not a joke to the hundreds of Midwestern farmers who were deceived by them in the ensuing decades. What is interesting in these two cases from the early 1890s in adjoining states is the similarity of approach used by the salesmen to deceive their buyers. In each case, the salesmen were convicted in county courts either of conspiracy to defraud or of false pretenses, but their convictions were reversed by the Supreme Courts of MO and KS. Let's enter into the world of these cases.
State v. Cameron, 23 SW 767 (MO 1893)
In April 1891 a grand jury in Lincoln County MO indicted a certain A.Q. Cameron, C.A. Meeks and F.J. Web on charges of "unlawful conspiracy, combination, confederation and agreement among themselves" to cheat and defraud a certain Hansford Richards of his money and property. What did they do? Well, as the indictment says, they falsely pretended to Richards that they were agents of a lightning-rod company and that they would give, yes give, to Richards 100 free feet of rod as a special inducement to him to buy the other few feet of copper-sheathed rod to protect his buildings from lighting-caused fire. In any case, the cost to Mr. Richards would not exceed $5. He was not to tell his neighbors about this deal, because Mr. Richards was singled out by the company for this particular favor, and he wouldn't want his neighbors to be jealous of him. Hastily, apparently, Mr. Richards signed the contract, not noting that he was obliging himself to a payment of $195 for the service. When he realized he had been swindled, Mr. Richards, for reasons not explained in the indictment (but probably because he was threatened with suit if he refused to pay), paid up and then reported the gentlemen so that the state could bring criminal charges. The three men were duly convicted in county court and thrown in jail.
On appeal, however, the MO Supreme Court reversed their convictions. Little sympathy for their fellow Missourian suffuses the Supreme Court's opinion. Here are their words:
"It is not averred that he was so ignorant he could not read the writing, or that he was blind, or that he was shown one paper, and by a trick induced to sign another."
That is, there is no question about the capacity of Richards to make a contract. In addition, there is no allegation of fraud, as in the case where he was shown one paper and induced to sign another. The court continues:
"The slightest attention on his part to the ordinary methods of transacting business, especially between strangers, would have enabled him at once to discover the contract called for more than he had agreed to pay, and he could have declined to sign it, but, more than this, when called on to pay, if the contract had been fraudulently procured, he could have retained his money in his pocket; but with a full knowledge that the defendant claimed the contract called for the $195, and with no concealment on defendant's part of this claim, he paid that amount. It is not the policy of the law to punish as a crime the making of every foolish or ill-considered agreement. If it is, the jails and prisons must be greatly enlarged."
In other words, buyer beware. Read your contracts before you sign them. Case dismissed. Let 'em out of jail.
State v. Crane, 38 P. 270 (KS 1894)
Gullibility wasn't confined to the "Show Me" State. In KS a criminal information (rather than a grand jury indictment) charged two defendants, Crane and Gray, with criminal conspiracy against a certain Mr. Marquart in rural Rush County. The allegation was that on Feb. 20, 1893 the two defendants "did then and there unlawfully, feloniously, designedly and with the intent to cheat, wrong and defraud one John Marquardt, then and there conspired together to obtain and procure the said John Marquardt to sign and deliver to them his promissory note in writing for $150...." The facts of this case were similar to that in MO. Traveling representatives from F.H Miller & Co. swept into Rush County and represented to Marquardt that at the rate of $.75 per foot for the excess of 100 feet of rod put up (that is, the first 100' were free), his house could be protected by the lightning rod. Because only 10 more feet of rod would be required, he was informed that it would cost him only $7.50 for the entire project. He signied a contract which obliged him to pay $150 for the service. When demand for payment was forthcoming, Marquardt understandably balked. He was threatened by defendants with a lawsuit, and they told him that if he executed a promissory note of $150, with interest of 10% per annum, he would be in a better legal position to contest the deal, since, as they represented to our Kansas dupe, it is easier to sue on a promissory note than on a contract (not actually true, in law). So, he executed the note, and before paying, informed the local authorities, who brought the criminal information against Crane (Gray was apparently not convicted). Crane was convicted by the Rush County jury and sentence to four years in the state pen.
On appeal, the KS Supreme Court was as laconic as most Kansans. It certainly didn't help Mr. Marquardt's case that he testified that he learned from Gray that "the contract was more binding" and that he was "fool enough to do what he said." All the KS court did was to quote the "analysis" from the MO case cited above. So, I repeat myself:
"It is not the policy of the law to punish as a crime the making of every foolish or ill-considered agreement. If it is, the jails and prisons must be greatly enlarged. Where the pretense is absurd or irrational, or such as the party injured had at the very time the means of detecting at hand, it is not within the act."
Defendant was freed, Mr. Marquardt learned the high cost of gullibility and Mr. Gray and Crane probably packed up and headed to Nebraska.
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