ANALYSIS OF EDMONSON v. KITE (1869)
(Posted October 26, 2023) Today is another barren Thursday at Ninth and Franklin, so let’s look back into the past at an old appellate decision. This one takes us far from the sweet air of the Commonwealth into America’s heartland; the Supreme Court of Missouri handed down its decision in Edmonson v. Kite, 43 Mo. 176, in January 1869.
This is a landlord-tenant appeal – or so the property owner figured. In the 1860s, when a certain military-political dispute raged across the continent, Robert Edmonson owned property in downtown Springfield, Missouri. Downtown is probably a generous term; while we don’t have reliable population figures for the incorporated town back then, it probably numbered somewhere near two or three thousand residents. Some of this estimate included slaves – slavery was legal in Missouri back then – but we probably can’t know just how many. It was a small town, even by mid-19th Century standards.
Edmondson was a Southern sympathizer in the Civil War, and he had many colleagues in southern Missouri. The federal authorities that occupied the town seized his building and turned it over to the local postmaster, Ben Kite, because they needed the existing post office for another purpose. Edmonson’s Southern sympathies may have played a role in the selection of his property, but we can’t know that at this distant point.
Edmonson wanted his property back, but he wasn’t going to get it. He knew it was fruitless to sue the federal government during wartime, so he hired a smart lawyer who came up with a novel theory: He sued the postmaster in his personal capacity, claiming the right of a landlord to recover “for the rent, use, and occupation of a house.” In essence, he claimed that Postmaster Kite owed him implied rent, despite the absence of a lease agreement.
Kite’s response was twofold: Edmonson didn’t have possession of the premises when Kite took possession. The United States Army did. Kite also alleged that the Army had taken possession of the original post office and had directed him to move his operation to Edmonson’s building. He introduced into evidence the several military orders that had commanded him to do just that.
The Greene County Circuit Court sympathized with the landowner and allowed the claim to go to a jury. That jury awarded Edmondson a money judgment for the fair rental value of the property. Kite took the case up on appeal.
The Missouri high court eventually agreed with the postmaster, setting aside the judgment because “the action for use and occupation cannot be maintained unless the relation of landlord and tenant, express or implied, exists between the parties.” The court ruled that Edmonson’s remedy was in tort, not contract. Its opinion concludes with this passage, reminiscent of our own Ted Lansing Supply doctrine that “pleadings are as essential as proof”:
In suing for a tort [the landowner] must state the facts that constitute the tort; otherwise he cannot prove these facts. There was manifest error in this case in holding that the relation of landlord and tenant existed from the mere fact of occupancy. All the evidence shows that there was no such relation, either express or implied.
Thank goodness for appellate courts! The supreme court remanded the case for further proceedings; the outcome of those proceedings is probably lost in the deep folds of time, though I suspect that the putative landlord came away empty-handed.
Why is this old case worthy of reporting now, here in the Old Dominion? It’s because of the backstory, of how Kite got to be Postmaster and how he came into possession of the original post office.
Ben Kite and his wife Mary (née Gott) Kite moved to Springfield from their native Kentucky in 1849, when he was 27 and she was just 19. He was a carpenter, and evidently impressed enough local residents that when the time came to build a new courthouse and jail in the 1850s, they selected him to supervise the construction.
The year 1860 brought … well, you know what it brought. As a sharply divided nation faced a critical presidential election, a clear division of loyalties flared in southern Missouri, a state that never formally seceded from the United States but was by no means firmly in the Union camp. Kite, then still a carpenter but now a prominent citizen in his adopted hometown, publicly announced his support for the Republican candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln. A local history journal described Kite as among the “leading unionists” in the county.
With Lincoln’s inauguration and the transition from the Democratic Buchanan Administration, a host of new political appointments started arriving across the nation. One such commission came to Kite, as grateful Republicans named him the new postmaster for Springfield. The commission arrived by a circuitous route in the Spring of 1861, shortly after familiar events at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
Kite received the news gratefully, but realized that he had a problem: The current postmaster, Nathan Robinson, was what was called in those days “an ardent secessionist.” The flag of the Confederate States flew over the post office. Here’s how this looming confrontation unfolded, as reported in Kite’s 1899 obituary:
It was understood that a change would be resisted. With his commission and a loaded revolver in his pocket Mr. Kite entered the postoffice [sic] one morning and, presenting both of his evidences of authority to the astonished gaze of Mr. Robinson, demanded possession of the office in the name and by the authority of the commission. Mr. Kite had no more trouble, Mr. Robinson vacated and the confederate flag was taken down from the building.
A 1929 historical cartoon in the Springfield Leader depicted the encounter here; see the third panel of the strip.
This was the office space that Kite first took, until the federal government directed him to more spacious quarters in Robert Edmonson’s building. Kite served as postmaster until 1864; at the end of the war he was elected Springfield’s mayor. He went on to an ironic but fitting post – judge of the Greene County Circuit Court, the very tribunal that had erroneously awarded a money judgment against him until the Supreme Court of Missouri came to his rescue. He held court in a building that he had helped to erect.
Ben Kite also went on – though he would never know it – to be my great-great-great grandfather. One of my prized possessions is an old family bible containing several handwritten signatures of previous owners within the Gott family, my ancestors all. One is a dual signature, where one may read first, “Mary S. Gott.” Then below it, presumably after her marriage at a young age, she added carefully, “Mary S. Kite.”
Judge Kite and his wife now rest in Bellview Cemetery in Springfield. Learning this story has convinced me to make a pilgrimage there to pay my great respects.