Volume 1 Page 83
[H.P.B.’S LAWSUIT IN AMERICA]
[When H.P.B. lived for a time in Brooklyn, N. Y. with the French people who came to the United States when she did, she was induced to invest in two parcels of land at the East end of Long Island. One of these tracts was in the North part of Huntington, and the other in the neighborhood of the village of Northport, near Huntington, both in the Suffolk County.
From the existing Court Records, it appears that this land had been purchased by a certain Clementine Gerebko, the deed of conveyance being dated June 2nd, 1873, in other words prior to H.P.B.’s arrival in the United States, July 7, 1873.
On June 15/27, 1873, H.P.B.’s father, Col. Peter Alexeyevich von Hahn, died at Stavropol’ in the Caucasus, and sometime in the Fall of the same year H.P.B. received a sum of money as part of her inheritance. It is apparently that sum of money that H.P.B. was induced to invest in the above-mentioned land. On June 22nd, 1874, she entered into co-partnership with Clementine Gerebko for the purpose of working the land and farm at Northport. The co-partnership was to commence on July 1, 1874, and continue for the period of three years. Clause 3 of the Articles states that Clementine Gerebko put the use of the farm into the co-partnership as off-set against the sum of one thousand dollars paid by H.P.B., and Clause 4 states that “all proceeds for crops, poultry, produce, and other products raised on the said farm shall be divided equally, and all expenses” equally shared. The title of the land was reserved to Clementine Gerebko.†
H.P.B. went to live on the farm, but very soon found herself in litigation with Clementine Gerebko as to the validity of the
† Cf. H. S. Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Vol. I, pp. 30-31.
agreement of the defendant to execute a mortgage to the plaintiff, and returned to New York.
The law firm of Bergen, Jacobs and Ivins of Brooklyn, N.Y. represented H.P.B. Her case was tried by a jury on Monday, April 26, 1875, before Judge Calvin E. Pratt, in the Supreme Court of Suffolk County, at Riverhead. She won the suit and recovered the sum of $1146 and costs of the action. The Judgment, dated June 1, 1875, was filed on June 15 in the Office of the Clerk of Suffolk County, N.Y.
From the recollections of William M. Ivins, Attorney at Law, who became a very good friend of H.P.B.’s, we learn some of the circumstances of this curious trial. He wrote:
“Long Island in those days was a long ways from Brooklyn, for travelling facilities were limited. The calendar of this particular term was very slow, and all the parties were kept there waiting their turn to be heard. As many of the documents and witnesses were French, and there was no interpreter to the court” William S. Fales, a student in the law firm of General Benjamin Tracy, was made special interpreter, and he reported H.P.B.’s testimony which was given in French. For two weeks the Judge, the lawyers, clerks, clients and interpreter were guests in a dull country hotel. . . .”*
Ivins, in addition to being a brilliant lawyer, was a bookworm with a phenomenal memory. More as a joke than in earnest, he deluged his client with Occultism, Gnosticism, Cabalism and white and black magic. Fales, taking his key from Ivins, gave long dissertations on mystical arithmetic, astrology, alchemy, mediaeval symbolism, Neo-Platonism, Rosicrucianism and quaternions. It is a great pity that none of this was apparently recorded, and therefore cannot be recovered from the Court Records.
Another sidelight on this interesting episode may be derived from a passage in a work of Charles R. Flint entitled Memories of an Active Life. He writes:
“The circumstances of the trial were interesting, for Madame, who was her own principal witness, testified quite contrary to the way in which her attorneys assumed she would testify. Ivins had associated with him in the trial Fales, who was then a law student. As cautious lawyers, they had gone over the testimony with Madame before the trial, and had advised her as to what points she should emphasize; but, to their great discomfiture, on the witness stand she took the bit in her teeth and galloped along lines of evidence quite opposed to their
* Recorded by Mrs. Laura Holloway-Langford in a handwritten manuscript now unfortunately destroyed.
instructions, giving as a reason, when they complained of her testimony, that her ‘familiar,’ whom she called Tom [John] King, stood at her side (invisible to everyone but her), and prompted her in her testimony. After the court had taken the matter under advisement, Madame left the city, but wrote several letters to Ivins asking him as to the progress of the suit, and finally astonished him by a letter giving an outline of an opinion which she said the court would render in the course of a few days, in connection with a decision in her favor. In accordance with her prediction, the court handed down a decision sustaining her claim upon grounds similar to those which she had outlined in her letter.”*
* Charles R. Flint, Memories of an Active Life. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923. xviii, pp. 349. This excerpt is from Chapter IX entitled “A Society for Testing Human Credulity,” pp. 115-32.