Thursday, March 03, 2011

E. W. Mooring continued: troubles with the in-laws

In 1852, Mooring, about 24 years old, married his 19 year old first cousin, Willie Ann Nickels (their mothers were sisters with the last name of Lawrence). According to J. Randall Stanley, the couple eloped. Later accounts report that Wille Ann's family had opposed the marriage, leading to a "feud..among the opposing elements." Later, the families reconciled "after a fashion" to the extent that the 1860 Census lists the Moorings and their children living in the Nickels household. Willie Ann’s father, William Nickels Jr., was born about 1800 into a wealthy mercantile family in Maine, but had left for North Carolina for his health, marrying there and settling in Marianna in the 1830s. Nickels became a prosperous merchant and tavern keeper - the Nickels family ranked 14th in wealth among Jackson County families in the 1860 census.

Nickels operated a store in Marianna with his partner, Thomas Gautier (whose children make an appearance throwing rocks in T. Thomas Fortune’s After War Times). Mooring had a credit account at his father-in-law's store where he purchased provisions. Nickels also informally served as Mooring’s agent, presumably taking care of his daughter’s finances when Mooring was traveling. When Mooring was seized by the Union column after the Battle of Marianna in late 1864 and imprisoned in Elmira, Nickels again took control of Mooring’s finances on behalf of Willie Ann. Mooring later claimed he had left a large sum of money, perhaps $30,000, in Nickels’ control.

Even though Nickels continued to represent Mooring intermittently after Mooring’s return to Marianna in mid-1865, Nickels’ conduct as agent for his son-in-law apparently was the source of some tension between the two men whom, we can suppose, were predisposed to view each other warily. Nickels’ own statement about the arrangement suggests his casual approach: “I was agent for Mooring for part of the time the accounts were kept, can’t designate the time. I had some Confederate money of Mooring’s in hand; can’t state that amount. I suppose I have of his in hand two or three thousand dollars. I was agent for him at different times. Sometimes could not satisfy him, and I would cease. Can’t say when agencies commenced or closed; have nothing to show this.” Nickels’ informality toward Mooring’s affairs strikingly contrasts with his careful accounting of Mooring’s debts to the Nickels & Gautier firm. Mooring stopped his account with the firm in July 1867, probably about the time William Nickels and Thomas Gautier dissolved their partnership.

The dissolution of Nickels & Gautier was announced in the Marianna Courier in January 1868, along with a notification that William Nickels would settle the firm’s business and accounts.

The Nickels family's standing seems to have fallen in the wake of the war.  William Nickels, now in his 70s, had fallen far in relative wealth compared to his peers, which was typical for planters, but not merchants after the upheaval of defeat and Emancipation. Nickels still managed to buy the enormous Bellamy mansion from Gautier at a steep discount, probably as a result of the same financial distress that led to the end of their partnership.  [For information and pictures of the "Bellamy Nickels mansion, See ].

At the same time, it seems that a wide rift had opened up between Mooring and Nickels. In January 1872, Nickels sued his son-in-law in the Florida circuit court for $1,388 for “goods, wares and merchandise sold and delivered” to Mooring by the now long defunct Nickels & Gautier firm. Lawsuits among neighbors and even friends were common in Jackson County at this time when litigation was a favorite participatory sport. Nickels, however, pursued this claim with particular vehemence.

Mooring apparently argued that the claim had already been paid by Nickels out of Mooring’s finances that he controlled. Nevertheless, prior to trial, Mooring approached Gautier and delivered to him a check drawn on a New York bank for $600. In return, Gautier gave Mooring a receipt on behalf of Nickels & Gautier confirming that this payment settled “all demands” by the firm against Mooring.

Learning from Mooring’s lawyer, D. L. McKinnon, about the settlement with Gautier, Nickels was initially befuddled, then livid. Approached by McKinnon to learn about his intentions regarding the pending litigation, Nickels insisted that he would “fight it out.” Claiming that his son-in-law and former partner had colluded to defraud him, Nickels proceeded with the lawsuit against Mooring. The jury found for Mooring, concluding that Gautier as a partner to the Nickels & Gautier, had the authority to settle the debt owed the firm.

This defeat outraged Nickels. After the circuit court denied his demand for a new trial, Nickels appealed to Florida’s Supreme Court. Here he was represented by powerhouse attorneys: George S. Hawkins, a former congressman and Florida Supreme Court justice, and William H. Milton, a former state solicitor. Eventually, only in January 1877, the court heard the case of Nickels and Gautier v. Mooring. The Supreme Court upheld the circuit court’s ruling in favor of Mooring. [Nickels and Gautier v. Mooring, 16 FL 76 (Jan. 1877 term].

A later newspaper account surmised that the lawsuit had "aroused the old feeling" of hostility between Mooring and William Nickels.  It might also be guessed that the lawsuit was the result of shattered relations.  The same 1874 newspaper reported that "some three years ago from a private difficulty Mooring endeavored" to shoot his young brother-in-law, Charles Nickels. According to the same account, Nickels' sister interfered and "Mooring received the pistol ball in his own arm."  [Columbus Enquirer, Aug. 1, 1874].  This 1871 time period coincided with Mooring's taking his family from Marianna to Europe. The sequence of events (the lawsuit, the shooting, the departure) is impossible to know, but it seems reasonable to conclude that that they were all connected.  In any event, by the time the Florida Supreme Court heard William Nickels' appeal and issued its ruling, relations between Mooring and his in-laws had deteriorated tragically.

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