On April 10, 1849, American inventor Walter Hunt received a patent for that friend of babies everywhere, the safety pin. Almost 40 years earlier, one Edward Richardson approached Warren County distiller Thomas Middleton with an equally ingenious invention: a design for a “super still,” one that could substantially increase his daily production of spirituous liquor. Richardson, who had obtained a patent for the design, offered not only to sell Middleton the right to use it in Warren County, but to introduce him to a local man ready to buy a sublicense. Middleton agreed. He signed a note for $50 (about $750 today), received a document purporting to transfer the patent rights, then waited for Richardson to come to his home, give him the plans, and help him set up the new system.
Alas, the whole thing was a fraud: no set-up tutorial, no sublicensee waiting in the wings–and, Middleton concluded, no new and improved still, just a “cheat and artifice to make money.” To add insult to injury, Richardson successfully sued Middleton for non-payment of his $50 note. A debt’s a debt, caveat emptor and all that, the court declared, having no discretion to look beneath the surface for extenuating circumstances.
In his appeal to the Warren County Equity Court, Middleton’s plea was simple: Duh. Of course he hadn’t paid, but this court should exercise its power to take the fraud into account: it should grant him relief from an unconscionable common law judgment by voiding the transaction, thus preventing Richardson from collecting the debt.
After the merger of common law and equity courts into “common pleas” courts (among other names), complainants like Middleton no longer needed to resort to separate legal proceedings. For those taken in by crackpot inventions, equity was, and remains, the safety pin of jurisprudence, holding the fabric of civilization together by deflecting the sharp jab of the common law.
Thomas Middleton’s complaint is one of hundreds of 19th-century Warren County, Kentucky equity court cases in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Special Collections Library. Click here to access a finding aid. For other collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.