The Conqueror


A fictionalized biography of Alexander Hamilton

United States Supreme Court

166 U.S. 110


This was a libel by Frederick W. Vanderbilt to recover possession of the steam yacht Conqueror, of which he was the owner, and which was alleged to be illegally detained by J. Sloat Fassett, then collector of customs for the district of New York.

The material facts of the case are as follows: In May, 1891, Vanderbilt, who is a native-born American citizen, purchased of one Bailey, or Kingston-upon-Hull, England, the yacht Conqueror, a foreign-built vessel, for the sum of 15,500, or about $75,000. The bill of sale was certified by the United States consul at Liverpool, and the yacht was delivered to Vanderbilt at Hull. The vessel was designed for pleasure only, and has never been put to any other use. After a cruise to Norway, Mr. Vanderbilt returned with her to England, and in June was elected a member of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club of Liverpool; thereby, it seems, obtaining the right to fly the blue ensign of her majesty's fleet. He never did, however, fly a British flag, but always carried the ensign of the New York Yacht Club, and her enrollment in the Liverpool Yacht Club seems to have been with the intent of claiming a special privilege of exemption from tonnage tax, under Rev. St. § 4216, accorded to yachts belonging to foreign yacht clubs.

Shortly after this the yacht crossed the ocean, and arrived at New York about July, 6, 1891, where she was duly entered as a vessel with the collector of the port, and paid the light money levied upon her by the collector as a vessel, pursuant to Rev. St. § 4225. She also received from the deputy collector a certificate to her bill of sale, describing her, stating that she had been sold by Bailey to Vanderbilt, and that the latter was a citizen of the United States. This entitled her to protection as an American vessel, but did not authorize her to engage in commerce. After curising for some time about the coast, on August 27, 1891, in obedience to instructions from the treasury department, founded upon an opinion of the solicitor of the treasury that the yacht should be regarded as a dutiable importation, the collector took forcible possession of her, and held her until dispossessed by the marshal under authority of the district court. On October 1st Mr. Fassett went out of office, and was succeeded by Francis Hendricks, to whome the possession passed.

Meanwhile, on September 1st, Mr. Vanderbilt filed his present libel for possession of the yacht, alleging his citizenship; the fact that the vessel was designed, intended, and constructed as a pleasure yacht only; its purchase by the libelant; as well as other facts hereinbefore set forth,-and prayed for process against the vessel, and for a decree awarding him possession, and condemning Fassett in damages and costs. Process having been issued against the yacht, the execution thereof by the marshal was restricted by the customs officials, and it was not until an alias and pluries process had been issued that the marshal succeeded in obtaining exclusive and undisputed control of her. Fassett then applied to this court for a writ of prohibition, which was denied. In re Fassett, 142 U.S. 479, 12 Sup. Ct. 295.

Answers having been filed by Mr. Fassett, as late collector and personally, and by Mr. Hendricks, as collector, praying for the dismissal of the libel and for a decree of restitution of the yacht to the collector, the cause came on for a hearing in the district court, and resulted in a decree of restitution (49 Fed. 99), a reference to a commissioner for an assessment of damages, and a subsequent decree for damages in the sum of $15,000 as demurrage for detention of the yacht from August 27th to February 3d, and for other items sufficient to make up a total decree of $21,742.34.

Upon appeal to the circuit court of appeals this decree was affirmed without an opinion, whereupon appellant applied for and was granted the present writ of certiorari.

Asst. Atty. Gen. Whitney, for appellant.

Elihu Root, for appellee.

Mr. Justice BROWN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.


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