Woman drops suit against Tampa over Civil War debt

TAMPA — She had hoped to get more than $22.6-million from the city of Tampa for payment on a Civil War-era debt. Instead, Joan Kennedy Biddle and her family will be the ones paying.

Biddle on Friday dropped a lawsuit she filed against the city in March, seeking payment and interest on a 147-year-old promissory note. She also agreed to pay the city $4,000 in attorney's fees and hand over the original copy of the note.

"The fact that we have avoided any liability in and of itself is a victory," said Chief Assistant City Attorney Jerry Gewirtz. "As icing on the cake, they have also agreed to pay the city attorney's fees and costs."

Gewirtz also heralded the return to the city of the original document, which he called a historic artifact.

Biddle had claimed that the city owed her $299.58 plus 8 percent annual interest for military supplies purchased on loan in 1861 in a store once operated by her great-grandfather, Thomas Pugh Kennedy. The materials were needed to defend the city against Union troops during the Civil War.

Biddle, who lives in Brandon, told the Times in March that the old promissory note was a family heirloom.

City attorneys made 21 arguments against Biddle's claim. Among them:

• The 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits payments on debts that assisted in "rebellion against the United States."

• The city that issued the note no longer exists. In 1869, Tampa residents voted to dismantle their local government, then reincorporated in 1873.

• It's not clear whether the loan was to be paid in U.S. or Confederate currency, which became worthless after the war.

• In 1865, a Florida law voided any liabilities incurred after Jan. 10, 1861, the day Florida seceded from the Union, and before Oct. 25, 1865, six months after the end of the Civil War.

Gewirtz said he delivered hundreds of pages of material to support the city's arguments to Biddle's attorney, Jim Purdy, on Tuesday.

Several hours later, Gewirtz said, Purdy called and said he wanted to withdraw his complaint.

Purdy did not return calls for comment Friday. Biddle declined to comment.

Court papers show that in addition to paying attorney's fees and giving the original note to the city, Biddle would "forever abandon" any ownership interest in the note.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Woman drops suit against Tampa over Civil War debt 05/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 3:08pm]

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