On December 10, 1802, a fox hunter named Lodowick Post, the son of a local Captain, was chasing a fox through a vacant piece of property. While he was hunting Jesse Pierson, himself the son of a Captain from nearby town, came across Post and the Fox just in time to see the fox dive down into an unused well. Despite knowing Post was hunting it Pierson killed the fox and took it away. Post then sued Pierson for trespass, saying that his chasing of the fox made the fox his property.

 

The Case

At trial the court found for Post, but the ruling was different on appeal. Drawing on a wide range of precedent- some dating all the way back to Ancient Rome- future United States Vice President Daniel Tompkins wrote for the majority and held for Pierson, saying that while it may have been rude of him to kill the fox, you only gain property of an animal when you’ve actually seized it (or, in this case, mortally wounded it). It’s worth noting that there was a dissenting opinion by future Supreme Court Justice Henry Livingston: to him the rule followed by local hunters at the time should’ve been followed, and the fox be awarded to Post.

 

The Point

This is the most famous property case in all American legal literature. Its holding has been cited as defining what property is, and has been used to help establish everything from finder’s rights to the rights over flowing water and oil. There have also been several books claiming there’s more to the case: Bethany R. Berger, for example, has argued in It’s Not About the Fox that there may also have been questions about land rights involved.

As for the men themselves, they mostly faded into history. And, of course, no one knows what the fox would’ve said.