At half past 5 o’clock on April 4, 1883, real estate tycoon Thomas Henry Blythe died suddenly at his home at 27 Geary Street in San Francisco.
That Wednesday had been a partly cloudy day and light rains threatened the Pacific Coast region. Thomas Blythe had met with Mr. M S Jeffers, his agent, at his office at 724 1/2 Market street that afternoon and had returned home, seemingly in good health. At about 5 o’clock that evening he took a hot bath, remaining in it for some time. After partially dressing, he rushed to his sitting room and immediately collapsed on the floor. A pillow was placed under his head and he complained of being cold. His physician, Dr Joshua H Stallard was immediately called along with his legal adviser Morris M Estee, but before they could arrive, Blythe had died. 1Daily Alta California, 5 April 1883 — THE LATE THOMAS H. BLYTHE.
Thomas Henry Blythe
Blythe, who had arrived in California in 1849, had been a member of both the Society of Pioneers and the California Lodge. His extensive real estate holdings included almost the entire block bounded by Market, Dupont, Geary and Kearny streets, as well as a large tract of land in Trinity county, 75,000 acres in San Diego county, a mining property in Nevada and an extensive tract of 800,000 acres in Mexico which he was engaged in developing at the time of his death. In a newspaper account the day following his death, Blythe was described as ‘a gentleman of the old school, scrupulously polite, yet distant and dignified even to the few who were intimately acquainted with him, and was throughout his life something of a recluse, possessed with a high sense of honor, his integrity was unquestioned and his word was a good as his bond.’2Daily Alta California, 5 April 1883 — THE LATE THOMAS H BLYTHE.
Died, BLYTHE – In this city, April 4. Thomas H Blythe, a native of England aged 60 years. Friends and acquaintances are respectfully invited to attend the funeral Sunday at 1.30 P.M., from the Masonic Temple, Post street.Daily Alta California, 8 April 1883
Two Widows Petition the Court
Only five days after Blythe’s death, a petition for special letters of administration was filed by attorney Henry E. Highton on the estate of Thomas H Blythe on behalf of Alice Edith Blythe. In the petition, Mrs Blythe claimed that she was the widow of the deceased and was his sole heir and his personal representative in the State of California. The petition further named Blythe’s only other heir as his daughter, Florence Blythe, aged ten years, who was currently living in Manchester, England. The petition stated that despite a diligent search for a last will or testament of Thomas H Blythe, none was found and that Mrs Blythe believed that he died intestate. His estate consisted of about $4,000,000 of real property and personal property of abut $500,000.
On the same day, a second petition was filed by Philip A Roach, Public Administrator, asking that he be appointed as special administrator of the Blythe estate. In his petition, Roach stated that it was his belief that Blythe was not married at the time of his death, and also acknowledged ten year old Florence Blythe of Manchester as his surviving daughter. It was his expectation that two women would attempt to prove they were the widow of the deceased, and that Florence Blythe would contest both of these claims. W H H Hart appeared on behalf of the English daughter Florence and it was expected that Nellie Firman would assert her claim as Blythe’s widow through her counsel George W Tyler.
The court appointed Mr Roach temporary administrator of the estate until the various claims could be investigated.
Another Widow Comes Forward
On 13 April 1883, Alice Edith Blythe’s application ‘to restrain the Public Administrator from interfering with the estate’ came up in court. At the same time, May Blythe, represented by George W Tyler, filed her own petition for special letters of administration on the estate, saying that she was Blythe’s surviving widow. In her claim, she named two brothers of the deceased who were living in Balfather, Wales along with a sister living in Liverpool, England as next of kin. She further stated that the deceased had left a child, Edith Blythe, who resided in Manchester, England.
Was There a Will?
Public Administrator Roach filed an affidavit noting his inquiry into the existence of a will on the day following Blythe’s death. In it, he stated that he had inquired with Morris M Estes and W H H Hart who were reported to be attorneys for the deceased, and with M F Jeffreys who was named as his attorney-in-fact. Estee said that he was aware of the existence of a will but did not know if it had been destroyed. Hart said he had spoken with the deceased on 28 February of that year regarding a will and that he was confident one had been executed then and that it should be found amongst Blythe’s papers unless it had been destroyed. Jeffreys had nothing to add. Roach said that he then proceeded to the offices of the deceased and placed seals on the safe and desk and then went to Blythe’s former residence placing a seal on the desk there with the consent of Miss Dickinson, who had been the housekeeper of the deceased. In the affidavit, Roach further mentioned that during his visit to Blythe’s home, he heard no mention of anyone who might be Blythe’s wife.
The safe was opened on 6 April but no will was found, nor was there any trace of a will in the Safe Deposit Company the following Monday. When they proceeded to Blythe’s residence, they found a notice
Mrs. Blythe has been seriously indisposed for some days and is unable to receive any callers.Stallard, M D
When Roach persisted in knocking, the door was opened and Miss Dickinson appeared with bandages over her head, seeming, in his estimation, not to be particularly distraught. She became aggregated and screamed:
You can’t come in! Do you hear? I am the man’s wife, and no one shall come in here till the Court gives them the right. Your are nothing but a parcel of ghouls. Do you hear? You can’t come in. Do you hear?
After Roach had been appointed temporary administrator of the estate, he returned to the residence accompanied by a police officer and was admitted and allowed to examine the desk. No will was found, and believing that there were papers elsewhere in the home, he applied for a warrant to do a more thorough search of the residence to find a remove all papers to a safe place.
When Roach subsequently attempted to collect rents from the tenants in buildings belonging to the estate, he found that they had all been served with a notice signed by Alice Edith Dickinson Blythe warning them not to pay any money to any person not authorized by the Superior Court and was turned away, empty handed. 3Daily Alta California, 14 April 1883
Alice Edith Blythe Affidavit
On 14 April, Alice Blythe filed her own affidavit with the court saying:
I cannot permit some errors of fact in the affidavit of the Public Administrator filed yesterday in this cause, to go for one unnecessary moment uncontradicted. My reply, however, will be very short. I have made no personal controversy with Mr Roach, and I am surprised both at the matter and the manner of his statements. His affidavit is very little else than a coarse romance, evidently intended not for the Court but for the press, with which, according to my information and belief, he was long connected. I am an American woman, born in this State, and unaccustomed to that kind of literature, which, in my father’s house, would have been considered of very questionable propriety. His prejudiced analysis of my feelings, or want of feeling, does not deserve the dignity even of notice, but speaking as an educated American woman, I state under oath that so far as my observation and experience are concerned, it is an unparalleled outrage, without the slightest foundation, in fact. The Public Administrator is certainly mistaken in his professed ignorance of the fact that I claim to be Mrs Blythe. On the day after my husband’s death in room no 20 of the apartments I occupy, when he and his legal adviser were sealing up the desk in that place, I was repeatedly addressed in his presence and hearing as Mrs Blythe and the arrival of a telegram from me by that name was announced in a tone of voice which seemed at least to arrest the attention of every one in the room. The only additional point in the affidavit, to which I desire to refer, is its assertion that I called the Public Administrator and his legal adviser, on Monday last, ghouls, and that I addressed them in a harsh and abusive tone. This is not that fact. I characterized their conduct as ghoulish hand I mean precisely what I said.Daily Alta California, 15 April 1883
The Contest Begins
On Tuesday, April 24, the contest over the administration of the estate began with somewhere between 70 and 100 alleged heirs in attendance. One of the relatives, who was from Canada, testified that Blythe’s real name was Williams and that he came from Canada, not England. The alleged Blythe widow, Alice Edith Dickinson, asked the court for an allowance but declined when she was asked to put in evidence of her claim. The court allowed Mr. Roach to remain in control of the estate and the case was continued. 4Sacramento daily record-union, April 30, 1883
Florence Blythe Arrives in California
On 23 June 1883, W H H Hart arrived from New York with Florence Blythe who was accompanied by her maternal grandparents Mr and Mrs James Crisp Perry. They brought with them, it was said, sufficient proof that Florence was indeed the daughter of Thomas H Blythe. 5Sacramento daily record-union, June 25, 1883 Several days later, Florence’s grandfather, James Crisp Perry, applied to the Probate Court to be appointed as her guardian, so that he could assert a claim on the Blythe estate on her behalf and temporary letters of guardianship were granted. 6Daily Los Angeles herald, July 03, 1883 The various claimants to the estate settled in for a long fight.
Falling Out Among Heirs
The following year, when James Crisp Perry, his granddaughter Florence Blythe and her mother Julia Ashcroft failed to appear at the law office of Cinnes & Knight to prove their heir-ships, a warrant was issued for their arrest. 7Daily Los Angeles herald, February 13, 1884
At the same time, Alice Edith Blythe had fallen out with the Perry family. Although she had advanced $1000 to James Perry to pay his own and Florence’s expenses to San Francisco, there was now a disagreement and she had put the matter into the hands of her attorney. 8Sacramento daily record-union, February 13, 1884
Williams Heirs File for Disbursements
Judge Coffey has rendered a decision in the Blythe estate sustaining the demurrer to the application of the alleged Williams heirs, who file a petition for partial distribution.Sacramento daily record-union, March 19, 1884
9In lay terms, a judge who “sustains” a demurrer is saying that the law does not recognize a legal claim for the facts stated by the complaining party.
Thomas Henry Blythe Remains Photographed
Fourteen months after his death, in a bizarre turn of events, the remains of Thomas Henry Blythe were removed from the vault and were photographed before being returned to rest. His corpse had been embalmed using a new process at the request of Alice Edith Blythe and according to those friends who viewed the body while it was out of the vault, he looked as natural as on the day of his burial. 10Sacramento daily record-union, June 03, 1884
An English Will?
With 47 heirs now staking a claim on the estate of the deceased Blythe, yet another claimant came forward, this one from England. Caroline Glover Robson brought forward a will, naming herself the heir to the millions. 11Sacramento daily record-union, April 16, 1885 Subsequent examination and investigation by Messrs Want & Hartson, solicitors of London, found that the will brought forward by Robson was nothing but a forgery and the California contenders breathed a sigh of relief. 12Sacramento daily record-union, May 16, 1885
More Claims Filed
Two brothers with the unlikely names of Edwin Edward and Edward Edwin Blythe came forward in February of 1886, claiming that they were the legitimate sons of Thomas Henry Blythe. According to the brothers who were foundry men in London, they were the sons of Blythe by his first wife. They told the court that Blythe married again and then a third time and was subsequently found guilt of bigamy. He was then transported to Van Dieman’s Land where he served a five year sentence. After receiving his ticket of leave, they said that Blythe then came to California where he had his millions. The Blythe brothers joined over 100 claimants to the Blythe estate who were from all parts of the world including England, Australia and different parts of the United States. 13Los Angeles daily herald, February 13, 1886 Four more heirs from New Haven, Connecticut came forward in mid-February 1886. 14Sacramento daily record-union, February 18, 1886.
In July, a letter was received from a Missouri claimant by the name of George Sloan, saying that his mother was a sister of the deceased and that he wanted to claim a share of the fortune for her estate. 15Sacramento daily record-union, July 23, 1886
In September, James G Blythe of Rock Island, Illinois cam forward, 16Sacramento daily record-union, September 25, 1886 and in February 1887, Georgia natives J A and Joseph Pore added their names to the suit. 17Sacramento daily record-union, February 09, 1887
Florence Blythe’s Amended Complaint
San Francisco June 3d – Judge Coffey has rendered an important decision in the Blythe (deceased millionaire) case. He held that the instrument set forth in Florence Blythe’s second amendment, accompanied by papers which were signed by Blythe, and in favor of his alleged daughter, Florence Blythe, and which is sufficient to sustain her cause of action in the suite to recover the entire estate, is valued at $9,000,000.Los Angeles daily herald, June 04, 1887
Mexican Property at Risk
As the battle for Blythe’s estate wore on, the large 1,200,000 acre estate in Northern Mexico that Blythe had invested in shortly before his death was at risk of defaulting to the Mexican government. On 27 July 1887, attorney Ryland B Wallace filed a document with the probate court requesting that monies to carry out the contract on the estate be advanced immediately. According to the contract for the land between Guillermo Andrade, the Mexican Agricutural, Industrial and Colonizing Land Company and Thomas H Blythe, Blythe was to advance the money for the development while Andrade ran the operations. In recognition of the contract, the court had previously ordered two payments, one of $10,000 and a second of $20,000 the prior year. When more money was demanded in November 1886, the request was turned down. In September, Andrade filed an account with the esstate, showing that close to 300,000 acres along the Colorado River were sold for $55,600 but that the cost of making the sale was $57,640, a shortfall of $2000, and that the estate should deposit a sum of $5000 with the Mexican government as security for the remainder of the land. 18Daily Alta California, 24 September 1887
Andrades was not the only one growing frustrated with the Administrator of the Blythe estate. On 13 October 1887, Abbie Parrott who was the executrix of the Parrott estate filed a lis perdens notifying the Blythe heirs that she would foreclose on a mortgage on the property at Market, Geary and Brooks streets for arrears on the unpaid portion of the $375,000 mortgage. 19Daily Alta California, 14 October 1887
Heirs Form Company
The collective heirs of the Blythe estate formed themselves into a company called the Blythe Company with a capital stock of $2,500,000 divided into 100,000 shares of $25 each. The purpose of the company was to avoid any possible delays or complications should one of the claimants die while the court was deciding the case.
May Firman Blythe
May Blythe, known as May Firmin has filed her answer to the second amended complaint of Florence Blythe. She alleges that she is widow of the late Thomas Blythe having been married to him in 1874 and having lived with him as his wife for over three years. She further denies that Florence Blythe is a child of the deceased or that he ever either publicly or privately acknowledged her as such. Mrs. Blythe or Firmin asked the court to declare her the lawful widow of the dead millionaire, and as such to distributed one half of his estate to her.Los Angeles daily herald, December 16, 1887
Attempted Kidnap of Florence Blythe
On Saturday, 7 April 1888, Mark Reme attempted to kidnap Florence Blythe, the top contender to the Blythe fortune from the home of her guardian and grandfather, James Crisp Perry. The attempt was foiled by one of his co-conspirators having a change of heart and notifying the police. 20Sacramento daily record-union, April 10, 1888 Initially, it was thought that Reme intended either to collect a ransom or to do Florence harm, but it later came out that Reme was convinced that Florence Blythe was actually Annie Mooney, a young girl who had been lost in 1883 at Belmont. Reme had convinced the Mooney parents to go with him to the Perry residence to claim their child, but the plot was stopped before they could see her. Afterwards they stated that Florence was not their daughter and Reme was remanded for trial by jury. 21Los Angeles daily herald, April 10, 1888 Reme was later found not guilty in the Superior Court of Alameda county. 22Los Angeles daily herald, October 20, 1888
The story of the San Francisco probate fight will continue next week in Part Two: 129 Claimants Battle for Thomas Henry Blythe’s Estate as yet more claimants come forward to claim the fortune. Which one will walk away with the $5,000,000 prize?The Social Historian