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Part Three: 129 Claimants Battle for Thomas Henry Blythe’s Estate

The death of Thomas Henry Blythe in his sixtieth year sparked a battle in the probate courts that would last for many years. The trial itself would take 206 days and there would be 129 claimants to the estate with many more having been rejected prior to the trial. Two women would claim to be his wife. Nineteen groups of claimants each claimed a different mother for the deceased millionaire. There would be a total of 265 witnesses called and 139 depositions taken and after the trial was over, there would be 24 appeals. This is the third and final installment of the story of Thomas Henry Blythe’s estate.

Mrs. Perry Takes the Stand

In the third week of the trial, key pieces of evidence supporting Florence Blythe’s claim were introduced including photographs of Blythe, some receipts for registered letters sent from him to Florence, her mother and her grandparents, and the lock of hair that was wrapped in a paper bearing the words ‘A lock of dear Florence’s hair for her dear papa.’ Mrs. Kate Perry, Florence’s maternal grandmother, took the stand and testified that she knew of Florence’s father only from what she had been told by her daughter, Julia Ashcroft, and her friends Mrs. Bailey and Wright. 1Los Angeles daily herald, July 30, 1889 In all, she was on the stand for a full week, reportedly holding firm under cross-examination. 2Los Angeles daily herald, August 02, 1889

James E. Carr

James Carr had acted for Blythe over many years as his country agent for a variety of Blythe’s concerns and professed to have been personally intimate with the millionaire. He testified that Blythe had frequently talked about having a child who he referred to as ‘Flo’ and that Blythe had offered to pay expenses for him, along with his wife, to go to England to bring back Florence and Julia. He related how, in 1882, not long before his death, Blythe had told him that he intended to improve the block on Market street ‘for the benefit of his girl.’ 3Los Angeles daily herald, August 03, 1889 The following day, he spoke about Blythe’s mysterious past, saying that Blythe had told him that he had been born in Wales, but had been raised in England and Carr had the impression that he had grown up in Manchester. That Blythe had no great feeling for his family was made clear when he told Carr that he would never leave a cent of his money to them, except his sister. At one time, Carr recalled, Blythe had mentioned that his mother’s last name was Savage.

The attorney for Alice Dickason, Mr. Highton, told the court that they were willing to concede to the fact that Blythe believed that Florence was his daughter and had treated her as such, but counsel for the other claimants refused to allow this. 4Los Angeles daily herald, August 07, 1889

Blythe Often Spoke of his Daughter Flo

One by one, Blythe’s acquaintances and those he did business with came forward to affirm that Blythe often spoke of his daughter Florence. Mrs. Deasy, the wife of Blythe’s former body guard testified that she had seen pictures of Florence and that he spoke of getting his affairs in order so he could go to England and get her. She told the court that Blythe told her that Nellie Firmin had tried to poison him and that he feared that she might do him harm.

M. O. Jeffers, a business associate of Blythe’s, testified that Blythe had asked him to look after Florence if he died before Jeffers. He also recalled that Blythe had told him that he had made a will.

John A. Farrelly, a teller with the Hibernia Bank who had opened an account for Blythe, testified that Blythe swore that he had been born in England and that his mother’s name was Florence Savage and he had recorded this information in the bank records. 5Los Angeles daily herald, August 13, 1889

Thomas G Mattewson testified to knowing of Florence from Blythe and identified her photograph. Luman S Pease, an accountant for John Parrott testified that Blythe had told him that he had made a will and that he had a little girl in England that he was educating and that he would leave the bulk of his estate to her. 6Los Angeles daily herald, August 14, 1889

Mrs. Elizabeth McLellan of Los Angeles who had formerly kept a boarding school in Northenden, England testified that in 1882, Florence had begun attending her school. 7Los Angeles daily herald, August 16, 1889

Adoption Papers

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There was an outcry in the court in mid August when L H Varney, an agent of Thomas H. Blythe brought forward a copy of the adoption papers Blythe had created for Florence which he said that he had found in one of Blythe’s books. It was a copy of the paper drawn up by Blythe’s attorney W H H Hart which Hart said he had signed in February 1883, just two months before his death. The copy, however, was not signed or dated, and the original of the document had not been found. 8Los Angeles daily herald, August 16, 1889

The following week, another business associate of Blythe’s took the stand to testify that Blythe had also told him, only three weeks before his death, that he planned to leave his estate to his daughter Florence. An engineer, the witness Frederick Reed had been involved in the Mexican project with Blythe. When he had expressed concern about Blythe’s poor health, he said that Blythe had told him that in the event of his death, the Mexican project would paid for from the revenue from his San Francisco property but that he intended to leave that property to his daughter Florence who at that time lived in England. 9Los Angeles daily herald, August 20, 1889

What Happened to the Will and Adoption Papers?

On the stand, Hart, Blythe’s lawyer told how they had gone to seal Blythe’s office immediately after his death but when they had visited his home, they were refused admittance, and were told that Alice Edith Dickason was too indisposed to let them in. He similarly swore to his knowledge of both a will and the adoption papers but that he did not find them in Blythe’s effects. 10Los Angeles daily herald, August 21, 1889 After a long and drawn out argument in count, Judge Coffey ruled that Hart could testify to drawing up the adoption papers for Florence and that he himself had signed as a witness. He said that at the time, Blythe had said that he would not be sending a copy of the adoption papers to Florence as he wished that she would first learn to work before learning that she would someday be rich. 11Los Angeles daily herald, August 22, 1889 After it was ascertained that neither Florence nor James Crisp Perry, her grandfather, had a copy of the adoption papers, Hart’s testimony was stricken from the records by Judge Coffey, and the draft of the adoption papers were never taken into evidence. 12Los Angeles daily herald, August 24, 1889

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Florence Blythe Takes the Stand

At the end of August, Florence herself took the stand and testified to all of the prior evidence including the letters she had received from Blythe. She was to be the last witness in her portion of the trial.

Adoption Papers Found

Then, at the end of August, it was announced that Florence’s attorneys had found the original, signed adoption papers, and on 12 September, after the signature was identified as Blythe’s by his secretary, the papers were admitted into evidence. 13Los Angeles daily herald, September 13, 1889 It was beginning to appear that Florence and her attorneys had the case sewn up, and the case for Florence as a plaintiff was closed. The adoption papers, critcal to her case, were subsequently locked into a Safety Deposit box.

Alice Edith Dickason Accuses Florence

Alice Edith Dickason, the supposed wife of the deceased testified towards the end of September that he had never signed a document acknowledging Florence as his child and that she believed that he was not, after all, the father of Florence (although he believed he was). She went on to say that she believed that Julia Perry, Florence’s mother, and James Crisp Perry and Kate Perry, her grandparents, had falsely claimed that Florence was Blythe’s daughter, solely to claim his estate.

Witnesses for Alice Edith Dickason

With Alice’s case now open, a parade of witnesses began to testify on her behalf. Fred A Martin said that he had met Alice with Mr. Blythe back in 1881 and that at the time, Blythe had introduced her has his wife, Mrs. Blythe.  14Los Angeles daily herald, October 11, 1889 After Henry Windel testified on Dickason’s behalf, it was found under cross-examination that he held a signed document that entitled him to a ten percent share in any proceeds, should Dickason win the suit. 15Daily Alta California, 25 September 1889

Another Will Discovered

At the beginning of November, another will, this time found by Thomas G McLeran in some papers of his friend J R Hierdorff. This will also left everything to Florence with the exception of $20,000 which was left to Alice Edith (Blythe) Dickinson, along with $100 a month for the rest of her life and $10,000 to each of M s Jeffrey’s daughters. The opinion of all of the claimants, including the Florence camp, were of the opinion that this new will was a forgery and it would be closely examined by the court.

Blythe Had Another Daughter?!

In mid November, Francis Kauce testified that he was in London with Blythe in 1871 and they had called on one of Blythe’s lady friends. He told the court that while they were visiting, Blythe picked up the lady’s two-year-old daughter and said that she was his. The court erupted when Kauce said that the child was not Florence Blythe. 16Los Angeles daily herald, November 14, 1889

New Heir Phillips

At the start of the new year, grainer and painter T C Philips of Hanford, Tulare county came forward as the latest claimant in the Blythe case. He claimed that he was Blythe’s cousin and that Blythe’s mother and his mother were sisters. He was quoted as saying

His grandfather was Henry Blythe, a blacksmith. He had three children, Henry, Thomas and Mary. They are in Northumberland. Thomas married Janet Carrothers, my aunt, at Gretna Green. They had two children, John Blythe and Thomas H Blythe. Thomas was born in July 1822, in my mother’s house in Stapleton parish, Carlisle, Cumberland in England, his mother being on a visit to her sister at the time. We went to the Royal public school. Thomas H Blythe reached the eighth class. He was a very good writer and knew subtraction, long and short division, and the rule of three. His father and mother died in Galeshead in 1840. Los Angeles daily herald, January 18, 1890

What a Nice Foot

Meanwhile, back in the court room, Alice Edith was testifying about her initial meeting with Thomas H Blythe. She said that she had first seen him towards the end of 1873 and that after meeting him a few times, a mild flirtation had developed. In May of 1878, she went to Blythe about renting a cottage from him on the corner of Dupont and Geary, and he had commented on her foot, saying ‘What a nice foot you have.’ Although embarrassed by the compliment, she did go to lunch with him at his invitation and by the end of May, he had asked her to live with him. She told it that she needed time to think about such a serious matter.

Although she pressed Blythe for marriage, that never happened, although she told the court that she believed that their arrangement was for life and that Blythe had felt the same way. 17Sacramento daily record-union., January 23, 1890

The Nellie Mines

At the end of March, a miner by the name of Henry de Groot took the stand and told of a conversation that he had with Blythe in 1881. He said that Blythe had two mines which he had named Nellie No 1 and Nellie No 2 and that Blythe had told him that had been a mistake. He had named the mines after one Nellie Firman, but she had turned out to cause Blythe a good deal of trouble. He said that after Firman, he was a lot more cautious about women.

When de Groot had said that it was not good for a man to be alone, Blythe had replied that he was not exactly married but that he had taken up with a young woman but that he had gotten the impression that she (Miss Dickason) was his housekeeper). Blythe had told him that she was a good looking woman and very amiable, but that she had a high temper. In the same conversation, the millionaire had told de Groot that it was dangerous to marry at his age. 18Sacramento daily record-union., April 01, 1890

Under cross-examination, he added that although Blythe had not named Nellie Firman by name, he had said that he believed that some women would poison a man to get his property and his experience with her had made him cautious about other women.

Alice on the Stand

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On recall, Alice Edith (Blythe) Dickason returned to the stand to refute several witnesses testimony against her. She told the court that she did not recall Blythe ever introducing her as his housekeeper and that she had not attended the theatre with a Mr. Irish on his first visit to Blythe but perhaps has gone once afterwards. 19The morning call., April 04, 1890

She told how Blythe had said, ‘This lady is going to be my wife one of these days’ in 1880 when he guaranteed her credit on a sealskin coat to Herman Liebes, the fur dealer. The coat had been purchased on installments of $30 per month and the loan had been registered to Mrs. Dickason who at that time lived at 6 O’Farrell street.

Startling Depositions from Soho

Depositions from two auctioneers by the name of Lewis and David Davis, father and son, were received from Soho, England and were read aloud in the court. According to their testimony, the son first met Julia Ashcroft at the end of 1873 or beginning of 1874, when he called at the family store where James Ashcroft, her husband at the time, was employed. He also said that he had attended their wedding, and that Ashcroft had told him that Julia’s father had forced the marriage after Florence’s birth and that Ashcroft had frequently referred to Florence as his child. 20The morning call., April 10, 1890

Witnesses from England

Sarah Bailey, a wardrobe painter from London, testified that she met Joseph James Ashcroft and his wife Julia Perry in early 1877 and that the following June, Ashcroft told her that he was expecting some money from Flo’s father. At the end of 1879, he told her that he was going to make Julia write a letter to Blythe, since he was not going to keep his child for nothing. In June of 1880, he told her that Florence was living with her grandparents in Manchester and that he had not received any money from Blythe but he thought that the Perrys had.

Mrs. Sarah Bent, also from England, testified that she knew Dr. James Crisp Perry and Mrs. Kate Perry and that she also knew Florence, having first met her in 1876 in London. She said that she had heard the Joseph Ashcroft and  Julia Perry speak before their wedding and Ashcroft had told Julia that her daughter Florence would not get in the way of their keeping company. She also recalled after the marriage that she had overheard Ashcroft asking if Blythe had sent any money to Florence since he needed clothes and Florence was already looked after well enough by her grandparents. 21The morning call., April 11, 1890

James Foot, attorney for Florence, said that there was no evidence whatsoever to show that Florence was the child of Joe Ashcroft and that the whole tale had been made up by the Williams claimants. 22The morning call., April 16, 1890

Was Florence Kidnapped as a Child?

Dr. Edward Taylor testified on behalf of the William’s children that Florence resembled the Ashcrofts with the projecting upper lip and the dimple in Joseph James Ashcroft’s chin. He went on to say that Florence carried her head forward and lower in a profile very similar to that of Joseph Ashcroft’s mother. He also said that Perry committed a felony when she had Florence baptized at Blackpool by making a false representation of the child’s father.

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The attorney for the Gypsy claimants also attempted to show that Florence was not Blythe’s child but that of Joe Ashcroft’s and cited other testimony that supported his claim. Bulkeley, the attorney for the Savage claimants also weighed in on his belief that the evidence that Florence was Blythe’s child was nothing but trickery and then shocked the court with his theory that Florence was the daughter of a wealth family and that the Perry’s had stolen her to extort money from Blythe when the Blythe child had died. 23The morning call., April 25, 1890

Blythe Died in Alice’s Arms

In his summation, Highton, attorney for Alice Edith (Blythe) Dickason quoted from several works of fiction including Shakespeare, and said that Blythe had died in the arms of his client. He told the court that Blythe had on many occasions said that he wanted to end his days with her. He then snidely pointed out that his client was an American born woman and not ‘a foreigner with an obscure claim to Blythe’s millions.’ 24The morning call., April 29, 1890

Summations Continue

Attorneys for each of the claimant groups continued with their summations into May as Judge Coffey continued his voluminous notes. Over the course of the ten month trial, he wrote over 800 pages with nearly a quarter of a million words. The attorney for the Williams claimants held that his clients were the only ones with a family bible stating Blythe’s date of birth and the only original photograph and the only original letters. He noted that the spelling and grammatical errors in the Williams letters were consistent with those found in paperwork written by the deceased in recent years. He finished by stating:

Our case is really so strong as to prove itself, and it is only out of abundant caution and out of a sense of duty to the Court that we present argument in closing. It is so clear that the probation leaves not a hinge to hand a doubt upon. We desire to so present our case as to furnish a ration decidendi for the Court.The morning call., May 08, 1890

The attorney for the Gypsy claimants said that Thomas H Blythe was the son of Adam Blythe and Elizabeth Savage, who were married in 1820 in Glasgow. He said that many of the ‘peculiarities in Blythe’s character were similar to that of the gypsy race, particularly in peddling and trading,’  and quoted from a book titled ‘History of the Gipsies’ by Simson.25The morning call., May 22, 1890

Judge Coffey’s Statement

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On 7 June 1890, Judge Coffey issued the following statement of the statistics from the trial:

In taking evidence from July 15, 1889, to April 10, 1890, 653 hours and 1 minute. Two hundred and eight witnesses were examined and 139 depositions introduced. In arguments in plaintiff’s case 48 hours and 1 minute; in the Blythe company’s case, 7-3/4 hours; in the case of the Williams heirs 30 hours and 25 minutes; in the claim of James Witt Pearce, 1 hour; in the case of the gypsy Blythes, 29 hours and 5 minutes; in the claim of William and David Savage, 3-3/4 hours; in the claim of the London Savages, 8-1/4 hours. The grand total is 781 hours and 15 minutes.The morning call, June 07, 1890. Judge Coffey

Claim of the Widow

Attorney E D Wheeler opened his argument for Alice Edith (Blythe) Dickason on 9 June conceding that if the court ruled that Florence was the child of Thomas H Blythe, then he would not object to her receiving one half of the estate. He addressed the many testimonies that alternately identified Dickason as Blythe’s niece, housekeeper, mistress or wife and systematically refuted all but the claim that Dickason was Blythe’s wife and that he often referred to her as such. He stressed that Dickason could not have been Blythe’s mistress because, had she been so, she would have spent her days in leisure, rather than tending to his domestic comfort. To address the lack of a marriage license or other such document, he held up the example of Adam and Eve, saying that while they had no ceremony, no judge or minister and no marriage document, it was accepted by the Christian world that they were, indeed, husband and wife. 26The morning call., June 10, 1890

Foote Argues for Florence

Florence’s lawyer contended that Alice Edith Dickason and her friends held Blythe’s original will and the original adoption documents and that they would, at some point, make an appearance. He spoke of Dickason’s claim of a marriage on 19 May 1878, saying that at that time, Blythe was in the midst of a litigation with Nellie Firmin and that he could not see any likelihood that Blythe would enter into any marriage with Dickason while he was fighting a marriage suit from Firmin. He spoke of the written evidence that Blythe thought of Dickason as his niece, including a letter to Florence where he mentioned that ‘your cousin Alice’ would be her companion on a proposed trip to Mexico. 27The morning call., June 13, 1890

Dickason’s Marriage Claims

Dr. Taylor, representing the William’s infants, spoke about the various testimonies that Blythe had introduced Dickason as his wife, saying

If we except the testimony of the butchers, the bakers and the candlestick makers and a Chinaman, there has been no evidence of a recognized marriage relationship between Blythe and Alice Edith. One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one or two or a dozen introductions make a wife.The morning call., June 19, 1890. Dr. Taylor

Case Closed

Finally at the end of June 1890, the Blythe case closed, after Highton concluded his arguments for Dickason. Judge Coffey, who had originally intended to announce his decision at the trial’s conclusion, instead decided to retire to examine the final pleadings and to write his opinion. He told the court that his intention was to consider carefully whether Florence’s claim of Blythe’s paternity was valid, to consider the validity of the alleged marriage between Blythe and Dickason and finally to consider the various collateral claims of the other contenders to the estate. 28The morning call., June 28, 1890 His deliberations would take the entire month of July.

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And The Winner Is

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Finally, on 31 July 1890, Judge Coffey completed his lengthily opinion and announced his final decision.

Florence Blythe, the illegitimate daughter of Thomas H Blythe was awarded the bulk of the estate, including Blythe’s San Francisco properties and others, having a combined value of about $4 million. He summarized his opinion by listing three decisions:

  1. There was an illegitimate child
  2. Florence Blythe was that child
  3. Thomas H Blythe was the father of that child

In the claim of Alice Edith Dickason, Coffey said that the contradictions in the case were irreconcilable and that there was no proof rendered to show that she and Blythe were ever man and wife.

Coffey dismissed all other claimants, saying that they had made no case, with the exception of the William’s heirs who he declared had proved that they were Blythe’s next of kin.

The Appeals Begin

On 31 October 1890, following Judge Coffey’s final decision, James Crisp Perry, acting as Florence Blythe’s guardian, petitioned the court for a $1000 per month allowance, retroactive to the beginning of the trial, pending the decision of the Supreme Court on the appeal of the case. Coffey allowed $300 a month from 4 April 1883 to the present, a lump sum of about $30,000 and $800 per month thereafter. This ruling was, not surprisingly, challenged and in May of the following year was suspended pending the appeal to the Supreme Court. 29Daily Alta California, 16 May 1891

Wedding Bells

On Wednesday, 21 December 1892, Florence Blythe married Fritz Hinkle at St. Luke’s Church. Fritz Hinkle, an insurance broker, was the son of D B Hinkle, the owner of the Fulton Iron Works in San Francisco.

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Out of Court Settlement?

By October 1892, with the estate still in the hands of the Public Administrator, it was suggested that the matter now up for appeal might be settled out of court with one third of the estate going to Florence Blythe Hinkle, one third to the Williams heirs and the final third to be divided amongst the rest of the claimants, but that was not to be. The case went before the Supreme Court and the contest continued for many years. Finally in April 1894, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of upholding the Coffey decision that Florence Blythe Hinkle was the sole heir to the Blythe millions. 30San Francisco Call, 25 April 1894

The appeals continued however even into the twentieth century, although Florence continued to win each and every appeal, with the final verdict being handed down on 1 June 1905 by the Supreme Court.

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1 Los Angeles daily herald, July 30, 1889
2 Los Angeles daily herald, August 02, 1889
3 Los Angeles daily herald, August 03, 1889
4 Los Angeles daily herald, August 07, 1889
5 Los Angeles daily herald, August 13, 1889
6 Los Angeles daily herald, August 14, 1889
7, 8 Los Angeles daily herald, August 16, 1889
9 Los Angeles daily herald, August 20, 1889
10 Los Angeles daily herald, August 21, 1889
11 Los Angeles daily herald, August 22, 1889
12 Los Angeles daily herald, August 24, 1889
13 Los Angeles daily herald, September 13, 1889
14 Los Angeles daily herald, October 11, 1889
15 Daily Alta California, 25 September 1889
16 Los Angeles daily herald, November 14, 1889
17 Sacramento daily record-union., January 23, 1890
18 Sacramento daily record-union., April 01, 1890
19 The morning call., April 04, 1890
20 The morning call., April 10, 1890
21 The morning call., April 11, 1890
22 The morning call., April 16, 1890
23 The morning call., April 25, 1890
24 The morning call., April 29, 1890
25 The morning call., May 22, 1890
26 The morning call., June 10, 1890
27 The morning call., June 13, 1890
28 The morning call., June 28, 1890
29 Daily Alta California, 16 May 1891
30 San Francisco Call, 25 April 1894