When Thomas Henry Blythe, a millionaire real estate tycoon from San Francisco died in 1883, no will was found among his possessions. His past was shrouded in mystery and within days of his death, many supposed relatives began coming forward to assert their claims on his estate. In part one of this story, we learned of three women who said they were his widow. Alice Edith Dickason, or Alice Blythe as she called herself, had been acting as Blythe’s housekeeper but claimed she was his widow and immediately filed a petition for special letters of administration on his estate. She also named Blythe’s ten year old English daughter Florence Blythe as an heir. At the same time, a woman by the name of Nellie Firman asserted her claim that she, not Dickason, was Blythe’s widow. Shortly afterwards, a woman named May Blythe came forward.
Seeing that there was going to be a long battle in the probate courts, the Public Administrator, Philip Augustine Roach, stepped in and took control of the estate. Before long, new alleged relatives of Blythe began appearing regularly, determined to get at least a piece of the estate, estimated at 5 million dollars, a sum that would be worth over 122 million dollars in today’s money. The Judge in the case, Coffey, set a time limit on when the last claim could be filed.
Savage or Williams?
On 20 October 1888, Judge Coffey authorized the American Consul in London to take dispositions from six new claimants who had sworn affidavits that Thomas H. Blythe’s real name was James Savage. Another group claimed that his real name was Williams.
The Savage contingent, consisting of Eliza Percival, Mary Ann Standerton, Johanna Hall, Martha Yetton, Alfred Savage, Frederick Savage and Henry John Savage, all claimed to be the only lawful heirs. In their statements, they said that Blythe’s real name was James Savage and that he had been arrested in London for stealing a cruet stand and in 1842 was sentenced to five years’ transportation to Botany Bay, New South Wales. After serving his time, he remained in Australia for two more years before he took passage to San Francisco aboard the ship Antelope. Judge Coffey ordered a commission to take testimony of their claims in London.
The Williams claimants were also sure that Blythe was an assumed name and that the deceased’s real name had been Thomas H. Williams. The claimants in this case were Margaret May Williams and John Charles Williams, infant children of a deceased sibling of Thomas Williams. 1Los Angeles daily herald, December 09, 1888
Spurred on by these two new claims, another group of claimants from Liverpool claimed that Thomas H. Blythe was the natural son of Sarah Savage and Thomas H. Blythe of Hampshire and that he had left England in 1823.
Blythe was a Chimney Sweep
In another claim, it was said that Thomas Blythe was originally from London and worked as a chimney sweep. When he was a lad of 17, he was convicted of stealing a silver cruet and transported to Australia. When he was granted a ticket of leave, he assumed the name of an aunt by the name of Blythe and made his way to San Francisco. The claimants, brothers Thomas Savage and James Savage who said they were Blythe’s nephews along with their cousin Michael Savage had been working in London as chimney sweeps for thirty years. 2Los Angeles daily herald, December 14, 1888
Inventory of Blythe’s Estate Falling to Pieces
With so many claimants now in queue for the estate, the inventory and appraisement of Blythe’s holdings that was compiled in November 1883 had been handled so often, it was literally falling to pieces and the court ordered that a large number of copies be printed in December of 1888. 3Los Angeles daily herald, December 23, 1888
In January 1889, Philip Roach, the Public Administrator of the estate, filed a complaint in the Superior Court against Guillermo Andrade and about two hundred other defendants to ‘interplead and litigate amongst themselves’ with regards to the involvement of Thomas H Blythe in the Mexican settlement at the time of his death. Since the US courts had no jurisdiction in Mexico, Roach’s lengthily document recommended that a Receiver be appointed for the Mexican properties. 4Los Angeles daily herald, January 19, 1889
Death of Philip Roach
On 30 April 1889, Philip Augustine Roach, the Public Administrator of the Blythe estate died and a new Public Administrator, James C Pennie, was temporarily appointed. 5Los Angeles daily herald, April 30, 1889
One group of American claimants stated that they were related to Thomas Blythe through their ancestor John Blythe, a Scottish Gypsy who came to America before the Revolutionary war and was the great-uncle of Thomas Blythe. Included in this claim were Mr B M Blythe, son of James T Blythe the banker and President of the Los Nietos Valley bank in Downey, California, his cousin Captain J W Blythe of Fulton, Kentucky and Henry T Blythe of Blytheville, Arkansas. Henry T Blythe was a former representative to the State Legislature, 73 years old and was said to be quite wealthy in his own right. 6Los Angeles Herald, 23 June 1889
Trial Scheduled to Begin
On the morning of 10 July 1889, the long awaited trial was set to begin in the San Francisco probate court under Judge Coffey. Twenty or thirty lawyers were in attendance, along with several hundred supposed brothers, sisters, aunts, nephews and nieces of Thomas H Blythe, all certain that they were the rightful heirs of the deceased millionaire. The Blythe case was called to trial. The first party heard from was Thomas I Bergin of the late firm of McAllister and Bergin. Mr Bergin told the judge that the death of his partner Hall McAllister from a brain tumor in December of 1888, along with his own ill health and the death of his sister, all of which had prevented him from preparing for the case. He said that he had only recently been able to secure the services of Garber, Boalt and Bishop to represent his client, Florence Blythe, the alleged daughter of the deceased and he begged the court for a continuance in the case. Despite argument from many of the other lawyers, Judge Coffey agreed to postpone the case until the following Monday at 11 o’clock, at which point, the trial would proceed he said even ‘if there was nothing ready but the memory of the deceased.’ 7Sacramento daily record-union, July 11, 1889
Will the Real Florence Please Stand Up?
In a startling announcement on 12 July 1889, Samuel Sinclair, a prominent citizen of Oakland came forward saying that he had irrefutable proof that Florence Blythe was not the daughter of Thomas Blythe. Sinclair alleged that Minnie Mills of San Rafael lived with Thomas H Blythe and had a child by him and that her daughter was actually Blythe’s child Florence rather than the claimant who was from England. 8Los Angeles daily herald, July 13, 1889 Shortly after his announcement, Minnie Mills and her husband G F Mills filed a lawsuit against Sinclair seeking $75,000 for defamation of character. 9Sacramento Daily Union, 30 July 1889
On 15 July 1889, the Blythe trial finally began. Boalt, the lawyer recently secured to represent Florence Blythe read her complaint saying that Florence H Blythe was the daughter of Thomas Henry Blythe and was therefore entitled to inherit the entire estate as his only true heir, and that he had proof in the form of a paper, signed by the deceased in front of witnesses that declared that Florence was his child. He went on to describe how Blythe had met Julia Perry, Florence’s mother, in London and had an affair with her which resulted in Florence’s birth on 18 December 1873. He read copies of letters from Blythe to Julia Perry which referred to Florence’s birth. All of the letters had contained bank notes and in one of them, Blythe had written
Kiss Flo for me
Other letters from Blythe to Florence’s grandfather, James Crisp Perry, were also read and in these Blythe repeatedly acknowledged Florence as his daughter. Beginning in October 1881 when Florence was 8-years-old, Blythe wrote directly to his daughter, signing his letters
Your father, Thos H Blythe
Blythe wrote often, saying that he hoped he would be able to retire to Colorado when the pressures of his business had lessened and that Florence and her grandfather could visit him there. His last letter to her was dated 3 April 1883, the day before he died. 10Los Angeles daily herald, July 16, 1889
Trial Day Two – A Lock of Hair
Attorney John A Wright took the stand and testified that on the day following Blythe’s death he, along with several others, had placed seals on Blythe’s safe and that when it was later opened to search for the will, they found several photographs of Florence and a lock of her hair. Florence’s mother, Julia Ashcroft, was also called to the stand to testify to her meetings with Blythe in London. A slip of paper, torn from Blythe’s notebook with his name and London address on it was introduced into evidence. 11Los Angeles daily herald, July 17, 1889
Trial Day Three – Intimate Details
Julia Ashcroft continued her testimony on the third day of the trial. Her lawyer read aloud many letters said to have been written to her by Blythe, all addressed to ‘Dearest Juliet’. The final letter read confirmed Blythe’s receipt of Julia’s own letter that announce the arrival of a ‘little stranger’, who Julia testified was Florence, confirming for the court record that Thomas Blythe was her father. The cross-examination that followed was grueling and made it obvious to the spectators that some of the other claimants would be trying to prove that Florence Blythe was not Thomas’ daughter, but instead a child of Julia and her estranged husband James Joseph Ashcroft. It was suggested that the child born of Julia’s affair with Blythe had died and that Julia was trying to pass off a child born of her marriage with Ashcroft as Florence. 12Los Angeles daily herald, July 18, 1889
Trial Day Four – Social Standing
Julia Ashcroft remained in the spotlight during the fourth day of the trial and was questioned about her social standing in London. She maintained that she had lived in London all her life but was unable to mention any friends or acquaintances. When she told how she had met Blythe and had afterwards gone to his room at his request, she was asked if she was in the habit of going to men’s rooms. Her attorney objected to the line of questioning and the objection was sustained.
In the afternoon, Highton asked what name had been given to the Registrar General at the time of the child’s birth and Julia told the court that the registration was in the name Flora Blythe. Highton then produced a statement made by Julia in March 1884 where she had stated that the child’s name had been registered as Florence Blythe Perry and she told the court that she had been mistaken at that time. It was further suggested that she had told at least one person that her husband James Ashcroft was Florence’s father and she admitted doing so, ‘to shield herself from further inquisitiveness.’13Los Angeles daily herald, July 20, 1889
Flora Blythe Perry Birth Registration St George Hanover Square March Quarter 1874, volume 1a, page 451.
Breaking News! Missing Will Found
In an Associated Press Dispatch on 20 July 1889, it was announced that Attorney Hart, one of the attorneys for Florence Blythe had located the missing will in Los Angeles. Hart claimed that the will bequeathed the entire estate, now valued at $4,000,000, to Florence Blythe, the illegitimate daughter of Thomas H Blythe, with the exception of $100,000 in other legacies.
The holographic will, 14A holographic will is a will and testament that has been entirely handwritten and signed by the testator. written by Blythe was said to acknowledge Florence as his daughter, naming her grandfather James Crisp Perry as her guardian and appointing the Honorable M M Estee as a director. It was further said that there were ‘peculiar statements in the will which clearly establish its authenticity’ and Hart confirmed that there were facts in the will that would only have been known by Blythe himself.
I believe I have found Blythe’s missing will, but cannot say anything about it positively, except that I have been in consultation with two attorneys tonight, who represent some very reliable people here, and their clients claim to have it in their possession. I was shown a copy, which was so like the will Blythe made about a month before his death as to leave very little doubt in my mind as to its authenticity, and I feel certain that if these people have not got the original, which I hope to see tomorrow, they know where it is, and I shall be able to obtain it from them. No, they do not ask any reward for it; but my impression is that they were in league with the woman, and would have kept it out of sight had the decision in the Sharon case not been reversed. As it is, they intend to do the child, Florence, justice, and I feel confident of success. As I said before, not having seen the original document, I am not prepared to say anything about its contents. Los Angeles daily herald, July 21, 1889
The ‘woman’ that Hart referred to as being in league with those who held the will was Alice Edith (Blythe) Dickason, the housekeeper and alleged widow of the deceased. The will, written by Blythe about five years after he returned from Mexico, was found by Miss Dickason in his rooms after his death and was removed and left in the hands of friends, who held it secret until just after the verdict in the ‘Sharon case’ was announced.
The Sharon Case
The ‘Sharon case’ was yet another sensational court case being tried in San Francisco during the same period as the battle for the Blythe estate. In the Sharon case, socialite Sarah Althea Hill sued Senator William Sharon for divorce in 1883, claiming to have been secretly married to him for three years. Her evidence was a marriage contract that showed that he had married her on 20 August 1880. In December 1884, when the case was originally tried, Hill was declared the legal wife of Sharon and she was awarded half of his accumulated wealth since their marriage in 1880. The ruling was appealed however Senator William Sharon died in November 1885 before the appeal could be heard. The court case raged on with the Senator’s heirs, son Frederick Sharon and son-in-law Frank Newlands, fighting Hill on behalf of the estate. On 3 September 1888, in the United States Circuit Court Room in San Francisco, Justice Field ordered that the alleged marriage contract was a forgery and that it should be cancelled and destroyed, a ruling that resulted in a an emotional outburst from Hill and a heated fight in the court where a knife and guns were brandished. Finally on 18 July 1889, Judge Works ruled that the alleged marriage was not valid, a ruling that prompted those who held Thomas Henry Blythe’s will to come forward.
The parties here did keep the marriage and their relation as husband and wife a secret, if there was a marriage, and for that reason we have held above that the marriage was not consummated, but the question was presented by evidence outside of the contract itself, and could not arise in any other way. Order reversed and cause remanded. Daily Alta California, 18 July 1889
The Trial Continues
Upon Hart’s return to San Francisco, the various claimants to the Blythe estate were in a state of agitation, expecting that the will would be produced but that turned out not to be the case, and in its absence, the trial continued.
The story of the San Francisco probate fight will continue next week in Part Three: 129 Claimants Battle for Thomas Henry Blythe’s Estate as yet more new evidence is introduced. Will 15-year-old Florence prevail and inherit the estate?The Social Historian