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Boalt's Money

Q. How did the Boalts make their money? Were they like robber barons or something? - JPM, Berkeley

A. Robber barons? Well, it depends on how you feel about lawyers. John Henry Boalt was a successful Bay Area attorney, but notoriety (and a nice chunk of change) came from his involvement with one of the biggest tabloid scandals of gaslight-era San Francisco.

In 1883 a rather corpulent man named Thomas H. Blythe — described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “an eccentric bachelor millionaire” — suffered a heart attack while enjoying an excessively hot bath. He died intestate, precipitating an estate battle that in time became California’s own version of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Blythe owned vast tracts of land in San Diego County and in Mexico, but his real estate empire began in San Francisco when he lent a few hundred dollars to an acquaintance, with a piece of property as collateral. The borrower defaulted on the loan, and Blythe found himself the fortunate owner of a plot of land bordered by Market, Geary, Dupont (now Grant) and Kearney. With most of his assets in real property, the value of the decedent’s estate could be only roughly estimated, but guesses placed it somewhere north of $4 million — or $91 million in today’s value.                   

With so much money and no clear heir, relatives began wriggling out of the woodwork. Eventually there were 197 claimants, represented by twenty-two lawyers. The strongest case was presented by a young English girl named Florence, who claimed to be the love child of Thomas Blythe and Julia Perry. The San Francisco newspapers of the day found the steamy story irresistible.                           

“While walking along the streets of that gay section west of London known as Westbourne Grove, in the month of February, 1873, Blythe met a young girl of preposessing appearance about 20 years old, and introduced himself to her on the street. He was 50 years old, and a little past the ‘mashing’ age, but the young girl allowed herself to engage in conversation with him. It appears tolerably certain that the girl, whose name was Julia Perry, was not in any sense a wanton; on the contrary, she at first repelled his studiously guarded advances. In a few weeks, however, she consented to sup with him, and an intimacy ensued, as the result of which Florence was born on December 18th of the same year.”

The other strongest claimant was Blythe’s common law wife, Alice Edith Dickerson, who had lived with him in an elegant flat at 27 Geary Street. Newspapers took note of the irregular domestic arrangement.

“The circumstances under which death took place left no doubt that Mr. Blythe was quite unprepared for such an event and had been living very much at ease with himself and the world and with very little concern for the next. In fact, he was living with Miss Alice Edith Dickerson without any other tie than mutual consent, while he was writing at frequent intervals to a child in England, the daughter of a respectable young woman whom he had betrayed during his residence there in 1873.... [H]e was absolutely conscienceless in his relations with women.”

Litigation over the estate dragged on and on for more than twelve years. The legal wrangling took its toll on Miss Dickerson, who suffered from a weakness for alcohol.

“Alice Edith in the Geary-street apartments,” the newspapers reported, “with her mind racked by rival claimants, and with the unrecognized position incident to an unwitnessed ‘marriage,’ was left free to drift, and drift she did. Under the influence of liquor, she exhibited herself to a crowd in a costume reduced to the primeval elements, sitting in neglige style on the window sill of the third story of the Geary-street house and singing ditties suggested by the occasion.”

The case slowly wended its way to the California Supreme Court, where the justices at last upheld the claim of Florence Blythe — who had married in the interim, and was by then Florence Hinckley (Blythe v. Ayers, 96 Cal 532). John Henry Boalt represented Mrs. Hinckley before the court, and received two percent of her inheritance as compensation for his efforts. When Boalt in turn passed away, part of his estate was designated for the construction of the Boalt Memorial Hall of Law.

So, whenever you see a sign that reads “Boalt” give a thought to poor Miss Alice Edith, lounging en déshabillée in her third floor window, singing boozy torch songs to the passers-by on Geary Street.                                

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