W. H. H. Hart, the prominent lawyer of San Francisco, is best known to the people of the state of California for his able administration of the office of attorney general from January, 1891, to January, 1895. His most important and famous achievement, however, was his success, as the leading counsel, in prosecuting the claims of the heiress to the great Thomas H. Blythe estate, involving suits and pleadings all the way from the local common courts to the supreme court of the state and finally to the supreme court of the United States. This part of his career concerns the later and mature period of his worthy life, but before this happy culmination there is a most edifying history of early struggles and sacrifices in order to obtain an education and a lever with which to wield his powers and also a bright page of martial deeds during the Civil war.
Mr. Hart was born in Yorkshire, England, January 25, 1848. It seems odd enough that an Englishman should turn to a president of the United States to furnish a name for his child, but the W. H. H. are the initials for the great Whig president William Henry Harrison. Mr. Hart's father brought the family to American in May, 1852, settling first in Illinois. In April, 1856, when eight years old, the lad William henry was stolen from home by the Indians, and for some months was kept with the band and accustomed to the rought routine of savage life. He was returned in the following October. The family moved to Iowa in the spring of 1857, where a year later his mother died, followed by his father in April, 1859.
The boy then supported himself by herding sheep, and during two winters attended school with a young man fifteen years his elder, named Hinckley. When the Civil war came on Mr. Hart was thirteen years old, but hardy and strong and an expert in the use of firearms. During the winter of 1861-2 he went to Cairo, Illinois, where Grant was then stationed. His friend Hinckley was also there, in command of a company of private scouts, and because of important service rendered was in the confidence of the afterward great general. Young Hart joined the company of scouts, and beginning with January, 1862, took part in the campaigns centering about Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. At the batle of Missionary Ridge he was in command of Hinckley's company, and while the bearer of a dispatch from General Grant to Sherman, across the country from Chico creek to Sherman's right wing, a distance of two and a half miles and over territory held by Confederate forces, he was three times wounded. After recovering from his wounds he returned home in March, 1864, and began study in the public schools, but in the following May enlisted in the Forty-fourth Iowa Infantry as a private. He was mustered out in the following September and during that fall acted as scout for Teneral Thomas at and around Nashville, taking part in the great battle fought there, in December, 1864. In February, 1865, he enlisted in the One Hundred and Forty-seventh Illinois, was wounded in April, 1865, at Pullam's Ferry, and was finally mustered out in February, 1866.
His ambition was already fully directed to the law as a profession. In the summer of 1865, when seventeen years old and while doing provost duty at Dawson, Provost county, Georgia, an ex-judge there presented him with a copy of Blackstone, advising him to read it diligently and comprehend withal. He did so during all his spare time until he was mustered out, and for two years afterward alternated between the public schools during the day and legal study at night. He was admitted to practice in the county courts of Iowa in September, 1868, and, four months before he was of age, was admitted to the district court practice. In April, 1870, he was admitted to the practice in the supreme court of Iowa. He was elected and served as city attorney of DeWitt, Iowa, where he gained considerable distinction as a criminal lawyer. He came to California in 1873 and soon advanced to a foremost position at the bar of San Francisco, also taking a prominent part in politics. In 1886 he was the Republican candidate for attorney general, receiving 7,400 votes more than his running mate for the office of governor, but nearly the entire Republican ticket suffered defeat that year. In 1890 he was again the nominee for the attorney generalship, and was elected and proved an able and industrious incumbent of that important state office. Since the expiration of his term in 1895 he has not entered public life to any considerable extent, the demands of a very heavy practice drawing upon all his time and resources. He has been particularly successful in probate practice, and among the large estates by which he has been employed may be mentioned that of Thomas H. Blythe and that of Louis P. Drexler, who was an old resident and left two million dollars.
Thomas H. Blythe was the assumed name of Thomas H. Williams, an obscure Englishman who came to California in 1849, and became possessed of real estate in the heart of San Francisco and elsewhere valued at three million dollars. he died suddenly on April 4, 1883. No will was ever found. His attorney, Mr. Hart, had made a rough draft of a will in which, among other items, was a legacy to Mr. Hart of ten thousand dollars, but this document could not be found after his death. Mr. Hart had learned from Blythe of the existence of a child in England, and he arranged to bring Florence Blythe to San Francisco, where she was to be the central figure of a long legal drama. Many other claimants to the millions appeared from all parts of the world. The trial began in July, 1889. On July 31, 1890, the case was decided in favor of Florence Blythe by Judge Coffey, but there followed at once some thirty appeals to the state supreme court, and four of these later went to the United States supreme court, and the cse was not finally adjudicated until April, 1901. This long-drawn-out contention, worthy of a noted place in chancery history, taxed the resources and great ability of both mind and body of Mr. Hart, who was compelled to meet the most subtle arguments and skillfully drawn appeals after the case had been won in the lower courts. The reward of his arduous efforts came when the state supreme court affirmed the decision of Judge Coffey on November 30, 1892, and then after years of delay the highest tribunal of the land, at Washington, in May, 1897, gave its first decision in favor of Mrs. Florence Blythe Hinckley--who had married in the meantime--a clear title to the Blythe millions.
Mr. Hart has large interests in mining and in the recent oil discoveries of central California. He is well versed in metallurgy, and has had wide experience in mining litigation, now devoting his entire time to mining corporation and mining law. He is the attorney for several large corporations.
Mr. Hart was married in DeWitt, Iowa, to Miss Loretta B. Hedden, and they have one son, Lowell J., now sixteen years of age.
Source: History of the New California Its Resources and People, Volume II
The Lewis Publishing Company - 1905
Edited by Leigh H. Irvine
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