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98 ~ Friendly Betrayal

Over 100 years ago, a Blawenburg farmer was betrayed after his death by his friend who was a prominent citizen. The attempt to take money from his fiend’s estate led to a series of trials, which were extensively covered in the area newspapers. In this blog, we report on the crime, the trials, and the outcome of the Lanehart v. Skillman case.

 


William Hendrick Skillman of Blawenburg was a community leader and farmer. Residents said that his large fruit farm was a showplace. He was so respected by farmers throughout the state that they elected him President of the New Jersey Horticultural Society. He also served on the Montgomery Township School Board. Born in 1847, he married Ann Elizabeth Stryker in 1867 and had six children.

 

His friend for many years, William Lanehart, was also a prosperous farmer. The two Williams got along well and shared a common interest in agriculture. Rev. John Van Orden, pastor of the Blawenburg Reformed Church, had a good relationship with both men and he said they spoke in a complimentary way about each other.

 

But something went wrong in Skillman’s life, and he betrayed his friend shortly after he died. An acquaintance described Skillman as a “keen old man” who studied law when he was much younger. This may have emboldened him to try to gain money at the expense of Lanehart’s heirs.

 

The Wills

In May 1905, just 11 days after Lanehart died, Skillman filed for probate in the Somerset Surrogate’s Office. He presented a document which was purported to be Lanehart's last will and testament. It said Lanehart’s niece, Miss Laura Kellogg, would serve as the executor. Following the sale of property, Skillman would receive most of the estate. This will was witnessed by his son, J.H.Skillman, and a friend, William Ely.

 

Shortly thereafter, John Race of Hopewell National Bank also filed a will for the Lanehart estate, estimating it to have a value of $19,000. Since Lanehart had no children or a wife, he left it to the bank to settle the will. This version of the will became known as the “Race will”.

 

In the Race will, William Lanehart’s sister, Sarah Jane Lanehart, would receive the bulk of the estate with the rest going to “public bequests”. Upon learning of the second will, the bank contested the Skillman will on Lanehart’s behalf.



The Trials

The initial trial for Skillman began in late February 1906 in Somerset County Orphans' Court with Judge Schneck presiding. It went on for six weeks. By the fourth day of the trial, the local newspapers reported “a startling array of evidence against William Skillman." Mary Jane Lanehart accused him of forging the will he presented to illegally gain access to the estate.

 

His friend, William Ely, couldn’t remember the date or time he witnessed the will. He said that Skillman told him he was updating his will and needed him to witness it. He never read the will.

 

Other witnesses claimed that the signature on the will was “not a clever forgery.” There were “mysterious” pencil marks below the signature, which was in pen and ink. Skillman said that Lanehart, who was 78 when he supposedly authored the Skillman will, wrote his signature in pencil first, and then went over it in ink. Laura Kellogg testified that her uncle had stiff wrists and had trouble writing.

 

Three bank officials and the deputy county clerk testified that the signature on the Skillman will was so dissimilar from Lanehardt’s known signature that it had to be a forgery. William Henry Harrison, the Commissioner of Deeds for the Hopewell Bank, testified that he had seen Lanehart sign documents in his presence. He compared the Skillman will with other Lanehart signatures and said he believed the Skillman will was not signed by Lanehardt.



Skillman had 16 witnesses, many of whom were respected area citizens, who attested to his truthfulness. Most were Blawenburg and Rocky Hill residents, who said they had known him for a long time.

 

Several jurors were upset during the first trial, presenting evidence to the County Prosecutor that they were being pressured to acquit Skillman. After an investigation, the prosecutor called for a new trial and two court officers were fired.

 

The new trial was moved to New Brunswick with Judge Theodore Booraem presiding. Skillman was convicted in this trial and received a five-year sentence in the state prison and a $1,000 fine. His counsel appealed the verdict, and Skillman was let out of jail on $5,000 bail.

 

The Outcome

The law enforcement officers from the county were very aware that Skillman, who was in deteriorating health, would put up a fight if he lost the case. He even said he would never be taken alive. When he lost his appeal of the case, it was further appealed to the Supreme Court. They wasted little time upholding his sentence.

 

In May 1909, time was up for Skillman. Sheriff Frank Ross and Detective George Totten had the job of going to the fruit farm to take Skillman to prison. They brought other officers along. When they arrived, Skillman’s son, Jerry, stopped them outside the house. They managed to get past him, but then they encountered another son and his son-in-law, who physically barred them from going into the house. When they managed to get through the door, they encountered Skillman’s wife and daughter, who attempted to protect him. Finally, they reached Skillman in the house and told him they would drag him out if he wouldn't cooperate. Being under the influence of morphine and having a weak heart, he knew he couldn't put up much of a fight. He finally yielded and was taken to Trenton State Prison by Ross and Totten. The officers, including Ross and Totten, had scratches on their faces, bruises, and other injuries from their encounter with the Skillman clan. It isn't clear whether the family faced charges for obstructing justice or assaulting officers.

 

Skillman never served much of a sentence. He was in such bad shape when he arrived at the prison he was immediately examined by the prison physician, Dr. MacKenzie, and removed to the prison hospital. William Hendricks Skillman died on May 23, 1909 from the prolonged effects of morphine addiction. Perhaps he got what he wanted since he never made it to a prison cell.

 

The Daily Home News published a short story headlined: Will Forger Dies in Jail, Ex-President of New Jersey Horticultural Society Succumbs. It was a sad ending for a former successful farmer and state leader.

 

This story doesn't have a happy ending, and it has elements you might expect to see in a made-for-TV movie or a Greek tragedy - greed, crime, betrayal, resistance to authority, justice, etc. Nevertheless, it is a true story, and it happened right in Montgomery Township.


 

FACTS

1.    When the Lanehart v. Skillman trial took place, only men served on juries.

2.    There were many fewer lawyers in 1906, so trials and appeals did not take nearly as long as they do today.

3.    While it was never reported in the newspapers, Skillman’s morphine addiction was likely the cause of his behavior. Which came first, ill health or morphine, was not established.

4.    At that time there were no local police in Montgomery Township, so constables and detectives from the county handled criminal matters.

 

 

SOURCES


Information

 

All the information in this blog came from newspaper accounts of the forgery trial gathered by Ken Chrusz. Most came from the Daily Home News.

 

Pictures

 

 

 

 

Editor—Barb Reid


Copyright © 2024 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.



 

 

Visit my author site: http://www.dcochran.net

 

 

 

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