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Bizarre History of Cape May > Whilldin’s widow was later ‘swindled’ by a man 20 years her junior

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The Leaming name stands out in the early history of Cape Island, even preceding the Revolutionary War, but Hannah Leaming Whilldin did not become famous on her own until after the Civil War when she was to marry the man to be chosen as one of the first mayors of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Her fame was to grow larger after her husband died when in something of a dime novel romance plot a New York newspaper claimed she was “swindled” by a “man mentioned at least 20 years her junior under profession of love.”

She was born in Cold Spring on July 2, 1844, a year after her husband-to-be Wilmon Whilldin was to enter the world on July 27, 1843 in the community that was later to be renamed Cape May. In his book, “Cape May County, New Jersey,” author Jeffery M. Dorwart makes his first reference to the Leaming family in the person of Christopher Leaming who in the late 17th century owned more than 12 acres of land on Long Island and more than 200 acres on Cape Island.

But that was long before Hannah Leaming gained prominence, somewhat sparingly and with a scandalous aura created by a newspaper that specialized in making stories seem more sensational than they really were.

It is not clear in the recording of available history how and when Hannah Leaming met Wilmon Whilldin but it can be reasonably assumed that it was sometime in New Jersey after the Civil War and before the couple headed south. Whilldin was 18 years old when he volunteered in the war and served less than a year from Aug. 9, 1861 to June 16, 1862 before being discharged on a disability.

The two names are seen together in 1891 and 1894 in applications filed by Whilldin for passports for trips to Europe, the first filed in Camden where Whilldin claimed residence and had a profitable shoe business and the second in Orlando where he is said to have played a role in its development long before Mickey and Minnie did.

Their voyages to Europe were to take place a few years before Whilldin was chosen as an early mayor of the budding West Palm Beach in 1898. He was to serve for four years and his wife was to be more than the town’s first lady in name only. Like her husband, she was called a “pioneer” of the resort-to-be and donated land for a city park, supervised the designing of it and directed its activities during the ensuing years.

Whilldin, who was involved in a 1900 land transaction with entrepreneur and railroad builder Henry Flagler, resigned suddenly from the mayor’s post for business reasons in 1902. He still had business ties back in Camden and it wasn’t so many years earlier, some people claimed, that he bought a large house that still stands in Cape May. He was to live another six years until 1908 when he died at the age of 65, leaving his wife a sizable estate.

Soon, though, there was trouble for widow Hannah Leaming Whilldin when she took up with a younger man who, according to a New York newspaper “swindled her.”

The newspaper was the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer for whom the Pulitzer Prize is named. Pulitzer had purchased the newspaper in 1883 and despite his prestigious reputation in journalism that was to follow the paper had become known as a purveyor of “yellow journalism,” a term used to describe the sensationalism that some publications applied to the stories they printed.

Competition was keen then among a plethora of newspapers in New York City and they tried many things, not always short of libel to win circulation and advertising in a crowded market. One of the World’s biggest competitors was William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal American, which some historians claim stirred up enough public fire to help ignite the short-lived Spanish-American War during the time that Wilmon Whilldin was mayor of West Palm Beach, not all that far from the battle scenes in Cuba.

The World and the Journal-American were often referred to as “scandal sheets” and in 1864, the year of Pulitzer’s ownership and as the war labored on, the World was shut down for three days after it published what were said to be forged documents from President Abraham Lincoln.

It was into this vortex of rivalry in 1913 that wealthy widow Hannah Leaming Whilldin moved to the town of Thunderbolt, a suburb of Savannah, Ga. She was 71 years old then and had become “infatuated” with a man said to be 20 years younger in the headline of an article in the World, and more than 30 years in the story’s body. Their association apparently didn’t meet all expectations because she eventually sued him for having been “swindled,” a word used in the newspaper’s headline, not by her.

The paper’s headlines, almost occupying as much space as the length of the story, also said, “She is Taken in by a Man 20 Years Her Junior Under Profession of Love” and “Romance Must Have Began Soon After She Sold Out and Left this City and Located in Savannah Suburb.”

His name was Francis S. Greene and she contended in her legal action that he “sought to make a personal profit out of her confidence, and stating that he had professed great love and affection for her, and had promised to marry her immediately, despite the fact that she was thirty years his senior,” she sought to recover property she said she had turned over to him.

Since May of 1911, three years after her husband died, she gave Greene $23,403.66 in cash and property including a house and lot in Thunderbolt and much to her surprise on Feb. 15, 1913 she found the defendant had taken title to the property in his own name by fraudulent means, she contended. Then, to make matters worse on that same Feb. 15, Greene threatened to throw her out of the house if she didn’t lease it from him.

The suit said the action marked the end of “a shattered romance.”

She eventually agreed to the lease, Leaming said, paying $150 for living there and an additional $2,600 for two years for the defendant’s living expenses. How all this ended in the courts is unclear. The legal trail seemed to end publicly when a judge issued a temporary injunction against Greene.

The woman was to live until 1926 when she died in Camden at the age of 82. Her foster son, George W. Potter, accompanied her to the gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach where her husband was also buried.

In its earlier story of her legal problems, a copy to be reprinted in the Tropical Sun of Palm Beach, the New York World did not treat her with the best of discretion.

“She was rather advanced in years and by some thought to be a little crazy,” the reporter wrote. “She was eccentric to say the least, and from the above it seems that some sharper has taken advantage of the lady’s idiosyncrasies and robbed her of some of her wealth, for her husband left her a considerable fortune.”

(Some of the information for this article was researched in newspaper accounts provided by the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.)

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