Sharon/Hill Divorce And Terry/Field Affair: 1883-1885 & 1887-1890

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Sharon/Hill Divorce and Terry/Field
Affair: 1883-1885 & 1887-1890

Sharon v. Hill (Federal Court Appeal) Plaintiff: William Sharon (later substituted by Frederick Sharon)
Defendant: Sarah Althea Hill
Plaintiff Claim: To cancel and annul the marriage contract between William Sharon and Sarah Althea Hill and to declare the contract a forgery
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: William M. Stewart, Oliver P. Evans
Chief Lawyers for Defendant: George W. Tyler, W. B. Tyler, David S. Terry
Judges: Matthew P. Deady, Lorenzo Sawyer
Place: San Francisco, California
Date of Decision: December 26, 1885
Decision: Marriage contract between William Sharon and Sarah Althea Hill is a forgery and invalid
Cunningham v. Neagle (Supreme Court Appeal in Shooting of David Terry) Appellant: Thomas Cunningham
Appellee: David Neagle
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: G. A. Johnson, Zacharias Montgomery
Chief Lawyers for Appellee: William Henry Harrison Miller, Joseph H. Choate, James C. Carter
Judges: Samuel F. Miller, Joseph P. Bradley, John M. Harlan, Horace Gray, Samuel Blatchford, Lucius 0. C. Lamar, Melville W. Fuller, David J. Brewer (Stephen F. Field abstained)
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: April 14, 1890
Decision: Neagle was acting within the scope of his duties when he shot David Terry and, therefore, committed no crime

SIGNIFICANCE: When Sarah Althea Hill met U.S. senator William Sharon in 1880, their meeting triggered a series of events that, during the next decade, led to a torrid love affair, Hill's marriage to a notorious knife-carrying judge, the arrest of a U.S. Supreme Court justice for murder, and a series of court cases that included no less than 12 California and federal appellate court decisions.

Sarah Althea Hill met U.S. Senator William Sharon in San Francisco in 1880. She was a 27-year-old (some say 32) beauty from Missouri whose father was a prominent attorney and whose mother was the daughter of a wealthy lumber dealer. Orphaned at a young age, Althea (she preferred her middle name) was raised by her maternal grandfather, educated in a convent, and gained a reputation as a flirt. In turn, Senator Sharon was a 60-year-old multimillionaire and widower whose favorite pastimes included spending time in and out of bed with young women.

A Secret Marriage

Soon after Hill and Sharon met, the senator asked Hill to let him "love her" and offered $500 a month (equal to over $5,000 today) for the privilege. She refused, so Sharon doubled the amount. Hill said no again. Then, according to Hill, Sharon declared that what he really wanted was to marry her. Hill was agreeable to that, but the senator wanted to keep the marriage a secret for two years lest a pregnant woman he once dallied with find out and try to ruin his chances for reelection. The solution was a marriage contract that would, under California law at that time, legally bind Hill and Sharon together in matrimony if they subsequently lived together as man and wife.

Their liaison lasted for about one year, but then the senator tired of his bride and had her evicted from the hotel suite he provided. He also gave her $7,500 for which she signed a receipt indicating that the amount was "payment in full" for "services" rendered.

For the next two years, Hill consulted with fortune-tellers and used various potions and magic powders to win her man back. They briefly reconciled in 1882, but Hill eventually realized that nothing was working and, on September 8, 1883, she had the senator arrested for adultery with another woman. Sharon vehemently denied the allegations, said that he never signed the alleged marriage contract, and claimed that Hill was only trying to blackmail him.

The affair created an immediate sensation, with the public eagerly awaiting every word. After settlement negotiations failed, Sharon filed an action in federal court on October 3 to have the marriage contract declared a forgery. In response, on November 1, Hill filed suit with the California courts seeking a divorce and a division of community property acquired (mostly by Sharon) since the date the contract was signed.

A Long String of Trials Begins

The divorce trial began on March 10, 1884. Shortly afterward, Hill's attorney, George Tyler, hired David Terry as a "special counsel" to assist with the case.

Terry was one of the most colorful individuals in American history. The young Texas lawyer came to California during the 1849 Gold Rush and, eight years later, became the chief justice of the state's supreme court. Within a short time, he was almost hanged by the famous San Francisco Vigilance Committee, had shot a U.S. senator in a duel, and returned to Texas to become a Confederate brigadier general during the Civil War. By 1871, Terry was back in California, where he prospered as an attorney. He also had a volatile temper and was known to frequently carry a bowie knife underneath his vest whenever he entered a courtroom.

The divorce dragged on for several months and the public was enamored with all the titillating details. Sharon testified that the $500 a month he offered Hill was his standard proposal to all of his mistresses. Likewise, Hill admitted that she once hid her friend Nellie in Sharon's bedroom while she and the senator were having sex in the hope that Nellie would overhear Sharon refer to Hill as his "wife."

On Christmas Eve 1884, Judge Jeremiah Sullivan of the California Superior Court granted "Sarah A. Sharon" a divorce, one-half of the community property, $2,500 a month in alimony, and $55,000 in attorneys' fees. That same day, Terry's wife of over 30 years died after a long illness.

Senator Sharon immediately appealed Judge Sullivan's decision and pressed on with his federal forgery lawsuit. Despite objections from Hill's attorneys, the federal court appointed an examiner in early 1885 to hear testimony and collect evidence on the authenticity of the marriage contract. The process lasted six months and it took its toll on Hill. She began to act irrationally, shouted epithets and accusations at virtually everyone in the courtroom, and once pulled a gun on one of Sharon's attorneys. Hill was disarmed, but her actions were brought to the court's attention. On August 5, 1885, Stephen Field, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, ordered that Hill be disarmed whenever she entered the courtroom. (At this time, Supreme Court judges heard major federal court cases whenever the Court was not in session. In this instance, Field was helping Circuit Court judge Lorenzo Sawyer and District Court judge Matthew Deady, who were presiding over Senator Sharon's lawsuit.)

Although he did not know Hill, Justice Field was a personal and political enemy of David Terry ever since the two sat together on the California Supreme Court nearly 30 years before. Furthermore, it was commonly believed that Terry played a major role behind the 1884 California Democratic State Convention's repudiation of Field that destroyed the judge's candidacy that year for the White House.

Senator Sharon Dies, But the Trials Continue

The examiner's work was completed in August 1885, and his 1,723-page report was sent to Judges Sawyer and Deady. (By this time, Field had returned to Washington, D.C.) Further arguments were made directly to the justices and a decision was to be issued on November 15, but Senator Sharon died on that very day. Ill and in great pain, the senator one week before his death left instructions that the representatives of his estate were to continue the legal battle against Hill.

When the court finally convened on December 26, Sawyer and Deady declared that the marriage contract was a forgery. They also ordered Hill to surrender the document and prohibited her from ever alleging that it was valid and from using it to support any claim (such as her demand for alimony). The court's decision further included this astounding insight as to how the judges weighed the conflicting testimony and evidence from Sharon and Hill:

the sin of incontinence in a man is compatible with the virtue of veracity, while in the case of a woman, common opinion is otherwise.

it must also be remembered that the plaintiff is a person of long standing and commanding position in this community, of large fortune and manifold business and social relations, and is therefore so far, and by all that these imply, specially bound to speak the truth On the other hand, the defendant is a comparatively obscure and unimportant person, without property or position in the world. And by this nothing more is meant than that, while a poor and obscure person may be naturally and at heart as truthful as a rich and prominent one, and even more so, nevertheless, other things being equal, property and position are in themselves some certain guaranty of truth in their possessor, for the reason, if none other, that he is thereby rendered more liable and vulnerable to attack on account of any public moral delinquency, and has more to lose if found or thought guilty thereof than one wholly wanting in these particulars.

Twelve days after Sawyer and Deady issued their decision, Terry and Althea Hill were married. It is not known when their romance began, but the union was controversial and it destroyed Terry's standing in California's social circles. When Terry realized this, he became very defensive of his bride. "They shall not brand my wife a strumpet," he repeatedly said.

For two years, the Terrys lived a happy life. The couple believed that the federal court order was not legally binding in light of Sharon's death, so it was neither appealed nor obeyed. In the meantime, Sharon's children continued the appeal of Judge Sullivan's divorce decree. On January 31, 1888, the California Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, reaffirmed Sullivan's decisions regarding the marriage and divorce, but reduced the alimony to $500 a month and eliminated the attorneys' fees. (The three dissenting judges concluded that there was no valid marriage to begin with.)

As a consequence of the supreme court's decision, Sharon's family did three things. First, they filed a petition for a retrial of the divorce. When Judge Sullivan denied that petition, they appealed again to the California Supreme Court. Second, the family started to spend enormous amounts to elect some new supreme court judges to ensure a more favorable decision from that bench. Third, they filed a petition in federal court, known as a bill of revivor, to make Sawyer's and Deady's earlier ruling final. Terry filed an objection to that petition and the matter was again before the federal courts.

Pandemonium in the Courthouse

On September 3, 1888, the U.S. Circuit Court for Northern California issued its decision regarding the Sharon family's bill of revivor. Both of the Terrys were present in the courtroom. Neither of them expected a favorable ruling, but when Justice Stephen Field started to personally denounce Althea Terry while reading the court's decision, she stood up and accused the justice of taking a bribe. "Marshall, remove that woman from the courtroom," commanded Field. U.S. Marshall J. C. Franks attempted to do just that and received a slap from Althea. The marshal then grabbed Mrs. Terry's arm, at which point her husband, an adherent of the old southern honor code, roared, "No God damn man shall touch my wife" and knocked Franks to the floor. In the pandemonium that followed, Terry pulled out his bowie knife before several deputies threw him to the floor and put a gun to his head to quiet him down.

The Terrys were both cited for contempt of court and sent to jail; Althea for one month and her husband for six. Justice Field also ordered the local U.S. attorney to prosecute the couple for assault and other charges. David Terry filed a petition to revoke the sentences, but Field denied it. Terry then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that too was a lost cause. Field even made sure that Terry was not released from the jailhouse a few days early for good behavior.

Events started to really sour for the Terrys. While in jail or shortly afterward, the pregnant Althea suffered a miscarriage. Also, the Terrys were both indicted by a federal grand jury on criminal charges arising out of the incident before Justice Field. Then in May 1889, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the order invalidating Althea Terry's marriage contract with Senator Sharon. Finally, in July, with three of the four judges who earlier ruled in Althea's favor now off the bench, the California Supreme Court reversed itself and unanimously held that, because Althea Terry and Sharon had kept their "marriage" a secret, they were never legally married.

Both while imprisoned and after his release, David Terry made several threats to horsewhip Field and slap his face. In the culture of the west that still existed, these comments were an implied challenge to a duel. The newspapers widely printed these comments and the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. discussed them at length. Eventually, Justice Field was assigned a number of secret bodyguards, including David Neagle, one of the deputy marshals who had disarmed Terry the previous September.

A Fateful Train Ride

On August 14, 1889, the Terrys were on a train from Fresno to San Francisco. Unknown to them, Neagle and Field were also on board. At Lathrop, the train stopped long enough that its passengers could have breakfast at a local restaurant. Neagle and Field went in to eat, followed a few minutes later by the Terrys. Althea spotted Field and immediately returned to the train. The restaurant's owner then advised Terry of Field's presence. It is uncertain as to what happened next. According to Field and Neagle, Terry approached Field, violently slapped him across the face two times, and then appeared to be reaching for his famous bowie knife when Neagle jumped to his feet and shot Terry twice. An eyewitness, however, said that Terry did not strike Field, but merely tapped Field on the side of the face to get his attention before Neagle rose and shot Terry. In either case, Terry was dead when he hit the floor. No weapon was found on Terry's body.

As a crowd gathered, Field simply stated that "I am a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. My name is Judge Field. Judge Terry threatened my life and attacked me and the deputy marshal has shot him." Field and Neagle returned to the train and were on board as it left Lathrop.

Both Field and Neagle were arrested for murder, but Field was quickly released after posting a $5,000 bond. Within a week, political pressure led to the dismissal of the charges against the justice, but the local authorities intended to prosecute his bodyguard. Neagle applied to the federal courts for help. When the U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco heard the matter, Field was in the courtroom mingling with the witnesses. He was also frequently seen with the presiding judge, Lorenzo Sawyer, whenever the court recessed for lunch or for the night. On September 16, 1889, after a lengthy comment on Terry's "life-long habit of carrying arms," "his angry, murderous threats," "his demoniac looks," and "his stealthy assault upon Justice Field from behind," Sawyer ordered Neagle's release on the grounds that he shot Terry in the line of duty.

Thomas Cunningham, the sheriff of San Joaquin County, California, appealed Sawyer's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Lathrop, where Terry was shot, is in San Joaquin County and it was in Cunningham's jail where Neagle was held after his arrest.) G. A. Johnson, the attorney general of California, was one of the attorneys who presented Cunningham's case. Among those opposing Johnson were the Attorney General of the United States, William Henry Harrison Miller, and Joseph Choate, the country's most famous lawyer and a friend of Justice Field.

Cunningham's entire appeal centered on whether Neagle acted in pursuance of the law when he shot Terry. In 1889, there was no federal statute authorizing security for judges and Neagle's appointment as Field's bodyguard was based solely on a letter from Miller to U.S. marshal J. C. Franks instructing Franks to take steps to protect the judge. The argument was made that this letter alone could not keep Neagle from being indicted for murder. However, on April 14, 1890, in a split six-two decision (with Justice Field abstaining), the Supreme Court held that "any duty of the marshal to be derived from the general scope of his duties under the laws of the United States is 'a law' with the meaning of the phrase." Therefore, since it was within the general scope of Franks' duties to protect Justice Field, then Neagle, as Franks' appointee, was acting "in pursuance of a law of the United States" when he killed Terry. Field's bodyguard was now a free man.

There was one final chapter in the story. Althea Terry still faced federal criminal charges arising from the September 1888 incident before Justice Field. The case went to trial in November 1890, but it ended in a hung jury. Her mind started to go, however, and on March 2, 1892, she was found insane by a state court and committed to an asylum, where she died 45 years later.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Buchanan, A. Russell. David S. Terry of California: Dueling Judge. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1956.

Lewis, Oscar, and Carroll D. Hall. Bonanza Inn. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1939.

Lipsky, Eleazar. The Devil's Daughter. New York and Des Moines, Iowa: Meredith Press, 1969.

MacCracken, Brooks W. "Althea and the Judges." American Heritage (June 1967): 60-3, 75-9.

Swisher, Carl B. Stephen J. Field. Craftsman of the Law. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.