Althea And The Judges

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Sarah Althea Hill was a rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed beauty of the Golden West, with spirit and a temper. By her own testimony—if no other—she could shoot a pistol straight and “hit a four-bit piece nine times out of ten.” During most of the eighteen eighties she was the sensation of San Francisco, and before she was through—in 1889—she had involved three of California’s most prominent men in a scandalous case that eventually required three Supreme Court decisions. The men were Senator William Sharon, king of the Comstock Lode; David S. Terry, sometime chief justice of California; and Justice Stephen J. Field of the United States Supreme Court. Before it was all over, Justice Field had been given a bodyguard; as things turned out, he needed one.

Senator Sharon was a widower of great wealth in a time when wealth had license. He had come to California with the forty-niners, and through speculation in real estate, banks, and silver (culminating in Nevada’s fabulous Comstock Lode), he had amassed more than fifteen million dollars. In 1875 the Nevada legislature elected him to the United States Senate, although his opponents pointed out that he was really a resident of San Francisco, where he had his office and owned the most extravagant estate on the coast as well as the largest, finest hotel in the West—the Palace. He was a little man, neither stately in appearance nor statesmanlike in conduct—but he was shrewd. His enemies berated him as a man of suspicious deals and licentious living. Apart from business and poker, his pleasures were Byronic poetry and pretty girls—and being a widower with grown children, he saw no reason to curb his instincts for voluptuous living.

Sarah Althea Hill entered Sharon’s life in 1880, when he was sixty and she was in her late twenties. The orphaned daughter of a respected Missouri lawyer, she had been brought up in a convent, and in 1871, while still in her teens, had come to California with her brother.

When Althea reached San Francisco she had a small inheritance, which she gradually dissipated in stock speculations. In the summer of 1880, when her speculations and her personal affairs were at a particularly low ebb—she had tried to commit suicide because of unrequited love for a San Francisco lawyer—she met Senator Sharon, who generously offered to give her some points on stocks. At his invitation she called on him at his office several times to “talk stocks”; but they always ended by talking about themselves. On one of her calls Sharon asked her to let him “love her” and said he could give her $500 a month. (Sharon later testified that that was the regular proposal he made to his mistresses.) Althea declined, whereupon he raised his ante to $1,000.

At this point their later recollections of events diverge. As Althea remembered it, she immediately rose to depart, saying, “You are mistaken in your woman. You can get plenty of women that will let you love them for less than that.” Sharon then put his back against the door and protested that he was really in love with her and wanted to marry her. That was different. She said (or said she said). “If that is what you want we will talk about that.” “Then,” according to the subsequent court summary, “the question arose as to how they should be married. He wanted the marriage secret: he had a liaison with a woman in Philadelphia who would make trouble if she heard of it, and that might injure his chances for re-election to the Senate.” Sharon told Althea that under the civil code of California they could marry one another simply by agreeing in writing to do so; and indeed, Section 75 of that code did recognize a written declaration of marriage in proper form if followed by cohabitation as husband and wife. Then, she said, he had her sit down at his office table and, consulting some law books, he dictated to her this declaration of marriage, which she wrote on note paper and they both signed:

In the city and county of San Francisco, state of California, on the twenty-fifth day of August, A.D. 1880, I, Sarah Althea Hill, of the city and county of San Francisco, state of California, aged 27 years, do here, in the presence of Almighty God, take Senator William Sharon, of the state of Nevada, to be my lawful and wedded husband, and do here acknowledge and declare myself to be the wife of Senator William Sharon, of the state of Nevada. SARAH ALTHEA HILL.

August 25, 1880, San Francisco, Cal. I agree not to make known the contents of this paper or its existence for two years, unless Mr. Sharon himself sees fit to make it known, S. A. HILL.

In the city and county of San Francisco, state of California, on the twenty-fifth day of August, A.D. 1880. I, Senator William Sharon, of the state of Nevada, aged 60 years, do here, in the presence of Almighty God, take Sarah Althea Hill, of the city of San Francisco, Cal., to be my lawful and wedded wife, do here acknowledge myself to be the husband of Sarah Althea Hill. WILLIAM SHARON, Nevada, August 25, 1880.