Althea And The Judges

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Althea’s supporting witnesses were not particularly impressive. Her two Negro friends testified that as early as 1881 she had showed them the declaration of marriage, but “poor, nervous little” Martha was most befuddled on cross-examination, and besides, she couldn’t read. Mammie, on the other hand, was almost too positive about the whole thing. She proudly admitted to having made Althea’s “fight” her own, and to having advanced her $5,000. Althea claimed also to have told an uncle about her marriage to Sharon, but the uncle was not called as a witness, nor did she call her other available relatives to her aid. It is altogether probable that they were glad to be left out of the mess. A girl named Vesta Snow testified for her, but Vesta’s reputation was of the doubtful kind. And so it went with all of Althea’s witnesses.

Judge Sullivan, a distinguished Catholic, concluded that Althea had lied in some particulars; but on the essential points he believed her—Sharon had signed a legally binding declaration of marriage with her and had called her “wife.” If Sharon had not meant the declaration to be real, he had seduced her by trickery. Althea was of good family, and had been educated in a convent; Sharon himself had said that her character was “unblemished.” So the Judge was sympathetic when her counsel spoke of her as “an ungathered rose” who had become “the rose of Sharon.” He granted Althea a divorce and $2,500 a month alimony. Said Althea: “I am so happy, I feel just like a young kitten that has been brought into the house and set before the fire.” Sharon promptly appealed from the decree, and at the same time pressed his petition in the federal court to have the declaration of marriage adjudged a forgery and cancelled.

Althea’s lawyers made every possible objection to the jurisdiction of the federal court to hear Sharon’s case, but they were overruled by the federal judge; an official examiner was appointed to take the testimony of the witnesses and to report to the court. The examination took six months. Sharon and his lawyers spared no effort or expense. They hired the most celebrated experts to examine the declaration of marriage and to testify against its authenticity. They persuaded some of Althea’s erstwhile companions to come into court and bear witness against her. They even persuaded one lawyer to testify (over the vehement objections of her trial attorneys that the testimony was a violation of the lawyer-client privilege) that she had once asked his legal advice about what proof she needed to sue Sharon for breach of promise of marriage.

Althea responded to all this by letting loose her spirit and her temper in an onslaught of contempt and derision the like of which has seldom been witnessed in our courts. She sneered at the lawyers, the witnesses, and the examiner, and took to carrying a pistol in the courtroom.

One day, while Sharon’s lawyers, William M. Stewart and Oliver P. Evans, were questioning a witness, Althea, ignoring them, sat reading a deposition made about her by a woman acquaintance. The deposition was unfriendly, and Althea did not like it. First she muttered, then she shouted for the proceedings to halt. The examiner remonstrated, but that only fanned her indignation. “When I see this testimony, I feel like taking that man Stewart out and cowhiding him,” she shouted.

I will shoot him yet; that very man sitting there. To think he would put up a woman to come here and deliberately lie about me like that. I will shoot him as sure as you live; the man that is sitting right there; and I shall have that woman, Mrs. Smith, arrested for this, and make her prove it. I say no jury will convict me for shooting a man that will bring a woman here to tell such things on me. They have never dared, when they put me on the stand, to ask me a question against my character yet—never dared. If they have got so much against it, why didn’t they dare ask me some questions when I was on the stand?

Several times the presiding officer sought to end her tirade, but she refused to be silenced. “They shall not slander me,” she said. “I can hit a four-bit piece nine times out of ten.” She drew a pistol from her satchel and dangled it in her right hand, pointing it idly in the direction of Evans, assuring him all the while that she was not going to “shoot you just now, unless you would like to be shot and think you deserve it.” When her fury was fully slaked she allowed the examiner to take the pistol from her. He made a special report of her conduct to the federal judges.