Althea And The Judges


Enter now upon this fevered scene the third and most prominent of the California gentlemen whose lives were entangled with that of Althea Hill. Stephen J. Field, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was then on circuit in California, and the report of Althea’s pistol-waving came to him and Circuit Judge Lorenzo Sawyer. In those days Supreme Court justices were required to hear cases on circuit when the full court was not in session in Washington. Field’s circuit included California, and there he went each summer to assist Judge Sawyer and the district court judges, Mathew Deady and George Sabin. Field was one of the nation’s most remarkable and self-confident jurists. In his legal and moral principles he was an assertive doctrinaire, his mind seldom in doubt, his actions never hesitant, and his manner so often offensive that he had acquired a number of enemies. Nevertheless, as a judge he was widely admired, and his appointment to the Supreme Court had been applauded all over the country. Like Terry and Sharon, Field had come to California with the forty-niners and had learned the value of courage and firearms. He had written California’s first civil code, and in 1859 he had succeeded Terry as chief justice of California. Abraham Lincoln had appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1863, and there he was to sit for thirty-four years and seven months, longer than any other justice in the history of the Court.

In August, 1885, when Althea first came before him, Field was just under seventy years of age, and with his full beard, bald and lofty dome, broad forehead, long nose, dark eyes, and stern visage, he looked like a judge out of the Old Testament. In fact, he was the son of a Connecticut minister. Two of his brothers had followed their father into the church; a third, Cyrus Field, had laid the Atlantic cable; a fourth, David Dudley Field, was a great New York lawyer who did much to improve American civil procedure but who was also involved with Jay Gould and Jim Fiske in the Erie Railroad scandals. At one time Justice Field aspired to the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, but he had too many political enemies.

Justice Field was not one to tolerate Althea’s theatrics. He and Judge Sawyer promptly ordered the marshal to see to it that in the future she would come into the examiner’s presence unarmed. When one of her lawyers, George Tyler, suggested that a gun was sometimes necessary for protection in court, Justice Field gave him a lecture: “Any man, counsel or witness, who comes into a court of justice armed, ought to be punished, and if he is a member of the bar, he ought to be suspended or removed permanently. That is the doctrine that ought to be inculcated from the bench everywhere. So far as I have the power, I will enforce it.”

Tyler protested, “Where witnesses do come armed—”

“Then report the fact to the court; that is the proper way.”

“That will not stop a bullet.”

Judge Sawyer spoke up: “Then arrest the parties in advance, and put them under bonds, or apply to the court to have them examined and disarmed before permitting them to enter the court. The laws are very severe.”

Tyler again demurred. “The laws are very severe, but it is harder on the man that gets the bullet.”

Justice Field answered him, “I don’t mean to say that there may not be times in the history of a country, in certain communities, when everybody is armed. That was the case in the early days of California, when people travelled armed; but at this time, when the law is supposed to be supreme, when all good men are supposed to obey it, and where counselors are sworn to obey the law and to see it properly administered, the carrying of arms into a court cannot for a moment be tolerated.”

That was Field’s first encounter with Althea. David Terry was not involved. Some weeks later the taking of the testimony was at last completed, and 1,723 pages of it were sent to Circuit Judge Sawyer and District Judge Deady, Justice Field having by then returned to Washington. Terry then made the argument for Althea, but to no avail. The two judges concluded that the declaration of marriage was a forgery; they ordered Althea to surrender the declaration for cancellation, and perpetually enjoined her from alleging its validity or from making any use of it to support any “right claimed under it.” In addition, Judge Deady gave her a gratuitous moral lecture:

… [As] the world goes and is, 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.…