Althea And The Judges

Justice Field was again on the California circuit that summer, and along with Judges Sawyer and Sabin he heard the petition to revive the federal order. The judges brushed Terry’s arguments aside, and in a unanimous opinion read by Field they revived the order against Althea.

While Justice Field was reading his opinion, Althea and Terry sat at the attorneys’ table directly in front of the bench. Althea fidgeted nervously with her satchel. Suddenly she stood up and addressed the bench: “Judge, are you going to take the responsibility of ordering me to deliver up that marriage contract?”

Coldly, Justice Field looked down upon her and said, “Be seated, madam.”

Defiantly, she kept on. “How much did Newlands [Sharon’s son-in-law] pay you for this decision?”

Field spoke to the marshal. “Remove that woman from the courtroom. The court will deal with her hereafter.”

She sat down. “I won’t go out and you can’t put me out.” Then, as the marshal strode up to her, she sprang up and struck him in the face with both hands. “You dirty scrub! You dare not remove me from this courtroom.”

Terry rose to his full height beside her. “No man shall touch my wife. Get a written order.” When the marshal replied, “Judge, stand back; no written order is required,” Terry struck him in the mouth with all his might. A general melee followed, in which a swearing Terry and a scratching Althea were subdued and taken from the courtroom. In one of the scuffles a bowie knife was wrested from Terry’s hand. A loaded pistol was removed from Althea’s satchel.

The court promptly adjudged them both guilty of contempt and ordered them to prison, Terry for six months and Althea for one. On September 17 the Terrys filed a petition to revoke the order, but Justice Field denied it. He wrote:

… Why did the petitioner come into court with a deadly weapon concealed on his person? He knew that as a citizen he was violating the law which forbids the carrying of concealed weapons, and as an officer of the court—and all attorneys are such officers—was committing an outrage upon professional propriety, and rendering himself liable to be disbarred. … Therefore, considering the enormity of the offenses committed, and the position the petitioner once held in this state which aggravates [the offences] … the court … cannot grant the prayer of the petitioner; and it is accordingly denied.

The Terrys appealed twice to the U.S. Supreme Court—from the revival of the order on Althea to surrender her marriage contract, and from the order imprisoning them for contempt. They lost each appeal. Then the California supreme court—with a majority of newly elected judges—finally decided that Judge Sullivan’s original decree in Althea’s favor was not supported by the evidence. The state and the federal courts were at last agreed that she was a perjurer, a forger, and a fallen woman. The only court now left to her was public opinion.

To this she and Terry made prompt appeal. Terry wrote a series of long letters to the San Francisco Call, attacking the honesty of the judges and especially of Field. He reviewed Field’s career, emphasizing some old scandals and concluding, “He has always been a corporation lawyer, and a corporation judge, and as such no man can be honest.” In conversations, Terry called the judges “all a lot of cowardly curs” and he would “see some of them in their graves yet.” Once he said he would horsewhip Field, and “if [he] resents it, I will kill him.” Several times Althea said she would kill both Justice Field and Judge Sawyer, and she did not attach any conditions to her threat.

These and other wild statements were duly reported in the papers, and reached the eyes and ears of Washington officials. Field’s friends advised him to keep out of the California circuit the next summer, but he was too proud a man to take such advice. He was still the same Stephen Field who had come to California in the gold-camp days and had published Reminiscences of Early Days in California, filled with tales of his own bravery. “Shoot and be damned!” he had once told someone who had threatened him. Now that he was a Supreme Court justice he was no less defiant. The Attorney General, however, advised the local United States marshal in California to furnish him a bodyguard; and the marshal appointed David Neagle.

Denouement came on the fourteenth of August, 1889. The afternoon before, Field, accompanied by Neagle, took the train for San Francisco from Los Angeles, where Field had been hearing a case on circuit. Their route went through Fresno, where the Terrys were living. There, in the middle of the night, Neagle saw David Terry and his wife board the train. He told Field. “Very well,” the Justice said, “I hope they will have a good sleep.” But Neagle slept no more that night. He told the conductor that he was apprehensive of trouble, and asked that a warning be sent to the officer at the station in Lathrop, where the train would stop for breakfast in the morning. Just before they reached Lathrop, Neagle suggested to Field that he could get a good breakfast at the buffet on board the train. But the judge did not realize what he was driving at, and said he preferred to have his breakfast at the table in the station. Neagle replied, “I will go with you.” They were among the first to be seated.