Althea And The Judges


Shortly afterward Terry came in, and Althea followed a few feet behind. When she saw Field, she turned on her heel and rushed back to the train for her satchel. While she was gone her husband chose a table and sat down, whereupon the manager went up to him and said, “Mrs. Terry has gone out to the car for some purpose. I fear she will create a disturbance.” Terry replied, “I think it very likely. You had better watch her and prevent her coming in.” When the manager left to do so, Terry himself rose from the table, went around back of Field, stopped quickly, and slapped the Justice viciously on both sides of his face. Neagle sprang to his feet, calling out, “Stop! Stop! I am an officer.” But Terry gave him what Neagle later recalled as “the most malignant expression of hate and passion I have ever seen in my life” and made as if to reach for his bowie knife. Instantly Neagle raised his pistol and fired twice. Terry fell to the floor—dead. Field had not risen from his chair.

Just then Althea rushed back to the room, an open satchel in her hand. The manager stopped her, grabbed the satchel, and took from it a loaded revolver. Then she became hysterical, calling out for vengeance and denouncing everybody as murderers.

Field and Neagle identified themselves; but Lathrop was near Terry’s old home, Stockton, and Althea was surrounded by his friends. On examination it appeared that Terry had been unarmed. Despite Justice Field’s protests, a sheriff took Neagle to the county jail at Stockton, and Field had to proceed to San Francisco alone. The affair was an immediate sensation and the idea gained currency that Field and his man had deliberately provoked Terry’s assault so as to have an excuse to kill him. At Stockton Althea swore out a warrant for the arrest of both Field and Neagle for the murder of David Terry.

The arrest of a Supreme Court justice on such a charge was not a matter to be treated lightly. The sheriff apologized, but Field was unperturbed. His words were copybook material: “Proceed with your duty; I am ready. An officer should always do his duty. I recognize your authority, sir, and submit to the arrest. I am, sir, in your custody.” He was not long in jeopardy. Habeas corpus proceedings were begun, but before they could be acted upon, the governor of California ordered Field to be freed from the arrest, lest his prosecution on Althea’s charge become a “burning disgrace” to the state.

Neagle, however, was in real trouble. He had undeniably killed Terry, and whether a jury in Terry’s home county would ever believe Neagle’s claim of justifiable homicide was at least doubtful. He was forced to apply to the federal court for a writ of habeas corpus, and there was serious question whether the federal court had any right to free him. The legal answer depended upon whether Neagle had been acting “in pursuance of a law of the United States,” and admittedly there was no specific statute that provided for him to act as Field’s bodyguard. Moreover, there were those who felt that because of the personal hostility of the federal judges to the Terrys it would be a grave mistake for the federal court to assert control of the case. They argued that the determination of Neagle’s guilt or innocence should be left to the local authorities of the state of California. But the federal court, Judge Sawyer presiding, overruled all objections and ordered Neagle’s release. The state’s attorneys appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Field did not sit on the case, but he got Joseph Choate, then the country’s most famous advocate, to represent Neagle. In 1890, in the last, the longest, and the most unprecedented of the Supreme Court’s opinions concerning Althea, a majority of the justices held that, in protecting their brother Field against threats of violence, Neagle had been acting “in pursuance of a law of the United States,” and it was not necessary to find a specific statute. The majority opinion was written by Justice Samuel Freeman Miller:

In the view we take … 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’ within the meaning of this phrase. It would be a great reproach to the system of government of the United States … if there is to be found within the domain of its powers no means of protecting the judges … from the malice and hatred of those upon whom their judgments may operate unfavorably … If a person in the situation of Judge Field could have no other guarantee of his personal safety, while engaged in the conscientious discharge of a disagreeable duty, than the fact that if he was murdered his murderer would be subject to the laws of a State and by those laws could be punished, the security would be very insufficient.

Justice L.Q.C. Lamar and Chief Justice Melville Fuller joined in a long dissenting opinion, the crux of which was:

… [We] think that there was nothing whatever in fact of an official character in the transaction … and the courts of the United States have … no jurisdiction whatever in the premises … [we] cannot permit ourselves to doubt that the authorities of the State of California are competent and willing to do justice; and even if the appellee [Neagle] had been indicted and had gone to trial upon this record, God and his country would have given him a good deliverance.

So Neagle was released. Field presented him with a gold watch inscribed “as a token of appreciation of his courage and fidelity to duty under circumstances of great peril.”