Can these be true?  Preposterous! you say.  What drivel!  Bad, bad jokes.  Sorry!  Wrong.  They are all literally true.  Early California was a wild and woolly place.  Men carried guns and used them to settle disputes as quickly as people sue today.  But there is a lot of interesting history behind these headlines.  Let’s explore it.

Central to the narrative is David Terry, a large, strong, short-tempered Irishman.  Born in the midwest, he came to California in the Gold Rush, like so many others, intent on making his fortune.  He was a trained lawyer and, rather than head for the Mother Lode in the Sierra Nevada, he settled in San Francisco and began to practice law and do business.  He was very active in a political group that favored bringing California in to the United States as a slave state—one with legalized slavery.  There was a great need for simple labor, a whole state to be built and vast agricultural areas to be farmed. It seemed so natural.  But there was even greater sentiment against the idea of slavery.  The gold-rushers tended to be an independent and diverse group to whom the idea probably seemed foreign, and the civil law of California was rooted in Mexican civil law, under which slavery was illegal.

Terry had campaigned for and managed to get himself elected Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.  It was a very part time job and left him plenty of time to advance his political agenda and get into mischief.  Advancing his political agenda and his natural penchant for argument led to many public disputes and confrontations.

Lawlessness was a serious problem in early San Francisco.  There was a small police force at the disposal of the sheriff, but when things appeared to be getting out of control, ordinary citizens organized a Committee of Vigilance.  Armed citizens patrolled in groups, enforced order, arrested criminals and turned them over to the sheriff or sometimes just held a trial themselves.

During a public meeting over the slavery issue, the dispute got heated, and violence erupted.  The Vigilance Committee tried to keep some degree of order by arresting the worst of the miscreants. A respected committee member, Hopkins, was sent to do the job. In doing so Hopkins was confronted by Terry.  An argument broke out, and Terry’s famous temper exploded.  He pulled a large Bowie knife from inside his coat and struck Hopkins.  The blow was not instantly mortal, but it was deeply serious. Hopkins was carried by his deputies to a doctor, and Terry retreated to the safety of the headquarters of the pro-slavery political party.  The Vigilance Committee surrounded the building in force, and Terry surrendered.

Terry was held by the Vigilance Committee for several days until it was clear Hopkins would recover and then released Terry. He had dodged the bullet, in large measure because of his political position. There was much talk among Committee members to string him up.  But, lucky as he had been, he was not one to leave well enough alone. So....

The free state/slave state debate continued. California elected a very popular politician, David Broderick, as one of its first United States Senators.  Broderick was a vocal anti-slavery man and made no bones about it.  Terry was not nominated by his party as its candidate for Justice of the Supreme Court and so was out of office, but he was not less vocal. He spoke disparagingly in public about Broderick.  Many believed that Terry was provoking Broderick, hoping for an insult that would result in a confrontation and perhaps a duel.

Broderick read Terry’s uncomplimentary remarks in the paper over breakfast at his club one morning and commented on Terry’s character out loud.  He was overhead by a Terry supporter who reported them to Terry. A few months passed, but after the election Terry deliberately encountered Broderick, creating a situation in which Broderick would have to appear weak publically or be forced to challenge Terry to a duel.  Dueling was illegal in California, as in most places, but in a place where the population went from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands in just ten years, law was not quite so important as how a man took care of himself. Broderick simply could not refuse, and did not.

He agreed to meet Terry and duel with pistols. On the early morning of September 13, 1859, Terry and Broderick met in a clearing near Lake Merced.  The spot is marked today by two pillars showing when each man stood at the fateful moment.  Broderick never had a chance. He was obviously frightened. Terry was an experienced brawler and very familiar with firearms.  At the signal Broderick raised his arm, but inadvertently discharged his weapon before raising it far enough to point at Terry.  The ball entered the ground only half way to where Terry stood.  Rather than act like a gentleman and also fire his pistol in the ground or in the air or deliberately miss Broderick with his shot, Terry, gloating, raised his pistol slowly, took careful aim and shot Broderick, who bravely stood his ground, in the upper left chest.  Broderick lingered a few hours and then died.  California had lost an effective and beloved Senator.  Inexplicably, Terry was not prosecuted although there was much call for a murder trial.

Enter now another important character, Stephen Field. Field was the antithesis of Terry. Intellectual, spare, scrupulous in his decisions and hard as the New England nails his family home was put together with.  Field was also a justice on the California Supreme Court and enjoyed an excellent reputation.  As one of the many things
President Lincoln did during the Civil War to ensure that California remained part of the Union, he appointed Field to the United States Supreme Court.  (Not to jump ahead too far, but Field had a very long, very productive and highly respected tenure on that bench.)  Terry complained bitterly that he had deserved the spot and had been passed over unfairly.  Apparently, he even tried to inveigle Field into an insult-hurling contest and a possible duel, but the wily Field would have none of it.  Terry lowered his profile and went into private law practice in San Francisco.  And according to some, he accepted some very unsavory cases.

Now it is time for yet another character, our first woman, named Sarah Althea Hill, then later Sarah Althea Hill Sharon, and then later still Sarah Althea Hill Sharon Terry.  (Yes, that’s right, Terry finally marries, and it was to Sarah Althea Hill Sharon.  But that happens later in our narrative.)  I’ll call her Sarah, although a more descriptive term would be the Temptress. Sarah’s antecedents are not well documented.  She “worked” in San Francisco and was very popular with the smart set.  Her first marriage to a Mister Hill lasted only a short while, and she retained her good looks and sex appeal.  She set her target next on William Sharon, U.S. Senator from Nevada, who was a multi-millionaire, grown enormously wealthy from the Virginia City, Nevada silver mines he owned.

What Sarah wanted, she usually got, and despite being plenty old enough to be her father, Sharon married her.  Not too long afterward Sharon died.  His death was a bit unexpected, but he was not a young man and had spent his early years in the harsh conditions of the mining camps.  Sharon’s prior marriage had produced offspring, and they were no dummies, but no one was able to find any substantive evidence of foul play in Sharon’s death.

On the other hand, Sharon’s “final will,” supposedly made not long before his death, was highly suspect.  Handwritten, and short, and discovered by Sarah in a desk in their house after Sharon died, the will represented a dramatic shift from his prior plans for estate dispositions.  Those who saw it were dubious about whether it really was in Sharon’s handwriting.  Given its appearance, the bequests it made, and the circumstances of its discovery, no one was particularly surprised to hear that, under this will, Sharon’s offspring by his prior marriage got nothing, and Sarah got the whole bundle.

As could be expected, lawsuits galore followed, and so re-enters David Terry, who now represents Sarah in her lawsuit against the Sharon children by his prior marriage.

The principal case ended up in federal court (California residents v. Nevada residents) and was soon to be tried.  Sorry—now a brief jurisprudential interlude, but it is very important to our narrative.  Federal trial courts are divided into Districts (hence Federal District Courts).  Every state has at least one District, and may have more than one.  It depends on how big they are geographically and in population.  Appeals from the District Courts went to the Circuit Courts of Appeal and from there to the Supreme Court.  Because the country’s population was much smaller then than now (and the Union was even smaller during the Civil War) the Supreme Court Justices were sometimes not all that busy.  When a District Court got too busy to handle its case load, it could ask that a federal judge from the Circuit Courts or even the Supreme Court, who had some time, come to the overbusy District and hear trials.  This was called “riding circuit” since these judges often held court in more remote venues.

Ah, now you can guess what was about to happen, can’t you?  The California District got very busy and asked for a circuit riding judge.  Field was available.  Field came to his home state to hear cases.  What could be more natural?  And by sheer chance he was assigned the Sarah Althea Hill Sharon case!  Terry complained, but Field overruled him.  The case was tried without a jury, it being an “equity matter,” and the implausible will was declared a forgery by Field.

Supremely confident of his legal skills, Terry was appalled by the judgment and by Field’s various rulings during trial.  In one characteristic outburst in reaction to a ruling with which he disagreed, he drew his well-known Bowie knife from inside his coat and had to be restrained by the bailiffs.  Field declined Terry’s sub rosa invitation to a mistrial and drove the case to the well-supported judgment.  Field went back to Washington and Terry went to the Court of Appeals.  Terry also made it publically well understood that if he met Field in the flesh again, he would strike the cur down without a qualm.

Enters now our last major player:  William Neagle (sometimes spelled Nagle).  Neagle had a long law enforcement career.  He served as the Marshall of Tombstone, Arizona, as lawless a place as existed on the frontier.  He was a private guard and a deputy sheriff.  Finally, he was employed by the United States Marshals Service.  The exact powers and mission of this organization were, at that time, a bit unclear.  They provided security for the court system, handled prisoners during their trials and guarded the courts.  They also served process on behalf of the federal courts and provided informal guard duty for federal officials, including judges.

Field was slated to return to California to ride circuit the following year.  Friends and colleagues tried to talk him out of going as Terry’s threats were well known, but no one was going to persuade hard as nails Stephen Field that he should not return to his home state to dispense justice.  So the chief U.S. Marshall instructed Neagle to guard Field during his riding of the California Circuit.

Field heard cases in Los Angeles and began to travel to San Francisco.  His travels took him by train to Stockton, California, a city in San Joaquin County in California’s great Central Valley. Field and Neagle disembarked along with the other passengers for a quick lunch in Stockton (Dining cars had not yet been invented).  Terry and Sarah, now Mrs. Terry (Yes, David Terry married her—perhaps it was part of his fee arrangements) were also on the train and had disembarked for lunch.

Someone made Terry and Sarah aware that Field was in the dining room.  Sarah returned to the train to get her revolver.  But it did not take Terry long to find Field.  Terry slapped Field, perhaps hoping for another duel.  Neagle told Terry he was a police officer and to leave off.  Terry was too excited to be put off even by a U.S. Marshal and when Neagle rose to confront Terry, according to Neagle and Field, Terry reached inside his coat on the side where he was known to habitually keep his Bowie knife.  Neagle knew that because he was one of the bailiffs who subdued Terry during the Sharon trial.  Neagle told him to stop.  When Terry ignored him and continued to reach into his coat, Neagle drew his revolver and shot Terry twice at very close range.  Terry fell to the floor, mortally wounded.

In a moment, Sarah appeared, threw herself on Terry’s body and wailed loud laments and curses.  It took bystanders several minutes to drag her away.  When Terry’s body was examined, no Bowie knife was found.  The crowd, which was sympathetic to Terry and was urged on by Sarah, declared the event a murder by Neagle.  The San Joaquin County Sheriff was summoned.  He arrested both Neagle and Field on suspicion of murder.  After a few hours he had the good sense to let Field go, but detained Neagle.  An angry crowd called for Neagle’s hanging, and Field, clever lawyer that he was, realized he needed more fire-power than he could muster by himself.  He hastened by train to San Francisco, located a Federal District Judge and persuaded that judge to issue an immediate writ of habeas corpus (bring to me—the judge—the person or body of someone detained by a government official).  The writ ordered the Sheriff of San Joaquin County to come to the Federal Court in San Francisco and bring the person of William Neagle.

Federal Marshals hastened to Stockton and served the Sheriff.  He appeared the next morning, but without Neagle.  He was told by the Federal District Judge that he would be a guest in the local federal jail until Neagle was produced.  The Sheriff telegraphed Stockton, and Neagle was quickly produced.  —And just as promptly released.  Field returned to Washington.

The Sheriff of San Joaquin County appealed the writ and in due course the case found its way to the United States Supreme Court.  The issue was not whether Neagle had killed Terry.  He proudly admitted it.  The issue was this:  did the federal government, as opposed to state governments alone, have the authority to empower police officers to keep the peace?  Could such federal officers use deadly force when necessary?  It was well established that state police officers had that power; hence Marshall Matt Dillon gunning down the bad guys in Dodge City, but where in the Constitution does it say that the federal government has similar powers?

A few years later the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion on the matter in In Re Neagle, 135 U.S. 1 (1890), holding that the power to keep order is an implied power of the federal government, so Neagle was perfectly within his authority when he killed Terry under circumstances that indicated that Terry was about to do Field great bodily injury, Bowie knife or no Bowie knife.  The wily Field recused himself from participating in the decision. Publicly, that is.  In this as in so many things, California served as a catalyst for sea changes in American life.

Terry is buried in Stockton, his grave largely forgotten.  Field continues to be the subject of laudatory biographies as one of the longest serving and most influential justices of the Supreme Court.  Sarah died in an insane asylum.  Neagle lived quietly ever after.  Much of the story is in the U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

Yours Truly first heard this story from a wonderful professor in a political science class called “The American Constitutional Experiment” at UC Berkeley in the '60s.  Thank you, Prof. Charles Aiken, wherever you are.  You truly did inspire and motivate.