Retired U.S. Senator William T. Sharon was shocked when police accosted him at a train station on charges of adultery in 1883, especially since his wife had died in 1875. Sharon, one of the richest men in America, vehemently denied the charges that he had secretly wed his former mistress Sarah Althea Hill and he became furious when news of his detention made national headlines. But little could he know that it was just the beginning of what newspapers across the country would call “the greatest divorce case the Pacific Coast has ever known.”
The Sharon vs. Hill court fight morphed into a thrilling melodrama that included 111 witnesses, a knife-wielding attorney and the arrest of a California Supreme Court justice. In the grand finale, Hill’s attorney and new husband, David S. Terry, a former California Chief Justice, is shot dead by a U.S. Marshal and she is later committed to an insane asylum. The scandalous court case captivated a voyeuristic public thirsty for salacious details of a rich and famous man’s sexual appetite.
The Sharon-Hill relationship began in early 1880 and ended in November 1881. From the start it appears each party had different expectations. William Sharon considered Hill his mistress. He paid for her luxurious San Francisco hotel accommodations and gave her generous stipends of cash ranging from $500 to $1,000 ($12,500 to $25,000 in 2018) a month. She held his arm at social affairs and he had the privilege of her bedroom. By the time the case went to trial, Sharon estimated that he had paid Hill $40,000 ($967,000 today). While discussing his “problem” with colleagues, he denied Hill’s claim that he had secretly married her. He didn’t need to. Sharon told them, “Whatever may have been lacking [in my lovemaking], $500 a month supplied.”
Sharon told friends that early in the relationship Hill wanted to get married, a notion that didn’t interest him. In fact, Sharon said he offered her $7,500 to forget the idea and in late 1881 the couple split up. The following year Hill filed a legal complaint against Sharon in California state court, asserting that while they were “married” he had had relations with nine other women from 1880 to 1883, including one who allegedly had given birth to his child.
Sharon countered by filing an appeal with the U.S. Circuit Court to cancel and annul the marriage contract and to declare it a forgery. In a packed San Francisco courtroom, Hill produced a marriage contract that included vows of matrimony by both parties along with their signatures. After glancing at the document, a visibly upset Sharon shouted that it was a forgery. On the witness stand in 1884, Hill testified that their secret marriage was actually Sharon’s idea and he dictated the contract while she wrote down their intentions and they both signed the paper to make it legal. Hill also produced five “Dear Wife” letters written by Sharon to her while he was campaigning in Virginia City for reelection in 1880, each with the salutation: “My dear Wife.”
Among Hill’s attorneys was David S. Terry, a mountain of a man at 6 feet 3 inches and more than 220 pounds. In his 60s, Terry had a fearsome reputation and a bad temper. A veteran of the Mexican-American War, he practiced law from the age of 18 and was elected California Supreme Court chief justice in 1855. In 1856, he single-handedly confronted San Francisco’s vigilance committee and stabbed one of the vigilantes with the bowie knife he always carried. Three years later he shot and killed California Sen. David C. Broderick in a duel. Charged with murder, Terry was acquitted on a technicality. After the Civil War in which he served the Confederacy as a brigadier general, he returned to his law practice in California and now found himself serving as Hill’s legal counsel.
On Christmas Eve, 1884, the judge in the state trial initiated by Hill concluded that under the laws of California the plaintiff (Hill) was the legal wife of Sharon and entitled to a divorce and a division of the common property, including $2,500 a month alimony and $55,000 in legal fees to be paid by Sharon. However, Sharon’s lawyers knew that the federal case filed by Sharon would supersede the state’s verdict.
Hill may have been blessed with striking good looks, but she possessed a volatile temperament and in the federal court trial with Justice Stephen Field her propensity for erratic behavior became more pronounced. In one instance she pulled a gun from her purse and in another she was jailed for 24 hours for refusing to produce documents for a handwriting analysis. Sharon’s health had deteriorated and shortly before his death on Nov. 13, 1885, he protected his estate from Hill by filing a deed of trust leaving his vast wealth to family members. The deed was unnecessary, however, because six weeks after Sharon’s death the federal court ruled the marriage contract a forgery.
In early 1886, Hill and Terry married — he was 62 and she 32 — but their legal battle for the Sharon fortune continued. The California Supreme Court supported the lower state court ruling that the marriage was legitimate, but Sharon’s team appealed to the federal court and Justice Field announced that the previous federal judgement declaring the marriage contract invalid would stand. Hill loudly declared that the judge had been bought and her attorney husband Terry went berserk pulling out his bowie knife until he was overcome. For their violent disturbance, Hill was sentenced to 30 days in jail and Terry to six months, thus cementing their hatred for Justice Field.
On Aug. 14, 1889, David and Sarah Terry entered a restaurant at the Stockton train depot where they saw Justice Stephen Field. Terry approached the federal judge and “lightly slapped him on the cheek twice” but within seconds Field’s bodyguard shot Terry dead. After her husband’s death, Sarah declined mentally and physically until 1892 when Hill’s caregiver had her committed to the Stockton insane asylum where she remained for 45 years until her death in 1937.
Special thanks to my colleague, historian Michael J. Makley, who authored “The Infamous King of the Comstock: William Sharon and the Gilded Age of the West,” published by the University of Nevada Press.