Judges, Juries, and Executioners

Dueling is a large part of American history. Perhaps the most famous one, the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel of 1804, resulted in the death of the former Secretary of the Treasury and a murder charge for the sitting Vice President. But the practice would live on for more than half a century after.

Perhaps the last significant American duel occurred in 1859, and it set off a domino effect leading to the 1889 arrest of Supreme Court justice — for murder.

In 1859, David S. Terry was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California and sought re-election. His former friend, United States Senator David C. Broderick — according to Terry, at least — caused him to lose. While both were Democrats, Broderick was an abolitionist while Terry was pro-slavery. Broderick was a vocal critic of the pro-slavery contingent and backed Stephen J. Field (pictured) for the office held by Terry. When Terry lost his re-election bid, he placed the blame on such denunciations from Broderick. On September 8th of that year, Terry challenged Broderick to a duel. Broderick accepted — and lost. Terry was charged with murder but acquitted. (This was the second time he had killed someone — in 1856, Terry stabbed a man but was not tried.) He left the state only to return after the Civil War.

In the 1880s, Terry met a woman named Sarah Althea Hill. Hill claimed she was legally married to a millionaire named William Sharon and wanted a divorce. Sharon asserted that the two were never married. The only thing the two could agree on that was Hill was free to marry someone else — in this case, David S. Terry.  The Terrys sued Sharon, claiming that she was entitled some some percentage of his wealth, and the case ended up being heard by the Federal Circuit Court in California. At the time, Supreme Court Justices presided over circuit court judges in their regions, so the 1888 case of Terry v. Sharon was heard by Stephen J. Field  — the same man who “took” Terry’s job thirty years earlier. (Field was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln.) Field ruled against the Terrys, and in doing so, apparently denounced Mrs. Terry. She, in turn, accused Field of taking bribes. Field instructed the marshal to remove her from the courtroom. The marshal, in turn grabbed Mrs. Terry by the arm. Mr. Terry then punched the marshall for touching his wife and then pulled out a Bowie knife, and a cadre of deputies finally subdued him. Field cited both Terrys for contempt, sentencing her to a month in prison and him to six. The Terrys vowed revenge.

A year later, they tried to exact it. At a train station, Mr. Terry came up to Justice Field and attempted to murder him, but both Field and his bodyguard, U.S. Marshal David Neagle, drew their weapons. Neagle shot and killed Terry.

Both Neagle and Field were brought up on murder charges for Terry’s death by the state of California, but the charges against Field were dropped almost immediately thereafter. Neagle’s case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890 (In re Neagle), with the United States arguing that Neagle had acted in accordance with his duties as a U.S. Marshal and was therefore immune from prosecution in this matter. The Supreme Court found in favor of Neagle by a 6-2 vote — Field, the ninth Justice on the Court, recused himself from the proceedings.

Bonus fact: While Terry was quick to anger, the same could probably be said for Field. While serving on the Supreme Court of California, he wore a coat with a special alteration — huge pockets. The pockets were designed so that he could have a pistol in each and shoot his enemies without having to remove his guns.

From the ArchivesFruits and Vegetables (and Prank Callers, Too!): When the Supreme Court addressed a critical question: Are tomatoes fruits, or are they vegetables?

Related: “Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America” by Thomas Fleming. Four stars on 37 reviews.

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