The Strange Case of the Love Contract

The Strange Case of the Love Contract
Photo by TheYaksha on Adobe Stock
How did the promise of equal rights for emancipated slaves after the Civil War turn into privileges for corporations, with consequences we still grapple with today? My manuscript “The Gilded Cage” tells the story of the Supreme Court during the Gilded Age, written in the style of a novel of the era. The manuscript addresses the major legal battles of the era, placed in the context of the underlying conflicts over race, class, and gender. In this excerpt, “The Strange Case of the Love Contract,” I begin the retelling of the story of a scandalous San Francisco trial in 1884 that implicated a close confidante of Justice Stephen Field. The passions aroused from this trial would eventually lead to a failed assassination attempt upon Justice Field in 1889. I am a civil rights lawyer in New York City.

It took everything in Justice Stephen Field’s power to restrain himself from laughing.

“In the City and County of San Francisco, State of California,” the document stated —

on the 25th day of August, A.D. 1880, I Sarah Althea Hill, of the City and County of San Francisco, State of California, age 27 years, do here in the presence of Almighty God, take Senator William Sharon, of the State of Nevada, to be my lawful and wedded husband, and do here acknowledge and declare myself to be the wife of Senator William Sharon of the State of Nevada.

I agree not to make known the contents of this paper or its existence for two years unless Mr. Sharon himself sees fit to make it known.

Beneath this surprising assertion was the more damning undertaking:

In the City and County of San Francisco, State of California, on the 25th day of August, A.D. 1880, I Senator William Sharon, of the State of Nevada, age 60 years, do here, in the presence of Almighty God, take Sarah Althea Hill, of the City of San Francisco, Cal., to be my lawful and wedded wife & do here acknowledge myself to be the husband of Sarah Althea Hill.

Field read the contract several times.

“Where is the original?” he demanded.

Senator William Sharon ceased his furious pacing. An impromptu council of war had been summoned to Field’s room at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Sharon had not at first indicated the nature of his dilemma, for no one would have believed him in any event, and Field had assumed that the former Senator had encountered some trouble in business, or perhaps might wish to ask him to settle the large outstanding obligation occasioned by Field’s residence at Sharon’s hotel. But the subject matter of the visit was altogether unexpected.

“Her lawyers have the original. It was shown once to me, and once only, upon my arrest.”

“Your arrest?” Field inquired sharply. Field had the appearance and demeanor of an Old Testament prophet with spectacles — lean, intense, bald upon the top of his head but with large tufts of hair above his ears, and a long wiry beard.

Sharon glanced about the room. Judge Sawyer of the Ninth Circuit and Judge Deady of Oregon had called upon Field at the time Sharon made his urgent request, and the two judges had adopted that usually impassive judicial demeanor that masks all manner of amazement. Sawyer was the most reserved of the three judges in appearance, with closely groomed gray hair and a short but distinguished beard, while Deady, the youngest of the jurists, had a round face and light curly beard rendering his visage not unlike that of a hirsute cherub. Sharon’s manservant Ah Ki, meanwhile, sat quietly in one corner.

“Yes,” Sharon said, with vexation. “My arrest.”

Field could hardly believe his ears. “You cannot be the first man to have lied to a prostitute.”

“She is not a prostitute!” Sharon shouted. At this, Deady and Sawyer shot one another bemused glances, for it was an incongruous notion that any man at Sharon’s stage of life might find himself in such a quandary, and even more extravagantly improbable that Sharon, serious and severe, drab and desiccated, would be that man.

“Then what is she?” Field sweetly inquired.

Sharon stopped pacing and threw up his arms helplessly.

“Miss Hill is a young lady of good Missouri stock,” he said. “I met her at a bank, of all places, and exchanged pleasantries, and I observed that she was very perceptive in her investment strategies.”

“Clearly,” Field said.

“We got on quite well,” Sharon continued, “and yes, I asked her to be my companion. I am a widower and need not answer to anyone. I put her up in the Grand Hotel across the street, and she insisted that we be properly married if she was to continue seeing me. I had no objection to that, and so we entered into that contract. But two years ago I tired of her acquaintanceship and ejected her from the Grand. She has now obviously decided to take her revenge.”

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Deady agreed.

“This is merely a business relationship gone sour,” Sharon objected. “We had a contract for a joint venture, I terminated it, and she has no right to come after me now. What does she want?”

Field was quiet for several moments. Most men with intelligence as enormous as Field’s would have been confounded by this tale, for it was well-nigh inexplicable that a man such as Sharon would have placed himself in such a position, but Field also possessed that greater wisdom that knew that any man, in a moment of weakness, might be played the fool for love. Even more, Field possessed that Western predilection to take a humorous view of any sentiment brought before him.

“What does she want?” Field repeated. “More money, of course. You said yourself this was a business arrangement.”

“It was,” Sharon said.

“Then why did you simply not pay her?”

“I was upset.”

“About what? Do you ordinarily become upset in business?”

“It was more complicated than that!” Sharon was now very red.

“I am sure that it was. Upon what charges were you arrested?”

“Adultery — which is nonsense. I am not married.”

“According to this contract, you are.”

“It is a forgery!” Sharon hesitated. “And the petition filed against me alleges . . . diverse women.”

“Some of whom were married?”

“I suppose so.”

“You suppose?” Field cried. “Perhaps you should have taken greater care!”

“I am out of politics, have all the money I need, and no longer care about what people say or think!”

“Yet here we are addressing those consequences!”

“I can make the criminal charges go away,” Sharon said, “at a heavy price. But that price shall be nothing compared to the claim that Miss Hill shall make upon my fortune, should she prevail in the divorce action. I instructed my lawyers to file suit declaring this contract an utter forgery and fraud, but they are uncertain of success.”

“Hmmm,” Field mused, as he regarded the contract. “Permit me to ask you something — does this copy accurately set forth the precise language of the fraudulent contract that you never signed?”

“It does.”

“Excellent,” said Field. “I believe that Miss Hill has made a crucial error, or you laid a clever trap. The contract describes you very explicitly as a citizen of Nevada.”

Deady gasped and nudged Sawyer, who nodded in admiration of Field’s faculties.

“That is because at the time, I was still Senator for Nevada. But I live in San Francisco now.”

“That is not what the contract says!” Field interrupted. “The contract clearly states, and both parties agree, that Sarah Althea Hill is a citizen of California, and that you are a citizen of Nevada. There is as a consequence diversity jurisdiction, and you can file a case to annul this contract in federal court.”

“But how would that help me?” Sharon asked.

Field stared above his spectacles at Sharon for several moments.

“Of course,” he said. “I see. But what should I do now?”

“Why,” Field said, “the Supreme Court recently held in the Pennoyer case, involving the former Governor of Oregon and affirming my good friend Judge Deady here, that state courts must proceed cautiously if they purport to affect the rights of noncitizens of that state. The federal courts are therefore regarded as the preferred forum in which to resolve disputes between citizens of different states, owing to their lack of partiality to one side over the other.”

Sharon nodded for several moments, and his demeanor brightened.

“Before I return East, however,” Field said. “I should like to see the original, even if briefly. This copy lacks any signatures. Does the original bear both the signatures of Miss Hill and your own?”

“Yes, but her lawyers won’t give it to me — they suspect that I would tear it up.”

“You should ask her lawyers to give it to me, then,” Field said. “I cannot imagine they would refuse me.”

At this suggestion Sharon grew deeply agitated. “They will refuse you, in particular.”


“Miss Hill has retained the services of a lawyer not unfamiliar to you,” he said. “David Terry.”

Field was at first astounded but then muttered an assemblage of oaths so foul as to turn the hardiest ‘Forty-Niner crimson with shame.

“Now you have the full measure of my interest,” Field went on. “An opportunity to help a friend and injure an enemy is not one to lightly turn aside.”

“I would think that Terry’s involvement in this matter is reason for you to step aside, Field,” Sawyer warned. “You could not be regarded as impartial. Every lawyer from Seattle to San Diego knows that the Field and Terry hatred is the Iliad of San Francisco.”

“I am not adjudicating this case,” Field replied. “I am helping a friend. Any harm to David Terry’s interests is merely incidental. In any event, he and I served together on the California Supreme Court so long ago that I cannot imagine anyone thinking that I might still harbor a grudge.”

“Then they do not know you very well,” Sawyer muttered.

“I shall advise my lawyers straightaway to file an action in federal court,” Sharon said, rising. “Thank you for your sage counsel. Ah Ki?”

The Chinaman stood and prepared to follow his master.

“Hold one moment,” Field said. “I do not want to delay you, but I have some questions for Ah Ki.”

“What sort of questions?”

“I should like his view upon the effect of the law prohibiting Chinese immigration,” Field said. “I am told that the Chinamen departing from the United States show the same disposition that persons often show when quitting a theatre before the play is finished. Yet Ah Ki has decided to remain until the end of the show.”

“Ah Ki’s continued presence in this country is necessary to my business,” Sharon objected.

“I do not dispute that,” Field said. “I have no questions about Ah Ki personally, merely the views of the Chinese community generally.”

“Very well.” Sharon took his leave, and Ah Ki bowed to him.

“Now, sit here, Ah Ki.” Field placed a stool several feet from his desk, so that he might regard the Celestial before him. Ah Ki appeared no different from any of his kind, clad in a loose-fitting black blouse and pants, his hair in a long braid down the back, with slender moustache and a tuft of beard marking his chin like a stroke of that queer calligraphy beloved by the Pekingese. Yet there was an unmistakable fire within his deep brown eyes, and Field reckoned that Ah Ki had seen a great deal.

“I should like to hear more about this lewd and debauched woman,” Field said.

“I am obliged to maintain my master’s discretion,” said Ah Ki. “He has treated me with exemplary kindness, and I shall not betray that devotion.”

“That is admirable,” Field said. “But if you were listening closely, and I believe you were, you must have observed that we have your master’s best interests at heart.”

Ah Ki did not respond to this point.

“Very well,” Field said. “Where did this Sarah Althea woman come from?”

“Mammy Pleasant’s, sir,” Ah Ki replied.

Sawyer let out a low whistle. “She is a legendary octoroon, Field,” he said. “The most infamous madame in San Francisco.”

“I knew better than to accept Sharon’s depiction of Sarah Althea Hill as some sort of romping flirt with a flair for finance,” Field rasped. “All the same, I confess to some surprise.”

“You may not be aware of this, as you are largely in Washington,” Deady said, “but it is well known that in Sharon’s composition there is a vein of sentiment and love of pleasure that has given him the reputation as a libertine.”

“Did your master tell us the truth about meeting Sarah Althea at a bank?”

“He told the truth,” Ah Ki said. “But Miss Hill was sent there to entrap him.”

Deady shook his head. “I once saw her in the street. She has what the Frenchman Zola calls the deadly smile of the man-eater.”

“We are not made of stone, Deady,” said Field. “I imagine it is more than mere obligation that holds you and Mrs. Deady together.”

“What were the tokens of affections she bestowed upon your birthday, Deady?” Sawyer chortled, knowing full well the answer but endeavoring to offer Field some amusement.

“Some napkins to keep me from soiling my clothes at meals,” Deady admitted. “Tempus fugit.”

“Love endures all things, but how well?” Field said. “Returning to the subject, Ah Ki, how was your master entrapped?”

“My master did not conceal from you the fact that he ensconced Miss Hill at the establishment across the street from this one, both as a charitable remedy to Miss Hill’s circumstances, and as in satisfaction of his own desires.”

“Were your master and Miss Hill familiar with one another?” Field pressed.

“I confess ignorance as to the intimacies of the bed-chamber,” said Ah Ki, “but it was not uncommon for me to bring breakfast to both Senator Sharon and Miss Hill together.”

“That about says it all,” Sawyer grimaced.

“What of the other women who have made allegations against Sharon?” Field asked.

“I know nothing of Senator Sharon’s comportments with other women,” Ah Ki said, “as my quarters are in the Globe Hotel, along with Miss Hill’s. But there was an occasion where Miss Hill made an unusual request.” The Chinaman paused.

“Which was?”

Ah Ki stared placidly into Field’s spectacles.

“Miss Hill was of the opinion that a newborn child of another woman bore an unmistakable resemblance to Senator Sharon and requested that I terminate the baby.”

“Good Lord!” Deady cried, and Sawyer dropped his cigar. Field remained unmoved.

“Did you do so?” Field demanded.

Ah Ki’s eyes narrowed. “Is it not enough for your purposes that Miss Hill gave me such instructions?”

“Did Miss Hill make any similar threats upon the life of Senator Sharon after he had her removed from the hotel?”

“Yes. She demanded that I admit her into his rooms at night, stating that she would ensorcel Senator Sharon with . . . voodoo.” Ah Ki’s lip curled in contempt.

“Mammy Pleasant is a known voodoo priestess,” Sawyer nodded sagely.

“Did you do so?”

“Of course not.”

Field began stroking his beard. “So, Sharon had . . . an arrangement with Sarah. The arrangement went sour, and she demanded more money. He did not give it to her. She threatened to blackmail him, then? I suppose the dark arts of blackmail are well known in the Orient?”

“My people would do much worse,” said Ah Ki.

“A fair point. To make good on her threat, she enlists some cuckold whose wife has been the subject of Sharon’s affections to file a criminal complaint. Then she files for divorce in state court. And Sharon can transfer the suit to federal court, to ensure that Sarah shall not be able to reach any of his money.” Here Field paused. “But there is one thing I do not understand. Sarah can no doubt empty the wallet of any man she wants, married or not. Why does she need a divorce?”

“Because she wants to remarry?” Sawyer offered.

“Does she?” Field bore down upon Ah Ki. “And to whom?”

“I have observed Miss Hill at close quarters for many months, Mr. Justice Field,” said Ah Ki. “And believe that I can offer a humble assessments of her motivations. I believe that she is in love.”

“In love? With whom?”

“The lawyer — Mr. David Terry.”

Sawyer let out a low whistle, and Deady’s jaw dropped open. Field rubbed his hands together.

“Now this case has become very interesting indeed!” he exclaimed.

Author’s Note

The depiction of these events is drawn primarily from several nonfiction works: Milton S. Gould, A Cast of Hawks: A Tale of Scandal and Power Politics in Early San Francisco (Copley Books 1985); Lynn M. Hudson, The Making of “Mammy Pleasant”: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (U. Illinois Press 2003); Robert H. Kroninger, Sarah and the Senator (Howell-North 1964); and Michael J. Makley, The Infamous King of the Comstock: William Sharon and the Gilded Age in the West (U. Nevada Press 2006). Some of the background on the relationship between Field, Sawyer, and Deady is drawn from Matthew P. Deady, Pharisee Among Philistines: The Diary of Matthew P. Deady (Malcolm Clark, Jr., ed.) (Oregon Hist. Soc’y 1975) (Vol. 1 & 2), including the fact that Deady, Field, and Sawyer were together in San Francisco to hear cases in September and October 1883, the birthday gift that Deady received from his wife, and Deady’s interest in the novels of Emile Zola. Deady’s assessment of Sharon as a “libertine” comes from his opinion in Sharon v. Hill, 26 F. 337, 361 (C.C.D. Cal. 1885). The Sharon-Hill affair was previously fictionalized in Eleazar Lipsky, The Devil’s Daughter (Pocket Book ed. 1970), which alludes to the factual basis for the story, without any author’s note explaining the connection. I have not relied on Lipsky.

The phrase “romping flirt” comes from John Hay, The Bread-Winners: A Social Study (Harper & Bros. 1884). “The Iliad of San Francisco” is a reference to Bret Harte, “The Iliad of Sandy Bar” (1870), and the phrase “that Western predilection to take a humorous view of any principle or sentiment persistently brought before them” comes from Bret Harte, “Mr. Thompson’s Prodigal” (1870); both stories are collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings (Penguin Classics 2001).

About the Author

David Kennedy

David J. Kennedy is a civil rights lawyer in New York City. Read more about his work at his website: The Gilded Cage.