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Among the well-bred and refined ladies of San Francisco, the prevailing opinion was that there could be no better sport than the breach of contract suit filed by Sarah Althea Sharon, née Hill, against Senator William Sharon. Let the men have their boxing-matches, the boys their football games — why, this was entertainment of the highest order, a clash in the greatest rivalry of all, that between the sexes. The Superior Court chamber at City Hall that was to host the duel was so bursting with bustles, so crammed with crinolines, that a number of gentlemen were compelled to stand, the subject matter of the trial being a severe rebuke to the performance of their duties toward the gentler and more vulnerable sex.
The featured pugilist, former Senator William Sharon, was dressed all in black with his arms folded tightly across his chest, and stared straight ahead beside his lawyer, who called himself General Barnes although the precise nature of his military service was unclear. Sharon’s devoted servant, the Celestial Ah Ki, was in the first bench behind the bar of the courtroom, for while Ah Ki was neither a party to the proceeding nor counsel, as a fount of information he was perhaps the indispensable member of the defense.
Of course, no one looked at Sharon, much less Ah Ki. The cynosure of attention was Sarah, a strawberry blonde whose ringlets and curls cascaded down her forehead, while in the back her hair was tied in a Grecian knot. The very emblem of modesty, she wore a black silk dress encased in a brocaded velvet dolman gilded with black fur, and a bonnet trimmed with black beading and silk butterflies with yellow dotted wings. Her eyes were grayish blue, her nose strong and sharp, her lips full and tempestuous. Beside her was a small army of lawyers, most prominent among them the former justice of the California Supreme Court, the tall and broad-chested, imperious and wily, David Terry. Behind her in the front row of the spectators’ seats was the mysterious Mammy Pleasant, whom no one dared look at too closely for fear of being hexed. Pleasant wore a long green shawl and a huge poke bonnet that concealed her face so well that a definite judgment as to her complexion could not be ventured.
“Order, order!” the bailiff called. “All rise for the Honorable Jeremiah Sullivan!”
At the first appearance of Judge Sullivan, there was tittering and shaking of heads among the gentlemen of the bar and the matrons of society. Sullivan was very young, barely into his thirties, and perhaps not so knowledgeable in the ways of the world.
“He is a child!” whispered Sharon to his lawyer. “He shall judge me?”
“You need only endure this trial,” Barnes whispered back. “Last night Judge Sawyer denied Sarah’s motion to dismiss the federal case seeking to annul the contract. Justice Field and his friends shall protect you in the end.”
“Even from Terry?” Sharon muttered.
“Do not let him rattle you. He is all washed up.”
“We are here in the matter of Sharon versus Sharon,” said Sullivan. “Good morning, counsel. Good morning, Senator. It is an honor to have you here. And good morning, Mrs. Sharon.”
The spectators in the courtroom, depending upon their proclivities, winced or giggled at this salutation, for the very issue at trial was whether Sarah was in fact entitled to call herself Mrs. Sharon. Sarah nodded her head grandly, as if to suggest that she was accustomed to the appellation.
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Terry rose. “May plaintiff proceed?”
“You may,” said Sullivan. “Shall we be hearing from Mrs. Sharon?”
“No, your Honor. Some preliminary witnesses.”
There were cluckings of tongues at this announcement, for the spectators had gathered primarily out of interest in Sarah’s performance, but Terry was a showman who knew better than to put his star attraction first.
“This means their case is weak,” Barnes muttered to Sharon. “They are stalling for time to get you to settle.”
The first witness called to the stand on Sarah’s behalf was an old washerwoman, who swore that she had herself seen the marriage contract back in ‘eighty, and although she could not read, she had asked the charwoman to read the contract to her. And the charwoman said that —
“Objection!” trilled Barnes. “This is the most preposterous hearsay upon hearsay that I ever heard.”
“Well,” said Sullivan. “I understand the position of Senator Sharon to be that the alleged marriage contract is a recent fabrication.”
“Absolutely,” Barnes averred.
“Then the plaintiff is entitled, as an exception to the hearsay rule, to put on evidence of prior consistent statements, correct? Because that would rebut your argument that the contract was only recently fabricated?”
Barnes turned red for a moment. “Perhaps, Your Honor, but only if this witness can identify the document itself.” He turned to Terry. “Produce it, if you dare!”
“Counsel should address the Court directly, and not each other,” said Sullivan.
At this, Terry smirked, for Barnes had fallen into their trap. Terry rose.
“Why, Your Honor, I would be pleased to produce the contract of marriage right here for the inspection of this witness.”
“Please proceed,” said Sullivan. Terry reached into his satchel and drew forth the matrimonial parchment, brandishing it for a few moments as if it were the torch of Liberty Lighting the World. Barnes snatched it from his hand.
“Careful, sir!” Terry warned.
“Is this the contract that you observed in the hands of the charwoman?” Barnes demanded of the witness.
The washerwoman considered the paper carefully.
“Why yes, I believe it is,” she said.
“What!” Barnes gasped. “How do you know?”
“Well, I never learned to read sir, so the only book I’ve ever looked at is the Bible. And I remember that this here writing looked nothing like the Bible.”
The spectators laughed at the unintended point of comparison, arousing Sullivan’s ire.
“Order! Order!” he said. “I shall brook no jocularities as far as the Good Book is concerned.”
Barnes returned to his place abashed, leaving Terry to continue the examination of the washerwoman and, after her, the charwoman, who sat straight up in the witness stand and read out the words of the alleged marriage contract in a strong clear voice:
In the City and County of San Francisco, State of California, 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.
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.
Barnes sat with downcast eyes through the reading, pretending to pick his teeth.
“Shall we be hearing from the plaintiff now?” he inquired, in a tone of extreme boredom.
Terry ignored the inquiry.
“Plaintiff calls Miss Nellie Brackett.”
“Oh God,” muttered Sharon, and dropped his head.
“What?” asked Barnes.
There was a murmuring amongst the spectators, for the appearance of a daughter of the Emerald Isle in such a scandalous proceeding leavened the disappointment of having to wait upon Sarah.
A bonnie colleen, hitherto overlooked, rose from her seat in the gallery and took the witness stand. She was not yet twenty, with dark eyes and long lashes, black as her hair. She had the short, stubborn nose, thin pursed lips, and jutting chin common to the Hibernians. The bailiff swore her in.
“Miss Brackett,” Terry began, “what is the nature of your relationship with the plaintiff, Sarah Althea Hill Sharon?”
“Why, she’s the very model of a friend, sir,” said Brackett, “and just as surely as I came to her with my troubles, she found in me a safe harbor in a sea of travesties and gross injustices.”
“When did you meet Mrs. Sharon?”
“I suppose it had to be ‘eighty-one or perhaps in ‘eighty-two — I was living with my parents still — my mother and father having need of support for they are advanced in years and ought to experience the dignities of old age without deprivation. I assist them in the operation of their boardinghouse, I do, there being so many lonesome women in this fair city having nowhere to safely reside — ”
“Slower!” cried the court reporter. “Your Honor, I cannot write it all down if she keeps talking this fast!”
“ ‘Tis the way I normally speak, Your Honor.” Brackett appeared crestfallen.
“Miss Brackett,” said Sullivan, “I know from my own family that there are few so fluent as the Irish. But we are in a court of law to-day, and the court reporter here is obliged to maintain a record of the proceedings, so he cannot do his job unless you speak more slowly.”
“Very well, Your Honor.”
“Miss Brackett,” Terry picked up again. “Where did you meet Mrs. Sharon?”
“In the street!” Brackett exclaimed. “When I first met her, she had been evicted from the Grand Hotel by Senator Sharon and had nowhere else to go.”
“And did your family take her in?”
“We did indeed.”
“No,” here Brackett paused significantly, an unmistakable indication that she had been well prepared by counsel.
“I heard some talk that the lady was not Mrs. Sharon, but merely Senator Sharon’s mistress,” said Brackett. “By my faith, I could not dare to associate with a woman of low morals. So I put the question to her, but delicately. And that was the moment that she unencumbered herself to me, and advised of the trials and tribulations of her marriage to the Senator, sharing with me not only the marriage contract, but a series of intimate epistles addressed by the Senator himself in his own hand to his very dear wife — ”
Brackett took a deep breath. Terry handed her a small pile of documents.
“Are these the letters?” he inquired.
Brackett perused the correspondence for several minutes.
“The very same,” she said. “And every one of them is addressed either to ‘Dear Husband’ or ‘Dear Wife.’ They wrote to each other very often in connection with the monies that Sarah had entrusted to the Senator. She’s a great investor, you know.”
“Did you ever see any contract of marriage between Sarah Althea Hill Sharon and Mr. William Sharon?”
“Objection,” Barnes interrupted. “Could counsel please show some courtesy and use his proper title?”
“The witness has not been a Senator since ‘eighty-one,” Terry growled.
“He is still entitled to use it.”
“Then you ought to call me Justice, for my service upon the California Supreme Court.”
“Please, counsel,” said Sullivan, “whatever we may call each other, let us be polite to the witnesses. You should refer to him as Senator. Miss Brackett, did you see the contract yourself?”
“Is this the contract?”
Terry again brandished the document above his head, not unlike some magic talisman, before providing it to Brackett.
“Why yes, I recognize it instantly.”
“What did you do, after seeing it?”
“My doubts were resolved straightaway,” Brackett said. “There is no doubt in my mind that Sarah is rightfully Mrs. Sharon. We took her into the bosom of our family, and she has remained there ever since.”
“Did Mrs. Sharon attempt a reconciliation with the Senator?”
“Well, my friend Sarah was all out of sorts after the Senator evicted her from her place at the Grand Hotel but I said to her, I said, Sarah, the Senator is an older fellow with all sorts of strange notions, and he cannot be expected to know the heart of a young lady — ”
Brackett paused and bit her lip, but soon enough the Hibernian stream flowed with renewed vigor.
“So the two of us arrived at his suite of rooms at the Palace, but he was not there. Sarah having her own key, she unlocked the door and bade me hide behind a large bureau while she waited for the Senator to return.”
“Did he return eventually?”
“He did indeed. And the manner in which the Senator and Sharon addressed each other was so lovely and tender that I cannot imagine anyone denying the fact of their matrimonial union.”
Here Brackett leveled an indignant look at the Senator, who did not react.
“What do you mean?” asked Terry.
“The Senator and Sarah exchanged pleasantries at first, and then the Senator advised that he had had a hard day managing his business affairs and his political fortunes at the same time, so he was in need of some rest and relaxation. I heard him ask Sarah — I could only hear and not see what was going on, mind — ‘Don’t you want to brush my hair?’ and Sarah said ‘yes,’ and then I could hear him sigh every now and then, and then I heard him say, ‘My feet are cold. Don’t you want to rub my feet?’ and Sarah said ‘yes,’ and then I heard him sigh some more, and I knew they were certainly married by that, because I may be only a girl, but I know what a wife will do for her husband. Then I heard the Senator ask, ‘Don’t you want to go to bed with me?’”
There were astonished cries from the observers that a young lady would be witness to such intimacies, and several more ladies hastily departed the courtroom.
“I never saw anything!” Brackett cried indignantly.
“Order, please,” said Sullivan. “Answer the questions from counsel, Miss Brackett.”
“How did Mrs. Sharon respond to that request?” Terry asked.
“She declined at first, as any good woman ought,” said Brackett. “She said, ‘Sen,’ because that’s how she called him, she didn’t call him ‘Senator,’ she said, ‘Sen, if you love me so, you would not have turned me out of the hotel the way you did.’ And the Senator said, ‘It’s all right.’ Then they conducted themselves like a married couple, if you take my meaning.”
“And did the Senator say anything else?”
“Yes, I heard him say a few times ‘who is my own little wife and nobody knows about it?’”
Barnes began laughing and shaking his head.
“Do you have an objection, counselor?” Sullivan queried.
“This is utter nonsense, and sheer hearsay,” Barnes said, not deigning to rise from his place.
“You shall have an opportunity for cross-examination,” said Sullivan, “and as you well know, your own client’s statements can be considered admissions, which are excepted from the rule against hearsay.”
“Might I proceed with my examination of the witness?” Terry demanded.
“Are you threatening me, counsel?” Barnes scoffed.
Sullivan rapped his gavel several times.
“Counsel shall behave themselves. Miss Brackett?”
There was silence for several moments as Terry, hands on hips, glared at Barnes. Barnes made a show of ignoring Terry and shuffled through some papers. Brackett looked anxiously at the judge. Sullivan cleared his throat.
“While we give Mr. Terry time to cool his temper,” he said, “I would ask Miss Brackett to abstain from any description of the intimacies that she witnessed and instead proceed directly to the next chapter of her story.”
Brackett thought for a few moments.
“I suppose the next chapter would start at Sarah being with child,” she said.
“I am sorry that I asked,” muttered Sullivan.
“I perceived Sarah to be in that delicate condition,” said Brackett, “that proclaims, just as the cock crows the dawn, that a lady is soon to achieve her greatest womanly glory.”
“Miss Brackett,” Terry said, “did you tell Senator Sharon about Sarah’s condition?”
“Yes,” said Brackett. “I went to Senator Sharon one morning and said that Sarah had the morning sickness, and we believed her to be expecting.”
“How did Senator Sharon respond?”
“He said, ‘Who does she suspect?’”
Sullivan tsked-tsked at this remark but said nothing.
“I said, ‘She does not suspect anybody, she knows that it is you.’ He asked me to send her over, so I did.”
“What happened next?”
“I do not know exactly. Sarah might have had an illness, or the Lord decided that the time was not right. But she did not become a mother.”
Terry paused, as if in remembrance, and a sadness fell over those in the courtroom — but not over everyone.
“Objection!” Barnes rose this time. “This is a pathetic attempt to appeal to the court’s sympathies without any evidence. Miss Brackett may be an Irishwoman, but that does not mean that she knows anything about pregnancy. This testimony should be stricken from the record.”
“I assure you that I am perfectly capable of giving appropriate weight to the testimony,” said Sullivan, “and I suggest, General Barnes, that your client ought to be able to respond to these allegations when he testifies.”
“Oh, I should like to hear Senator Sharon deny any of this!” Brackett exclaimed.
“Miss Brackett — ” Sullivan began.
“Why, after Sarah recovered from her condition, she and I went to see Senator Sharon and he refused to see us altogether! Sarah begged and pleaded, she did, and cried, but Sharon’s Chinaman over there” — here Brackett pointed to Ah Ki, who looked at her placidly — “refused us over and over, on Sharon’s orders, he said. Then Senator Sharon had one of his minions, to my very great sadness and embarrassment a fellow from my own home country, carry us out his hotel by our knickers! I have never experienced such a shame in all my life!”
“Slower!” the court reporter cried.
“When I first met Senator Sharon,” now Brackett’s voice was low and steady, biting upon every word, “I thought it an honor to know a United States Senator, but to-day I feel it is a double disgrace. A bigger coward never existed. He did Sarah a mean, dirty trick, and tried in every way to disgrace her, a motherless, fatherless girl, who leaned on him as she was all alone in the world. It is well that I am not her, or I would advertise Sharon from one end of the world to the other. But Sarah feels herself so much of a lady that she tamely submits to his insults. I may be a poor girl, but I feel myself so much better than you, you horrible, horrible man.”
Brackett tossed her head and glared at Sharon, who devoted his attention to his finger-nails.
“Your witness,” Terry said to Barnes.
Barnes let out a low whistle, for Brackett’s peroration had brought many in the courtroom to tears, and even Sullivan appeared deeply affected. But because even the slightest display of sympathy might tend to credit Brackett’s account, Barnes walked to the witness stand, retrieved the letters that Brackett had identified, and nonchalantly began to shuffle through them as he paced the well of the court.
“Miss Brackett,” said Barnes, “would you consider yourself wise in the ways of the world?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Brackett said. “If you are asking whether I am familiar with the wicked ways of men like Senator Sharon, I would have to say that I have learned a great deal over the past few years, much to my sadness.”
“You are aware that the Senator is a very wealthy man?”
“And any female companion to the Senator is likely to be well compensated?”
Brackett assumed a pose of dramatic offense. “If you are meaning any indecent arrangements, I assure you that I know nothing about such matters.”
“But Sarah does, doesn’t she?”
“I don’t understand your question, sir.”
“And the company of young and attractive women like yourself would be a lure for an older gentleman, would it not?”
“Your question is offensive, sir,” said Brackett, crossing her arms.
“Hmmm,” said Barnes. He stopped pacing and pulled out a single letter from the sheaf. He walked back to the witness stand and handed it to Brackett.
“Have you seen this letter before?”
Brackett regarded the document for several moments.
“I believe so,” she said.
“Would you mind reading it to the Court? I have a few questions about it.”
Brackett daintily cleared her throat, straightened her posture and threw back her shoulders and began to read:
“That’s Sarah talking to the Senator, you see,” she added.
“Just keep reading,” said Barnes.
Brackett glared at this admonition, but resumed her declaration:
Don’t I wish you would make up your mind and go down to the lovely local spas with Nellie Brackett and I on Friday or Saturday. We all could have such nice times outside, hunting or walking or driving these lovely days in the country. I am crazy to see Nellie try and swallow an egg in champagne. I have not told her of the feat I accomplished in that line, but I am just waiting in hopes of seeing her someday go through the performance.
“That’s good for now,” Barnes interrupted. “Can you, in fact, swallow an egg in champagne?”
“I can, sir,” said Brackett, proudly. “A hard-boiled egg. Of course, you must peel it first.”
“Of course. Why do you think Sarah was boasting that you could swallow an egg in champagne?”
“It would be prideful to boast of my own talents,” said Brackett, “and pride is one of the deadly sins.”
“How do you consider it a talent to swallow an egg in champagne?”
“Well, it’s not an easy thing,” Brackett said, seemingly oblivious to the increasing number of men in the courtroom who covered their mouths with their hands, and the finer ladies of society who, blushing crimson, hastily excused themselves. “It requires a great deal of control in the muscles of the mouth and throat, those muscles being neither designed nor accustomed to accommodate an object of that size.”
“Objection!” Terry shouted. “This line of questioning is debasing the integrity of these proceedings, and the virtue of this young maiden, and is irrelevant besides!”
“Have I done something wrong, Your Honor?” Brackett pleaded to Sullivan.
“No, young lady,” said Sullivan, frowning at Barnes’s coarse interrogation. “But I must sternly admonish General Barnes for this spectacle, and direct him to cease it at once, unless he can manage to pose a relevant question.”
“Just one, Your Honor,” Barnes said. “Miss Brackett, do you know what Sarah meant when she wrote, ‘the feat I accomplished in that line’?”
“I can only surmise that she also learned to swallow an egg in champagne.”
“I wager she did,” Barnes said. “No further questions.”
“Outrageous!” Terry shouted.
Sullivan buried his head in his hands.
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). I have also relied upon newspaper accounts, primarily the Daily Alta California, available at cdnc.ucr.edu, from March 1884 – May 1884, then August 1884. 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 denial of Sarah’s motion to dismiss the federal case is reported at Sharon v. Hill, 20 F. 1, 2 (C.C.D. Cal. 1884).