A Kitten Before the Fire

In Issue 77 by David Kennedy

A Kitten Before the Fire
Photo by Everett Collection on Shutterstock

This was not how Senator William Sharon had intended to spend his retirement. Having amassed his fortune, failed to obtain re-election, and outlived his wife, Sharon had dreamed of living off the interest, tossing aside the newspapers once he tired of politics, and paying for discreet liaisons who could be trusted to dispose of themselves once they were no longer needed. It had come as an unpleasant surprise that the tides of business were ever-changing and unpredictable, favor-seekers continued to impose themselves upon his good graces, and women could upon occasion have their own opinions and interests. But there was nothing for it but to persist. He had endured this stuffy San Francisco courtroom for weeks on end listening to all manner of witnesses, for his counsel, General Barnes, had determined that Sharon would testify last in his own defense, the better to align his testimony with those who preceded him. Finally, after many weeks, Sharon took the witness box slowly, and to those who knew him, the trial had seemed to age him considerably.

“Senator,” said Barnes, “how do you know Miss Sarah Althea Hill?”

“I first saw her in ‘eighty, while I was still in the Senate. I was at the railroad station and saw her sitting in a buggy.”

The court reporter raised his hand.

“Pardon me, your Honor?” he said. “Could the witness speak up? I have difficulty understanding him.”

“Perhaps the witness should put his teeth in,” called out David Terry, counsel for Sarah Althea Sharon née Hill.

“Objection!” Barnes cried.

“Sustained,” said Judge Sullivan. “I would advise Mr. Terry to refrain from insulting the witness.”

Terry smirked, and Ah Ki, Sharon’s valet, produced a small box from inside his black robe and handed it to Barnes, who supplied Sharon with his missing dentures.

“When was the next time you saw her?”

“She came to see me at my office to request some advice about investing, in August of ‘eighty.”

“Did she ever provide you with money to invest?”

“Never.”

“Did you ever ask Miss Hill to marry you?”

“Never.”

“Did you ever marry her?”

“Never.”

“Did you know that a man and a woman could be married by contract in the state of California?”

“I did not.” Sharon raised his eyebrows in memory of his surprise and looked meaningfully at Judge Sullivan. “It was not until these allegations were raised that my friend in the Senate, Roscoe Conkling of New York, pointed out to me that under California law, marriage by contract was legal in California.”

“Senator, did you exchange letters with Miss Hill?”

“I did.”

“Are those letters the same letters that have been introduced into evidence in this case?”

“They are, but with one difference.”

“What is that difference?”

“The words ‘Dear Wife’ are utter forgeries,” Sharon testified. “I positively declare that I never wrote those words. When I write a letter, I place the date in the top rightmost corner, then begin the letter approximately one-third of the length down the page, leaving an empty space. Someone learned to copy my handwriting and wrote the words ‘Dear Wife’ in that space.”

“Object!” Sarah whispered to Terry. “How does he know I did it?”

“Hush,” Terry whispered back. “If I object that he does not know who wrote those words, it hurts our claim that he wrote them himself.”

Sarah thought for a moment, then patted Terry on the arm with satisfaction. She left her hand there, alternatively caressing and seizing her counsel’s arm as the testimony developed.

“Did you ever sign any marriage contract with Miss Hill?”

“Never.”

“How can you explain the document that has been introduced into evidence that appears to be a marriage contract?”

“I am always swearing out affidavits or contracts in connection with my business affairs,” Sharon said. “I believe that Miss Hill took hold of one such document and reforged it to suit her purposes.”

“Did you ever address Miss Hill as your wife?”

“Never. The story is purest fabrication.”

“Did you strike up a friendship?”

“I did,” said Sharon. “We had dinner several times.”

“Did you ever become more than friends with Miss Hill?”

“I did.”

“What happened?”

“I offered her two hundred and fifty dollars a month to be my mistress.”

“Excuse me?” Sullivan dropped his pen, spilling ink all over his notes. “Did I hear you correctly? You offered the plaintiff, Miss Sarah Althea Hill or Sharon as the case may be, money to be your mistress?”

“Yes,” said Sharon blandly. “My wife has been dead for five years, Your Honor.”

“I understand that,” sputtered Sullivan, “but you bewhored a young lady!”

“She is not that young,” Sharon said.

Sullivan looked around the courtroom in amazement, which doubled when none of the spectators appeared to share his reaction, for it could be fairly said that San Francisco had been built upon the backs of whores.

“Did Miss Hill accept your offer?”

“No,” Sharon said, then paused. “Until I increased her rate.”

The spectators in the courtroom laughed at this, much to Sullivan’s chagrin.

“Order! Order!” he cried, banging his gavel.

“Was Miss Hill your mistress for a period of time?”

“Yes.”

“How many times did she spend the night with you?”

“Ten or twenty times, not more.”

“Ten or twenty times!” Sullivan exclaimed.

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“But you were never married?” Sullivan demanded.

“Absolutely never.”

Sullivan frowned and continued writing his notes.

Barnes then proceeded to take Sharon through the “Dear Wife” letters, all of which, according to Sharon, had innocent explanations and forged salutations.

“Now, Senator,” Barnes said, near-offhandedly, “did you ever threaten Miss Hill by seizing her by the neck and throwing her into a closet?”

“Not at all,” said Sharon. “She appeared at my rooms in a state of agitation and collapsed upon the floor crying. I admit that I did shove her into a closet and pour a pitcher of cold water over her, but she was hysterical.”

“You did what?” Sullivan asked. “To a young lady?”

“Young?” Sharon said.

“What happened next?” Barnes pressed.

“I offered her five thousand dollars to leave me alone and abandon all claims she had upon me,” said Sharon. “She demanded ten thousand, so we settled upon seventy-five hundred.”

“Did she sign a contract?”

“She refused.”

“You were present in court during the testimony of Miss Nellie Brackett, were you not?”

“The Irishwoman?” Sharon said. “Everything she said was all a lie. After I had her ejected from the Grand Hotel, Miss Hill was never in bed with me ever again.”

“Did Miss Brackett ever inform you that Miss Hill was with child?”

“No. Miss Hill came to me and said so herself.”

“How did you respond?”

“I asked her whose child it was, for there were so many — ”

“Objection!”

“Sustained,” said Sullivan. “Please, Senator!”

Barnes then took several moments to fill in the remainder of Sharon’s tale, and its complete denunciation of Sarah’s claims, before turning the witness over to cross-examination.

“Well, well, Senator Sharon,” Terry began. “You told a fine story about what you say was the first time that you met Sarah. Do you have any memoranda that reflect the precise date?”

“No.”

“So, you are relying on your memory?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm,” Terry stroked his beard. “Can you fix the precise time of all of your female acquaintances?”

“Oh, I don’t think anybody could,” Sharon replied.

Sullivan emitted an audible gasp from the bench, much to Terry’s satisfaction.

“Who spoke first, on the occasion that she visited your office?” Terry continued.

“I don’t recall.”

“It was her, wasn’t it?” Terry gestured toward Sarah. “You were entranced by her beauty, were you not?”

Sarah blushed and fluttered her eyelashes at Terry.

“I resent the implication that a man of my age could still be duped by feminine wiles.”

“Do not be absurd, Senator,” Terry said, still looking at Sarah. “You are only a few years older than I am. When men grow as old as you and I, we are worse than ever.”

“Objection,” Barnes complained. “We do not have time for this foolishness. The Senator is obliged to leave in a few days for the national convention, and I should like to have his testimony complete before he does.”

Terry shook his head for a moment, as if awakening from a dream.

“I am happy to move on,” he said. “There came a time that she went to see you at your hotel, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you dined together?”

“We did.”

“Were you both drinking wine that night?”

“Yes.”

“Did you sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ for her?”

“Sometimes I might sing, for my own amusement, but I do not think I ever sang to her.”

“And you recited poetry to her, did you not?”

“I do find that some sentimental talk is appropriate for a social call with a lady,” Sharon said. “If the lady is sprightly and good-looking.”

“Oho!” Terry exclaimed. “So, you did think her good-looking!”

“At the time.”

“And it made you sentimental!”

Sharon’s reply could not be heard over the cascades of laughter that erupted from the spectators, for the attendance at the trial had long passed from those affected by sentimentalities to those with the hardest hearts of all — streetwalkers and journalists.

“And after all that,” Terry said, “you made her an offer and asked her to bed with you?”

“Not exactly.”

“What exactly, then?”

“She had a separate bed in an adjoining room.”

“What made you think that she wouldn’t stay in her separate bed?”

“Well,” Sharon thought for a moment. “Any young woman that will visit a gentleman in his private rooms, dine with him, drink wine, and remain alone until a late hour is not likely to repel any further advances.”

Terry bit his lip, for this was a sharp answer of the sort that might appeal to Judge Sullivan. He carefully considered his next steps and spent some time questioning Sharon as to the social relations that he had engaged in, and eminent persons he met, while in Sarah’s company. Once the temperature of the interrogation had cooled somewhat, Terry rounded back to his main accusation.

“Sarah accompanied you to all of these events because you had no one else, and she loved you, correct?”

“No sir!” Sharon scoffed. “She seemed to think that she had a pretty good thing going, and it was the money she cared for. There was no love wasted between us. I never cared for her.”

“Why don’t you think she loved you?”

“I don’t think she loved anything but my money,” Sharon replied.

“You hate her, don’t you?”

“I always feel kindly to any human being or animal unless they try to destroy me. I certainly was never attached to the woman in any sense of the word. We were friendly. She never aroused my affections in any way. It was merely friendly intercourse.”

“I think that should be enough for to-day,” said Sullivan. “You may have one more day of cross-examination before I am obliged to excuse the Senator upon party business.”

“I understand.” Terry turned away from the witness to observe Sarah in a rigid pose behind counsel table, tears streaming down her cheeks. A deep anger welled inside him.

Terry’s time for cross-examination having been so abruptly truncated, the last day of testimony was a gallimaufry of “Dear Wife” letters and other miscellaneous documents. Sharon stoutly denied everything, and by the time the afternoon came, both counsel and the witness had grown sour and impatient with one another.

“Do you deny that this is your signature upon a letter to your ‘Dear Wife’?” Terry demanded, brandishing a document.

“She is not now, and never was my ‘Dear Wife,’ and that appears to be a tracing of my signature from another document, sir,” Sharon replied.

“Mr. Sharon, have you in the past five or six years had any other mistress that you paid by the month or otherwise?”

“Objection!” Barnes exclaimed. “I see no reason to drag the names of other women into the case and destroy their reputation!”

Sullivan gave Barnes a pained look.

“Assuming, of course, that there are any,” Barnes added hastily.

“What is the relevance of the question?” Sullivan inquired.

“This is relevant to show that Sharon is habitually free with women,” said Terry, “and uses his wealth to debauch them.”

Sullivan appeared to consider the prospect seriously until Barnes broke in.

“Your Honor,” Barnes said, “I speak now not on behalf of my own client but on behalf of those young women who, merely to satisfy a talking point that counsel wishes to exploit, would be ruined in the eyes of the world. For the sake of stopping the inquiry, I shall admit that the defendant, Senator Sharon, has had meretricious relationships with other women.”

Sullivan nodded wearily.

“I would ask that counsel negotiate a stipulation to that effect,” he said. “The Court shall stand in recess.”

“All rise!” cried the bailiff. The judge departed the bench, and Sharon stepped down from the witness stand, clapped Barnes on the back, and, with Ah Ki before him clearing his path through the reporters and observers, made his way out of the courtroom.

“Out of my way!” Sharon cried. “I am headed to Chicago for the convention!”

“Who do you think the nominee shall be, Senator?” one reporter called out.

“I suppose we shall nominate Blaine for the Republicans,” Sharon said, “but if the Democratic Party has sense enough to nominate the great Justice Stephen Field, they might beat us.”

Back at plaintiff’s table, meanwhile, Sarah heard a sharp hiss from her lawyer.

“What is wrong, my dear?” she asked. “You have proven equal to your duty in every way, I assure you.”

“Field!” Terry growled. “He must be stopped. The man has the pride of a prophet, the vanity of a courtesan, and the malice of a monkey!”

“Forget about that Field fellow!” said Sarah. She placed her delicate hands upon Terry’s enormous chest. “We have had an exhausting few weeks together. Why, this trial has spun my head all the way around and back, and I know how hard it has been for you, with your poor wife so deathly ill. Perhaps we might dine together to-night, and let the cares of the world slip away for a while?”

Terry screwed up his face as he watched Sharon and Ah Ki depart the courtroom, but once his adversaries were gone, the touch of Sarah’s caress softened his ire.

“Of course,” he said.

“It shall be my treat,” Sarah said. “Once I prevail against Senator Sharon, I shall be able to afford anything I like, and I shall surely pay you then.”

Six months later, a throng composed of men of the press and ladies of the gossip columns gushed from the doors of San Francisco City Hall and spilled down the front steps. The more clever amongst them had designed a series of hand signals, to convey as quickly as possible to their colleagues across the street the outcome of the trial. First came a raised palm to signify victory, to the utter shock of many, and then even more surprising, not three but four rounds of extended fingers — first a two, then a five and then one zero and then another! The press correspondents whistled in amazement as they scribbled the numbers in their notepads and rushed to the telegraph office. Why, they quickly figured, that monthly amount was five times more than most Americans made in a single year!

From the center of the commotion emerged Sarah Althea Hill Sharon, in a cloak of embossed velvet trimmed with otter fur and a matching boa around her neck. The rim of her massive blue bonnet was turned up just so, such that the winter sun cast its favor upon her beaming face. She proceeded regally down the steps, nose slightly in the air, and from time to time stroked her hair back in the wind, the pink ruffles at her wrists quivering in the breeze. A green plaid shawl completed her costume.

“Mrs. Sharon! Mrs. Sharon!” the reporters cried. “Might we have a statement?”

“You shall have a statement from me as her attorney in due course!” bellowed Terry, who was a step or two behind Sarah. His face was flushed with exhilaration, for just moments ago he had listened to Judge Sullivan read his opinion finding that, amidst near-universal perjury by the witnesses, Sarah was the rightful wife of Senator Sharon, and thus entitled to a formal divorce, with twenty-five hundred dollars a month in alimony and, even better for Terry, fifty-five thousand dollars in attorneys’ fees.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Sharon!” One reporter stepped directly in front of Sarah. “What do you plan to do now?”

“The decision is all the congratulation I want. I shall have a merry Christmas even though I am a divorced woman.”

“Out of the way!” Terry shoved the reporter out of Sharon’s path, and the poor fellow fell backward across the stairs but was caught in time. The gentleman of the press may be parasitical, but they are not malevolent, if for no other reason than self-interest — another journalist immediately stopped to interview his fallen comrade, for any tale of David Terry’s violence was always worth the ink.

“How do you feel, Mrs. Sharon?”

“How do I feel?” Sarah paused theatrically and stretched out her arms. “I am so happy, I feel just like a young kitten that has been brought into the house and set before the fire.”

“Have you any Christmas wishes for Senator Sharon?” jibed another, to much mirth. Sharon had tarried in the courtroom, and as best as anyone could tell still remained in the building.

“Poor old ‘Sen.’!” Sarah exclaimed. “I’m sorry I beat the old man, for I love him still. He’s a dear, sweet fellow.”

“Come now,” Terry urged. “We must work upon a statement in my law offices.”

“How shall you spend Christmas, Mrs. Sharon?” A lady of the gossip columns had stationed herself strategically at the bottom of the steps, knowing that no man would shove a lady, and thus reckoning her place secure when Sarah passed her by.

“I have so much to do before Christmas!” Sarah clasped her hands. “Everyone who stood by me throughout my ordeal, everyone who has been a faithful friend, shall receive the most wonderful presents from me this Christmas! I intend to shop the length and breadth of San Francisco and charge it all to William Sharon!”

The reporters applauded, and the crowd parted to allow Terry to reach the carriage he had hired to whisk Sarah away. Terry opened the door of the carriage and held Sarah’s hand as she lit upon the step and turned to face her admirers. She gave a dainty wave of her hand, and the carriage sped off with Sarah and Terry inside.

The victor having left the scene, it was now the occasion to converge upon the vanquished. From the bowels of City Hall came William Sharon, clad as usual in black broadcloth but looking much older and more stooped, leaning upon Ah Ki as he navigated the stairs. The swarm surrounded Sharon but maintained a respectful distance, as if approaching a mourner at a funeral. An ashen-faced General Barnes walked ahead of Sharon and tried to wave away any questions, to no avail. Judge Sullivan’s opinion had lacerated his client as a libertine, a lascivious man who regarded a wedding contract as but a trifle, light as air, which might well have described the withered and frail old man himself.

“Do you have a statement for us, Senator?” queried one reporter.

“No statements,” Barnes warned. “Good day, sir!”

“That d___ fool judge just made Sarah the highest-paid whore in history!” Sharon growled, much to Barnes’s dismay. “The whores of Paris are cheapskates compared to her — they only charge a thousand francs a night!”

“And, how do you know that, Senator?” one reporter demanded.

“No statements, no questions!” Barnes seized Sharon and towed him forward to their carriage.

“Shall you appeal, Senator?” came another question.

“Appeal? Of course, I shall!” Sharon barked. “I shall fight it in all the courts and fight it on all sides. I shall never give in, never to the last!”

“We expect to move for a new trial,” Barnes assured the reporter, “and you shall see those papers presently. Now, please let me care for my client.”

Barnes and Ah Ki lifted Sharon into a carriage, and Barnes climbed in after him. Before clapping the roof of the carriage, however, Barnes leaned out the window to Ah Ki, who remained outside on the street, and handed him a scrap of paper.

“Have them telegraph this to Justice Field at once,” Barnes said. Ah Ki bowed and slipped into the stream of passers-by.

The depiction of these events is drawn primarily from several nonfiction works: A. Russell Buchanan, David S. Terry of California: Dueling Judge (Huntington Library 1956); 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, for the trial days in late May 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 characterization of Justice Field is drawn from a possibly apocryphal description noted in Introduction to Matthew P. Deady, Pharisee Among Philistines: The Diary of Matthew P. Deady, at xxi (Malcolm Clark, Jr., ed.) (Oregon Hist. Soc’y 1975) (Vol. 1 & 2) (describing Field as having “the brains of Webster, the malice of a monkey, and the vanity of a woman”). The phrase “equal to his duty” comes from William Dean Howells, Indian Summer (1886), and the phrase “trifles light as air” comes from Shakespeare, Othello Act III, scene iii.

About the Author

David Kennedy

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

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