mistake in the lady

A Mistake in the Lady

In Issue 74 by David Kennedy

Judge Sullivan, although a young man and even more junior judge, had heard his share of difficult questions from lawyers but had never seen such a simple question prove so vexing.

“I am sorry, counsel,” he said, “but I must have misheard. Could you please repeat the question?”

“Of course, Your Honor.” David Terry cleared his throat and began again. “Mrs. Sarah Althea Sharon, where were you born?”

“I don’t know,” the witness repeated.

“That’s what I thought I heard,” puzzled Sullivan. He turned to face the witness in the box. Judge Sullivan perceived that Sarah had remained in the same costume of black silk that she had worn throughout the proceedings, as if in mourning, but the discerning eyes of society mavens in the gallery could tell from the subtle trimmings and ruffles of Sarah’s dress that her style was in equal parts sleek and unimpeachable. Although her hair remained tied in a knot, she suffered a lock or two to drift from its moorings to frame her blushing face, and her eyes glistened blue in the morning sunlight as she beseeched the court.

“You must understand, Your Honor,” Sarah said, “I come from a good, honest family, but a poor one. My father was always searching for work.”

“I understand,” Sullivan said. “I expect you have no first-hand recollection of your birth, but surely your parents might have told you?”

“Why, that’s just the thing, Your Honor,” Sarah said, and cast her eyes downward. “My parents died when I was a little girl, so by the time I had such questions there was no one who knew the answers.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” said Sullivan, “and I apologize for asking. But what is the first place you can recall?”

Sarah thought for a few moments.

“I know at some point I was left in the care of an aunt and uncle near Cape Girardeau, in Missouri.”

“I shall suppose that will do,” said Sullivan, as he made a small notation. “And do you know your date of birth?”

“My date of birth was inscribed in the family Bible, but that was lost when my parents died.”

“I see.”

“All I know,” Sarah said, with a dramatic show of hesitation, “is that I was at least sixteen when I married Senator Sharon.”

“Objection!” called out General Barnes, Sharon’s lawyer.

“Sixteen!” Sharon muttered, loud enough for anyone in the well of the court to hear. “She was thirty if she was a day!”

“Order!” Sullivan admonished and rapped his gavel. “I direct the defendant to refrain from such outbursts and instruct the court reporter not to record that intemperate remark. The objection is overruled. Counsel, you may proceed.”

“Thank you, Your Honor,” said Terry. “How was it that you came to leave Missouri for California?”

“My uncle brought me here in ‘seventy-one,” said Sarah. “I lived for a time with my grandmother, who was so very sweet and kind to me, and gave me sufficient funds to live at the Grand Hotel, and then the Baldwin Hotel, and then I lived with my cousin, who suffered a most terrible tragedy.”

At this, Sarah burst into tears and could not go on for several minutes. Sullivan quietly ordered that a glass of water be brought to the witness box, but Sarah gulped the water down and continued to sob. Apart from the judge, however, the display of sorrow aroused boredom, and some annoyance, for it was well rumored that Sarah had not in fact resided at the San Francisco hotels she listed, but dwelt instead at Mammy Pleasant’s boarding house — although, to be sure, approximately half the occupants at Mammy Pleasant’s boarding house at any given time were only there for about one hour.

“Are you ready to continue, Mrs. Sharon?” Sullivan eventually inquired.

Sarah exhaled slowly, nodded, dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief, then folded the handkerchief very precisely, corner to corner, and tucked it away in some hidden pocket.

“When did you first meet Senator Sharon?” Terry asked.

“The spring of ‘eighty,” Sarah replied. “I had seen the Senator at the depot in Redwood City, but I was in a buggy and not able to have a proper conversation. We remembered each other, however, and I happened to be at the Bank of California when he arrived to do some business. He said that he heard I had a sharp eye for the stock market, and that he might have an investment opportunity for me.”

There were scattered chortles among the spectators at this comment, which Sullivan gaveled into silence.

“Why are they laughing?” Sharon whispered to Barnes.

“Oh, everyone knows that you are generous in sharing your financial acumen,” Barnes replied.

“I am?” said Sharon.

“I went to go see him at his hotel rooms,” Sarah continued, “and he was a sweet old man, full of humor. He recited some poetry for me and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ At his suggestion, I gave him seventy-five hundred dollars of mine to invest.”

“Would it be fair to say,” Terry asked, “that at this point, your relationship with the Senator was purely business?”

“It was,” said Sarah, “although I found him quite charming.”

“Did the Senator ever introduce any love talk during his financial disquisitions?”

“Objection!” shouted Barnes.

“Overruled.”

“Mr. Sharon had been talking to me most every time I went there about liking the girls, and how the girls liked him. I did not care to enter into such a conversation.” Sarah lifted her pretty chin so that she was looking down her nose at Sharon. “It was not what I went for, and I always laughed it off.”

“Did you respond at all to his insinuations?”

“Never. I steered the conversation back to more suitable topics, like the stocks and the weather and all those sorts of things. Finally, he made his remarks so pointed — ”

“What were those remarks?”

Sarah paused and shook her head sadly.

“Senator Sharon said that he would give me one thousand dollars a month, and a white horse besides, to be available at his convenience.”

There was considerable commotion in the gallery at this testimony. The few ladies who remained fanned themselves lest they faint at the implication, while the gentlemen either shook their heads in sympathy at Sarah’s predicament or in disappointment at the high price of feminine companionship.

“This was the first distinct proposition from the Senator,” Sarah went on, “that he would like to have me let him love me. I said I had no objection to any gentleman loving me, but that he had made a mistake in the lady. I said I was an honest girl and had my own affairs to look after. Then he said he would like to marry me, and well, that was a different matter altogether.”

“Did you agree to his proposal of marriage?”

“Not at first, because he said the marriage would have to be secret. I wanted to go to a Catholic church, being a good Catholic myself, but then the wedding would have to be public.”

“Why?”

Sarah had by now spent sufficient time in the courtroom to have developed an estimation of Judge Sullivan as a more effete and sentimental fellow than the average man of San Francisco, and so she turned directly to him with wide eyes.

“Senator Sharon told me that he had a girl back in Philadelphia with her mother who would create a scandal about him if he got married. The girl had no reputation to lose, and so would not hesitate to ruin his chance of being re-elected to the Senate.”

“Did he!” Sullivan replied. Sullivan knew to expect all manner of uncouth conduct from the denizens of Philadelphia, but even this was a bit much.

“I said that I did not believe him,” Sarah continued, “and insisted that he provide some proof to his story. So, he shared with me this letter from the Philadelphia girl herself.”

She drew from an inner pocket a small, folded paper.

“Objection!” Barnes exclaimed. “We have no idea what this document is!”

“Counsel, please approach the bench,” said Sullivan. He unfolded the letter, and after a few moments his visage transformed as if he had received an electrical shock. He dropped the letter in disgust upon the crest of his judicial eyrie. Terry glanced at the letter and nodded; Barnes’s mouth fell open upon reading the letter, and he seized it and scurried over to confer with Sharon.

“Well, counsel?” Sullivan asked.

Sharon looked at the letter and merely shrugged.

“We object to the admission of the letter into evidence because it is not relevant,” Barnes said. “We do not dispute its authenticity.”

“Overruled,” Sullivan said. The bailiff retrieved the letter from Barnes and returned it to Sarah.

“May I read it, Your Honor?”

“You may,” said Sullivan, “but I must warn the spectators in the courtroom that the contents of the letter are highly lascivious. Those who have refined sensibilities may want to leave before Mrs. Sharon proceeds.”

No one stirred, this judicial pronouncement tending to pique the curiosity rather than dissuade the interest.

“My dear Sweetheart,” Sarah began reading —

The baby left me in a sorry condition, continually flowing, and I am not able to exert myself without great bodily pain. I was dreadfully lacerated but can now enjoy your sweet society to its greatest degree. Ain’t I naughty?

This was enough to exile the remaining society ladies in the crowd. By now, the only women still observing the proceedings were noticeably well-rouged although haggard, and they nodded in appreciation and perhaps recognition at the contents of the Philadelphia missive.

“Your Honor,” said Sarah, “I must ask for a brief recess of the trial. I am sworn to tell the truth, and I shall do so wherever it leads, but this has been a terrible strain upon my nerves.”

“Of course,” said Sullivan. “The lawyers have some deposition testimony and documents to enter into evidence, and that shall no doubt afford you sufficient time to rest.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.” Sarah fluttered her eyelashes and stepped down from the witness stand.

When Sarah resumed her testimony the next morning, the change in the composition of spectators was unmistakable. The nature of the content of the testimony had driven out the better elements of society, and in their place the courtroom contained more and more scribblers for the papers, as far as the men were concerned. The sort of women who now attended the trial, meanwhile, did not arrive expecting their sensibilities to be offended by the transactional nature of the romance between Sarah and the Senator — to the contrary, these women were well aware that while courtship was bliss, marriage was blister, for they often heard as much from their clients. Terry began the day’s proceedings by asking Sarah to identify the contract of marriage.

“This is the very document,” Sarah averred. “I understood that the Senator demanded discretion, but I could not leave myself defenseless. He dictated this contract to me, and then we both signed it.”

Sarah then read out the contents of the contract, just as Nellie Brackett had done.

“What happened once you were married?” Terry asked.

“We were married, but not publicly,” Sarah said. “He began to pay me one thousand dollars a month as promised, and ensconced me in the Grand Hotel, which is across the street from the Palace Hotel. There is a covered bridge that conveniently connects the two establishments, which I came to learn was known as the Bridge of Sighs.”

Sullivan’s brow furrowed at the term, for he rose to the bar in New York City, and lawyers in that metropolis well know the Bridge of Sighs as that passage that connects the Tombs to the criminal courthouse, within whose walls sound the despairing moans of prisoners. Lawyers in San Francisco, however, call the Bridge of Sighs that passage between the Grand Hotel and the Palace Hotel, within whose walls sound the sweet breaths of anticipation and satisfaction of romantic assignations.

“Did you comport yourselves as a married couple thereafter?”

“Yes, but not openly. He wrote to me often, whether he was in Nevada on business or politics, or whether he was at the Palace Hotel, and addressed every letter to me as ‘Dear Wife.’”

“Are these the letters?” Terry handed the documents to Sarah.

“They are,” said Sarah and began paging through them with an occasional half-smile. “Here is a note inviting me to dinner, here a note begging me to share some champagne with him, and here a note sending me money. Reading these now, I wish I could have written to the poor girl that I was when I received these letters and reveled in the title of ‘Wife,’ having not the slightest notion of the tragedy that was to befall her.”

“Did you attend any social engagements with Senator Sharon?”

“Yes. We drove out to his estate at Belmont on many occasions. Why, I even met a Vanderbilt and attended Sharon’s daughter’s own wedding! But he would not introduce me as his wife, and I would bring a female companion along so that no one would suspect that Senator Sharon was my true companion.” Sarah drooped her head ruefully. “If only he were a true companion!”

“How was he not a true companion?”

“I soon began to perceive that just as the Senator’s interest had waned in the Philadelphia girl and attached itself to me, he had developed a similar interest in a young lady from New York. One night he insisted that I release him from the marriage contract, and of course I refused to surrender my honor.”

“How did Sharon take your refusal?”

“Very poorly!” Sarah began to sob. “He choked me until I fainted. I awoke in a bedroom closet, while he searched the room for the marriage contract. But he would not find it, for I had secreted it within my bosom.”

“What happened after that?”

“He unlocked the closet, marched me across the street to the Grand Hotel, and tried to find the marriage contract in my rooms. When that failed, he went down to the manager and ordered me evicted.”

“When did this happen?”

Sarah began sobbing again. “It was the week before Thanksgiving. I was ordered out by the first of December.”

“Did you leave?”

“I would not! They took the door off the hinges on the fifth of December and removed the carpets, but I would not leave. Why, it would soon be Christmas, and I could not bear to spend Christmas miserable.”

“Did the Senator relent in time for Christmas?” Terry asked.

“Not at all.”

“Did you find a place to stay?”

“Eventually,” Sarah said, mournfully. “I met Nellie Brackett on the street, and that lovely Irish woman took me to meet her family, and they took care of me for several months until I could regain my strength.”

“Did you undertake any efforts to reconcile with the Senator?”

“I did, for I could not imagine but that his interest in the New York lady was anything more than a passing infatuation.”

“What happened?”

“With Miss Brackett as my witness, I went to the Senator’s rooms in the Palace Hotel, and as you heard her explain, he treated me as he would a wife.”

“Counsel,” Sullivan interrupted. “Do you intend to elicit the story of that assignation a second time? I would think that respect for the privacy of marital relations requires only that Mrs. Sharon affirm the truth of Miss Brackett’s testimony.”

“A wise suggestion, Your Honor,” said Terry. “Mrs. Sharon, you were in the courtroom when Miss Brackett testified?”

“I was.”

“Did her testimony truthfully depict the actions and words of you and Senator Sharon on the evening in question?”

“In every particular.”

“Did that event lead to a permanent reconciliation?”

“Hardly!” Fresh tears began to well in Sarah’s eyes. “We went back to see him again in his rooms at the Palace, but that Chinaman and some bellhops threw us out onto the street.”

The spectators sympathetic to Sharon gasped at the barbarity of the Celestial, but from his place in the front row of the gallery Ah Ki, Sharon’s valet, evinced no emotion of any kind.

“One last question, Mrs. Sharon,” Terry said, with a dramatic pause. “The insinuation has been made that you have filed this suit so as to obtain the Senator’s money. What do you say to that?”

Sarah assumed a regal posture. “I brought this suit to vindicate my honor and protect my reputation. I am the wife of Senator Sharon and deserve to be recognized as such. I am seeking my fair share of the Senator’s fortune not for its own sake, but as a sign of respect.”

“Your witness,” Terry said, but his adversary, General Barnes, did not rise, but instead motioned to his junior associate.

Sarah scoffed. “The boy shall cross-examine me, General? I must object.”

“Counsel must please themselves, Mrs. Sharon,” said Judge Sullivan.

Sarah stuck her nose in the air. Terry had warned her in advance that today might be the beginning of her cross-examination, and she was well-armored.  She had entered the courtroom in a handsome sealskin coat, which when removed revealed a black brocaded velvet suit with tails, not unlike a gentleman’s formal wear, with a blue silk belt clasped with a buckle in the shape of a golden bug. The black satin skirt below draped over high black walking boots, and for jewelry Sarah wore jet black earrings and a gold brooch at her throat.

The junior associate approached the podium nervously, and his questioning proceeded for several hours upon extremely pedestrian lines, querying Sarah as to specific dates, which she often did not care to remember and treated with extreme disdain. It was not until the day was drawing to a close that the young lawyer approached any subjects of interest.

“Counsel,” said Sullivan, “we have only half an hour left, should you care to wrap up the cross-examination.”

The young lawyer took a deep breath and looked back at Barnes, who nodded.

“Miss Hill,” the young lawyer asked, “you put love potions in Senator Sharon’s drink, did you not?”

“Nonsense!” Sarah replied. “And as a married woman, I must ask that you avoid the use of my maiden name.”

“And you wore his clothes from time to time, for the purpose of making a charm or hex?”

Sarah scowled. “I might have worn his slippers or dressing gown to keep myself warm at night, but not for any other purpose. I could bewitch him on my own, thank you.”

“Did you ever steal Senator Sharon’s clothes?”

“Look me in the eye and tell me whether you think I would ever be capable of such a thing!”

“Please, answer the question.” Sullivan sighed.

“Of course not.”

The young lawyer signaled to a bespectacled gentlemen seated at the defense table.

“Your Honor, the good doctor here has been kind enough to supply us with some items that the witness might recognize.”

The doctor handed over a brown paper parcel to the young lawyer, who used a letter opener to break its wax seals. As he did so, a foul odor escaped from the parcel, and those spectators in the front row began to cough and gag. Sarah blanched and placed her handkerchief to her face.

“Good heavens, counsel, what is this evidence?” Sullivan demanded.

“Your Honor,” the young lawyer struggled to speak, so foul were the pungent emissions from the package, “we are prepared to offer testimony that these items were retrieved from a newly opened grave in the Masonic cemetery — ”

“Pardon me, counsel,” Sullivan interrupted. “Your investigators disinterred a man from the Masonic cemetery?”

“Well, we believe Miss Hill did so first,” Barnes interjected.

“And retrieved these items of clothing that once belonged to Senator Sharon,” the young lawyer added. “I intend to ask Miss Hill whether she and Nellie Brackett bribed a grave digger to allow them to disturb some poor gentleman’s eternal rest for the purpose of casting a love spell.”

Sullivan rolled his eyes. “Well, you’d best be quick about it!”

“Do you recognize this sock?” Counsel held up a deeply soiled and malodorous stocking. The repulsive garment cleared the first few rows of the gallery of any observers.

“This is outrageous!” Terry bellowed.

Sarah shook her head violently. “How can you ask me such a thing!”

The lawyer held up a handkerchief, blackened beyond all comprehension.

“Do you recognize this handkerchief, with the Senator’s initials?”

“Make him stop, Your Honor!” Sarah cried.

“This collar?” Now the lawyer held up a man’s white collar, grimed and damp, from which emanated the very breath of the tomb.

“Never!” Sarah nearly shouted from behind the handkerchief clutched to her nose and mouth. “And you are making a mistake that I shall make you repent until the day you die!”

“That is enough, counsel!” Sullivan admonished.

“The Court cannot continue this to go on!” Now Terry pounded the counsel table.

“Please,” said Sullivan, “have the doctor wrap those articles up straightaway, and move on to your next question!”

The young lawyer pouted but did as he was told. As the doctor removed the offending articles from the courtroom, Sullivan signaled to his bailiff to open all of the windows in the chamber.

“Miss Hill,” the lawyer said, after pausing to collect himself, “Mammy Pleasant advised you as to these voodoo charms, did she not?”

“Never!” Sarah removed the handkerchief from her face, so as to display a visage stricken in equal parts by surprise and indignation.

“Mammy Pleasant operates a house of prostitution, does she not?”

“Lies! Slander!” Sarah nearly leapt from the witness box, so irate was her demeanor.

“And you were well known at that house?”

“Objection!” roared Terry.

“The plaintiff need not answer the question,” said Sullivan, severely.

The young lawyer changed tack. “Did you ever threaten to kill Senator Sharon?”

“What?”

“Objection!” Terry was at his feet again. “This is outrageous! General Barnes, control your associate!”

“It is a fair question for cross-examination, although offensive,” said Sullivan.

“I shall never forgive you for your conduct today,” Sarah reprimanded the young lawyer.

“Please answer the question, Mrs. Sharon.”

Sharon avoided the gaze of the young lawyer and instead looked over to General Barnes, seated next to Sharon.

“I know why you ask the question, and I now see why you are asking me questions and not General Barnes. I did speak about this case with General Barnes, before he became counsel to Senator Sharon, and he threatened to have me prosecuted. I told him that if Senator Sharon succeeded in convicting me criminally when I knew I was innocent, I would, if I could, kill him and myself both.”

“False! False!” Now Barnes was on his feet.

“Objection!” Terry shouted. “Counsel cannot testify! This conduct is unprofessional! Insolent in the highest degree!”

“Counsel, counsel,” pleaded Sullivan.

“Oh, Terry attempts to insult me, but I shall ignore it,” said Barnes. “I will send him no challenge — after all, I fight no duels.”

The newspapermen in the gallery all laughed and clapped, being well familiar with Terry’s fatal duel with Broderick back in ‘fifty-nine.

“I have no apology to make,” said Terry loftily, “nor shall I change my mind.”

There was silence for several moments, and a few low whistles.

“The plaintiff rests her case,” Terry said.

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). 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 particularly gruesome evidence retrieved from the Masonic cemetery is detailed at “Sarah’s Sorcery,” Daily Alta, Mar. 19, 1884, at 1. 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 most recent nonfiction treatment of the Sharon-Hill affair depicts Sarah as a serial liar: “One of Sarah’s most infuriating traits was her lack of regard for truth. She was a chronic liar. Sometimes she lied for no reason other than she preferred the lie to the truth.” Robin C. Johnson, Enchantress, Sorceress, Madwoman: The True Story of Sarah Althea Hill, Adventuress of Old San Francisco (California Venture Books 2014).

The language of the piece is drawn from newspapers and fiction of the time. In particular, the old joke that “Courtship is bliss, but marriage is blister” appears in “Humors of the Day,” Harper’s Weekly, Apr. 22, 1876, at 327, and also “Humors of the Day,” Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 14, 1876, at 831.

About the Author

David Kennedy

Twitter

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

Read more work by David Kennedy .