Sharon v. Hill Meets The Wasp

The Wasp was a satirical weekly published in San Francisco from 1876 until 1941. Its editor from 1881 to 1885 was that acerbic wit, Ambrose Bierce. Here is the cover of the magazine for May 17, 1884. At this point the divorce trial was in full swing, the case having begun on September 8, 1883 with William Sharon’s arrest for adultery. The Wasp showed the players “Anno Domini 1910” — what they would look like if the trial dragged on for another 26 years.

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Central in the cover are William Sharon, looking like a skeleton, and Sarah Althea, bedecked with roses. She was known for the elaborately fashionable costumes she wore in the courtroom. At upper and middle left are Sharon’s two attorneys, William Barnes and O.P. Evans. Top and middle right are G.W. Tyler and David Terry, attorneys for Sarah Althea, along with Tyler’s son, “Young Tyler,” top center.

Across the bottom are Ki, Sharon’s Chinese manservant, Judge Sullivan, sound asleep, and Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant, here labeled Mrs. Plaisance. The newspapers invariably  referred to her as Mammy Pleasant, although she detested that nickname. She was a successful San Francisco businesswoman, and was frequently in the courtroom as a friend and supporter of Allie. She was also a handsome woman who did not look anything like this caricature. But this kind of casual racism was what you got in 19th century journalism.

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Mary Ellen Pleasant

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The Scandalous Saga continued — Mrs. Sharon’s Triumph

The trial came to a conclusion on September 16, 1884 and after due consideration, judgement was rendered by Judge J.F. Sullivan on December 24th. He concluded that under California law a marriage contract such as Sarah Althea Hill claimed she possessed could be valid. He accepted that both the contract and the “Dear Wife” letters were genuine, and he granted her a dissolution of the marriage between her and her husband, William Sharon.

He also believed that both plaintiff (Allie) and defendant (Sharon), as well as many of the witnesses, were guilty of perjury on the stand. Nevertheless, Allie was entitled to alimony and a division of property. Sharon swore that she would not get one cent. He would fight it to the end.

While her attorneys congratulated each other and celebrated their victory, Allie went shopping. A reporter from the Daily Alta California visited her the day after Christmas and found her relaxing “on a richly embroidered lounge,” next to a table “almost covered with glasses and champagne bottles, some empty and others yet to be opened,” evidence that she had been called upon by many well-wishers. He noted some of the purchases she made on Christmas Eve.

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Daily Alta California, 26 December 1884

She certainly enjoyed her Christmas. But her ordeal was far from over, and she would never see the money she had worked and schemed so hard for. Senator Sharon appealed the decision and delayed payment with all his considerable craftiness. And then, lurking in the background, was the counter-suit that he had filed in federal court.  Allie would soon find herself once again in the courtroom.

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The Scandalous Saga continued — Sharon Takes the Stand

Ex-Senator of Nevada William Sharon finally took the stand to tell his story late in May of 1884. Sarah Althea Hill, he said, had first come to his office in August, 1880, ostensibly seeking investment advice. He told her that he did not give such advice, but they chatted amiably for about a half an hour. He denied ever dictating or seeing a marriage contract and he also repudiated the “Dear Wife” letters. He said he may have written some of these, but the word “wife” was a forgery.

 

He gave his version of how their relationship developed.

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Daily Alta California, 27 May 1884

William Sharon had no hesitation in presenting himself as both a hard-headed businessman and a cold-hearted lover. As far as he was concerned, the liaison was a strictly financial transaction. He was completely cynical about the business. When asked why he thought she would respond to his offer he said:

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Daily Alta California, 28 May 1884

Eventually he tired of Allie’s requests for additional money and her emotional antics. She was interfering with business and taking liberties. So he had no qualms about discarding her and moving on. But she was not so easily gotten rid of.

One time she climbed over a transom to get into his rooms and fell in a heap on the floor. He told her, “I wish you had broken your d — d neck.” Another time she hid in a closet, giving his Chinese manservant Ki a fright. He finally had to pay her off with money to finance a trip East to study acting.

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Daily Alta California, 28 May 1884

At the end of his testimony, Sharon had to admit that he was “habitually free with women” and that he had had other mistresses, but Allie was the only one he had introduced to some of his friends and family, or invited to his mansion at Belmont, or had allowed to live in his hotel.  With that the case rested until July, when the judge would give his ruling.

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The Scandalous Saga continued –Pistols in the Courtroom

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The San Francisco of the 1880s was still the Wild West and both men and women often went armed, even into Court.

Mrs. Mary Shawhan was summoned to testify about her relationship with Sarah Althea Hill. She was described as a “well-preserved, pleasant-faced, pleasant-voiced matron of about 45 years of age”, with a wealth of blonde hair, and inclined to “embonpoint,” (in other words, she had an ample bosom.)

Mrs. Shawhan knew Allie as “Miss Hill”, not “Mrs. Sharon.” She related conversations in which Miss Hill spoke of being engaged to the senator, and said that Allie wanted to sue the senator for breach of promise (not divorce).. This exchange went along in a friendly enough manner, until Mr. Tyler, the lead attorney for Allie, began asking questions of Mrs. Shawhan that implied she was less than respectable.

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Daily Alta California, 10 April 1884

Mrs. Shawhan began fingering a pistol in her pocket. Her son, a young man named McCune (“Mac”) Shawhan, moved from his seat at the back of the court with his hand in his pocket. Attorney Tyler thrust his hand in his own pocket, announcing he could take care of himself.

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Daily Alta California, 10 April 1884

By this time the court was in an uproar, with at least four pistols either being waved about or grasped in readiness. Tyler’s son, also an attorney on Allie’s team, drew his pistol and rose to defend his father.

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Daily Alta California, 10 April 1884

The morning session ended with the lawyers from the opposing sides trading boasts and insults. After consultation with his fellow judges, Judge Sullivan came back in the afternoon with the order that no one with arms upon their person would be admitted to the courtroom during this trial.

elishacooYoung “Mac” Shawhan, “small and slightly built” sounds like he should be played by Elisha Cook, Jr., the young “gunsel” in The Maltese Falcon.

 

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Dr. Poynter, One More Time

Readers of this blog might recall that last year I did a series on the first novel written and published in California: Entewa, the Mountain Bird, by J.R. Poynter M.D., published in Marysville in 1852.

I have one more little item about Dr. Poynter. Among the letters in the John Bidwell Collection at the California State Library is a letter from Poynter, written in September 1852.

Did they know each other? Did they discuss business or politics? Did Dr. Poynter offer John Bidwell a copy of his new novel?

Alas, no. It is a decidedly prosaic letter, concerning the loss of a mule. But that was an important matter, so here is the letter.

Sacramento River   Sept. 16th 1852

Major Bidwell

Dear Sir

The bearer of this, Mr. Shelley, is in search of a mule which was either taken or strayed from my encampment between the 5th and the 10th of last month. Should you know of any such animal amongst your stock I would be very much obliged to you to inform the bearer, that he may examine & see whether or not it is mine. The mule is a long-bodied mare mule, was shod before when she left here, is a sort of dark brown color with gray hairs dimly [?] intermixed and very much saddle marked. She is a mule that Nye brought from the states when he first came to California. She is a very long-backed mule, with hind legs rather more crooked than usual, walks very fast, & paces well.

Any information that you can give the bearer will be most kindly & fully appreciated by yours

Ever & truly

J. R. Poynter

P.S. The mule is full of brands and amongst the rest is the old brand of Sutter on the hip, with a vent of the same on the shoulder. The vent however was made by a different iron from that of the brand.  J.R.P.

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This letter shows you how important a good working animal was to men of the 1850s. What’s more, that mule would have been familiar to John Bidwell, even if she didn’t show up mixed in with his own animals. Michael Nye came to California along with Bidwell in 1841 and she must have been one tough mule to survive that trip and still be considered a valuable animal eleven years later.

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The Scandalous Saga continued — Dirty Dealings in the Graveyard

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Daily Alta California, 8 April 1884

Sarah Althea Hill tried potions and charms from an assortment of fortune-tellers – they were numerous in old San Francisco – but she had not secured Senator Sharon’s affections to her satisfaction. Another of the mystic league gave her a new charm. She should take some of Sharon’s clothing in a package and bury it in a newly-dug grave beneath the coffin.

So in the spring of 1883, Allie, along with her companion Nellie Brackett, went to the Masonic Cemetery and asked if there were any funerals scheduled. The women were honest, up to a point, about their reason for asking. They explained to the cemetery foreman about having their fortunes told and their desire to bury a package in a grave. This charm would get them rich husbands, they said. What was in the package? “Rose flowers and leaves,” said Miss Brackett, airily.

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Daily Alta California, 8 April 1884 — Testimony of Mr. Gilliard

The two attractive young ladies persuaded the foreman, and he held the ladder while Nellie descended into the grave and deposited her package.

This escapade came out when the trial began, and Senator Sharon had the grave dug up and the package retrieved. The package contained, not flowers and rose leaves, but men’s socks, a collar, and the tail of a man’s shirt. In court the lawyers picked over the contents of the package and held up the moldy items with a pair of scissors.

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Daily Alta California, 8 April 1884 — George Washington Tyler was the lead attorney for Sarah Althea Hill

It was all high entertainment and Tyler could not resist tweaking Sharon’s lawyer as they returned from lunch by exclaiming, “Avaunt! and quit me sight; let the grave bury thee, thou who desecrateth graves on Sunday, and bringeth forth socks!’

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A vignette from the Wasp on the Sharon trial

Next: Pistol-packin’ mama on the stand

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The Scandalous Saga of Senator Sharon and Sarah Althea Hill — part 4

But wait — it gets better!

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Daily Alta California, 16 April 1884

The counsel for the defense (William Sharon’s side) had a string of strange witnesses and bizarre testimony. Sarah, seemingly desperate to find and keep a sugar daddy, sought help from fortune tellers and charm workers. One of these, named Mrs.Massey, claimed she did not deal in any sort of witchcraft.

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Daily Alta California, 15 April 1884

The rich suitor was Senator Sharon, the other was a handsome lawyer named Reuben Lloyd. According to Mrs. Massey, Allie’s scheme was to marry Sharon, then do away with him, and marry Lloyd, who was the one she was truly in love with.

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Daily Alta California, 15 April 1884

When Mrs. Massey’s charms with socks, shirts, candles, and hair failed to work, Allie sought out another wonder worker. Mrs. Laura Scott, “a lady of color,” testified that Allie had come to her to have her horoscope cast. She then asked for a love potion — the one she had gotten from someone else made the senator’s hands twitch. Mys. Scott consulted her book and made up a perfectly harmless concoction.

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Daily Alta California, 16 April 1884

Trying the sock trick again, Allie brought Mrs. Scott a pair of Sharon’s hose. Mrs. Scott dipped the toes in whiskey, said some magic words over them, and tied them around Allie’s left leg above the knee.

Since the tea and molasses potion hadn’t worked, Allie said she would have to use her first potion, one that Mrs. Scott said smelled like — but Allie’s lawyer objected to her saying what it smelled like. But it must have smelled dangerous because Mrs. Scott was afraid it would harm Sharon.

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Daily Alta California, 16 April 1884

All this traipsing around to fortune-tellers must have been exhausting. But Allie was determined — she must have her Senator, her “old darling, beautiful Sen” as she called him.

Next: Voodoo in the Graveyard

 

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