The court dismissed the suit against William Sharon for adultery on a technicality, so Sarah Althea Hill promptly sued for divorce. Of course, in order to obtain a divorce, she first had to prove that they had been married.
Her claim was that in August 1880 the senator (whom she called her “dear Sen”) had persistently wooed her. When she resisted his advances, he proposed marriage, but he wanted to keep it secret. He was campaigning for re-election to his seat in the U.S. Senate, and did not want it known that he was married, since a former mistress had just given birth to a baby, and the announcement of his marriage would cause a scandal and hurt his chances for re-election. (Allie could not explain why he wanted the marriage kept secret for two years, when the outcome of the election would be known in a few months. At any rate, his reputation as a do-nothing senator killed his chances for re-election.)
She claimed that she wrote out the marriage contract at his dictation and he signed it. The ex-senator maintained that the paper was a forgery, although the signature might possibly be genuine, signed on a piece of blank paper.
The entire case for Miss Hill, or Mrs. Sharon (depending on which side you took), depended on that scrap of paper. She was reluctant to produce it, and even more loath to allow the opposition to examine it. She must have feared that Mr. Sharon would rip it up in front of the court and that would be the end of the case. But she did at last produce it.
The newspapers enjoyed reporting every movement of the lady plaintiff, every objection of the lawyers, and every outburst from the defendant. The Daily Alta California took delight in referring to “Artless Althea,” “Althea’s Agony,” and “Althea’s Agitation.” It was better than a melodrama on the stage.
The court spent days examining the contract and taking the testimony of hand-writing experts. An elderly man who had served as Sharon’s clerk for many years testified that it certainly looked like his signature. Allie also had a handful of letters from Sharon, addressing her as “Dear Wife,” and these too were put through the wringer of examination.
No one seems to have asked about witnesses to the contract. There were none. It was simply her word against his. How it could be a valid marriage when there were no witnesses, no ceremony, and no filing of a marriage certificate, was never addressed. This conundrum would have its effect on subsequent California marriage law.
Next: Life in the Palace, and the Bosom Buddy Behind the Bureau
Was she claiming that it was marriage by declaration, like they were in Gretna Green or something? How did the question never come up?
She said the senator assured her such a contract was valid, and the court didn’t seem to question it. Later the federal court had a different opinion, as I recall.