Texan loses temper one time too many
David S. Terry, a Texas expatriate with a red-hot temper, ran into a Supreme Court justice on Aug. 14, 1889 and gave his mortal enemy a piece of his mind and the back of his hand.
The younger brother of Benjamin F. Terry, famous founder of Terry’s Texas Rangers, went West after seeing action in the Mexican War. But the pick-and-shovel routine in the California gold field was not for the gifted attorney, and he turned to practicing law.
Six years later at the age of 32, David Terry was elected to his adopted state’s highest court. However, judicial robes could not shield the transplanted Texan from the wrath of local vigilantes, who accused him of knifing one of their kind. Seized by a masked mob and tried for the crime, he was freed after the kangaroo court found him not guilty.
An outspoken champion of southern rights in deeply divided California, Judge Terry became embroiled in a personal squabble with U.S. Senator David C. Broderick, a prominent northern sympathizer. Provoked by the politician’s insults, Terry challenged him to put up or shut up on the field of honor.
Broderick wasted his first shot missing the unflinching Texan by a good five feet. The senator did not get a second shot, as Terry calmly returned fire striking him in the chest. Broderick dropped like a sack of potatoes and died within hours.
Unionists mourned the slain senator as a martyr to their cause and subjected David Terry to a smear campaign, which culminated in his indictment for murder. At the 1861 trial, the presiding judge did not even let the case go to the jury and acquitted the accused on a directed verdict. Public opinion was not so easily appeased, and Terry was eventually forced to resign from the California supreme court.
During the Civil War, the native son came home to enlist in the Confederate Army. Too late to fight alongside his brother, he raised and equipped his own cavalry regiment but stayed on Lone Star soil for the duration of the conflict.
After three years of self-imposed exile in Mexico, Terry went back to California and resumed his legal career. The next two decades were prosperous and free from the bloodshed of the past due to the steadying influence of his long-suffering wife.
But Cornelia Terry passed away in December 1884, and the fifth of their sixth children died three months later. Grief-stricken and lonely, the 60 year old widower impulsively wed a scandalous client half his age.
Sarah Althea Hill was a notorious femme fatale up to her pretty neck in a sensational lawsuit against a wealthy ex-senator. Insisting she had secretly married the millionaire, Miss Hill demanded her rightful share of his fortune. The indignant defendant countered that the plaintiff had been nothing more than a kept woman and was, therefore, not entitled to the time of day.
In the fall of 1886, Justice Stephen Field, newest member of the United States Supreme Court, read the ruling of a three-judge panel in Sarah Hill Terry’s suit. The moment she realized she had lost, Sarah went berserk.
As federal marshals struggled to remove her from the chambers, Judge Terry brandished a knife screaming, “Let her go! I will cut you to pieces!” The ugly incident cost the couple dearly as Justice Field sentenced Sarah to 30 days in jail and her husband to six months.
On a muggy August evening in 1889, the Terrys took advantage of a train stop at Lathrop, California to grab a bite to eat in the station restaurant. The judge found an empty table, sat down and turned toward his companion only to discover she had disappeared.
Seeing Sarah leave the dining room in an obvious rush, the worried proprietor politely implored Terry to stop his wife from making a scene. Puzzled by the request, the ex-magistrate asked, “Why? Who is here?” The restaurant owner nervously nodded at the next table, where sat none other than Justice Field and a bodyguard named Neagle.
Leaping from his chair, Terry confronted his hated nemesis. After uttering a few well-chosen words, he backhanded Field twice across the face. Before he could slap the scared-silly justice a third time, Neagle drew his pistol and fired. As the Texan fell to the floor, the bodyguard shot again and was heard to snarl, “That one is for Broderick.”
In spite of the incriminating fact that he murdered an unarmed man, Neagle never spent a night behind bars. On the contrary, in certain vindictive circles he was hailed as a hero. The Nation magazine denounced his victim as “a desperado of thirty years’ standing” and added, “Somebody ought to have killed Terry a quarter of a century ago.”
As for Sarah Terry, less than three years after the slaying of her spouse, she was committed to an insane asylum. And there she remained under lock and key for 45 years until her own death in 1937.
“Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” Bartee’s new book, along with ten different collections of his columns are available at the “General Store” on his web site barteehaile.com.