Stephen J. Field was nominated to the 10th seat on the Supreme Court of the United States by Abraham Lincoln (even in those contentious times, the confirmation was a quick one – nominated March 6, Confirmed March 10). He had previously served on the California Supreme Court, where he replaced Chief Justice David Terry. Terry had shot and killed a man (not just any ol’ feller- a Senator) in a duel, and fled the state. Now it gets juicy. David Terry later married a certain Sarah Althea Hill. Ms. Hill had previously been married to a wealthy mine owner, whose fortune from silver she tried to lay claim to by asserting that she had been married to the magnate. Some versions of the story characterize the legal battle as a divorce, but no matter: David Terry was one of her lawyers, and over the course of the long litigation, he married her. When the Circuit Court finally ruled against Ms. Hill, Justice Field was one of the three-member panel. Sarah Althea pitched a fit, marshals moved to remove her, and David Terry, seeing his expected payoff evaporate, and his hysterical wife in pitched battle, joined the fray. By all accounts, he was a big, formidable man, well-known for his willingness to use a Bowie knife he carried with him. Justice Field jailed both husband and wife for contempt, and Terry threatened the Justice’s life. Well, the the U.S. Attorney General took a threat to the life of an associate Justice of the Supreme Court seriously, and assigned a U.S. Marshal, one six-gun-slingin’ David Neagle to protect Justice Field.
Now to the breakfast scene: August 14, 1889. Justice Field and Marshal Neagle are on a train bound for San Francisco. Turns out, David Terry and Sarah Althea are on the same train. From the testimony of Justice Field:
“A few minutes afterward Judge Terry and his wife came in. When Mrs. Terry saw me, which she did directly she got diagonally opposite me, she wheeled around suddenly and went out in great haste. I afterwards understood, as you heard here, that she went for her satchel. Judge Terry walked past, opposite to me, and took his seat at the second table below. The only remark I made to Mr. Neagle was, ‘There is Judge Terry and his wife.’ He remarked, ‘I see him.’ Not another word was said. I commenced eating my breakfast. I saw Judge Terry take his seat. In a moment or two afterwards I looked around and saw Judge Terry rise from his seat. I suppose at the time he was going out to meet his wife, as she had not returned, so I went on with my breakfast. It seems, however, that he came round back of me- I did not see him- and he struck me a violent blow in the face, followed instantaneously by another blow. Coming so immediately together, the two blows seemed like one assault. I heard ‘Stop, stop,’ cried by Neagle. Of course I was for a moment dazed by the blows. I turned my head round and I saw that great form of Terry, with his arm raised and his fists clenched to strike me. I felt that a terrific blow was coming, and his arm was descending in a curved way, as though to strike the side of my temple, when I heard Neagle cry out, ‘Stop, stop! I am an officer.’ Instantly two shots followed. I can only explain the second shot from the fact that he did not fall instantly. I did not get up from my seat, although it is proper for me to say that a friend of mine thinks that I did; but I did not. I looked around and saw Terry on the floor. I looked at him and saw that peculiar movement of the eyes that indicates the presence of death . . .”
Neagle and Field were arrested for murder by the County Sheriff. Neagle was held, and Justice Field was released on his own recognizance. The charges against Field were dropped, but Neagle was tried and acquitted.
Sarah Althea Hill Terry went insane. She lived in the Stockton State Hospital for 45 years.
Here’s the habeas corpus case: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/135/1/