• Cheryl Anne Stapp

A Man of Violence


If political discord is bad today, it was even worse in the mid-19th century. In that era, heated disputes often led to stabbings, shootings, and “duels of honor” perpetrated by self-important men who had little honor and felt themselves to be far above the law. Such a man was David S. Terry, a pro-slavery advocate who was determined to reverse California’s status as a free state—or else see the state split in two so Southerners might move in to occupy a western region with their human property. Terry was a tall, heavy, belligerent man; and he was equally determined to eliminate his political opponents from positions of power.


In 1856, David Terry was a sitting jurist on the California Supreme Court when he stabbed a member of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee with the Bowie knife he routinely carried inside his coat. The Committee arrested him, but his victim lived, and Terry was not prosecuted. Three years later, while trading public political insults, Terry challenged United States Senator David Broderick, a dedicated anti-slavery leader, to a duel. It took place just outside of San Francisco on September 13, 1859, the day after Terry resigned from California’s high court. Terry killed Broderick with a shot to the chest after Broderick’s pistol misfired as, it is alleged—Terry knew it would. In June 1860, under questionable circumstances, he was acquitted of murder.


With the outbreak of the Civil War, Terry joined the Confederate Army, serving with the 8th Texas Cavalry Regiment. At the end of the war, he moved to a ranch in Mexico, near Mazatlan; but by 1870 he had returned to California, living and practicing law in Stockton. In the late 1880s Terry, now nearly sixty, became embroiled in a protracted and bizarre law suit over the validity of his second wife’s previous marital contract with the late (and very wealthy) Nevada Comstock mogul William Sharon. David and Sarah Althea Hill Terry filed their case with the United States Supreme Court, alleging that William Sharon’s will granted Sarah all of his assets. However, the will (which Sarah said she had found in Sharon’s desk) was declared fraudulent by the federal court, as was the marriage contract itself between her and William Sharon. The presiding judge in the case was Stephen J. Field, a federal circuit judge who had once served with Terry on the California Supreme Court, and who also had once been a close personal friend of the slain Senator Broderick. David and Sarah Terry were both briefly jailed for their explosive courtroom outbursts over the rulings, and both of them—convinced he was the sole cause of their defeat—threatened Judge Field,


Months later, on August 14, 1889, the Terrys and Stephen Field happened to be on the same train headed to San Francisco. Field was traveling with his bodyguard, Deputy U.S. Marshall David Neagle. When the train stopped for breakfast just south of Stockton at Lathrop, David Terry followed Field into the railway restaurant, rushed up to him, and slapped him in the face. Fearing that Terry was about to draw a concealed knife, Neagle shot and killed him. When a search of Terry’s body revealed that he was unarmed, local authorities charged Neagle with murder and Field as his accomplice, but a federal court exonerated both men.


David S. Terry died at age 66 by violence, as he had lived. His widow Sarah, some 30 years his junior, gradually descended into a madness marked by periods when she was violent. In March 1892, at age 33, she was committed to the state mental asylum at Stockton, where she lived until her death from pneumonia 45 years later. Sarah Hill Terry is buried at Stockton Rural Cemetery in the same grave as her husband. David Terry’s first wife Cornelia Runnels, who died in 1884, is buried in the plot next to him.

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© 2019 by Cheryl Anne Stapp. 

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