Sarah Althea Hill

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Sarah Althea Hill

Sarah Althea Hill (March 26, 1850 – February 14, 1937) was a socialite in San Francisco in the 1880s. She became a national celebrity when she sued millionaire Senator William Sharon for divorce in 1883, claiming to have secretly married him three years earlier by private contract. The case set legal precedent and spawned numerous spinoff cases that dragged on for nearly a decade.

Early years[edit]

Hill was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the daughter of attorney Samuel H. Hill and Julia Sloan. Her older brother was Hiram Morgan Hill, for whom the California town of Morgan Hill is named. Both of their parents died while they were minors, leaving them to be cared for by relatives. When they came of age, they received $20,000 each as their inheritance from their parents.[1]

In 1871, at the age of 21 Hill came to San Francisco with her brother in order to live with their relatives, William and Ada Bryan.

San Francisco socialite[edit]

In the fall of 1880, at the age of 30, Hill met millionaire Senator William Sharon, the president of the Bank of California and the owner of the Palace Hotel. At the time, he was 60, a widower, and one of the richest men in the country. They became romantically involved and he paid her $500 a month, an allowance that enabled her to live at the Grand Hotel next door to the Palace Hotel. The details of their arrangement later became the crux of a long and bitter legal fight. Sharon claimed he had hired Hill merely as his mistress. Hill claimed that he had asked her to marry him, had signed a contract of marriage, and had sworn her to secrecy for two years. His reasons, she testified, were that he was up for re-election and could not afford the scandal that would result when his mistress back east heard about the marriage.[2]

Sharon vs. Sharon[edit]

In the fall of 1883, Hill had Sharon arrested for adultery, claiming they had been married for three years. The charge was dismissed. She then sued him for divorce, alimony, and division of community property. This time, she produced the marriage contract, showing that he had married her on August 20, 1880.

He denied it and said that the document was a forgery. Years of cases and appeals followed, costing both sides tens of thousands of dollars. Hill's expenses were primarily bankrolled by her friend, Mary Ellen Pleasant, an elderly black entrepreneur.[1] The lawsuit propelled Hill into the national spotlight and earned her the nickname, The Rose of Sharon.

Hill won the first case in December 1884. Judge Jeremiah F. Sullivan declared her the legal wife of William Sharon and awarded her alimony and the right to half of his accumulated wealth since the date of their marriage.[3] Because of continuing counter-suits and appeals, Hill never received any of Sharon's money.

William Sharon died in November 1885. His heirs, son Frederick, and son-in-law Frank Newlands, continued to fight for him.

Marriage and widowhood[edit]

On January 7, 1886, Hill married one of her lawyers, former California Supreme Court Justice David Smith Terry. Terry was well known for killing Senator David C. Broderick in a duel in 1859. Hill and Terry were married at St. Mary’s Church in Stockton, California, Terry’s home town.[4]

Together, they continued the legal fight to prove that William Sharon had married Hill in 1880 and was entitled to compensation. Courtroom scenes of temper, even violence, occurred with some regularity. Hill was sentenced to jail twice for contempt of court. The latter incident occurred on September 3, 1888, when Hill initiated a series of events in the courtroom by standing up and accusing Justice Stephen Johnson Field of being bought off by the Sharon side.

When Field ordered a marshal to remove her from the court, Terry objected, and a fight ensued between Mr. and Mrs. Terry and several US marshals who were on hand. Terry brandished his bowie knife and the marshals their handguns, but no one was hurt in the fracas. Both Terrys were subdued and placed under arrest. David Terry was sentenced to six months in jail, and Sarah Terry got one month.[5]

This and other incidents related to the Sharon case created extremely bitter feelings between the Terrys and several judges but most particularly Justice Field. The following year, amid threats by both Terrys, Field arrived in California for the summer with a bodyguard, Deputy Marshal David Neagle. On August 14, 1889, the Terrys boarded a train headed for San Francisco. Field and Neagle were already on board. When the train stopped in Lathrop, both parties got off to have breakfast in the station restaurant. When Terry became aware that Field was there, he walked up to him and slapped him on the face. Neagle, who was sitting at the table with Field, drew his gun and shot twice. One of the bullets pierced Terry’s heart. He fell dead.[6]

Insanity and institutionalization[edit]

After her husband's death, Sarah Terry became obsessed with spiritualism, hiring medium after medium to put her in touch with David Terry. Eventually, since she had no money to hire lawyers, the Sharon case gradually came to an end as the final cases were either dismissed or quickly decided against her. By February, 1892, newspapers were reporting that Mrs. Terry was insane. She wandered aimlessly in the streets of San Francisco, ignoring her appearance. She constantly talked to "spirits," especially that of her husband, and could not sleep. She had periods of violence and believed that she was being tormented by electricity and hypnotism.[7]

Abandoned by her relatives since the beginning of the Sharon case, Terry’s fate was left to the only friends she had left, R. Porter Ashe and Mary Ellen Pleasant. It was Pleasant who initiated action to have Terry committed to an insane asylum.[8] After a brief examination by the Insanity Commission, Sarah Terry was committed to the California Asylum at Stockton (later known as the Stockton State Hospital) on March 11, 1892.[9]

Diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” an early term for schizophrenia, she was extremely violent and had to be restrained for years in the asylum. Despite being termed "our best known patient" by Dr. Asa Clark,[10] the hospital superintendent, Terry received almost no visitors over the years other than a few authors researching her case. She was not treated except with sedatives and eventually adapted to her life in the institution but was deluded into thinking that she was a rich and grand lady, the hospital was her mansion, and the staff her servants.[11]

She remained incarcerated for forty-five years, from the age of 42 to 86. When she died of pneumonia, Cornelia Terry, the granddaughter of David Terry, stepped forward to offer her a proper burial, saving Sarah Terry from being buried on the hospital grounds.[12] Sarah Althea Hill Terry is buried in the Terry family plot in the Stockton Rural Cemetery.


  1. ^ a b Robin C. Johnson, Enchantress, Sorceress, Madwoman: The True Story of Sarah Althea Hill, Adventuress of Old San Francisco (California Venture Books, 2014). ISBN 978-0692326831.
  2. ^ “Sharon’s Dirty Duds,” San Francisco Chronicle, 19 March 1884, p. 4.
  3. ^ “The Sharon Case,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 December 1884, p. 3.
  4. ^ “Mrs. Terry,” Daily Alta California, 8 January 1886, p. 1.
  5. ^ “Terry’s Petition,” Daily Alta California, 18 September 1888, p 1.
  6. ^ Alexander E. Wagstaff, Life of David S. Terry (San Francisco: Continental Publishing Company, 1892
  7. ^ “Hopelessly Unbalanced,” San Francisco Call, 14 February 1892, p. 8.
  8. ^ Robin C. Johnson, Enchantress, Sorceress, Madwoman: The True Story of Sarah Althea Hill, Adventuress of Old San Francisco (California Venture Books, 2014). ISBN 978-0692326831.
  9. ^ “Declared Insane,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 March 1892, p. 12.
  10. ^ “Great Minds That Failed,” Fresno Morning Republican, July 25, 1894, p. 3
  11. ^ “ʻRose of Sharon’” Who Died in West Thought Native of Girardeau,” Southeast Missourian, Feb. 20, 1937, p. 3.
  12. ^ “Pauper’s Grave Escaped by Sarah Althea Terry,” Oakland Tribune, 16 February 1937, p. 2.

Other sources[edit]

  • Holdredge, Helen (1953). Mammy Pleasant. New York City: G. P. Putnam and Sons. ISBN ASIN: B0006ATHHQ.
  • W. H. L. Barnes, Argument for the Defendant, Sarah Althea Sharon vs. William Sharon (San Francisco: Barry, Baird & Co., 1884).
  • Oscar T. Shuck, ed., History of the bench and bar of California (Los Angeles: The Commercial Printing House, 1901).
  • John D. Lawson, ed., American State Trials, Volume XV (St. Louis: Thomas Law Book Co., 1926).