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The Wild West: Justice Field, Sex and Scandal, A Foiled Assassination and Murder

April 3, 2024

Historically, U.S. Supreme Court Justices have avoided drama. A bookish group, given to tranquility and docility, the Justices mark their time in the quiet of elegant court chambers, deciding cases and writing opinions. There is, however, an exception to this institutional serenity—the Terry Affair—one that captured the attention of the country and the citizenry’s lurid interest in sex, scandal, and murder.

In the summer of 1889, Justice Stephen Field, an iconic 19th Century conservative jurist, who sat on Supreme Court for 34 years and had a knack for arousing hostility and alienating colleagues, found himself at the center of the most wild, violent, and dramatic moment in the Court’s history. Field, who had moved West from Connecticut in 1849 as part of the California Gold Rush, was known for brandishing a bowie knife and pistol and wading into controversies. While in California, he practiced law and distinguished himself at the Bar and in state politics. In 1857, he was elected to the California Supreme Court and served for six years. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Field to the Supreme Court.

The Terry Affair emerged from the context of a judicial opinion and the anger that it inspired. Field had sat on the California bench with David S. Terry. Terry had married a woman, Sarah Hill. When a lawsuit involving a contested previous marriage of Mrs. Terry came before Field, who was sitting on the Ninth Circuit, he rendered an opinion that invalidated the former marriage and provided an extended history of her less than spectacular past. With this pronouncement, Mrs. Terry leaped from her seat and accused Field of being bribed to rule against her. Field ordered her removed from the courtroom. Mr. Terry, Field’s former colleague on the California court, proceeded to knock down a marshal and pulled a knife. The Terrys, who had made threats against Field’s life, were sentenced to jail for contempt of court.

In August of 1889, shortly before the Terrys were to be released from jail, Justice Field was returning to California to sit on the Ninth Circuit. Field was advised to defer the trip, but he declared he would not be deterred by a “ruffian” who “made threats to his body.” The U.S. Attorney General arranged for Justice Field’s security by appointing David Neagle to be his bodyguard. Field, accompanied by Neagle, was traveling by train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. As it happened, the Terrys were on the same train. While eating breakfast, Field and Neagle and Mr. and Mrs. Terry saw one another. Field sat at a table between the Terry’s table and the door. An encounter seemed inevitable. Upon seeing Justice Field, Mrs. Terry walked past the Field Table and left the dining car. Within a few minutes, Mr. Terry walked to Field’s table and struck the Justice in the face, twice. Neagle, believing Terry was drawing a knife, jumped from his seat, yelled, “Stop, stop,” and shot Terry two times, killing him. Mrs. Terry returned to the dining car while carrying a satchel with a gun and found her husband dead.

Mrs. Terry filed a complaint, charging Field and Neagle with the murder of her husband. Justice Field was arrested but released shortly after the U.S. Attorney General had put pressure on local authorities.  This sensational story captured newspaper headlines and captivated the nation. A Supreme Court Justice had never been arrested and, for that matter, had never been involved in scandal, let alone embroiled in a murder case. And, it should be noted, no Justice, as far as we know, has ever been targeted for assassination. Neagle was charged by the State of California with murder, but he was protected from state prosecution on grounds of justifiable homicide after the case reached the Supreme Court on a Writ of Habeas Corpus.

Justice Field, known by friends and colleagues for his stubbornness, self-righteousness, and vindictiveness, refused to let the incident lie. A year later, a California journalist who had written a somewhat generous account of Terry’s life, was nominated by President Benjamin Harrison to serve as Register of the U.S. Land Office in San Francisco. When Field learned of this nomination, he exercised his influence to force its withdrawal. One of Field’s contemporaries observed, “when Field hates, he hates for keeps.”

-David Adler