photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
It was, as Mark Twain dubbed it, a Gilded Age, a time of unimaginable riches and unspeakable excess. The nation’s politics and economics were dominated by the class known as Robber Baron, the oligarchs and monopolists, the railroad, steel, mining, and oil multi-millionaires.
Out of that morass of corruption and greed emerged one William Sharon, who came to be called the King of the Comstock.
In a time before income taxes, it’s impossible to even estimate his worth or his income. He was a slight man with a huge mustache, whose only acknowledged skills were at the poker table, but he came, through means generally thought disreputable, to control the Comstock mines, the Bank of California, two great hotels in San Francisco, and a huge mansion that had belonged to his late (and outwitted) benefactor.
In 1874, Sharon bought the Nevada newspaper that had opposed him for years and then bribed enough of that state’s legislators to have himself elected to the U.S. Senate despite the fact that his home was in San Francisco. He seldom visited Washington and is only remembered here as a real-estate speculator.
After his wife’s death, Sharon developed an interesting and expensive hobby: girls.
At a time when the nation’s annual family income was about $450, Sharon was paying young women $500 a month to live with him. When he offered his standard fee to one very attractive and high-spirited female, she refused him. When he doubled the offer, she turned her back to him.
She demanded marriage, and, well, we cannot be absolutely sure what happened next.
Sarah Althea Hill, who came to be known as the Rose of Sharon, thought she and the wizened little man with the vile reputation were married by a legally binding contract. They lived together publicly and openly as husband and wife in the early 1880s and, when Sharon tired of her and threw her out, Althea sued for divorce.
If he had not been so rich, the case might have simply disappeared. But he was, so it didn’t.
Instead, it went on for years (even after Sharon’s death) and generated salacious front-page stories throughout the nation.
When the California courts granted Althea a divorce and $2,500 a month as alimony, she became famous. She also was potentially a very rich woman, since California was a community-property state where she could claim half her former husband's huge estate. Appeal followed appeal.
One of Sharon’s lawyers was his son-in-law, Francis Newlands—the eventual founder of Chevy Chase, Maryland—a silver lobbyist who later became a congressman and senator from Nevada. He also inherited control of much of the Comstock fortune.
Attorney Newlands moved Sharon’s affairs to Nevada and thereby transferred the case from the state courts, where he had lost repeatedly, into federal jurisdiction. The arguments ultimately reached the Supreme Court of the United States and the bench of Justice Samuel Field, who was riding the California circuit while the court was not in session.
When Justice Field ruled that Althea’s marriage contract was a forgery, she jumped to her feet and screamed, “How much did Newlands pay you?”
It should have ended there with that tussle in the courtroom, but it didn’t, and this story lacks a happy ending.
When Althea and her new husband (and lawyer) David Terry squabbled with Justice Field on a train, the judge’s bodyguard shot her husband dead. Althea then suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a state mental institution, where she spent the rest of her life, some 45 years.