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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


With the influx of all nationalities into the Golden State affaires de coeur were liable at times to become desperate in their intensity. The affections, passions, and healthy blood of impetuous lovers were allowed to run riot, which resulted in many a brutal tragedy and in many a duel. Ardent swains were willing to sacrifice body and soul to gain the day or quench the mysterious flame. To comprehend their actions, one must go back in mind to the days when women did not take an active part in business, professional and public life, as they do in this twentieth century.

In the early days, women were very scarce in the California mining camps, and men treated them usually with all the deference of Southern chivalry. The wine-cup and the guitar were the centers of romance, and the jealous love of a passionate man often got the better of him. Affairs of the sword and revolver were almost every-day occurrences, and the incentive to use these weapons might be gold, politics, or a woman.

The first serious duel witnessed by Captain Howard in California was fought between Charlie Blair and Colonel Ferguson. Blair was a good-looking Southerner, who filled the position of County Clerk in Mariposa. Both young men were fond of a certain Spanish maid who lived at the Stanislaus crossing, and one day at Stockton, Colonel Ferguson, perhaps with the intention of provoking a quarrel, made a slighting remark about the beautiful girl at the Stanislaus. Blair showed his resentment by calling Ferguson a cad. Heated words followed, and the Colonel challenged Blair to a duel. They soon obtained their seconds, who, decided that the disagreement should be settled with pistols. Colonel Ferguson was killed at the first shot. A few days later, Charlie Blair married the beautiful señorita, and in due time they raised a large family, some of whom gained fame in the world of great singers.

*   *   *

Then there was the Cora-Richardson duel. Mr. Cora was a polite little man with jet-black eyes and very dark mustache, who made a good living at genteel gambling. He was always dressed in a gorgeous silk waistcoat, check suit and light gloves, as he paraded the streets of San Francisco with an air of well-bred indifference. He lived with a pretty woman named Arabella Ryan, and she was the queen of San Francisco’s night life. The society women asserted that Cora and Arabella were not legally married, because a priest had not performed the ceremony; nevertheless, they were devoted to each other, and according to early California law, if a man lived with a woman for a certain length of time he was legally married to her.

One evening Arabella and Mr. Cora attended the local theater, where they ran into Mr. Richardson, a United States Marshal, who had been a former lover of the “Night-life Queen.” The next day he met Cora in a saloon and said to him, “If you are going to live with Arabella, why don’t you marry her?”

This led to an altercation; Mr. Cora drew a pistol from his pocket, and before any one could interfere, had shot Marshal Richardson dead.

The murder caused a great sensation, for Arabella, known as “Belle Cora,” retained lawyers eminent for their brains and legal ability, including the distinguished Colonel Baker, in her efforts to save her husband. A long and extremely exciting trial followed, for Colonel Baker in his speech held up Arabella as an example of a model woman, extolling her great devotion for her lover. After being out twenty-four hours, the jury failed to agree.

David Terry

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Chief Justice of California, Howard’s lifelong friend, and victor in the duel with Senator Broderick.

David C. Broderick

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United States Senator from California, who was killed in the famous duel with Judge David Terry.

About this time James King of Wm was killed, and the Vigilance Committee, an organization with tremendous power, decided to take up the case and hanged Mr. Cora with the murderer of this outspoken editor. (See Chapter XXI.)

When Mr. Cora was in jail, the society women went to Arabella and asked her to leave the State; but she would not think of it, as she considered herself as good as they were. Just before Cora was led to the scaffold, the services of a priest were secured, however, and they were married according to the law of the church.

*   *   *

There were many fights and duels in the streets of Stockton, and Captain Howard vividly recalled the time when Marshall and Perley met in a saloon, and owing to a slight political disagreement, Marshall challenged Perley.

The seconds were soon elected, and Perley chose Judge David Terry. At the word “Go,” they fired three times, but no one was hit. Then Terry shook Perley by the shoulder and said, “Take aim, he can’t hit you.”

The fourth shot went through Marshall’s hat, so he took it off, looked at it carefully, and said, “Look here, this shot got stuck in my hat; that fool will hit me the first thing you know.”

Perley then suggested that they all have a drink on Marshall and call the fight off.

*   *   *

The last noted duel in California took place in 1859 between United States Senator Broderick and Ex-Chief Justice David Terry of the State Supreme Court. These two prominent men belonged to different factions of the Democratic party, each struggling for control in the Golden State. Various accounts of this duel have been presented to the public, and the following one by Captain Howard differs in certain details from those of other writers; but he felt certain of its correctness. Howard and Terry had gone to school together, and later had studied law under the same tutor; therefore he believed he was in a position to clear up certain misconceptions with regard to this so-called cold-blooded murder.

David Terry came from the South and was a pro-slavery man, whereas Broderick was against slavery. One day in a political speech, Terry said: “There are some men that will stick to a party like barnacles to a sinking ship. I do not know which Douglas our friend Broderick will support—Stephen A. Douglas or Fred Douglass” (a colored man). Such remarks travel rapidly, and when Broderick’s supporters heard of Terry’s statement they felt highly insulted.

A few days later Broderick was sitting in the International Hotel, San Francisco, when a young man named Perky said, “What did you think of Terry’s speech?”

Senator Broderick replied, “I always considered Terry the noblest man on earth, but now I will have to change my mind, for I see that he has been abusing me. I now take back the remark I once made that he is the most honorable Judge in the Supreme Court. I was his friend when he was in need of a friend -when he put his knife into Hopkins. Had ad I not used my influence, but let the Vigilance Committee dispose of him as they did others, it would have been a righteous act.”

This reply led to a heated dispute with Perley on the spot, and resulted in Senator Broderick slapping Perley’s face. Without hesitation the latter challenged him, but Broderick did not consider Perley his equal, so he said, “If Terry is willing to take up the challenge, I am.”

Judge Terry received the news, and after several acrimonious letters had passed between the two, he challenged Broderick. The first meeting, which was arranged for the 12th of September, was stopped by the Chief of Police in San Francisco, but the Police Magistrate, before whom the would-be duelists were arraigned, discharged them on the ground that there had been no active misdemeanor.

On the 13th of September the principals and seconds met amidst a large crowd of spectators, in a field twelve miles from San Francisco. Broderick had the choice of weapons, but he waived it, which his seconds should not have allowed. This gave Terry the advantage, and he chose weapons belonging to Dr. Arlett, of Stockton. The distance was the usual ten paces, and at the word “Go” both raised their weapons. Broderick’s fingers were much larger than Terry’s, and there is no doubt that between this disadvantage and nervousness, the pistol went off before it was properly elevated, and the bullet struck the ground six feet in front of Terry.

David Terry’s aim was true, and a bullet pierced the lung of his antagonist. As Broderick fell to the ground, Terry said, “The wound is not mortal, for the bullet has struck two inches to the right.”

Then a bystander shouted, “That is murder, by God! I am Broderick’s friend, and I am not going to see him killed in that way.” This man, named Davis, drew out his revolver and started for Terry, but some cool heads restrained him, pointing out that such an attack would only result in a general mêlée, from which few on the ground would escape.

Senator Broderick lingered for three days, then died. Terry was accused and tried for murder, but managed to escape conviction, and did not receive any punishment except that inflicted by his own conscience.

A few days later Terry and Howard were in conversation when a near-sighted man challenged Terry, but not being a duelist at heart, Terry said, “For God’s sake, withdraw the challenge; I have enough blood on my hands now.” Then, carrying on the conversation, he continued, “Do you know, Howard, I never intended to kill Broderick, but meant just to wound him slightly.”

*   *   *

In Captain Howard’s estimation, one of the darkest blots on California’s history is the semi-legalized murder of this clever hot headed Southern gentleman, Judge Terry, in a later mixup.

Judge Stephen Johnston Field of the United States Supreme Court, in the performance of his judicial duties, once had occasion to reprimand David Terry in the court-room. Terry was defending a rich woman named Alethea Hill, who was trying to claim W. Sharon as her husband through a contract made with him in California. It happened that the prosecuting attorney called him Dave, to which familiarity he strongly objected, and said, “My name is Terry.” The offense was repeated by the prosecuting attorney, and the act made Terry so angry that he threw a book at him. Then Judge Field fined him for contempt of court, and he was sentenced to one night in jail. His humiliaton was so great that on leaving the court-room, Terry remarked, “I’ll slap Judge Field’s face at the first opportunity.”

On August 15, 1889, Judge Stephen Field and United States Marshal Neagle, his bodyguard, entered the Southern Pacific dining room at Lathrop, a railway junction near San Francisco. Judge and Mrs. Terry (Alethea Hill) by chance came into Lathrop on a later train, and on entering the dining-room Mrs. Terry observed the Judge. Touching her husband on the arm, she said, “There is Judge Field.”

Terry immediately walked over to the table where Field and his body-guard were sitting. The two men arose to greet Terry, who attempted to slap Judge Field’s face, whereupon Neagle shot him dead. Several old-timers in Stockton vividly recall Mrs. Terry as she came into town on the wagon which carried her husband’s dead body.

This tragedy caused a very bitter feeling amongst Judge Terry’s old friends and acquaintances in Merced and Mariposa Counties, where he was highly esteemed; for in spite of. his impulsiveness, he was warm-hearted and generous to a fault, with a great capacity for self-sacrifice in his devotion to a friend. Being a man of unquestioned nerve and reckless bravery, Terry also had many enemies, of course, especially after his duel with Senator Broderick; but it was noticed that to avoid any mistakes, they kept discreetly silent until the news of his death was confirmed.

*   *   *

One of Terry’s true admirers was a man living in Mariposa, known as Uncle John. The Judge had befriended him in a legal capacity, and the more the old man thought the affair over, the more he felt that it was up to him to avenge the untimely death of his benefactor. The day before Neagle’s preliminary trial, Uncle John mounted his horse and rode in the direction of Merced, keeping silent as to his real destination. He arrived at Merced late in the evening, and after disposing of his horse, went to the home of Bill Ashe, a close friend, to whom he said: “Bill, let me have twenty dollars. I left home in a hurry and forgot to bring my money with me.”

“Certainly, Uncle John,” replied Ashe; “hut where are you going in such a rush?”

Then, observing that his friend seemed to be laboring under great excitement, Ashe repeated the question.

“I’m going to Stockton to attend Neagle’s preliminary trial,” replied the old man at last, “and must catch the evening train so as to be there in time for the opening of court in the morning; so just fork over that twenty.”

At that moment Mr. Ashe caught sight of the butt of a large revolver peeping out from under Uncle John’s coat, and realizing that trouble was brewing, invited him to look over the ranch.

Uncle John did not appear willing to accept the invitation, and said emphatically, “I must catch the evening train for Stockton.”

“The train can be flagged at a siding near my ranch, Uncle John,” his friend assured him, adding: “I am going to make you a present of a very fine heifer.”

On reaching the ranch, Mr. Ashe made it a point to get him so deeply engrossed in farming matters that the necessity of flagging the train was completely forgotten.

Suddenly the two men were startled by the whistle of the approaching Stockton express, which, by the time they reached the siding, was disappearing in the distance. Uncle John was furious; turning to Ashe, he shouted, “Damn you, Bill, I’ve a notion to kill you for causing me to miss the train. It was my intention to go into the court-room when the trial of that murderer Neagle was proceeding, and kill old man Field, then riddle the cowardly villain Neagle; and here you have spoiled the whole thing.”

Eventually, Mr. Ashe appeased Uncle John’s anger; and said to him, “Why, I consider it most fortunate that things have turned out this way.”

The next day the would-be avenger returned to Mariposa with a fat heifer and without having accomplished his deadly purpose. Readers will realize that, had it not been for the quick wit and discernment of Bill Ashe, another bloody page of California history would have been written.

In the early days of the Golden State the most prominent men fought duels, and Howard often referred to the fact that a great sense of humor was necessary to avoid the numerous deadly encounters that came into one’s path; for duelling was considered the most honorable way of settling differences.

*   *   *

During the last years of his life, altho he hung up his spurs and saddle, Captain Howard, like the Argonauts of old, relived in memory the stirring episodes of his younger days, and loved nothing better than to discuss with interested listeners how he used to run horse-races with U. S. Grant, listen to Sam Houston’s oratory, take hot-headed Judge Terry by the shoulder and remonstrate with him in his heated moments, or outwit the bandits that were on his heels many a dark night.

Not only had he been a participant in the Mexican War, but he had also witnessed the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the World War. In addition, he had watched with keen interest the coming of the “Machine Age”; had seen the steam-engine find its way over trails traversed only by the cayuse and the stage-coach; had witnessed the coming of luxurious travel on the high seas, and had realized the meaning of the harnessing of brooks and rivers to meet our unceasing demand for electricity. Throughout these eventful years he had maintained a lively interest in the progress of the world’s affairs, a pageant that embraced the development of the telephone, motion-picture, airplane and radio, in striking contrast to the days when news had been carried by word of mouth, through a lone rider meeting another in the great open spaces.

On his ninety-seventh birthday, as he sat in the spacious living room of his Portland home, I saw the aged Captain’s eyes wander in the direction of the radio, and as the strains of a soft, dreamy Spanish melody filled the air, he arose from his old arm-chair and danced a few steps typical of the days of the old Spanish Fandango. Then, turning to me, he said: “Ah! Those were the good old days.”

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management