AMERICA’S “MOST FAMOUS VIGILANTE TRIAL”: FIRST EDITION OF THE LEGENDARY 1856 TRIAL OF CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT JUSTICE DAVID TERRY, SCARCE IN ORIGINAL WRAPPERS
TERRY, David S. Trial of David S. Terry by the Committee of Vigilance, San Francisco. San Francisco: R.C. Moore, 1856. Slim octavo, original tan paper wrappers; pp. 75. Housed in custom chemise and slipcase. $1100.
First edition of the Trial of notorious California Supreme Court Justice David Terry, one of the nation’s most infamous legal battles and a turning point in the life of Terry, whose subsequent role in a duel helped determine California’s position on slavery, thus influencing the onset of the Civil War.
It was the “most famous vigilante trial” in American history, lasting five weeks and ultimately deciding the fate of 33-year-old California Supreme Court Justice, David S. Terry, a man with a fierce temper already legendary for placing his Bowie knife atop his desk during oral arguments (Howes T-106). Interestingly it is in the events leading up to this trial and through his later role in a duel, as well, that Terry’s “rash judgment and violent impulses,” his alliance with pro-slavery forces, and a brash sense of justice “as unquestionable as his courage,” all came to play a role in determining the future of slavery in California, thereby heightening the country’s shift to Civil War. In California during the 1850s, at a time of near anarchy and in a city declared “to be in a state of insurrection” by the governor, Judge Terry was tried for the attempted murder of a key member of San Francisco’s governing Vigilante Committee. The story began when Judge Terry arrived in San Francisco to “aid in organizing resistance to the Vigilantes,” soon meeting with future Civil War General William T. Sherman, who had been put in command of the state’s Second Division of the Militia in an attempt to disperse the Committee (DAB, 380, 379). Faced with an increasingly chaotic city, Sherman later recalled in his Memoirs that Judge Terry refused all attempts to negotiate with the Vigilantes, many of them influential leaders and businessmen, calling them “a set of damned pork merchants.”
With violence prevailing “under the influence of Terry and others,” Sherman sat down and wrote his resignation on the spot, left the city and “never afterward had any thing to do with politics in California.” That same night Judge Terry was caught in a street scuffle with Committee member Sterling A. Hopkins and “in the furious melee that ensued Hopkins wrested a gun from the hands of Judge Terry who reacted by whipping out a bowie knife and plunging it deep into the left side of Hopkins’ neck… Agitated crowds almost instantly thronged the streets and Vigilante troops en masse surrounded the Amory” where Judge Terry and other representatives of the Governor had taken refuge (Wilson, Stanford University). Against considerable odds, the man he knifed survived and Terry was arrested, found guilty of assault, then given a reprieve when the “Committee, in passing judgment, decided that ‘the usual punishments… not being applicable… the interests of the State imperatively demand that David S. Terry should resign his position as Judge of the Supreme Court” (Eberstadt 105:78). The Vigilance Committee itself adjourned in August and Terry soon resumed “his place on the Supreme Court,” becoming Chief Justice in 1857 (DAB, 379). Later, as “an aggressive advocate of California’s admission to the Union as a slave state, he came into conflict with David Broderick, vigorous campaigner for the free soil position that finally prevailed.” When the feud between the men led to an exchange of insults, Terry demanded what became “the most infamous duel in California’s bloody history,” one ending in Broderick’s death and a perceived martyrdom that aided the free-soil effort (Wilson, Stanford University). After a trial and acquittal, Terry fought for the Confederacy during the war and later ended his life as dramatically as he’d lived it, shot while defending the honor of his second wife, a woman previously involved in a scandalous divorce trial with Comstock mining multimillionaire, William Sharon. Cowan, 228. Eberstadt 105:78. Graff 4104. Greenwood 772. Sabin 94889. Streeter 2814.
Light scattered foxing, tiny tape repair to rear wrapper. Near fine in scarce original wrappers.