Tough lawyer Terry met his match.

Dave Neagle was just a little fellow, about 5 feet 7 in his boots and weighing 145 pounds, but he was quick and adept with a Colt six-shooter, the weapon renowned for making all men equal. In 1889 he shot and killed a man who towered over him and outweighed him by 100 pounds. But more important, his victim was a distinguished judge whose name had been emblazoned in newspaper headlines across the country for more than 30 years, and the shooting would lead to a famous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Butler Neagle, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in Boston in 1847. While still a small boy he was taken by his parents to San Francisco, where he grew up. San Francisco was a town built on mining mania, and young Neagle caught the fever early on. At 15 he ran off to join the mining excitement at Florence, Idaho Territory. He returned and spent a short time at Santa Clara College, making him one of the very few college-educated gunfighters of the Old West, but he was soon on the boomtown trail again, working as a miner and prospecting on the side at the burgeoning Nevada mining camps.

At Pioche he engaged in his first recorded gunplay. In a wild shooting bout in May 1871, he shot Jim Levy, a noted gambler and gunman, in the face. His bullet perforated both of Levy’s cheeks and shattered his jaw, but Levy survived.

In 1874 Neagle was an early arrival at Panamint, a new boom camp in California. There he opened a saloon he called the Oriental, which grew from a rude tent to an elaborate frame structure with a black walnut bar, fixtures valued at $10,000, a billiard table and two gambling rooms. To protect his customers from errant bullets flying in the streets of the wild and woolly town, Neagle reinforced the walls of his saloon with sheets of corrugated iron.

Panamint burned bright but did not burn long. When its flame was extinguished, Neagle moved on. He worked a gold claim near Prescott, Arizona Territory, and then joined the rush to Tombstone in 1879. When another Irishman, John Behan, a friend from Prescott, became sheriff of newly created Cochise County, Neagle accepted a deputy’s appointment.

Behan, a Democrat, became embroiled in a political and economic struggle with a Republican faction, represented by the Earp brothers, and blood was spilled on both sides. Although Neagle was considered “Behan’s fighting man” by Wyatt Earp and others, he somehow managed to avoid violence during that Tombstone war.

In January 1882 Neagle was elected city marshal of Tombstone. Four months later, a man named Antonio Figueroa shot and badly wounded Joe Poynton, one of his deputies, and Neagle pursued and killed Figueroa. That fall, however, Neagle ran for Cochise County sheriff and was defeated.

In 1884 he showed up at Anaconda in the booming mining district around Butte, Montana Territory, where he took a woodcutting contract. When a partner absconded with the wages of his employees, Neagle went after him and shot the man down. Cleared at a hearing, Neagle was viewed as something of a hero by his workers.

By 1885 he was back in San Francisco, where U.S. Marshal John C. Franks appointed him a special bodyguard for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a move that put Neagle center stage in a melodrama that would grab the attention of the American public and produce headlines in newspapers across the nation.

The other characters in the play were Stephen J. Field, the Supreme Court justice; David S. Terry, a flamboyant California jurist who 30 years before had killed U.S. Sen. David Broderick in a famous duel; and Sarah Althea Hill, a fiery female who claimed to be the legal wife of millionaire Sen. William Sharon of Nevada.

In a messy and nationally publicized court action, Sarah Althea Hill, represented by David Terry, sued Sharon for divorce and demanded a hefty alimony settlement. Sharon’s lawyers countered with a federal court action claiming a purported Sharon-Hill marriage document was a forgery. After Sharon died with the issue unresolved, Terry married his client and continued the battle against lawyers employed by the Sharon heirs.

Sarah Althea Terry openly threatened her perceived enemies, including the judges hearing the cases. Her lawyer husband, David Terry, an imposing figure at more than 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, was known to have a violent temper and always went armed with a bowie knife.

Neagle was one of several deputy marshals on hand at a hearing into the case in September 1888 when Sarah Althea suddenly arose, screamed obscenities at the judge and fumbled in her handbag for a revolver. As officers dragged her away, her enraged husband knocked Marshal Franks to the floor. Deputy marshals, including Neagle, hustled him out of the room, but he broke free and produced his famous bowie knife, dropping it only when Neagle jammed a pistol in his face. For their violent behavior, the Terrys were jailed; the husband received a sentence of six months and the wife 30 days.

In August 1889 Justice Field was scheduled to hear criminal contempt charges against the Terrys in San Francisco. Marshal Franks, fearful for Field’s safety, assigned Neagle as a bodyguard. At Los Angeles on Tuesday, August 13, the judge and his bodyguard boarded the night train for San Francisco. The Terrys boarded the same train at Fresno.

At a stop at Lathrop on the morning of the 14th, passengers went into the depot dining room for breakfast. Field and Neagle were seated at a table when Terry and his wife entered the room. Seeing them, Terry strode directly to the table, paced back and forth behind Field’s chair for a moment, and then suddenly struck the jurist twice in the head.

Neagle leaped to his feet, revolver in hand, and when Terry moved as if to draw a weapon, fired two shots in quick succession, hitting the big man in the chest and the head, killing him instantly.

Arrested and held in the county jail at Stockton, Neagle was freed on a writ of habeas corpus issued by Field’s colleague, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer. He was later indicted for murder under California statute, but released on $5,000 bail as attorneys for the federal government argued that in performance of his duty as an officer of the United States he was exempt from state law. The landmark case, a classic clash between federal and state authority, eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court and is enshrined in the history of American jurisprudence as “In re Neagle.” The majority opinion, delivered on April 14, 1890, with Justice Field recusing himself, supported the federal government’s position. There were two dissensions.

After his dramatic defense of the life of Justice Field, Neagle found himself in demand as a bodyguard for high officials, including H.E. Huntington of the Southern Pacific and Patrick Calhoun of the United Railroad. Senator William Stewart hired him as a bodyguard during his campaign for reelection in Nevada. Neagle also worked as a special investigator for prominent criminal lawyer Earl Rogers. However, his interest in mining activity never lagged. As late as 1912, when he was 65 years old, he held a job as mine superintendent in California’s Tuolumne County. He was 78 years old when he died in Oakland on November 28, 1925.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here