“Love without passion is dreary; passion without love is horrific.”
I should begin by reminding you of one of the lesser known legends of Psyche, which describes her as persecuted by Venus because the girl was so beautiful. I say lesser known legend because, really, few people who survive high school would feel any empathy for a cut-throat cold-blooded narcisitic "pretty girl" like Psyche. Which brings me to the perfect living example of the lady, a walking earthquake of passion and self-centered delusion named Sarah Althea Hill - she didn't much like her first name and was known to friends and enemies as Althea. To describe her as normal, even for San Francisco, would be an insult to the abnormal. In the summer of 1880 she was a “rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed beauty of the Golden West,” in her late twenties, and as looney as a bat in radar factory. And yet she was about to come within a hair's breath of controling one of the biggest fortunes in America, and was about to entertain, frighten and divert an entire nation for a decade. There had been men in Althea's life before our story beings, in particular a lawyer – Althea had a soft spot for lawyers - but he had recently abandoned her. It is also alleged that she had recently attempted suicide, but whether out of desperation or calculation I cannot say. To the point, she was thus unencumbered when she met by happenstance or connivance the sixty year old United States Senator William Sharon.
He (above) was a dirty old man, one of the richest dirty old men in California, and his taxes alone made up 2% of the entire budget of the city of San Francisco. William Sharon was also a widower with three grown children. He was also a Senator representing Nevada. Yet Sharon lived in San Francisco's Palace Hotel (which he owned), and only traveled to Nevada ocassionally. and it is also important to note that what drew the Senator and Althea together was clearly not love. It was passion. He had a passion for young women. She had a passion for his money. At his suggestion they signed a pair of contracts. Or so she said.
“Passion…is violence to which you get hooked by pleasure.”
“In the city and county of San Francisco…on the twenty-fifth day of August, A.D.1880, I, Sarah Althea Hill….do here, in the presence of Almighty God, take Senator William Sharon, of the state of Nevada, to be my lawful and wedded husband…I agree not to make known the contents of this paper or its existence for two years…” And “…I, Senator William Sharon, of the state of Nevada…take Sarah Althea Hill…. to be my lawful and wedded wife…” Of course, no ceremony took place, and no license was ever issued. However money did change hands. And in capitalistic nations that fits the definition of a contract. It was, in effect, a pre-nup without the nup.
The Senator wrote a note to Mr. Thorn, the manager of the neighboring Grand Hotel; “Miss Hill (is) a particular friend of mine, and a lady of unblemished character and of good family. Give her the best, and as cheap as you can.” It seems the Senator had agreed to provide Althea with rooms at the Grand, which was connected via a convenient second story bridge across the street with Sharon’s more opulent Palace Hotel (above). He also agreed to provide a monthly payment of $500 to her as well, from which she furnished the rooms. In other words, if it was a real marriage, it was a marriage of convenience. And it was convenient for the Senator for just about a year.
As late as October 3, 1881, Senator Sharon was still referring in his notes to Althea as “My Dear Wife”. However, shortly thereafter Senator Sharon offered her $7,500 in cash if she would sign a paper using the name “Miss Hill”. In early December she did so and the next day Mr. Thorn was informed by the Senator that the lady would be checking out.
What followed were desperate letters from Althea. “"My Dear Mr. Sharon… I cannot see how you can have any one treat me so—I, who have always been so good and kind to you—the carpet is all taken up in my hall —the door (the front door to her rooms) is taken off and away…Ah, Senator, dear Senator, do not treat me so —whilst every one else is so happy for Christmas, don't try to make mine miserable… Now, Mr. Sharon, you are wronging me; so help me God, you are wronging me…”
“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”
By the end of December, Althea was gone from the Grand and the Senator had moved on to other young women, although he occasionally still spent “time” with her. But Althea was not finished with Senator Sharon either. She engaged the services of a big (6') blustery, bowie knife-wielding lawyer, a hot headed ex-justice of the California Supreme Court named David Terry (below). Like Sharon, this would be cupid was sixty when he met Althea, but unlike Sharon, Terry was just as prone to passionate outbursts as the lady. And in September of 1883, under his guidance, Althea had a public outburst, in the local press, and then had the Senator arrested for adultery. Sharon sued, charging Althea with attempted blackmail, and alleging that the marriage contract was a fraud. Althea counter sued the Senator in state court for divorce, and asked for alimony.
The divorce trial entertained the citizens of San Francisco over the summer of 1884, with salacious details of how “the other half” lived, including tales of Althea watching Sharon in bed another woman. In September Judge Jeremiah Sullivan ruled that what Althea and Senator Sharon shared was a common law marriage, and awarded Althea alimony of $2,500 a month. Althea simply purred at the decision. “I feel just like a young kitten that has been brought into the house and set before the fire.” And then on November 13, 1885, Senator Sharon appealed to a higher court; he died. And not very long after his death, Althea miraculously found a new will, in which the late Senator left every thing to her, and nothing to his three children.
“We all need to look into the dark side of our nature – that’s where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we’re busy denying.”