The Sacramento Bee had nothing but warm and sincere accolades for Amos P. Catlin as Catlin was running for Sacramento Superior Court Judge in 1890. Before Judge Catlin’s term had expired, the Sacramento Bee was calling him a tyrant and a czar. The abrupt departure from supporting the California Pioneer, revered in Sacramento for his judicial acumen, was the result of Judge Catlin determining the Sacramento Bee was guilty of libel and C. K. McClatchy for contempt of court.
It is whispered that friends of A. P. Catlin are urging his name as the proper one to go before the people on the Republican ticket…No better selection could be made. With Van Fleet and Catlin our Superior Court would rank with the very highest on the coast, if indeed, its equal in both ability and high integrity could be found anywhere. The reputation of Judge Catlin stands unchallenged. He is learned in the law, and in every other respect is the very man of all others for the position. The people, regardless of politics, ought to unite upon Catlin as the fittest man whose name has so far been suggested.Sacramento Bee, June 14, 1890
Amos P. Catlin would go on to be nominated for Sacramento Superior Court Judge from the Republican Party, the Sacramento Citizens Independent Party, and the Democratic Party. Catlin had achieved a political consensus that few men can boast of. Catlin was not a novice in politics, he had been elected to the California Senate in 1853, where he introduced legislation to move the State’s Capitol to Sacramento. He was elected to the California Assembly in 1856.
In 1875 he ran for Sixth Judicial Court Judge but lost to J. H. McKune. The Republican Party nominated Catlin for Associate Justice for the California Supreme Court in 1879, a campaign he also lost. What Catlin had really lost was his youthful exuberance for political campaigning. Catlin came to California in 1849 and practiced law in Sacramento and managed a mining company at Mormon Island. But his heart and interest really lay with the law.
Catlin would gain notoriety on the legal stage for his successful arguments before the U. S. Supreme Court over the original map of the Leidesdorff land grant on behalf of the Folsom estate in 1863. While he continued to attend political events, often tagged to be a speaker, he was not a political animal. All indications were that he had a strong antipathy for political insults and gratuitous whisky purchases for men to win an election.
Another aversion that many men had for running for a judicial office was the low salary. Catlin had witnessed several men leave the bench to go back into private practice where the earnings were far more lucrative. However, at the age of 67, Catlin had already had a long and prosperous law practice in Sacramento. His children were grown, so taking a substantial cut in pay was not a significant burden to him. The added benefit of being a judge was total immersion into the theory and practice of law, which Catlin loved.
Without having to really campaign, Catlin easily won the seat of Sacramento Superior Court Judge in 1890. After taking his seat on the bench, Catlin got down to work. The Sacramento Daily Union started referring to Catlin as a buzz-saw, cutting quickly through the arguments of impertinent lawyers and defendants. One class of legal actions that taxed Judge Catlin’s time and patience were the burgeoning number of libel cases. The Sacramento Bee seemed to be attracting more than its share of libel actions.
Sacramento Bee Libel Against C. H. Gilman
Libel is simply false statements that are published and damaging to a person’s reputation. Libel, however, is anything but straightforward. The laws governing libel could frequently change in California. Not only must a judge apply the most recent iteration of the libel law, the actual content and intention of the publisher had to be considered.
Libel cases could be very time consuming. As a man who like to thoroughly research every decision, libel cases required an extra amount of work if, as a judge, Catlin was making the decision. Consequently, he much preferred to have a trial by jury and let men of Sacramento decide if the printed statements were libelous and how injurious the printed words of the newspaper were to the complainant. Unfortunately, understanding the complicated nature of libel cases, attorney’s bringing a libel suit preferred Catlin to make the decision.
By February of 1894, Catlin was exasperated with all the libel cases. While setting his trial calendar, with all of the lawyers present, Catlin started assigning libel suits for trial juries. The Sacramento Daily Union reported he had enough of what seemed to be frivolous lawsuits brought by people who were merely annoyed at the facts printed in newspapers about their behavior.
Nearly all the lawyers in the city were in Judge Catlin’s court yesterday while he was setting his trial calendar, and as he called off the title of each case the attorneys retained therein would announce whether or not it was a court or a jury case. He had called and checked off a large number, when he announced:
Royster vs. V. S. and C. K. McClatchy —for libel.
Before any of the lawyers in the case could get in a word the Judge added, “Jury.” The members of the bar and others saw the point of the joke even before the smile on the face of the Judge had become apparent. “Your Honor, please,” broke in one of the attorneys in the case, “we are perfectly willing to let that case be tried by….That case goes before a jury.” said the court, and the attorney did not finish his remark.
Along near the end of the calendar the court struck another snag: “People vs. McClatchy—two cases. Let these go over for the term; I’ve had enough.”, Catlin intoned.Sacramento Daily Union, February 3, 1894
Sacramento Bee Reported Gilman’s Attempted Rape
There was one case Catlin could not toss to a jury, libel on the part of the Sacramento Bee in the attempted rape case of Charles Gillman. It was clear from pre-trial hearings that the lawyers for the Sacramento Bee were going to revisit the entire set of assault and rape allegations with numerous witnesses in defense of the newspaper. It was entirely plausible that a jury would be confused as to whether they were to determine the guilt of Gillman or that he was libeled by the Sacramento Bee. In addition, testimony about Gillman’s behavior would most likely prejudice the jury against him. Judge Catlin would have to decide the case.
Stella Truitt had found work as a housekeeper for the Charles. H. Gilman family in August of 1892. The Gilman’s lived on G Street near 19th and C. H. Gilman was the owner of the long-established dry goods store, Red House, on J Street. Shortly after Truitt was employed by the Gilman’s, where she had a room in the house, Mrs. Gilman left for a vacation. After his wife had left, C. H. Gilman, as reported in the Sacramento Bee, assaulted Truitt on two separate occasions. As he was naked at the time of the assaults, it was surmised that he wanted to rape her.
After the first assault, because Truitt was desperate for work, she stayed working at the house, rationalizing that it was Gilman’s drunken state that led to the assault. The second incident was more violent. Truitt succeeded in pushing Gilman off of her, but Gilman hit her and dislocated her jaw. Truitt decided to leave the residence and the employment. She then swore out a complaint of assault and rape with the Sacramento Police.
Gilman was subsequently arrested and posted his bond for his release. Gilman declared that Truitt was released from his employment for neglect of her duties as a house servant. He further stated that Truitt’s complaint was an attempt to blackmail him for money. When the criminal matter finally wound its way up to Superior Court in late September, Judge Van Fleet dismissed the accusations as fanciful and improbable. Judge Van Fleet further stated that Gilman never should have been held to answer to the charges with so little evidence.
In early October, Charles Gilman filed a libel lawsuit against the publishers of the Sacramento Bee. Gilman did not sue the Sacramento Union for libel. The Union story was shorter, gave fewer lurid details, and cast doubt on Truitt’s story. The Union’s first sentence, “A woman named Mrs. Stella Truitt, who says she is a widow, has caused the arrest of C. H. Gilman on a charge of criminal assault.” This contrasts to the Sacramento Bee’s opening paragraph, “Mrs. Stella Truitt, a widow of twenty-one years, whose husband was killed by falling from a building in Portland, Oregon, told a severe story to Chief Rodgers at noon today. Mrs. Truitt has every appearance of an honest woman, and as she told her story, tears rolled down her cheeks.”
Both the Bee and the Union noted that Truitt’s jaw was broken or dislocated in a struggle with Gilman and that she later patronized Gilman’s store to buy a hat. The August 20th Bee went further in describing the assaults reporting that Gilman, in the first attack was, “…partly drunk, and entirely devoid of clothing. According to Mrs. Truitt he engaged in beastly conduct that cannot be described in print.” In the second attack, the Bee reported, “He came into her room after she had got into bed, threw himself in a nude state upon the bed, and conducted himself in a most scandalous and indescribable manner.”
Gilman hired Grove L. Johnson, father of Hiram Johnson, as his attorney, to sue the Sacramento Bee publishers for libel and $50,000 in damages. The Bee had become accustom to the parade of libel suits against it and published a cartoon about Gilman. The cartoon depicted Gilman fishing for a $50,000 fish, only to fall into a bowl of his own soup.
The attorneys for the Sacramento Bee were Charles T. Jones and Alvin J. Bruner. They waived their right to a jury trial putting assessment of libel in the hands of Judge Catlin. The trial began in late January 1894. The Gilman – Bee libel case would be an eleven-day trial affair. As expected, most of the testimony entered into the record was not about libel. Because the charges of assault and rape against Gilman had been dismissed, the Bee attorneys attempted to show Gilman was guilty of the accusations and thereby making the Bee’s reporting of the incident factual.
Judge Catlin’s Bad Pun
The monotony of the cross examination took a toll on all of the participants. Gilman had a hard time recalling certain conversations he had with different people including Pat Barry, another employee. Gilman was getting confused over the questions attorney Jones was asking him about Pat. Judge Catlin stepped in and directly asked Gilman, “Did you deny it to Pat?” Gilman replied, “I do not know that I did deny it to Pat, as it looked so unreasonable.” Then Judge Catlin offered, “Then you stood pat on the statement you had made?” A loud groan of “Oh, Judge!” was exclaimed by attorney Grove Johnson, Catlin worked hard to suppress a grin, and then the rest of the courtroom caught on to the pun.
Grove L. Johnson was a rather expressive and emotional lawyer and politician. He never held back and his closing arguments for libel were no different. Johnson directed some of his comments toward his fellow attorneys Jones and Bruner, representing the Bee.
If the time ever comes, and it may come to you Mr. Jones, and to you Mr. Bruner, proud as you may be of your record and your life, you will realize that to be arrested is a very serious matter even the city of Sacramento. Wait until the shoe pinches your foot, if you both don’t cry worse than Gilman did, I misjudge you both.Grove Johnson, Sacramento Bee February 7, 1894
Grove Johnson had been arrested and put in prison on the charge of voter fraud in the 1860s. He knew how cruel the newspapers could be when it came to unproven accusations. Johnson continued, “No newspaper proprietor yet was ever bold enough to make the charges on the street face to face with the man he libeled in his newspaper. They put in the newspapers things they dare not say on the street. There breathes no newspaper man that dares to repeat to a man on the streets the libels that he published in his paper in the most dastardly and cowardly manner.” When Johnson concluded his emotional closing arguments, Judge Catlin took the matter under advisement.
Judge Finds The Bee Guilty of Libel
On March 27, in the case of C. H. Gilman vs. C. K. McClatchy, et. al, Judge Catlin rendered his verdict in favor of Gilman. Catlin concluded that $500 was proper compensation for the injury caused to Gilman by the Sacramento Bee’s libelous reporting. Judge Catlin’s rational for finding that the Sacramento Bee had committed libel was based on his assessment that Stella Truitt’s complaint was not supported by the evidence.
The facts do not produce a belief beyond a reasonable doubt, nor even a belief based upon a preponderating weight of evidence, that there was an attempt made to commit the offense. Much less does the evidence support a belief that the crime, charged by the defendants as having been attempted, was actually committed.Judge Catlin, Sacramento Bee March 27, 1894
Because the Bee did not publish the story with malice toward Gilman, and included his statement that he thought blackmail was afoot, Judge Catlin ruled there should be no vindictive damages assessed. The decision against the Bee set off a cacophony of criticism about Judge Catlin across a spectrum of different newspapers. The Sacramento Union was one of the few to support Judge Catlin. The opinion of the Sacramento Union was that Judge Catlin was just applying the law as set down by California.
The Sacramento Bee remained defiant. They discerned, “If that be the law of the State, then no newspaper will hereafter feel safe in recording the facts connected with any man’s arrest until after he has been convicted.” They concluded, “If Mr. C. H. Gilman is banking on getting $500, or any other sum, from this paper, he had better postpone his hilarity until he hears from the Supreme Court, for certainly The Bee does not propose to permit this matter to rest here. The fight has only commenced.”
Talmadge v Talmadge Divorce
While Judge Catlin’s decision was being appealed up to the California Supreme Court, life in Sacramento went on. For Judge Catlin, he was seeing the end of wedded bliss in the form of numerous divorce cases. It would not be unusual for Judge Catlin to grant three or four divorces a week. Some of the divorce trials were as sensational as the Gilman affair. One divorce case involved an old delta island farmer and his much younger wife.
At age 71, Charles Talmadge entered into a hasty marriage with Martha Myers in September 1893. Talmadge owned 148 acres outside of Courtland along the Sacramento River. His wife had died in 1891 and he had taken to visiting houses of prostitution in Sacramento where he met Martha. At the time of their marriage, Martha was 20 years old.
Several weeks after the marriage, Martha was finally able to move into the Talmadge ranch house where Charles’ daughter, Mary Jane, also lived. It did not go well. Both Charles and Mary Jane were abusive to Martha. Mary Jane resented Martha’s presence. Charles was frequently drunk and regretted the marriage. Shortly after the marriage in mid-September, Charles Talmadge deeded most of his property to Mary Jane and his other children excising Martha out of any future death benefit.
(Charles Talmadge’s 1899 Last Will and Testament affirms the property transfer to his children on September 19, 1893, approximately two weeks after he married Martha. In addition, Talmadge noted, “Fourth, I assert and declare that all of the property of which I have title is separate estate; and that I have accumulated no property since my marriage to one Minnie Talmadge, formerly Myers. In fact, I have considerable less money and property at this time than at the time of said marriage and I purposely omit making any devise or bequest herein to my said wife.)
After living with Charles for two years, Martha left and filed for divorce. The divorce suit came before Judge Catlin in March 1896. The Judge had the discretion to close the proceedings to the public and press, but Catlin opted to leave the court room doors open. Two of the attorneys from the Gilman-Bee libel suit were present, but now on opposing sides. Charles Jones was representing Martha Talmadge and Alvin Bruner was attorney for Charles Talmadge.
The divorce trial was proceeding normally with all the anticipated accusations of drunkenness, abuse, and treachery, until Charles Talmadge was put on the witness stand at the end of the third day. Even though Charles was so deaf he needed an ear trumpet to hear questions from his lawyer, his ability to hold a grudge was sound. Charles Talmadge blamed the whole marriage affair on attorney Charles Jones, who was representing Martha Talmadge.
Talmadge Blames Lawyer Jones
Charles Talmadge testified that he had hired Charles Jones to recover some letters from another woman he had met in a house of prostitution on L Street. Talmadge claimed the woman was going to use them to extort money out of him. After Jones took care of the extortion attempt by recovering the letters, Talmadge said Jones invited him to a different house of prostitution on 2nd street in Sacramento.
It was at the second house of ill-repute where Jones allegedly encouraged Talmadge to pursue a woman at the establishment. That woman turned out to be Martha (Minnie) Myers, whom Charles Talmadge would later marry.
After the startling testimony that a prominent Sacramento attorney, very active in local politics, was patronizing a house of prostitution, Jones stopped by the Sacramento Bee office to set the record straight. Jones denied ever coaxing Talmadge to visit the house in question where he met Martha. However, the part of the reported testimony that irked Jones and his associate J. B. Devine, was the implication that Jones gouged Talmadge for $10,000 to recover the letters in the attempted extortion scheme.
The Sacramento Bee reported the courtroom testimony.
The most dramatic scene was when Talmadge attacked Charles T. Jones, attorney for Mrs. Talmadge. He declared that at one time Jones had “gouged” him out of $10,000 and at another time he had paid him and I. J. Simmons $1,700 for nothing. The story of the alleged latter transaction was brought out on cross-examination. Talmadge said that he had at one time visited a crib on lower L Street, and the woman in the crib [house of ill-repute] afterwards claimed to have obtained some letters from him which she intended using to make trouble for him. He told his troubles to attorney Jones, who agreed to help him out.Sacramento Bee, May 28, 1896.
Attorney Devine appealed to Judge Catlin to declare the reporting false and a fabrication. Judge Catlin agreed, “I have no hesitation in saying that the statement to which counsel has just referred is a grossly false statement – a gross fabrication. There was not the slightest ground in the testimony of Mr. Talmadge upon which such a statement could be based, and it is a reflection upon Mr. Talmadge, as much, perhaps, as it is on Mr. Jones. Mr. Talmadge never made the statement that, as this article states, he had visited a crib on L street, etc. etc. I do not know that, as at present advised, the court has any power to prevent such conduct on the part of newspaper reporter, or to punish them for such gross outrages.” The one power Judge Catlin did have was to close the doors to the trial, and he did.
In its defense, the Bee published the stenographic notes or trial transcript that was the foundation for the reporting in question.
Jones: You recollect the other trouble that you got in, you took Mrs. McCord out of a house of ill-fame and got a house for her and kept her in the same way?
Talmadge: You have got no business to talk to me about that. You gouged me out of about $10,000.
Jones: I gouged you out of about $10,000, did I? When every cent I charged you, what you paid for everything was –
Talmadge: You got more money than you should have got.
Jones: Didn’t you tell me you were satisfied with what I charged you at that time?
Talmadge: I don’t know whether I told you or not.
Jones: Do you mean to say that $500 under such circumstances in a settlement where I recovered –
Mr. Burner [attorney for Charles Talmadge] objected as irrelevant, immaterial and incompetent. Objections sustained. Mr. Bruner excepted.
Jones: Did you not say to me I gouged you out of $10,000?
Talmadge: I did not say $10,000. I said you got out of me more money than you ought to.
Jones: Can you state now altogether for the settlement of that case how much you paid the detective and everybody else?
Talmadge: I do not remember now.
The Court – You had figured it about $1,350. I understand he withdraws this statement about the $10,000.
A careful reading of the court transcript and the Bee story shows they do not mirror one another. It seems the reporter inferred some details and added some other colorful commentary. It is entirely possible that Charles Talmadge himself spoke to the Bee reporter about the incident with Jones. There were also questions as to whether the Bee reporter was in court at the time of the cross-examination between Talmadge and Jones.
C. K. McClatchy Contempt of Court
On May 29th, after the doors to the trial had been closed to reporters, Charles K. McClatchy, editor and one of the publishers of the Sacramento Bee, wrote and editorial excoriating attorneys Jones and Devine, and Judge Catlin. McClatchy asserted the reporting of the Talmadge testimony was accurate and intimated Judge Catlin was in cahoots with the attorneys.
The Bee of yesterday was the statement he [Talmadge] made upon the stand at Wednesday afternoon’s session. The Bee will go farther than that. It will declare that both the attorney before the bar and the Judge on the bench knew that the statement made in the The Bee was essentially correct epitome of the testimony given by Mr. Talmadge, at the very moment when they unhesitatingly, shamelessly, and brazenly declared it to be a “gross fabrication.
There is no paper anywhere that has a higher regard for fair and impartial Courts than has The Bee; but there is no paper anywhere that has a supremer contempt than has The Bee for a Judge who will approve the unmitigated falsehood of an attorney, as Judge Catlin today approved the brazen misstatement of Judge J. B. Devine.Sacramento Bee May 29, 1896.
Attorney Jones decided to convert McClatchy’s contempt into reality. Jones swore out a statement in a deposition on June 1st that the editorial by Charles McClatchy amounted to contempt of court. Jones alleged that the editorial, “[were] contemptuous toward the said Court and Judge, and tend to and were intended to degrade the said Court and excite public prejudice and odium against it, and were unlawful interferences with the proceedings of said Court in the trial of said action.”
McClatchy was arrested and brought before Judge Catlin on contempt charges. McClatchy was represented by attorney Pat Reddy. As noted by Reddy, his whole defense of McClatchy rested upon the Barry Act passed in 1891 that curbed the powers of the courts with respect to contempt proceedings. In what would be a rare divergence for Judge Amos Catlin, he disagreed with Reddy, not on case law or Supreme Court decisions, but his own assessment that the Barry Act was unconstitutional.
What Judge Catlin did not cite as his basis for determining that the Barry Act was unconstitutional, but certainly was in the back of his mind, was a recent California Supreme Court ruling. In late March, before the Talmadge divorce trial commenced, the Supreme Court upheld Judge Catlin’s decision of libel against the Sacramento Bee in C. H. Gilman vs C. K. McClatcy, et. al.
Supreme Court Upholds Judge Catlin Libel Decision
In its ruling, the Supreme Court wrote, “No newspaper has any right to trifle with the reputation of any citizen, or by carelessness or recklessness to injure his good name and fame or business. And the reporter of a newspaper has no more right to collect the stories on the street, or even to gather information from policemen or magistrates, out of court, about a citizen, and to his detriment, and publish such stories and information and facts in a newspaper, than has a person not connected with a newspaper to whisper from ear to ear the gossip and scandal of the street. If true, such publication or such speaking may be privileged, but if false the newspaper, as well as the citizen, must be responsible to anyone who is wronged and damaged thereby.” (1896 Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 91, Number 26, 24 March 1896)
Whether this affirmation of Judge Catlin’s application of law and moral decency bolstered his ruling in the McClatchy contempt case is not known. Regardless, Judge Catlin fined McClatchy $500. McClatchy posted bail and was released to head back to the office to write up another editorial denouncing the Judge. The Bee stated, “Judge Catlin was considerably exercised by his own recital of the alleged facts, and when he came to the “enemy of society” feature threw into the words all the dramatic effect of which he was capable. On two occasions during the recital he gulped his words, evidently more in anger than sorrow.”
Similar to Judge Catlin’s libel ruling against the Sacramento Bee, there was a chorus of denunciation of the contempt decision from other newspapers. The editorials found Judge Catlin’s decision arbitrary, autocratic, and biased. They noted his dismissal of the Barry Act considering it unconstitutional. The Stockton Independent summed up the general sentiment, “An editor in contempt of Court, even with a heavy fine upon him, is not in so bad a position as a Judge in contempt of the law and the truth.”
While Judge Catlin was having the invective of newspapers hurtled at him for convicting McClatchy on contempt charges, the Talmadge divorce lawsuit continued. Like McClatchy, Charles Talmadge came out the loser. Judge Catlin granted a divorce to Martha Talmadge, $6,000, and $40 in monthly alimony.
Sacramento Bee Helps Defeat Judge Catlin
Amos Catlin was again nominated by the Sacramento County Republican Party as a candidate for Superior Court Judge. The Sacramento Daily Union went out of its way to defend and promote Catlin. Unfortunately, there was too much bad publicity surrounding his decisions against the Sacramento Bee. He was defeated. The Sacramento Bee gloated over Catlin’s loss. They noted, “This is a direct and great victory for human rights and the liberty of the citizen. In the Nineteenth Century and in a supposedly free Republic, Judge Catlin stood as the impersonation of medieval tyranny.” The San Francisco Call even attributed Catlin’s loss to the Sacramento Bee.
McClatchy did appeal his contempt conviction up to the California Supreme Court. They ruled in December 1897 that the conviction was to be annulled. The annulment was rendered not because Judge Catlin ignored the Barry Act or that the Sacramento Bee reporting was found to be untruthful. The conviction was overturned because McClatchy, by the way Judge Catlin handled the case, was found to be deprived of due process under the law.
Judge Catlin’s controversial decisions against the Sacramento Bee did not go unnoticed by other elected officials. There were numerous pieces of legislation and constitutional amendments introduced to address the failures of 19th century statutes protecting the rights of the newspapers.
I don’t think it is fair to characterize Judge Catlin as a medieval tyrant as the Sacramento Bee did in an editorial. Granted, he was a man with a conservative perspective of the law and how society should operate. As a judge, Catlin applied the laws on the books in 1896. A review of his decisions that were appealed shows that the California Supreme Court upheld his reasoning and application of the law more often than it did not.
California in 1896 had undergone a great transformation from its inception in 1850. Many pioneers like Catlin found themselves in a very different world from the Gold Rush days of 1849. Amos Catlin would take a short respite from the legal arena, then return to private practice. He died on November 5, 1900, at his home in Sacramento.
For more on the life of Amos P. Catltin visit my webpage Amos P. Catlin – Sacramento for more information. This post represents part of the research I am doing on Catlin for a forthcoming book.