J. Neely Johnson House

Buckle up for a wild ride today, friend! Sacramento’s oldest surviving home, built in 1853, was once home to several California elected officials, and man, does this tale turn cray-cray once ol’ David Terry moves in. Enjoy this story of frienemies, a duel, two murders and a commitment to an insane asylum.

This Greek Revival stunner was initially constructed for William Cozzens, a horticulturist from New England. Sadly, he couldn’t pay the builder and lost the house in court that same year.

Prior to becoming California’s fourth governor from 1856-1858, J. Neely Johnson was its owner. A lawyer by trade, Johnson moved to California during the 1849 Gold Rush. He gave a brief speech from the balcony before he was escorted to the State Capitol for inauguration.

Its next resident — Selden A. McMeans, State Treasurer of California — lived here from 1854-1856 when he sold it to California Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry.

Terry lived here at the time of his storied duel with California U.S. Senator David Broderick. Although the two politicians once had been friends and allies, Terry talked some smack about Broderick at a convention and Broderick wasn’t having it.

The two agreed to a duel on September 13, 1859, just outside of San Francisco. Terry shot Broderick, who died three days later. He was acquitted of murder and moved to Texas in 1863. He fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and moved to a Mexican ranch after the war ended. However, he returned to America to resume his political and legal career.

Terry also had some drama surrounding the ladies. When his wife, Sarah, was found guilty of forging the will of her late first husband (silver millionaire and former U.S. Senator William Sharon), she screamed obscenities at the judge and tried to pull her revolver from her purse.

Officials tried to escort her out, when Terry pulled out his Bowie knife to defend his wife. He knocked out a court marshal’s tooth and marshals drew their handguns. Both Terrys were jailed and did time for contempt of court.

The couple continued threatening Judge Stephen J. Field, who incidentally, was another ex-friend of David Terry. Eventually Terry and Field were on the same train in 1889, and Terry slapped Field in the face. Field’s bodyguard thought Terry was going for his Bowie knife, so he shot and killed him.

Meanwhile, Sarah Terry was deemed insane in 1892. Disheveled, she wandered the street of San Francisco talking to spirits, including that of her dead husband. She was diagnosed with “dementia preacox,” an early term for schizophrenia. At 33, she was committed to California Asylum at Stockton, where she lived 45 years until her death. She is buried in Stockton next to Terry.

The house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

One comment

  1. My friends in the early 90’s lived there as roommates while the owner, at the time, was renovating it per historical preservation regulations. They experienced several disturbances there. One of the two once had a dream floating above a table in the formal dining room with a doctor, nurse and patient on the table. He later found out that the house once provided illegal abortions. The friend left after one more incident involving a ouija board (I wasn’t there) and never came back. We used to call the park next door Needle Park due to all the needles, addicts, homeless in the area. One good memory was having a party with my neighbor John McCrea’s band Cake performing for my friend’s 30th birthday. Lots of memories at that home. Happy for the renovation and it surviving all the stories of the people who have lived there.


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