The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Spring 1974, Volume 20, Number 2

By JOHN WHITE

Images from the article

Cassius Carter Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave and I will
Wear him in my heat’s core, ay, in my
Heart of heart.
HAMLET, III 1 1

Drama is the noblest form of human
expression. A people that has no love for great
plays and good players will show itself to be
lacking in social Development, in humane
politics and in intellectual and moral life.

CASSIUS CARTER
March 22, 1905

The portrait of a young man hangs prominently in the lobby of the Cassius Carter Center Stage in Balboa Park. All who enter the foyer come within the gaze of the person depicted, and some theatergoers may stop to give the painting closer study. The expression on the face of the man sitting casually in a chair indicates seriousness. The inscription also reveals deep thought. “Drama,” says the caption, “is the noblest form of human expression.” Perhaps some members of the audience filing into the theater stop to wonder about this earnest young man and the words which accompany his portrait.

The painting represents Cassius Carter, author of the quotation and the man for whom the theater is named. A lawyer by profession, Carter earned the reputation of being an outstanding student of Shakespeare. His former law partner in Texas claimed that if all the plays of Shakespeare were lost, Cassius Carter could have largely reconstructed them from memory.1

While the theater memorializes Carter for his Shakespearean scholarship, he deserves to be remembered chiefly as the energetic district attorney of San Diego County from l903 to 1906. Four scrapbooks which Cassius Carter compiled between 1881 and his death in 1909 are now in the possession of his son, Mr. Armistead B. Carter of San Diego.2 These scrapbooks contain an especially valuable narrative. The newspaper clippings and business letters describe Carter’s leadership as district attorney during four eventful years of county government.3

Cassius Carter spent his early life in Virginia. Born in 1857, he belonged to a family that had been eminent since colonial times.4Young Cassius enjoyed all the cultural benefits which the ante-bellum South could provide. While a student at George Washington University, however, Carter experienced hardship as a result of his father’s ruin in the Civil War.5 In 1879 Carter returned to Virginia, where a struggling law practice and his marriage in 1883 made him yearn for greater opportunity.6 During the last two months of 1882, Carter received issues of a fledgling newspaper from the boastful town of San Angelo, Tom Green County, Texas.7 He and his bride soon left Virginia for San Angelo, a place which the newspaper described as “the original El Dorado.”8

In 1884 Cassius Carter, a Democrat, won election to the post of Tom Green County Attorney.9 Carter supported the Democratic Party as a point of Southern honor and personal belief. He also maintained certain decidedly unorthdox convictions, at least for San Angelo. Sheep-raising dominated the industry of West Texas at that time and since the national tariff gave sheep ranchers a favored status, Texans supported the policy of protection10 Carter, though, believed in free trade, and made his opinion known.11 When he ran for re-election in 1886, the voters punished the maverick free-trader by handing him a resounding defeat.12 The election rout prompted Carter to move again in search of a new beginning, this time to San Diego.

Cassius Carter established his law practice in San Diego during the boom year of 1887. The first mention of his presence here occurs in a newspaper announcement that he and Patterson Sprigg, a young lawyer recently arrived from Washington D.C., had just formed a partnership.13 This association lasted until 1888.14 Carter later affiliated with State Senator David L. Withington from 1894 to 1903,15 and with attorney Fred O’Farrell from 1904 to 1905.16

The beleaguered Democrats of San Diego welcomed Cassius Carter as an entertaining campaigner. In 1888 Carter stumped the county in support of President Cleveland and local Democratic candidates.17 In 1896 the currency issue caused him to temporarily abandon the Democrats and join the other side. To the amusement of Republicans and the chagrin of Democrats, Carter rejected Bryan’s free-silver philosophy and actively endorsed McKinley.18 By 1900 Carter had been induced back into the Democratic fold, for although he occasionally embarrassed the party, they could not do without his support.19

The Democrats chose Cassius Carter in 1902 to be their nominee for district attorney. The San Diegan-Sun, reporting from the August county convention, declared that “the Democratic Party of San Diego is behind him to a man.”20 The Republican convention meeting in September nominated J. Wade McDonald for the position.21 County newspapers proceeded to divide along party lines. The San Diego Union praised McDonald’s ability to make votes, while the San Diegan-Sun accused him of constantly vacillating.22 The Julian Miner recommended the Democratic ticket as “the strongest named in many years.”23

A recurring struggle over San Diego’s liquor ordinance complicated the campaign. Saloons operated under a licensing act passed in December, 1901,24 but for several years temperance groups had tried to institute stricter laws. The 1902 ballot included a “local option” measure to determine in each voting precinct whether liquor would be sold there. An organization calling itself the Anti-Saloon League led the fight for local prohibition.

Cassius Carter opposed prohibition on principle,25 but for reasons known only to themselves the leaders of the Anti-saloon League favored his candidacy. The Ramona Sentinel, which supported McDonald, hinted that the league felt slighted because the Republicans had not nominated “their man.”26 Whatever their reason, the league defended Carter as “a sober, honest man, though he admits to taking an occasional drink.”27 Regarding J. Wade McDonald, the league claimed that “the liquor power is a unit in his support. He is a man who puts policy before principle.”28

Carter won by a scant majority,29 and his opponent immediately challenged the election. McDonald charged that a last-minute circular distributed by the Anti-Saloon League contained a “villainous diatribe” which had cost him victory.30 The Superior Court of San Diego denied this ground, but ordered a recount on the basis of other irregularities.3l For several days the count continued. In the end nearly ten percent of the ballots were discarded, with the relative positions of the candidates unchanged. McDonald grudgingly conceded defeat.32 Enforcement of the new liquor ordinance posed an immediate challenge to District Attorney Carter. Certain saloon operators in the mountain community of Julian had allegedly ignored the vote of the majority in the precinct to exercise their local option,33 that is, to impose prohibition. Carter sent an investigator to obtain proof of the violation. When the investigator testified in court, the Julian Miner demanded to know by what authority the district attorney employed “spies” to secure evidence.34 Cassius Carter defended his action in a strongly worded reply to the editor of the Miner. “Who made the law,” he asked, “that shut up the liquor shops in Julian? The citizens of Julian must look to their own vote for the answer,” said Carter, “and I read in that vote, however little I may agree with it, a mandate to this office to carry out the wishes of the peop1e.”35 Carter handled his first challenge with courage, for the good of those he served.

At the time Cassius Carter became district attorney, many county officers did not receive annual wages, but billed the treasury for services rendered. As a salaried official, Carter detected inefficiency and possible corruption in the amount of fees granted by the board of supervisors. The district attorney determined to reorganize the fee system by assuming the county board’s fee-granting responsibilities. District Attorney Carter earned the feared title “watchdog of the county treasury” as he vetoed claims before they reached the supervisors.36 While this procedure succeeded in trimming county expense, it also eventually led to Carter’s political downfall.

The district attorney first remonstrated with County Coroner Morgan over the fee allowed for holding an inquest.37 On March 6, 1903, Carter advised Dr. Morgan and all the justices of the peace in the county that only one investigation could be charged to the treasury in the case of a suspected murder.38 In practice the ruling allowed justices of the peace to act when distance prevented the county coroner from attending. On this authority the justice of the peace in remote Picacho billed for an inquest held there the next month.39 Dr. Morgan also traveled to Picacho and submitted the claim for a second inquest on grounds that the first had not been authorized.40 Carter promptly allowed the first bill and denied the second. Dr. Morgan sued for his fee, but lost.4l

At the opposite end of the county, in Oceanside, Justice of the Peace J. Chauncey Hayes profited from the enforcement of a questionable law.42 Oceanside had become a rendezvous for tramps who stowed away on the railroad from San Diego. Hayes charged these vagrants with evading the railroad fare, and proceeded to bill the treasury for each arrest. The justice of the peace thought he had a windfall until District Attorney Carter expressed the opinion that no law against stealing rides existed.43

Cassius Carter undoubtedly knew that such a statute did exist, yet he questioned the law to prove a point. Carter admitted to Hayes that he believed judicial officers should not collect fees for their work.44 The issue involved was not a particular law, but the fee system itself. The Superior Court finally directed that the justice of the peace be paid,45 but by this time public opinion had so expressed itself against the prosecution of “brake-beam tourists” that Hayes decreased his profitable arrests.46

These fee reductions attracted favorable attention to Carter. The newspaper San Diegan-Sun, which supported Carter’s candidacy in 1902, noted in approval that he had saved the county more than the amount of his accumulated salary.47 While the district attorney had not made extravagant promises as a candidate, said the paper, he lived up to his office.48 The Civic Federation of San Diego passed a resolution thanking Carter for his crusade against “excessive, illegal and doubtful claims” on the county treasury.49

Not everyone praised the district attorney for his economy measures. When the private printing firm of Frye, Garrett and Smith fulfilled a contract for the county, District Attorney Carter refused the bill. Carter charged that the contract had been awarded to this firm, a union shop, while lower bids could have been obtained.50 The district attorney directed a letter to the secretary of the Allied Printing Trades Union in which he pointed out the reason for his action.51 The trades union secretary rejected Carter’s explanation, and alluded darkly to the fact that the union controlled 1200 votes.52

The demands of his office prevented Carter from taking an active role on his own behalf in the 1906 campaign. The only bid for support Carter made consisted of a simple announcement of his candidacy.53 At the same time, opposition to the incumbent district attorney increased. The printing union, as expected, passed a resolution condemning Carter.54 The Imperial Standard approved of Carter initially, but then withdrew its key support in the valley.55 The Escondido Advocate labeled the incumbency of Cassius Carter a “brilliant failure,” and predicted his “certain defeat.”56 This forecast proved correct in November. Carter lost the election by a margin of 884 votes out of 6,368 votes cast.57

Following this defeat Cassius Carter returned to his private law practice, which he continued until his death.58 As the political controversy of 1906 subsided, Carter achieved the recognition he deserved. In 1908 his friends attempted to draft Carter as a non-partisan candidate for the office of superior judge. Though undoubtedly pleased by the offer, Carter declined in “despair of his own adaptation to the high requirements of the office.”59 This modest refusal only served to strengthen the regard Cassius Carter enjoyed during the last years of his life.

The controversial fee policy which Carter adopted during his term as district attorney foresaw, and to an immeasurable degree influenced later developments in the county. The fee system gradually yielded to salaries. In 1905 an act of the State Legislature made the county coroner a salaried position.60 In 1907 the state recognized the problem of distance in San Diego County, which had troubled Carter in the Picacho case, and declared Imperial Valley a separate county.61 When Cassius Carter died on September 28, 1909, many friends, associates, and members of the legal profession expressed their appreciation of him. Perhaps no person summarized the character of Carter better than William E. Smythe, the historian of San Diego, who volunteered these thoughts at his passing:62

In a very rare degree Cassius Carter was a brave and honest soul. He was so brave that he could not help being honest; so honest that be could not help being brave. His opinions, seldom popular, were always sincere…. He thought his own thoughts, walked his own path, if he thought and walked alone. Not many men have the courage or the honesty to do it.

 


 

NOTES

1. Judge W. A. Wright, “Cassius Carter,” San Angelo Standard Times (Fortieth Anniversary Issue), May 3, 1924.

2. These four volumes follow no strict chronological sequence. For the purposes of this paper they have been arbitrarily numbered as follows: Volume I: A thin red scrapbook with broken banding. Unnumbered pages. Volume II: A thick red scrapbook. Numbered pages. Volume III: A blue scrapbook. Numbered pages. Label on cover reads “Scrapbooks of Cassius Carter, District Attorney 1902-1906.” The author wishes to thank Mr. Armistead B. Carter, San Diego, for permission to use the scrapbooks.

3. For an amusing view of these scrapbooks, see bland Stanford, “Cassius Carter, D. A. Scrapbook Interesting Reading,” San Diego Daily Transcript, March 11, 1963. Mr. Stanford is a former librarian of the San Diego County Law Library.

4. Carl H. Heilbron, Ed., History of san Diego County (San Diego: Press Club, 1936), pp. 289-290.

5. Information given by Mr. Armistead B. Carter in an interview by Mr. Robert Wright, San Diego History Center, January 20, 1973.

6. Cassius Carter married Miss Ruth Birch of Missouri. Following their move to San Diego, Mrs. Carter was affectionately known to many as “Aunt Ruthie” or “Mother Carter.” Obituary of Mrs. Ruth B. Carter, San Diego Union, February 16, 1943. 7. Tom Green Times, November 11, through December 23, 1882: Scrapbooks, vol. II, pp. 26-40.

8. Tom Green Times, November 18, 1882: Scrapbooks, vol. II, p. 29.

9. “Official Vote of Tom Green County Cast November Fourth, 1884,” Tom Green Times, n. d.: Scrapbooks, vol. II, p. 64.

10. See for example the opinion expressed in a handbill entitled “An Appeal to Woolgrowers,” signed by several sheep ranchers of West Texas: Scrapbooks, vol. II, p. 47.

11. Carter wrote a series of letters under the pseudonym “Max,” entitled “Free Trade vrs. Protection,” found in the Alexandria [Virginia] Gazette, January 21, through February 25, 1882: Scrapbooks, vol. II, pp. 22-24.

12. “Official Election Results of Tom Green County, Tuesday, November Second, 1886,” Tom Green Times, n. d.: Scrapbooks, vol. II, p. 65.

13. San Diego Union, March 3, 1887

14. Legal notice announcing dissolution of partnership, May 1, 1888: Scrapbooks, vol. II, p. 105.

15. The formation of a partnership is announced in the San Diego Union, December 27, 1894. David Withington served in the California State Senate from 1895 to 1897. California Blue Book or State Roster, 1903, p. 429.

16. San Diego City Directory, 1904 to 1905. Born in illinois, Fred O’Farrell came to San Diego in 1888. He practiced law here until his death in 1957. “Fred O’Farrell, Attorney Here Fifty Years, Succumbs,” San Diego Union, September 20, 1957.

17. Various short newspaper articles: Scrapbooks, vol. II, pp. 102-103.

18. “Card From Carter,” San Diegan-Sun, 29, 1896: Scrapbooks, vol. II, p. 104; “Thanks to Carter,” San Diegan-Sun. September 12, 1896: Scrapbooks, vol. II, pp.102-103

19. “Democratic Ral1y,” Escondido Advocate, November 2, 1900: Scrapbooks, vol. II, p. 102.

20. “A Winning Ticket Named by Democrats,” San Diegan-Sun, August 23, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, pp. 2-4.

21. “District Attorneyship,” San Diegan-Sun, September 30, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 11. McDonald was t rn in Ohio and served with the Union Army in the Civil War. After the war he moved to Alabama. where he was active in the Republican Party. McDonald came to San Diego the same year as Carter, and also founded a law practice. Lawyers of San Diego, four volumes (San Diego: County Law Library, 1968), vol. 3, pp. 611-612.

22. “McDonald’s Grand Campaign,” San Diego Union, October 20, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 31; “District Attorneyship,” San Diegan-Sun, September 30, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 11.

23. “Democratic Convention,” Julian Miner, August 22, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 11.

24. “Ordinance Adopted,” San Diego Union, December 6, 1901.

25. Carter expressed this attitude in a letter entitled “Sunday Closing Controversy” found in the San Diego Union, n. d. [date of letter 11 December 1901]: Scrapbooks, vol. I.

26. “Judge McDonald Should Be Elected,” Ramona Sentinel, October 24, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 27.

27. Campaign circular, October 30, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 29.

28. Campaign circular, October 29, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 30.

29. “Count Completed,” San Diegan-Sun, November 14, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, pp. 34-35.

30. “Judge McDonald Defines Position,” San Diego Union, November 10, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 31.

31. “Recount of Ballots Will Begin Today,” San Diego Union. December 4, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, pp. 54-55.

32. “Election Contest Was Dismissed,” San Diego Union. December 9, 1902: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 58.

33. “The License Question,” San Diego Union, November 14, 1902.

34. “By What Authority Does the District Attorney Employ Spies?,” Julian Miner. August 27, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p.37.

35. “Open Letter to the Julian Miner,” San Diego Union. September 4, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 37.

36. “Using the Knife,” San Diegan-Sun. March 7, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 9.

37. Dr. Addison Morgan was born in Illinois, and came to San Diego in 1883. He resided in Fallbrook, where he was for several years the only physician. Morgan served eight years as county coroner. “Dr. Morgan Dies On Seventy-Eighth Birthday, Former Coroner,” San Diego Union. January 10, 1937.

38. Official letter from the Office of the District Attorney, March 6, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 10.

39. Picacho, located twenty-eight miles north of Yuma on the Colorado River, became a ghost town, and was acquired for a state park in 1961.

40. “Second Inquest On Body of Santiago Lopez,” San Diego Tribune, April 18, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, pp. 22-23.

41. “Morgan Case is a draw,” San Diego Union. April 27, 1906: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 84.

42. J. Chauncey Hayes was the son of Judge Benjamin Hayes, author of the valuable Pioneer Notes on early San Diego. Benjamin Hayes, Pioneer Notes From the Diaries of Judge Benjamin Hayes, 1849-1875 (Los Angeles: Privately Printed by Marjorie Tisdale Wolcott, 1929).

43. “District Attorney Carter On Enforcement of Law,” San Diego Tribune, December 8, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, pp. 45-46.

 

44. “District Attorney Carter On Enforcement of Law”: Scrapbooks, vol. III, pp. 45-46.

45. “Stealing Rides is Punishable,” San Diego Union. May 6, 1904: Scrapbooks, vol. III. p. 54.

46. Escondido Times. April 14, 1904: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 54. District Attorney Carter did not appeal the court decision, and thereafter he encountered no trouble from Oceanside.

47. “Using the Knife,” San Diegan-Sun, March 7, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 9.

48. “District Attorney in Fact and Active,” San Diegan-Sun. March 9, 1*3: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 9.

49. Letter from the Civic Federation to Carter, March 10, 1903: Scrapbooks. vol. III, p. 11.

50. “Is Not a Legal Claim.” San Diego Tribune. May 4, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 24.

51. “Are Not Bound By Resolutions” San Diego Union, June 5, 1903: Scrapbooks, vol. III. p. 26.

52. Carter answered that it would make no difference to his actions if 12,000 votes were at stake. “Makes Reply To Unions,” San Diego Union, October 30. 1906: Scrapbooks. vol. IV, pp. 60-61.

53. Letter From Carter to his Constituents, September 30, 1906: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 59.

54. The resolution is mentioned in a letter by Carter entitled “Makes Reply To Unions,” found in the San Diego Union, October 30, 1906: Scrapbooks, vol. IV. pp. 60-61.

55. “For District Attorney.” Imperial Standard, October 17, 1906: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 60; “An Explanation,” Imperial Standard. October 18, 1906: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 60.

56. “A Pettifogger, Too,” Escondido Advocate, November 2, 1906: Scrapbooks, vol. IV, p. 62.

57. “Supervisors Adjourn After Completing Official Count,” San Diego Union, November 18, 1906: Scrapbooks, vol. IV. p. 63. Lewis Kirby won the election. M.S. Quin, a Socialist candidate, picked up the remainder of the 7,333 votes cast for district attorney.

58. San Diego City Directory, 1906 to 1909.

59. “Cassius Carter: Declining to Become a Candidate for Superior Judge a Disappointment to His Friends,” San Diego Weekly News, July 23, 1908: Scrapbooks, vol, I.

60. Official letter from the Office of the District Attorney, July 5, 1905: Scrapbooks, vol. III, p. 78.

61. B.B. Moore, “San Diego’s Shrunken Boundaries,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, vol. I, no. 1 (January 1955), p. 6.

62. William E. Smythe, “Eulogizes Character of Deceased Attorney,” San Diego Union, October 1, 1909.


John White received his B. A. degree in 1973 from the University of San Diego. where he has been awarded a California State Fellowship to pursue graduate work in history. The author is also president of his college chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the international honor society in history. Mr. White is preparing a master’s thesis on the United States Army in the Southwest, 1849-1860.