Cassius Carter (1857-1909)

cassiuscarterThe 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.

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 1903 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. 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.

Cassius Carter spent his early life in Virginia. Born in 1857, he belonged to a family that had been eminent since colonial times. Young 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. In 1879 Carter returned to Virginia, where a struggling law practice and his marriage in 1883 made him yearn for greater opportunity. 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. He and his bride soon left Virginia for San Angelo; a place which the newspaper described as “the original El Dorado.”

In 1884 Cassius Carter, a Democrat, won election to the post of Tom Green County Attorney. 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 protection. Carter, though; believed in free trade, and made his opinion known.” When he ran for re-election in 1886, the voters punished the maverick free-trader by handing him a resounding defeat.” 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.” This association lasted until 1888. Carter later affiliated with State Senator David L. Withington from 1894 to 1903, and with attorney Fred O’Farrell from 1904 to 1905.

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. 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. 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.

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.” The Republican convention meeting in September nominated J. Wade McDonald for the position.” 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.” The Julian Miner recommended the Democratic ticket as “the strongest named in many years.”

A recurring struggle over San Diego’s liquor ordinance complicated the campaign. Saloons operated under a licensing act passed in December, 1901, 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, 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.” Whatever their reason, the league defended Carter as “a sober, honest man, though he admits to taking an occasional drink.” 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.”

Carter won by a scant majority, 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. The Superior Court of San Diego denied this ground, but ordered a recount on the basis of other irregularities. 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.

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,” 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 11 spies” to secure evidence.” 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 people.” 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. 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. 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. 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. Dr. Morgan also traveled to Picacho and submitted the claim for a second inquest on grounds that the first had not been authorized. Carter promptly allowed the first bill and denied the second. Dr. Morgan sued for his fee, but lost.

At the opposite end of the county, in Oceanside, Justice of the Peace J. Chauncey Hayes profited from the enforcement of a questionable law. 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.

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. 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, but by this time public opinion had so expressed itself against the prosecution of “brake-beam tourists” that Hayes decreased his profitable arrests.

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. While the district attorney had not made extravagant promises as a candidate, said the paper, he lived up to his office. The Civic Federation of San Diego passed a resolution thanking Carter for his crusade against “excessive, illegal and doubtful claims” on the county treasury.

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. 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. The trades union secretary rejected Carter’s explanation, and alluded darkly to the fact that the union controlled 12M votes.

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. At the same time, opposition to the incumbent district attorney increased. The printing union, as expected, passed a resolution condemning Carter. The Imperial Standard approved of Carter initially, but then withdrew its key support in the valley. The Escondido Advocate labeled the incumbency of Cassius Carter a “brilliant failure,” and predicted his “certain defeat.” This forecast proved correct in November. Carter lost the election by a margin of 884 votes out of 6,368 votes cast.

Following this defeat Cassius Carter returned to his private law practice, which he continued until his death.” 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.” 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. 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. 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:

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 he 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.

[from White, John. “Cassius Carter: The Scrapbooks of a District Attorney.” The Journal of San Diego History 20.2 (Spring 1974): 36-43.]

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