Most Unjust: Catherine Coarum’s Trial (part 2 of 2)

This is the conclusion of Catherine’s story. Click here if you haven’t yet read Part 1.

December 1901. Catherine’s trial began in early December, and the proceedings lasted four days. Her attorney, Robert Ash, had done his best to defend her, but he was not sanguine about the outcome. The story was salacious enough to attract attention, but Mrs. Coarum was not a defendant who excited much sympathy. The newspapers described her as a large, powerful woman, with coarse features. She was known to be an incorrigible drinker. Ash had tried to portray her in the best light, a task Catherine made nearly impossible with her frequent outbursts in the courtroom.

The defendant’s husband, Joseph Coarum, had testified in Catherine’s defense. He said when he returned home and heard his wife was in the City Jail, he did his own investigation and turned up some evidence the police had overlooked, including the razor Catherine claimed Daniels had wielded, a bullet that was consistent with the ones that had killed Daniels, and a bullet hole in the steps that proved the victim had shot at his wife.

Greany, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the case, scarcely had to work for the conviction. He raised questions about the nature of Catherine’s relationship with Daniels and referenced her contradictory statements.

On the last day of the Coarum murder trial, the jury began its deliberations shortly after noon and returned with a manslaughter verdict at 4 p.m.

“Catherine Coarum, charged with the murder of Watchman Charles Daniels, was yesterday found guilty of manslaughter,” ran a front-page article in the December 12 edition of TheSan Francisco Examiner. “The prisoner heard the announcement of the verdict without the slightest display of emotion.”

Robert Ash privately thought his client was fortunate to receive a manslaughter verdict. A conviction was practically a forgone conclusion, and Ash was only surprised that his client was convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. She would still go to prison, but her sentence would be lighter.


On December 21, 1901, Catherine was back in Judge Dunne’s courtroom to be sentenced. She was dressed neatly in a dark suit but her face looked like a thunder cloud.

She listened as her attorney attempted to plead with the judge for a new trial. When she saw Judge Dunne shake his head, Catherine stood up. “Can I say something?” There was a surprised silence but no objections.

“I had to kill him, Judge,” Catherine protested. “If I had not, he would have killed me.” It was similar to what she had said throughout the trial and Judge Dunne looked unimpressed.

“I never troubled him, and I wouldn’t have killed him if he had not forced me to it,” Catherine said rapidly. “He’d been threatening me for months. He had a razor in his hand and he would’ve killed me. What could I do? What would any woman do?” She looked around the courtroom, seeking a sympathetic face in the crowd. Finding none, she turned back to the judge. “If I had not done it, my husband would have come in and found me murdered!”

Ash stood up. There was little he could do for his client at this point, apart from possibly influence the judge to soften his sentence. “Your Honor,” he said. “I would remind you that this woman is unfamiliar with our ways and customs. An American woman would have gone to the authorities, but she did not know enough for that– and she took the law into her own hands– ”

Catherine Coarum, incensed by what she saw as an inadequate defense, interrupted him. “A man would arm himself!” she shrieked. “He could go hunt up other men and shoot them down. And the law lets them off! But I am a poor woman, compelled to act in defense of my home and I am convicted. Where’s the justice, Judge? No, it’s most unjust!”

Judge Dunne stared her to silence and Catherine sat back down. The judge said, “It is the judgement of this court, Catherine Coarum, that you be confined in the State Prison at San Quentin for the term of 10 years.”

Two days later, Catherine was booked at San Quentin prison. Female prisoners were a rarity, but the prison would be her home for many years.

Mug shots were still in their infancy, and the custom at San Quentin was to take a front-facing photo of the prisoner wearing his or her hat. The profile picture was taken without the hat.

Catherine was released six-and-a-half years later, in June 1908. Her release went unremarked in the newspapers.


If you enjoyed this true crime story about Catherine Coarum, you might enjoy my book, The Poisoned Glass. It’s available for pre-order on the publisher’s website. If you order before August 8, you’ll get 15% off with the promo code PREORDER2019. Reserve your copy today!