In 1892, Modesto's courthouse was packed with spectators for the biggest case in the city's then-short history.
At one table sat Charles Albert and Julia O'Meara, described as a tall, pale, thin-faced girl. They were accused of trying to murder her father, Dennis O'Meara.
Life for Julia and her sisters on her father's Oakdale-area farm began at 4 a.m. when he would rouse them so they could begin their day's work. The four girls and their father ate breakfast together. After drinking some tea, they would head out to work.
They would, according to a writer from the San Francisco Call, "feed the stock, harness the horses and do like labor," and plow all day, "as though they were the most rugged men."
At the end of the day, they would have dinner. Dennis O'Meara would usually pour himself a glass of water.
The mundane pattern of life on the farm continued until a new worker appeared.
Albert helped out around the farm and soon became the focus of Julia's attention. Before long Julia asked her father if she could marry Albert. Dennis O'Meara strongly opposed his daughter marrying a hired hand. Living up to his reputation as a tyrant to his daughters, he would not allow the subject to be brought up again.
Sunday, March 27, 1892, began like most days on the farm except for a pitcher of water that was waiting for Dennis O'Meara. He drank the water, but would later testify that it was so bitter he spit it out. Upon going to bed he found another, unrequested, pitcher of water on his nightstand that he didn't drink. The next morning found the family at breakfast and the tea had already been poured into everyone's saucers.
Dennis O'Meara drank about half his tea when he noticed it was bitter like the water he tasted the day before. It wasn't long before he was seized with violent convulsions and was narrowly saved by a physician, who agreed that he was poisoned.
According to the Sacramento Record-Union, "The effects were those of strychnine. The girl knew where the poison was, which was used on squirrels."
Julia and Albert were arrested and charged with attempting to poison her father.
On April 12, the trial began in Modesto.
Dennis O'Meara, who was the prosecution's chief witness, began his testimony telling of the marriage he forbade and of what he believed to be several attempts by his daughter to poison him.
Although the evidence against Julia began to pile up, she and Albert saw public opinion swing in their favor.
It was this public sentiment that finally swayed Dennis O'Meara and the prosecution to dismiss the case.
In the end, Julia married Albert and they left. As George H. Tinkham said in his book on Stanislaus history, O'Meara not only lost a daughter but two of his best workers.
Sources: George H. Tinkham, "History of Stanislaus County" (1921)
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.