Biography of Charles Betts

Honorable Charles Betts, Freeport, is one of the most prominent figures of the Stephenson county bar, and his long association with legal affairs gives him the colloquial title of “Judge” Betts. He is called the Nestor of the bar, and is now living in an honorable retirement from professional life. He was born in Batavia, Genesee county, New York, June 13th, 1825, and up to the time of his admission to the bar his life was passed in the Empire state. His educational privileges eminently fitted him for the profession of his choice. At all times he has made the most of his opportunities, and endowed by nature with, strong mentality, his advance has been rapid and commendable. While still a youth he began the study of law in his native state with Honorable Heman J. Redfield and Honorable Benjamin Pringle as his preceptors, and completed his course in the office of Hon. Isaac A. Verplanck and General John H. Martindale, of Batavia. The counsel and assistance of these distinguished gentlemen and able attorneys had great influence in moulding his character and educating him to a standard of excellence in the profession before him, from which he has never deteriorated. Honorable, high-minded and faithful through inbred moral principles, he early gave evidence of fitness for that high career that was opening before him. He was esteemed and loved, not more for his genial social qualities and grace of person, than for those brilliant mental powers which unfolded early and bloomed with wonderful beauty. The writer well remembers that at the greatest political mass meeting ever assembled in the United States, numbering over one hundred thousand people, on Oct. 4th, 1844, at Rochester, New York, one of the most highly-praised speakers on that occasion was the subject of this review. He then delivered his maiden speech, which, in a marked degree, pointed to a distinguished future. Three years later he was admitted to the bar at Rochester in Dec. 1847, with the highest honors of his class. The following year he sought a home in Freeport, and engaged in the practice of his calling, and here he has made his home to the present time. In all the intervening years he has uniformly sustained a prominent part in the legal transactions of the county. His practice embraced the most important litigation heard in the courts of northern Illinois up to the time of his retirement, and his thorough knowledge of jurisprudence, his judicial turn of mind, and his quickness in applying fundamental principles of the law to cases under consideration, have won him a marked success and produced a very substantial and well deserved financial reward. Mr. Betts added to a thorough knowledge of the law a wonderful power of analysis, close reasoning, and unusual oratorical gifts, and these have been important factors in his success.

Almost from the beginning of his residence in Illinois, Mr. Betts was recognized as a capable political leader, and in 1852 he was nominated by the Whigs for Auditor General of Illinois, a great honor to come to a young man so soon after his entrance upon the arena of state politics. He went upon the hustings, and his voice added strength to the growing principles of liberty and justice which were soon to bring about the great political revolution of 1858. Mr. Betts saw very plainly that old political divisions were obsolete, and following the counsels of Stephen A. Douglas, with whom he had the warmest personal associations, he took strong ground against the aggressive proslavery party of the south, and did everything that he could possibly do to secure the election of Judge Douglas in the campaign of 1860. After the readjustments of the war, he was once more an advocate of sound Democratic principles from the standpoint of Jefferson, Jackson and Douglas. In 1870 he was nominated for Congress, against his protest, by the democratic party, and in a district hopelessly republican,-the famed E. B. Washburn district, and which two years before had given the republican nominee more than ten thousand majority. He made a stout canvas, and reducing the adverse majority more than one half, demonstrated a well deserved popularity. With this exception he has uniformly declined nomination to office, though he has often been tendered positions he would have filled with honor and credit. He has been satisfied to command the respect and confidence of the community, and has effectively prevented his ambition from overreaching his judgment. For more than half a century Mr. Betts has made his home in Freeport, and through all these years has retained the respect and esteem of – his fellow citizens by an upright and honorable life.

The Betts family is of English origin, where the grandfather of the Freeport representative was born and married. His wife, a Miss Pennoyer, was a French lady and could not speak a word of English at the time of her marriage. They came to this country and settled in Norwich, Connecticut. Robert Pennoyer Betts, the father of Charles, and the thirteenth child in the family, was born in Norwich, Conn., in 1791. He learned the cabinet-maker’s trade, and while still a young man moved into New York, where he was engaged in it a number of years. Later in life he became a merchant, and was the proprietor of a considerable establishment at Batavia, New York. He vas a Whig, and when the republican party came into power, was among the first to rally in its favor during the stress of the war. He was a man of scrupulous honor, somewhat taciturn, and very domestic in his tastes. He taught school in the east, and his handwriting was remarkably fine. He died in 1864 at Freeport. Ill. He married Malinda Owen at Batavia, New York. She was born near Syracuse, New York, in 1800. She was a daughter of Daniel Owen, and died in 1862 at Freeport. Her father settled four miles east of Auburn, New York, where he cleared a farm of two hundred acres. He died a few years before the Civil war, about eighty-five years old. His father, Owen Owen, was of Welsh and Irish extraction.

Mr. Betts was married in Freeport, to Miss Mary Celestine Wilson, August 14, 1878. She was born in Freeport, and is a daughter of James Wilson, who is now dead. He was at one time a farmer in Stephenson county and was born near Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. His father, John Wilson, came from Appleby, near Liverpool, England, with his wife and four children about 1800. John Wilson was a clergyman of the Wesleyan Methodist church, and was a convert and friend of the Wesleys ; and was a circuit rider in Tioga county, New York, and afterwards in Tioga county, Pennsylvania. He bought a large tract of land in the latter state, and late in life became a preacher of the Baptist church and instituted close communion in that denomination. He is prominently mentioned in a book called “Early Methodism.” He married Betsy Metcalf, and the descendants of their eight children are of strong force of character very largely, and many of them occupy exalted positions in the world. James Wilson was their first child born in America. He was twice married. His first wife was Phoebe Cooley, who bore him four children, two of whom are still living. His second wife was Sarah M. Walton, and the widow of Dr. J. M. Lowman, who died of cholera during the epidemic of 1854. Her father, John Walton, married Mary Ann Hall, whose father moved from Philadelphia, where Mary was born, first to Clark county, Ohio, and then into Illinois, where he died in 1852. James Wilson and his wife are the parents of two children, Mrs. Betts, and her brother Edward, who is in the ministry at St. Paul, with Ballington Booth’s God’s American Volunteers. To Mr. and Mrs. Charles Betts five children have been born: Cora, Charles, Maude, who died at the age of five, Robert and Mae. Cora and Charles are graduates of the Freeport high school where Cora was especially proficient in Latin; she also graduated from the Freeport Business college and in ’99 moved with her parents to Chicago where she entered the Chicago university.



Fudwider, Addison L. History of Stephenson County, Illinois: a record of its settlement, organization, and three-quarters of a century of progress. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co. 1910.

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