Biography of William Howard Thompson, Hon.

Hon. William Howard Thompson was born in Crawfordsville, Indiana, October 14, 1871. He is a son of John Franklin Thompson and Emma Dora (McGriff) Thompson, and with his parents came to Kansas in the year of 1880, and settled on a farm six miles north of Sabetha, in Nemaha County, and made that county had home until he went to Topeka, where he served as clerk of the Court of Appeals. Senator Thompson is descended from patriotic stock. His paternal ancestors were early Colonial Amerieans of Scotch-Irish lineage, and fought as soldiers in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican war, and his father was a Civil war veteran, having served in the Thirty-fourth Indiana Volunteers. The Senator’s father was a farmer and lawyer, and was elected judge of the twenty-second judicial district in 1890, serving with distinction.

In 1882, the family moved to Seneca, where Senator Thompson continned his education, graduating from the high school in 1886, at the age of fifteen years. At the age of sixteen he was appointed deputy register of deeds of Nemaha County, and taught a term of school in Brown County; and at the age of eighteen was deputy treasurer of Nemaha County, and at twenty he served as court reporter of the twenty-second judicial district.

Upon his graduation from the Seneca High School, he commenced studying law under the direction of his father, and during the time he was serving as court reporter, passed the law examination and was admitted to the bar. At the close of his term as court reporter, he went into partnership with his father and practiced law at Seneca until January, 1897, when he was appointed clerk of the Court of Appeals, which office he held until 1901. As clerk of the Court of Appeals he converted an annual defieit into a surplus and made the office more than self-sustaining, a condition that had not existed since the office was created. While acting as clerk of the Court of Appeals, Mr. Thompson practiced law at Topeka, and upon the expiration of his term, again joined his father in the practice, who had in the meantime gone to Iola. He practiced at Iola until 1905, when he removed to Garden City, where one year later, at the age of thirty-five, he was elected judge of the thirty-second judicial district, for a term of four years. He was the first Democrat ever elected judge in that district, and was re-elected in 1910 by a majority of 643 in a district with a normal republican majority of 1,500.

When he went on the bench, land titles in his district were in a clouded, confused and uncertain condition on account of old mortgages, tax sales and tax deeds, some of which were void and nearly all of which were voidable, and this brought him considerable responsibility and work because the land was becoming valuable and settlers desired to have their titles perfected. He rendered many important decisions on subjects having to do with these titles, all of which attracted the interest of the bar and judiciary throughout the state and in the western country generally. In all doubtful cases, he favored the actual settlers, those who had come to the West to build and make homes. No land shark or speculator had a chance in his court to establish a title upon an unjust technicality. The decisions rendered by him in these matters have become a part of the law of the state, and generally recognized and accepted as being sound. He also gained distinction by cleaning up his court dockets which for many years had been burdened with accumulated litigation. The rapidity with which this was accomplished gave rise to the western legal phrase “Jack Rabbit Justice,” which his friends represented by the picture of a jackrabbit and used in political campaigns to indicate his ability to run.

Another distinguishing quality was his determination to prevent lawlessness and to see to it that persons who committed wilful crimes, were punished without fear or favor. The natural tendency of westerners had been to trifle more or less with human life and a number of murders had gone without trial because the country was so sparsely settled that jurors could not be obtained who would qualify. In the early part of his service, he gave it to be understood that lawlessness of every kind and character would be dealt with fairly in his court. One case that attracted the attention of persons interested in such matters, was that of a man who had wilfully shot and killed another in the most sparsely settled county of the district. Attorneys employed by him boasted that he never could be tried because every person in the county would be disqualified as jurors. As the term of court approached when the trial was to be had, the judge summoned the attorneys for the defense and prosecution to meet with him and he plainty told them that the man was to be tried and that he was going to examine jurors himself, if necessary, and that any man would be accepted as a juror who convinced the judge that he would fairly try the accused upon the law and evidence submitted in court, regardless of whether he already had an opinion on material matters connected with the case; and he at that time advised the attorneys for the defense that upon their motion, he would change the venue of the case to some other county where many jurors might be ealled and the court would not be so limited in its diseretion. They declined to do it upon the theory that the court would get himself in a box, and that any conviction would be reversed that would be had. The impanelling of the jury proved a trial of wits between the judge and the able lawyers who defended the accused, but in the end, a jury was secured and the man convieted, and the Supreme Court in reviewing the case, not only affirmed the proceedings had at the trial, but took occasion to compliment the trial judge upon the very careful and able manner in which the jury had been selected and the keen sense of justice exhibited by him in seeing to it that men who were capable of giving the defendant a fair trial were not dismissed, simply because they may have had a mere opinion about the case.

He was always a strong advocate of the election of United States senators by direct vote of the people. He entered the 1912 primaries as a candidate for the nomination for United States senator under the Oregon plan then the law in Kansas. He proved a new force in Kansas politics and succeeded where others had failed. He not only consulted the leaders of his party, but kept in mind the fact that the vote of the fellow who was not denominated a leader counted just as much as that of the leader, and hunted him up, visiting every county in the state, with the result when the returns came in, it was found that Judge Thompson had secured the democratic nomination for United States senator and at the general election in 1912, won by a majority of 21,000 votes over his progressive republican opponent, Gov. W. R. Stubbs. This popular choice was ratified by the Legislature on January 29th, 1913, against the efforts of a few politicians to throw the election in the Legislature under the old time political methods. Regardless of this controversy he received the unanimous vote of the State Senate, and all but three votes in the House. He took his seat in the Senate at the special session of the Congress in the spring of 1913. Since his election to the Senate, he had moved to Kansas City, Kansas, and is head of the law firm of Thompson & Robertson.

Senator Thompson, going to the Senate as a democrat, had proved one of the forceful, progressive, independent and constructive workers in the Upper House of the National Legislatura during the present administration. He had been identified with that splendid program of economic and social legislation by which the democratie party justly earned its power and influence in national affairs during the present decade. He had not been a servile follower of his party, but had contributed original thought and leadership in national affairs, and while working with and in his party had often displayed a complets independence in his views on public policy. He had been one of the leaders in the fight for national prohibition and national woman suffrage. The senator was one of those favorably considered by President Wilson for a place on the Supreme Court of the United States, and had he not been a democratie senator in a republican state at a time when his party needed him in the senate, it is generally believed he would have been offered this place.

Senstor Thompson had been a factor in Kansas democratic politics since he became of age. Except while on the bench he participated in every state and national campaign since 1896. As a delegate-at-large to the Democratic National Convention at St. Louis, in 1916, he took an important part in the making of the platform with which the democratic party went before the country. He is active in Masoury, is past commander of the Knights Templar, and is also affiliated with the Mystic Shrine and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. He was married at Seneca, Kansas, August 29, 1894, to Miss Bertha Felt. She is a daughter of ex-Lieut.-Gov. A. J. Felt of Kansas, a Union soldier who saw service with the Seventh Iowa Infantry. Senator and Mrs. Thompson have three children: Thelma Bertha, Wilbert Felt and William Howard, Jr.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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