Biography of John Harrison Atwood

John Harrison Atwood. While Mr. Atwood had had his home and law business at Kansas City, Missouri, since 1909, he is still regarded as a Kansas man. His is one of the names most familiar to the people of the state in the realm of law and oratory and political leadership. For a quarter of a century Mr. Atwood was a member of the Kansas bar, residing at Leavenworth. Perhaps as much credit is due to him as to any other individual for the rehabilitation and upbuilding of the democratic party in Kansas. In 1896 came Bryan and a new era for demoeracy and leadership fell naturally to a group consisting of J. G. Johnson, E. E. Murphy, David Overmeyer and others, among whom was conspicuons the subject of this article, both from his courage, his character and his ability as a platform speaker. During his last eight years of residence in the state he was the democratic national committeeman for Kansas.

His greatest achievements, however, have been in his profession, the law, Mr. Atwood came to Kansas fresh from the schools of the East. He sprang from cultured New England stock. He was born at Phillipston, Worcaster County, Massachusetts, September 12, 1860. He was the youngest of three sons born to Andrew Atwood and Emma Holden Atwood. The father was a native of Messachusstts, the mother of Rhode Island.

John H. Atwood attended the public schools of Athol and Ayer, Massachusetts and afterwards matriculated at Harvard University. A year of travel and study in Europe interrupted his college course but he graduated with the degree of LL. B. in 1884.

He married Miss Nellie Wyman, a daughter of Hon. John P. Wyman of Arlington, a Harvard graduate, a large land owner in the resident Town of Arlington adjacent to the university Town of Cambridge.

Chance determined his selection of the West as a field for his activities. A college chum, named Davenport, the summer preceding graduation, traveled throughout the West and Northwest with a view of ascertaining the best place for the ambitious young lawyer to locate. He became infatuated with Kansas and inoculated young Atwood, among others of his classmates. Kansas was far enough north to be rich in wheat and far enough south to be rich in corn; her sons were more stalwart and her women more beautiful than those of any state visited. Atwood determined to come to Kansas. Armed with a letter of introduction to a Topeka lawyer he made a dean jump from his Massachusetts home to Topeka where he was admitted to the Kansas bar by the Hon. John Martin, then judge of the District Court of Shawnee County and afterwards United States Senator. An acquaintance from his home town was in business in Leavenworth and urged Atwood to come. He went and was fortunate in the friends he made. Ed Murphy, now the controlling head of the Modern Woodmen of America, was among his first acquaintances. Murphy’s father-in-law, Colonel Moonlight, powerful as a citzen and democratie leader, Doctor Neeley, then mayor of Leavenworth, and others extended him a warm welcome. This was in January, 1885. On January 25th the Robert Burns Club, then a strong social organization, gave a memorial dinner and Colonel Moonlight gave the young man a place on the program and his speech so pleased his auditors that he was given an immediate place on the democratic speaking staff then just entering upon the spring campaign for mayor. Doctor Neeley was reelected and young Atwood was named as Deputy City Attorney under William C. Hook, who, though a republican, held the office of City Councellor under democratic regime; be is now the Hon. William C. Hook, judge of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. Opportunity had knocked rather sharply at young Atwood’s door and he not only responded to the knock but kept the door open.

That was a time when Memorial Day was more elaborately celebrated than now. The presence of the fort and the Soldiers Home raturally caused elaborate preparations to be made at Leavenworth for the calebration. Senator John J. Ingalls had accepted the invitation to be the speaker of the day; at the last minute he wired his inability to come; the committee hastily sought a substitute and finally selected young Atwood. That speech fixed his fams as an orator. The oceasion was truly imspiring; battalions of regular troops of all the arms of the service, hundreds of aged veterans from the home and vast crowds of citizens, presided over by General Auger of the regular army, presented an oceasion to which the young man completely rose. Among his andience was Col. Thomas P. Fenlon the most distinguished criminal lawyer ever at the Kansas bar. The next day Colonel Fenlon met Atwood on the street, introduced himself and offered him a place in his office which the young man was only too glad to accept. In the fall of 1896 he was elected to the office of county attorney and reelected in 1888 and 1890, the last time receiving more than twice as many majority as his adversary received votes. In 1892 he sought election to Congress but was defeated. Retiring from the office of county attorney in 1892 he organized the law firm of Crozier, Atwood, Petherbridge and Levinson; Judge Crozier had just retlred from the distrlct bench; association with him could but be deemed an honor by any young man for he had been United States district attorney, judge of the State Supreme Court and United States Senator. Two years later Judge Crozier’s death dissolved the partnership. Shortly thereafter Hon. Lucien Baker was elected to the United State Senate and the firm of Baker, Hook and Atwood was organized. The appointment of Judge Hook to the United States beneh dissolved this partnership and until his removal to Kansas City Mr. Atwood was associated in the business with W. W. Hooper, Lee Bond and F. E. Harper. For years he had been an intimate friend of James A. Reed, now junior senator from Missouri, and frequently urged by him to come to Kansas City and join him in the law business. In 1908 Atwood. was manager of the western national headquarters of the democratic party and upon the defeat of the party nationally Atwood yielded to Reed’s urging, removed to Kansas City and organized, with Mr. Reed, the firm of Reed, Atwood, Yates, Mastin and Harvey. The firm’s suecess was great from the beginning. Reed’s ambition to be senator however terminated this business relation in 1912 by his election to the United States senate and Atwood organized the law firm of Atwood and Hill, selecting as his partner the chief law clerk of the old firm. Atwood’s success in his profession had been conspicuous. He had been identified with some of the most famons cases in the West. He first sprung to distinction as a trial lawyer when employed by the United States to prosecute the defendant in the famous Metman murder case, This case will be remembered by old residents as the case where the Metman woman’s dismembered body was found in the Missouri River. Benson was convicted and committed suicide. He was attorney in the famous John W. Hillman will case remembered because of the claim of the insurance companies that another body than Hillman’s was being palmed off to obtain $25,000 of insurance money; there had been six trials of this case without result; on this trial a verdict was obtained and over $40,000 recovered for the widow. The first freight rate case of moment under the new freight rate laws of 1906 was won by Atwood as the attorney for all the Missouri River shippers from Omaha to Kansas City inclusive; the case is familiar to the freight rate world as the Burnháam-Hanna-Munger freight rate case. In 1910 he obtained a verdict against the Intercity Viaduct Company of Kansas City for $350,000, the then largest verdict ever obtained in Missouri. Though not specializing as a patent attorney he had had to do with some of the largest patent litigation in the West. The Hancock Rotary Plow case in which the rights of parties to use the now universally employed disc plow, was won by him. The Kryptok spectacle lens case, familiar to all, was another of his conspicuous patent cases. In the Peter Deming case he established for the first time that no volumteer soldier could be lawfully tried by a court martial on which a regular army officer sat. This result caused a jail delivery of 1,600 Federal prisoners. A private soldier, Homer Grafton was sentenced to a long term of penal servitude in a Philippine prison; the army organized for his defense. The late Major Boughton, law lecturer in the war college, was made chairman of a committee representing the whole army; a large defense fund was subscribed. Major Boughton and his committees selected Atwood as the champion of the soldier in the Supreme Court of the United States. The case was won and the rights of the Amcrican soldier in the Philippine Islands was fixed for all time. He had been with Senator Chester I. Long and the Hon. Robert Stone of Topeka, representatives of the Kansas Natural Gas interests in litigation involving some fifteen millions of property and one of the landmarks in Kansas federal jurisprndence.

Reverting to his political career, in 1888 he organized and was first prcsident of the famous Bandanna Club, so named from Senator Thurman’s famous bandanna handkerchief of old, the seuator being that year the vice presidential nominee of the democratic party. As its president he introduced Williams Jennings Bryan to his first audience outside of Nebraska. From that day they remained fast friends and in 1896, at Mr. Bryan’s request, went as a delegate at large to the national democratic convention. In that convention as chairman of the credentials committee he so conducted matters that Mr. Bryan, who had been excluded from a seat in the convention by the national committee, was given a place in that body and insured the seating of enough reform delegates to insure for Mr. Bryan the two-thirds majority required by democratic tradition. He was a delegate at large to the national convention of 1896, 1900, 1904 and 1908 from Kansas and from the State of Missouri in 1916. In the great battle of 1896 it is generally conceded that the state was carried for Bryan by the powerful speeches of Mr. Atwood and the late David Overmeyer.

Mr. and Mrs. Atwood have three daughters, Ruth, married to a distinguished lawyer of St. Paul, Mr. Price Wickersham; Helen, the wife of Capt. William A. Austin, now in command of the remount station of the United States army at Fort Keogh, Montana; and Dorothy, married to Capt. Robert M. Campbell, Seventh Cavalry, former instructor in Spanish at West Point and because of his great aptitude in the Spanish language, sent by the Government to Spain to perfect himself in that language.

Mr. Atwood is a member of the following clubs: Midday, University, Mission Hills Country, the Harvard, the Commercial and the Kansas City Athletie. He is a York and Scottish Bite Mason and in 1900 was made head of the Ancient Arabie Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine of North America, to which none except Knight Templars and thirty-second degrce Masons are admitted. For more than twenty years he ruled over Abdallah Temple of the Shrine at Leavenworth.

Mr. Atwood is a member of the Missouri and American Bar Associations and is in wide demand as a speaker before state bar associations and assemblages of lawyers. He is vice president of the Manufacturers National Bank of Leavenworth, general counsel of the Eureka Oil Company, one of the glant oil operators in Kansas and Oklahoma. His character and scholarly attainments as well as his successes materially and professionally makes Kansas well content to consider him one of her sons.



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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