Robert Wilson Turner

HON. ROBERT W. TURNER. One of the most distinguished citizens of Kansas, Hon. Robert Wilson Turner has been a prominent practitioner of the Mankato and Jewell county bar for more than a quarter of a century, and during this time, as well as prior thereto, a leading figure in public life. His public service has been of great practical value not alone to his community, but to the. state and the country, and while his fearless independence, both of speech and political action, has at times brought him into conflict with other state and national leaders, it has decidedly raised him in public estimation.

Robert Wilson Turner, ex-consul general to Spain, was born at Plattsburg, New York, February 4, 1858, a son of Robert Wilson and Martha (Galbreath) (Butler) Turner. His paternal grandfather was Samuel W. Turner a native of England, who was a Government contractor in firearms, and died at Castle Dublin, Ireland, while his maternal grandparents were Samuel and Jane (Lilly) Galbreath, of County Antrim, Ireland, ardent adherents of the principles of Robert Emmet, the great Irish patriot. Robert Wilson Turner, the elder, was born in 1837, at Castle Dublin, Ireland, where he was reared, and during the Crimean war of 1854-56 served in the Thirty-ninth H. M. Infantry, participating in the battles of Alma, Balaklava and Inkermann and the siege of Sebastopol. In 1856 he left the English army and came to America, first locating at Montreal, Canada, where he was married to Mrs. Martha (Galbreath) Butler, widow of Dr. Fred Butler, a preceptor in McGill's Medical College of Montreal. She was born in 1832, at Belfast, Ireland, and died in Smith County, Kansas, in 1897. Mr. and Mrs. Turner had two children: Robert W., and Alice, who is the wife of T. W. Amis, proprietor of. a furniture establishment at Woodward, Oklahoma. In the same year of their marriage, 1856, Mr. and Mrs. Turner removed to Plattsburg, New York, where Mr. Turner engaged in the produce business He was so engaged when the Civil war came on, and as he had been a sergeant major in the British army he made a desirable soldier for the Union, enlisting in 1861 in the One Hundred and Eighteenth Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry, an organization with which he served four years and three months. His command was connected with the Army of the Potomac, and participating in some of the hardest fighting of the entire war, taking part in a number of crucial engagements, in one of which Mr. Turner was wounded in the foot. At the close of his military service he returned to the produce business at Plattsburg, but in 1869 removed to Illinois, where he followed the same line of endeavor until December, 1878. On coming to Smith County, Kansas, at that time, he turned his attention to agricultural pursuits, taking up school land as a pioneer, and residing on this property until 1898, when he went to Woodward, Oklahoma. There his death occurred in the following year. Mr. Turner was a republican in his political views, was a Mason, and a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Robert Wilson Turner, the younger, received his early education at Plattsburg, New York, and at Winona and Fairbury, Illinois, completing his studies at the age of seventeen years, at which time he began to teach in Smith and Jewell counties, Kansas. After four years he was elected county superintendent of schools of Jewell County, serving a full term, and after his re-election, in 1886, served for three months, when he transferred his activities to journalistic work, buying the Western School Journal, published at Topeka, from H. C. Spear. He removed to that city and edited his publication until May, 1889, when he sold it to John McDonald, having been appointed consul general to Cadiz, Spain, by President Harrison. He went to that country in July, 1889, and remained a little over four years, resigning in September, 1893, although his services were of such an eminently satisfactory character that he could have held the office indefinitely. While in Spain Mr. Turner's diplomatic labors were of the greatest benefit to American trade. He translated the commercial laws of that country, this work being published by the United States Department of State and being considered one of the most thorough and comprehensive labors of its kind ever accomplished. It was largely through his individual efforts that information was secured by the State Department which resulted in so changing the tone of the Spanish press that the treaty was made possible between Spain and the United States abolishing the prohibition of the use of American meats. Acting with Lieut. McCarthy Little, U. S. N., Mr. Turner awarded the contracts for the building of the caravels Pinta, Nina and Santa Maria, which were exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, in 1893 and 1894, and for these services was decorated by the Sociedad Columbina de Espana. Upon the election of Grover Cleveland to the presidency, Mr. Turner resigned as consul and returned to the United States. Prior to going to Spain he had studied law and had been admitted to the bar in 1886; by Hon. Clark A. Smith, formerly associate justice, and when he located at Mankato, in October, 1893, resumed his large law practice, a general and criminal practice which brought him as representative of prominent interests into the state and federal courts. This professional business has grown in size and importance and he now controls practically all the criminal law business of Jewell County. Mr. Turner is a member of the Jewell County Bar Association, the Kansas State Bar Association and the American Bar Association, and maintains offices in the Hill Building, on Commercial Street.

In 1896 Mr. Turner was urged to become a candidate for Congress, but declined. The attitude of the republican party with regard to the silver question did not meet with his views, and after that party's national convention he declared himself in support of bi-metallism. He was chairman of the committee on resolutions of the Silver Republican State Convention, in favor of bi-metallism and the candidacy of Bryan and Sewall, the findings of which body were unanimously adopted by the party. He was subsequently made the national committeeman of the bolting republicans of the state and was sent as delegate-at-large to the silver convention at St. Louis, and during the campaign that followed was one of the strongest and most forceful advocates of bi-metallism, making a thorough canvass of the state.

In 1897 Mr. Turner was appointed secretary of the State Board of Railroad Commissioners. When the question of calling an extra session of the Kansas Legislature was raised, he took an advanced position in opposition to the necessity of such procedure, holding that the law, as it then existed, gave the board power to fix rates and control the charges of railroads and that with a few slight amendments, which could be made at a regular session, it could be made the most effective railroad law in the United States. He made an able argument through the press in support of his contention, and this was sustained by Judge Randolph in the livestock freight rate case, August 27, 1897, in which the court held that the board could make an order establishing rates and secure the enforcement of just rates so made through the state courts. This ruling was of the greatest importance to the shippers of the state, and Mr. Turner's action in the premises was evidence of his legal acumen no less than of his courage in opposing the policy of party managers in so determined and forceful a manner. In the same year he gave another evidence of his independence in politics by refusing to support a bi-metallist for judge of his district, holding that partisan politics should not be permitted to influence American citizens in making selections for the judiciary of a free people, but that fitness for the position alone should be the test. He supported the regular republican nominee, who overcame a majority of 2,000 and was elected. By reason of his independent stand in this judicial contest Mr. Turner secured the enmity of certain members of the administration, and his relations with them subsequently became so strained that in May, 1898, he resigned his official position and resumed his practice of law at Mankato, which carries him almost entirely into the higher courts. It is sufficient to remember that while he lost some ground in political circles, he made many friends by an earnest, straightforward expression of his opinions, irrespective of his political future. Later Mr. Turner was tendered an appointment as lieutenant-colonel of the Twenty-third Kansas Regiment by Governor Leedy, but declined this honor, stating that as all the officers and men that would be under him were colored, it would be much better to make no exception in his case, but to appoint a colored officer to the position.

Mr. Turner is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. His connection with fraternal life has made him widely known in this connection, and at the present time he belongs to Mankato Lodge No. 87, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, Mankato Lodge, Independent Order of Odd Fellows; and Mankato Lodge, Ancient Order of United Workmen. He is also a member of the Grand Lodge of the last named body, in 1900 was elected to the office of grand master workman of Kansas and during his incumbency of that position, from 1901 to 1903, distributed $1,500,000 to beneficiaries in the state. In 1906 Mr. Turner erected a modern residence on High Street, Mankato, in addition to which he owns another residential property on the same thoroughfare and farming lands in Jewell County aggregating 640 acres.

Mr. Turner married first in 1881, in the community formerly known as Omio, Kansas, Miss Eva G. Kramer, daughter of the late Michael and Etta (Bartlett) Kramer, the former of whom was a florist. Mrs. Turner died in 1907, at Mankato, being survived by two children: May, a graduate in music of Lindsborg College, and now the wife of Samuel Peters, a mining engineer of Denver, Colorado; and Robert Blaine, a graduate of the Mankato High School, who took a two-year course at Kansas University and is now engaged in farming and stockraising in the vicinity of Ionia, Kansas. In 1909, at Spokane, Washington, Mr. Turner was united in marriage with Mrs. Frances V. (Watson) Sturtevant. Mrs. Turner is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Watson, of Gem, Nebraska, where Mr. Watson is engaged in agricultural operations.

Mr. Turner was chairman of the Belgian committee that raised $3,400 in Jewell County, and was active in raising $34,000 in Jewell County for the American Red Cross.


A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, written and compiled by William E. Connelley, Secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, copyright 1918; transcribed 1997.
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