U.S. Senator John Edward Kenna (April 10, 1848-January 11, 1893) was born in Kanawha County, the son of Irish immigrant Edward Kenna and Margery Lewis, who was the great grand daughter of Andrew Lewis.
Edward Kenna was killed by his Lewis brothers-in-law in a scandalous public shooting at Charleston’s fashionable Kanawha House hotel in June 1856. In 1858, his widow moved her family, including young John, to Missouri, where a brother lived, remaining until the outbreak of the Civil War. The family lived there in relative poverty, and John Kenna later recalled working as a boy on the Missouri farm. He joined the Confederate army at age 16, served for the remainder of the war, and was wounded. In August 1865, he returned to Kanawha County, where his mother had reestablished the family. Kenna studied at St. Vincent Academy in Wheeling until 1868, then studied law at a law office in Charleston. He was admitted to the bar in 1870.
Elected Kanawha County prosecuting attorney in 1872 at age 24, Kenna rose rapidly as a politician. He was elected circuit judge in 1875 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1876. He was reelected to Congress in 1878, 1880, and 1882. Along with Governor William MacCorkle, future Sen. W. E. Chilton, and others, Kenna was a member of the so-called ‘‘Kanawha Ring’’ of the Democratic Party. Assisted by his powerful connections, Kenna built his popularity in the Kanawha Valley by working for improvements to the Kanawha River navigation system and by his efforts to have the state capital moved permanently back to Charleston. In 1883, the state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, unseating the powerful Henry Gassaway Davis, a leader of a rival faction within the party. Kenna was returned to the Senate for a second term in 1889. He died in Washington at age 45, of an illness described as pleurisy complicated by heart trouble.
Remembered by W.E.R. Byrne, author of the West Virginia nature classic, Tale of the Elk, as a ‘‘great lover of the outdoors,’’ John Kenna was a hunter, fisherman, and accomplished photographer. A noted orator, he appeared with a traveling circus in his campaign to move the state capital to Charleston, working in that effort with a popular circus clown. He was unusual as a Roman Catholic in high office in the West Virginia of his day. Kenna is one of two West Virginians memorialized by a statue in the U.S. Capitol. The Jackson County community of Kenna is named in his honor.
Last Revised on October 07, 2010