The seventh governor of West Virginia, Emanuel Willis Wilson (August 11, 1844-May 28, 1905) was born at Harpers Ferry. His parents were English immigrants James Fitzgerald Wilson and Mariah (Spangler) Wilson, and he had two brothers and three sisters.
After public schooling and brief employment in the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, Wilson studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1869. The following year he was elected as a Democrat to the West Virginia House of Delegates. In 1872, he won election to the state senate. He married Henrietta S. Cotton on April 27, 1874, and settled in Charleston. He then won two successive terms to the House of Delegates, serving from 1877 to 1881. He was elected speaker in 1880. During his legislative career Wilson sponsored legislation on behalf of mechanics and to outlaw railroad freight charge discrimination.
Although a fine stump orator, sometimes called ‘‘Windy’’ Wilson, he was not an effective political organizer, losing bids for Congress and attorney general. He succeeded in 1884, however, in riding a wave of rural discontent over taxes into the governorship, defeating Republican candidate Edwin Maxwell by a vote of 71,438 to 66,149.
Described by historian Otis Rice as the ‘‘most noted foe of corporate privilege’’ among governors of the era, Wilson represented the traditional agrarian Democrats, in contrast to the Republicans and to the pro-industry wing of his own party. He called for improvements in mine safety and the regulation of railroads. In his messages to the legislature he devoted considerable space to railroad practices that he argued had cost the state millions of dollars, and he called for both federal and state regulations. Chief among the discriminatory practices Governor Wilson sought to end was the common practice of charging more for short hauls of freight than for long hauls. He also recommended legislation to prohibit the practice by railroad companies of issuing free passes to public officials. He recommended extending corrupt practices laws to address bribery in the nomination of candidates for political office. In his 1889 message to the legislature, Wilson advocated antitrust legislation and increased immigration to the state, as well as voter registration as a way to reduce corrupt elections.
Governor at the height of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud, Wilson resisted Kentucky’s request to arrest and extradite Hatfield defendants. He carried on a vigorous correspondence with the governor of Kentucky on behalf of the Hatfields, and, on his orders, West Virginia sued Kentucky for the release of a party of Hatfields carried illegally across the state line. A grateful Devil Anse Hatfield named his youngest son in honor of Wilson.
In 1887, Wilson worked with a small group of legislators to block the reelection of fellow Democrat Johnson N. Camden to the U.S. Senate; Camden represented the pro-industry faction of the party. Although Wilson’s term was to have expired in March of 1889, he continued as governor for an additional 11 months until the disputed election between Republican Nathan Goff and Democrat Aretas Brooks Fleming was resolved in Fleming’s favor.
After leaving office Wilson returned to the practice of law and authored a new election law in 1891. He was buried in Charleston.
Read Gov. Wilson’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Nicholas Burckel
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia: A Bicentennial History. New York: Norton, 1976.
Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978 vol. 4. Westport: Meckler Books, 1978.