Captain John M. Turnbull, 1867

Shortest Mayorship Ever in Monmouth

By: Lisa Adams

    He was the man who held the shortest term of Mayor in the state of Illinois. In 1867 John M. Turnbull was elected mayor of Monmouth on May 6th, and resigned on May 7th.1 Why was he only mayor for one day? This may seem odd but before we learn why he was only mayor for a day, let us first get to know who Captain John M. Turnbull really was and what was going on at the time.


   He was born in Ohio, on July 23, 1833.2 His parents, David and Nancy Mitchell Turnbull, came from Green Co., Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and, "through their veins the blood of various Celtic races, with an odd mixture of the Scandinavian" ran.3 His place of birth was near Cederville, Ohio. He was reared on his family’s farm six miles north-west of Monmouth and received his education in the common schools. His entire family, including himself, were members of the First United Presbyterian Church.4


   When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he was twenty-eight. Leaving farming behind, he signed up for duty: "In August, 1861, he enrolled at Kirkwood, this county, in Co. C, 36th Ill. Vol. Inf. as a Second Lieutenant".5 In 1862 after the battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas he was promoted to the position of First Lieutenant. This is the highest rank he received, even though it was well known that he should have had the rank of Captain--after his action in the battles at Perryville, Kentucky, Stone River and Murfreesboro in Tennessee, he was basically in charge of his company. He was then placed on the staff of General W. H. Lytle. While in the process of inspecting the lines at Atlanta, he was fired on while questioning three soldiers. Once he got closer, to the soldiers, he was fired on by a Confederate sentry. Hit in his left knee cap, his leg was shattered and had to be amputated. Despite it he went on to participate in the battle of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga and a few others. He resigned his commission in October of 1864, was discharged, and home by November.


  After he returned to Monmouth, he was appointed to the position of Postmaster to Warren County by President Lincoln. He was a member of the Republican party,6 and took office in May of 1865 and would hold this position until January 16, 1887 . Before the paper work for his new position made it through the proper channels Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and his commission was signed by President Johnson.7 In 1866, however, President Johnson tried to replace him as postmaster with Dr. B. A. Griffith. The Senate, however, refused to approve of this appointment and John M. Turnbull was reinstated to serve out the rest of his term.8 He was later taken out of office in 1887 as a result of an election of the democratic President Cleveland.9 After his term was up, he took some time off. In 1901 he was appointed as, "registrar in the grain office of the railroad and warehouse commission" by Governor Fifer. After two years of service he held a variety of civil offices including police magistrate, town clerk and a justice of the peace.10 All of which seemed to pass by uneventfully.


  While he was Postmaster there seemed to be a contest, over where the post office would be located. "A. C. Harding along with Chauncey Harding and the Harding interests generally", according to the Monmouth Review on January 4th, 1867, Chauncey Harding had volunteered to use his lot to put up the post office building in the spring for the mere sum of three or four hundred dollars a year in rent. It is then later speculated that because, "A. C. Harding is to get a bill through this winter appropriating $25,000 to put up a fire proof office, and as he and Chauncey will control it, of course money will go into the pockets of the Hardings." The article then continued to ask the question of where are the twenty-five men who went through the Atlas last fall and "whitewashed" A. C., giving the public a false sense of confidence in his morals, Christian virtues and temperance. The article finishes up by alluding to the idea that, John M. Turnbull was cheated out of the chance to remain in office longer because of these manipulations.11


   When he ran for mayor he was opposed by the previous mayor, George Babcock, and I. P. Pillsbury–-who dropped out of the race before the election. John M. Turnbull was elected mayor on May 6th 1867. The election results were as follows: in the East Ward, Babcock received two hundred and one votes, Turnbull one hundred and ninety and Pillsbury twelve; in the West Ward Babcock received seventy-nine, Turnbull one hundred and eighty-nine, and Pillsbury twenty-two. This gave Babcock a total of two hundred and eighty, Turnbull three hundred seventy-nine and Pillsbury thirty-four. It was a fairly close race with exception to Pillsbury. Voting in this election, was also not based on parties. It was mainly focused around local issues.12


   According to the County meeting minutes around this time one of the major issues of the town was the installment of sidewalks around town. On July 7, of 1867, at a regularly scheduled meeting, being presided over by Mayor George Babcock, it was ordered that, "the clerks be appointed to collect delinquent side walk tax".13 After this, the side walk tax was being collected, proposals for placements of side walks were coming up from everyone. The minutes on March 4, 1867, reported that sidewalks were to be considered for placement on the west side of Spring Street between Garden and Illinois and then another on the North side of Broadway and running west to the city limits.14


   One of the major issues of the day around 1867 was Negro suffrage. Even up here in the North the question of whether African Americans should be allowed to vote was highly debated. Even though they had been liberated, they were still considered inferior and not given the right to vote. After the war had ended, some of the African-American soldiers that had contact with soldiers from Monmouth were brought back to Monmouth to protect them from being attacked by southern rebels, for their actions of fighting with the North..15 The Monmouth Review, during this time, reports on "Negro Speeches" being given down in the South. In one such article a Mr. J. M. Simins is reported to have been making a speech down in Savannah to a mixed audience of blacks and whites. In his speech he calls for the election of officials who are color blind and for a combined police force of blacks and whites.16 Speeches and debates such as these were happening all over the United States during this time and were very controversial.


   In October of 1854, John M. Turnbull had married Anna P. Orr in Washington, Iowa. She passed away in 1888. Not much is mentioned of her anywhere except that they raised four girls, all of whom lived to adulthood. They sent Mary, Clara, Jennie, and Nancy to Monmouth College for their education. They also had two children that died in infancy, one named Ralph and the other unnamed.17 John married in Chicago, September 8, 1892, Mrs. Hattie A. Edwards.18 He had one child in his second marriage, a son, John. M. Turnbull Jr.19


    Mary E. Turnbull was the only child that there was information on. In 1880 she graduated from Monmouth College with an A.B.20 In that same year she began a teaching career in the town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania.21 As of 1920 she was reported as still living in McKeesport.22 She died on February 11,1932, having also attained an A.M. at some time.23 Throughout these records there is also a Thomas B. Turnbull mentioned and a Jane Turnbull who later was listed as Jean. While I could not place a direct connection with John, except for Mary, I concluded that these two students were related to John M. Turnbull as a niece or nephew. These records, however, illustrate one of the problems with some records, in that while they are related it is hard to tell in what way because names could have been inaccurately recorded, as in the change from Jane to Jean.


   Captain John M. Turnbull died on May 25, 1913, of natural causes at the age of seventy-nine.24 He died at approximately at 8:25 A.M. His death certificate reported that he died specifically from "indigestion and exhaustion from suffering six weeks and suffering from amputated leg for about 20 years". He was scheduled to be buried on May 17, 1913 in Glendale Cemetery.25


    Now, why was he Mayor for only one day? What happened was that after John M. Turnbull was elected, he still held the position of Postmaster. President Johnson said that he could not be Postmaster and Mayor at the same time. So, John M. Turnbull, decided that he would rather continue on as Postmaster, a more permanent post, than to hold the position of mayor for two years. He resigned on May 7, 1867.26 Why he did this no one can really know. It could be as simple as he had a family to support and the office of Postmaster had better pay and benefits than Mayor, or that he didn’t want to be in charge of handling the problems of a still relatively new town. So, for family or political reasons no one can really know except for John M. Turnbull himself.


   In conclusion, John M. Turnbull was mayor for only one day and for what exact reason, we will never really know. We do know that he witnessed the growth of Monmouth in it’s beginnings and played an important role in it. While we may never know everything, through my research I have learned that, "sometimes the answer is that there is no answer", as said by my colleague Savannah Dorrsett.27 So while we may not know exactly why, we do know the who, what, and where about the life of John M. Turnbull, and maybe that in the lack of information that was available, it answers the question about his life in that he lived a relatively quiet and peaceful life.

Lisa Adams wrote this biography in the fall of 2005 as her historiography class project under the direction of William Urban.

            1 Historical and Biographical Record of Monmouth and Warren County Illinois, Vol I (Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company Publishers, 1927), 228.

            2 The Past and Present of Warren County (Chicago: H.F. Kett and Co., 1877), 223.

            3 Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County Illinois (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1886), 617.

            4 Warren Co. Illinois Genealogical Society Deaths and Obituaries extracted from Moffit and Bok September 1911- June 1913 Vol 12, 130; the census of 1850 lists David Turnbull as 41, a farmer, his wife Nancy, 43, John M, 17 and a farmer, Anna E, 15, Sarah J, 13, Nancy A, 12, William W, 10, David A, 8, and Thomas B, 4.

            5 Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County Illinois, 617.

            6 The Past and Present of Warren County, 223.

            7 Warren County Illinois Genealogical Society Obits from Early Monmouth Newspapers, 2 January 1913-30 December 1913 Volume 15, 61

            8 Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County Illinois, 618.

            9 Historical and Biographical Record of Monmouth and Warren County Illinois, 234

            10 Warren County Illinois Genealogical Society Obits from Early Monmouth Newspapers 2 January 1913-30 December 1913 Volume 15, 61.

            11Monmouth Review, Friday Morning, January 4, 1867.

            12 Monmouth Review, April 5, 1867.

            13 City Council Minutes July 10, 1867, p. 37.

            14 City Council Minutes February 4th, 1867 (p.38) and March 4th, 1867 (p. 40)

            15,Oral Interview of Prof. William Urban 11/10/2005.

            16 Monmouth Review, April 19, 1867.

            17 Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County Illinois, 618; the census of 1880 lists J. M. Turnbull, 46 and postmaster, Anna 47, Emma 22, Clara 20, Nannie, 18, Jennie, 16, and a niece, Blanche 19.

            18  Warren Co. Illinois Genealogical Society Deaths and Obituaries extracted from Moffit and Bok September 1911- June 1913 Vol 12, 130.

            19 Warren County Illinois Genealogical Society Obits from Early Monmouth Newspapers 2 January 1913-30 December 1913 Volume 15, 61; the census of 1900 lists J. M. Turnbull as born in July 1832, a real estate dealer, Harriet, his wife born 1836 in Ohio, with step-children Anna Edwards, born July 1878, Hattie J and Elvira L, born May 1888, and son J. M. Turnbull, Jr, born February 1898.

            20Monmouth College Catalogue 1881.

            21Monmouth College Bulletin, May 1908, Series VIII No. 1.

            22Monmouth College Bulletin, 1920, series XX, No. 1.

            23Monmouth College Bulletin, Alumni Directory, 1942.

            24Warren Co. Illinois Genealogical Society Deaths and Obituaries extracted from Moffit and Bok September 1911- June 1913 Vol 12, 130

            25John M. Turnbull’s death certificate, in County Clerk’s office Warren, IL. Courthouse.

            26 Warren County Illinois Genealogical Society Obits from Early Monmouth Newspapers 2 January 1913-30 December 1913 Volume 15, 61. 

            27 Interview with Savanna Dorsett November 13, 2005.