Jump to Navigation

William E. Stanley

Politician, governor. Republican. Born: December 28, 1844, Knox County, Ohio. Died: October 13, 1910, Wichita, Kansas. Served as 15th Governor of Kansas: January 9, 1899, to January 12, 1903.

William Stanley

William Eugene Stanley was born in Knox County, Ohio, on December 28, 1844, in Knox County, Ohio, to Almon Fleming and Angelina (Sapp) Stanley. His father was a popular physician in the country. He grew up with one brother and one sister.

He was educated at area common schools, and later attended Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware. Afterward he studied law in Kenton, Ohio, at the office of Bain and King and continued his law studies in Dayton, Ohio, at the office of Conover and Craighead. Stanley was known for his attention to legal detail and his presentation style in deliberations.

Stanley was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1868. After two years in law practice he moved to Jefferson County, Kansas. He gained a reputation in eastern Kansas and Missouri for his competence in the practice of law. There he found his place in the Republican Party. He served as county attorney for the next two years. In 1872 he moved to the new community of Wichita where he became the Sedgwick County attorney serving three terms.

He married Emma Lenora Hills on May 30, 1876; they had three sons, one dying at infancy, and one daughter. His was a member of the Methodist church. 

In 1880 he won election and served in the state house of representatives for one term. Around that time Governor E. N. Morrill had offered him several appointments as judge on the court of appeals, but Stanley persistently declined. Instead he decided to remain in Wichita until he was nominated by the Republican state convention for governor in 1898. He defeated the incumbent governor, John Whitnah Leedy, by about 15,000 votes. 

Stanley assumed the office of governor at the beginning of the 20th century during a progressive period, a time of new and vast industrialization, and also when the first automobiles would appear on the roads. He was largely considered a middle of the road governor, but very capable and honest. He entered the governorship in good economic times, and commodity businesses throughout the eastern half of the state were booming. There was an abundance of livestock production, and wheat harvesting was bountiful.

During this time the state rapidly paid down its excessive public and private debt, astonishing financial authorities. The sole explanation was in the natural resources of the state. For over a period of seven years Kansas paid off more than $100,000,000 of debt because it produced more than $4,000,000,000 worth of farm products and livestock.

Governor Stanley worked hard to reorganize the business of state, and numerous changes to that affect were successful. But his perceived mandate to abolish what he considered “useless departments” was not as successful because the redundant layers of state bureaucratic systems that had evolved over the years were incredibly solid and virtually unbreakable. The state's “first couple” was the first to live in the newly-built Kansas executive mansion in Topeka, located at Eighth and Buchanan.

He increased the number of supreme court justices from three to seven for reasons unknown to the legislature or the people of Kansas, and this created some concern that he may have favored special treatment of individuals. Previously Governor Leedy had been criticized for calling a midnight pre-departure special session of the legislature to enact new laws to regulate the railroads, mainly to place limits on passenger ticket and freight charges; this political ploy was named the court of visitation. Governor Stanley embraced Leedy’s intent but recommended a more conservative approach with more leniency toward the railroads. In the end, however, suits filed to test the validity of the court were successful, and the court was declared unconstitutional.

The governor was successful, however, in getting the funding appropriated to finally complete the statehouse building in Topeka and to establish a binding-twine plant at the state penitentiary in Lansing for the purpose of low cost competition for the binder-twine trust. The governor also officially authorized the first traveling library commission of Kansas. The idea of a traveling library was borne by women of the Kansas Book Club in May 1897 to promote a statewide literacy campaign. The traveling libraries proved a brilliant idea, and in many communities the program served as sole means to bring reading material to their citizens. 

He was nominated once again for governor in 1900 and defeated the Democratic and People’s Party candidate, John W. Breidenthal, in the general election.

The legislature of 1901 established a new board of railroad commissioners and the members' specific duties were diligently defined. An appropriation of about $47,000 was also rendered to pay the cost of transporting the 20th Kansas Infantry Regiment home. The issue of the good-roads bill was frequently discussed, and a commission was appointed to investigate the matter. 

A few episodes of unrest occurred on Governor Stanley’s watch, one of which involved a work strike at the state’s penitentiary in 1901 resulting in the deaths of two inmates and the subsequent punishment of the ringleaders. Poor working and housing conditions prompted another inmate revolt at the U. S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth when 27 convicts escaped; 18 of these were killed or captured within few days of the escape. 

In 1902, when a Leavenworth County sheriff permitted the lynching of an African American man, Governor Stanley was outraged and publicly condemned the act. Afterward the state legislature passed a resolution of tough language that would restrict the use of capital punishment for only those crimes that are considered most severe. As a result of this resolution's passage, Kansas did not execute another convict for more than three decades.

The issue of prohibition was another matter the governor was dealt. Prohibition had lacked the urgency of former times, and for the governor the order of enforcing prohibition had become a non-issue. But the timing of this could not have been worse for Governor Stanley because Carry Nation was coming to Topeka. On January 28, 1901, Nation, a staunch prohibitionist, literally invaded the office of the governor and for a solid hour scolded him for not enforcing the prohibition laws and for not closing down illegal saloons of which there were many operating at the time. She called the governor a “blatant lawbreaker” and “perjurer” to his face and insisted that he accompany her around Kansas to help smash up saloons. At one point, the governor lost his temper and said to Nation, “You are a women, but a women must know a woman’s place; you just can’t come in here and raise this kind of disturbance.” Only a few days before, Nation had received a black eye from a saloon smashing party in Enterprise, Kansas. She even had her portrait drawn in the governor’s office depicting her heroic eye bruise for sacrifice to a moral cause.

In 1902 Stanley refused to seek a third term as governor, but did have an eye on a seat in the U. S. Senate, then elected by the state legislature. In the senate selection of 1903, a deadlock on the first 16 ballots ensued. Stanley’s frustration over what he thought would be a sure fill resulted in his withdrawal in favor of another lawyer from Wichita, Chester I. Long. After leaving Topeka in 1903 Stanley resumed his law practice in Wichita, and later that year he served on the Dawes Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes at its headquarters in Tishomingo, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

Stanley’s sport of relaxation was archery, and he was once the Kansas state archery champion, while his wife, Emma, was the champion women archer in Wichita.

He died of natural causes in Wichita on October 13, 1910; he is buried in Wichita’s Highland Cemetery.

Entry: Stanley, William E.

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2011

Date Modified: February 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.