Circuit Judge William Corwin Johns was a staple of the Decatur, Illinois, courthouse during the early twentieth century. When he died suddenly in 1914, he was eulogized for having laid down the law with impartiality while “preserv[ing] more strict decorum in his court room than any judge ever on the bench in Macon county.” (Decatur Review, June 26, 1914, p. 5)
There was good reason for his solemn demeanor while administering the law. The future judge had been named for former Ohio governor Tom Corwin, a friend of his father. Tom Corwin’s sharp tongue and trenchant wit earned him a reputation as the best stump speaker of an era that placed a premium on public speaking. But in 1861 — right after traveling to twelve states to give speeches for Abraham Lincoln — the famed politician gave his young namesake some surprising advice.
“About all, do not be a clown,” was the counsel of the celebrated orator. “The misfortune of my life was that I could make people laugh. I have wanted to be president of the United States and I could have been were it not that I made too many people laugh … At first I thought that people admired me when they laughed at or with me, but that was a mistake. They only admired my ability to entertain them, and that is quite a different thing from regarding one as a big man.” (Decatur Review, October 30, 1904, p. 16)
Johns took the words to heart. While noted for his wit and story-telling in private life, throughout his career on the bench, he “was dignified and refined … at times austere, and never indulged in or permitted levity in his court room.” Longtime observers were able to recall only one solitary occasion on which Johns had allowed himself a moment of jocularity. That one exception occurred when a woman attempted to get a divorce from her deceased husband to make sure he didn’t come back, prompting the judge to inform her, “You’ll have to take this case to a higher court.” (Decatur Review, July 1, 1914, p. 6)
But while Johns earned respect for the serious approach that he took as he laid down the law, some of the older residents of Decatur also recalled something else that the distinguished judge had once laid down. Back when the judge had been in college he had been responsible for the creation of the city’s first baseball diamond.
The future judge was born in Circleville, Ohio, on December 7, 1846, to Dr. H. C. Johns and his wife Jane. Their son was christened Corwin in honor of his father’s friend, but when he was sixteen William was added to the front of his name. The future judge continued to go by Corwin or Corry to his friends but as W. C. Johns in official life.
When Corwin was two years old the family moved to Piatt County, Illinois, and four years later settled permanently in Decatur. At seventeen, he enlisted in the Union Army but his regiment (Illinois 145th Infantry, Company E) saw only guard duty and he was mustered out after six months’ service.
He then studied at Lombard University for six months before enrolling in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan, Class of 1869. “Regulation” baseball had been introduced on the campus in 1863 and had become enormously popular among the students. In 1867, the club’s captain had to write to the school newspaper to apologize for evergreens and elm trees being removed from the playing field “by some one who had more in mind the interests of ball players, center fielders in particular, than the worth of the trees or the feeling of the authorities.”
That same year also saw the University of Michigan’s first nine defeat the previously invincible Detroit Base Ball Club by the astonishing score of 70-18. Johns was not one of the players on the first nine, but it seems very likely he was among the throng of students who waited at the Ann Arbor depot until well after midnight to greet the triumphant club. (See my Baseball Fever for details)
We do know for certain that his enthusiasm for the game was sufficient that he introduced it to Decatur. On one of his vacations, probably in 1866, he returned home full of enthusiasm for the new game. Characteristically, Johns was serious and methodical in doing so. After determining that the Wabash freight house was the ideal location for a diamond, “he borrowed A. T. Risley’s surveying instruments and laid out [the] diamond assisted by the late Tom C. Heaton of Springfield who was then bookkeeper for Hinkle & Priest’s mill and C. M. Allison who drove the stakes.”
Decatur’s first ball club was soon formed. Johns served as pitcher and was supported by Bob Montgomery at catcher, Lee Gill at first base, T. C. Hinkle at second base, Charley Packard at shortstop, Tracy Oviat at third base, Ike Archer as right fielder, Allison in center field, Sam Montgomery in left field, and Howard Wood, Matthias Kauffman, E.W. Wood, and Cass C. Carnick as reserves. (“Prehistoric Baseball in Decatur,” undated article from the Decatur Daily Review, reprinted in the Review, June 28, 1914)
Johns’ education undoubtedly interfered with the development of the club, but it was still fondly remembered by locals. According to a 1905 article, Johns “was the star pitcher for the McPhersons, the great prehistoric ball team in Decatur. In that day Corwin Johns was as famous as a baseball pitcher as was Joe McGinnity in modern times. Corwin could throw a ball further than any other man in Decatur, and now it is insisted that after a rest of thirty years his good south-paw arm should have all the charley horse worked out of it.” (Decatur Daily Review, August 11, 1905)
Johns received his diploma from the University of Michigan in 1869, the same year that the National Association of Base Ball Players allowed professional play for the first time. But it seems unlikely that Johns even contemplated such a career choice. Instead he entered Albany Law School that year and spent the rest of his life pursuing his legal career.
After earning his degree from Albany, he spent six months in the office of Crea and Ewing and then began his own practice. Demands for his services grew quickly, and he became involved in many important cases, including an important one involving the Chicago drainage canal. In 1880 he was elected a state’s attorney.
In 1882, Corwin Johns married Nellie Harper and built a new house on East Eldorado Street for them to spend their married life. Unfortunately, their time together was brief. Nellie died a few years later, having had no children, and Corwin returned to the family home. He never remarried, and devoted the rest of his life to public service and the law.
Johns served in the state senate from 1887 to 1891. In 1901 he was elected circuit judge court for the sixth district and held that post until his death, earning a reputation for hard work and sagacious rulings. Around 1911 his health began to fail and by the spring of 1914, his voice had become so weak that he moved from the bench to a chair in the middle of the courtroom so that he could be heard.
That June, Judge Johns left for a vacation in Hawaii and confided to an associate that he intended to resign from the bench upon his return to Decatur. But he never made it to Hawaii. On a stopover in San Francisco on June 25, 1914, he suffered an aneurysm and died. Despite the signs of declining health, his death came as a shock to many friends and relatives as Corwin Johns had remained so stolid and cheerful that many expected him to recover.
Many obituaries and reminiscences that appeared in the Decatur Daily Review on June 26, 1914 and subsequent days; Peter Morris, Baseball Fever, on baseball at the University of Michigan; newspaper accounts (as noted), census records and military records.
December 7, 1846 at Circleville, OH (US)
June 14, 1914 at San Francisco, CA (US)
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