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While the years of his greatest activity and achievement, the period which made him a national figure, were spent in other localities, a special interest attaches to the career of Elisha W. McComas in Kansas, not only because he lived in that state for many years, but members of his family still reside there.
He was born in Cabell County in Old Virginia, the second in a family of six sons. His father was a prominent man in Old Virginia, served several terms in Congress, filled a position on the local bench, and other places of honor. The early life of Governor McComas was spent in that portion of Virginia which subsequently became the war-born State of West Virginia. He was educated chiefly in Ohio and was admitted to the bar in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1841. At the outbreak of the war with Mexico he was commissioned a captain in the Eleventh Virginia Infantry and served throughout the war. He was at one time wounded and taken prisoner and received his honorable discharge July 20, 1848.
After the Mexican war he took up the practice of law, and as a brilliant young Southerner naturally drifted into politics. He was elected to the Virginia Legislature, and in 1855 had the distinction of being chosen lieutenant governor of Virginia on the ticket with Governor Henry A. Wise. He resigned his place as lieutenant governor in 1857. The admitted reason for his resignation was ill health and a desire to seek a new climate, but his intimate friends said that his resignation was largely prompted on account of a difference with Governor Wise on the policy of executing John Brown, and that is another fact which gives his career an intimate interest in Kansas.
On leaving Virginia he established himself in the practice of law at Chicago, and was soon a recognized leader of the bar of that city. Reputation came to him in one case. What the Burdell case was in New York, the Jumpertz case was to Chicago. It was up to that time the most noted murder case in the State of Illinois. Governor McComas was chosen counsel for the defense, and Jumpertz, who had been charged with cutting Sophia Werner into pieces and packing the remains into a trunk which he shipped to Chicago was pronounced not guilty and allowed to go free. The case bad been twice tried in Chicago, and it not only proved a great local sensation but gave Governor McComas a national reputation as a lawyer.
His name also belongs to Chicago history because of his connection with the old Chicago Times. When Cyrus H. McCormick, the inventor of the McCormick reaper, bought the Chicago Times in 1860 he placed in charge of its editorial management this brilliant young Virginian. The Times had been established as a democratic paper to support the administration, and Governor McComas brought to his work much of that power and ability which later distinguished the Times under the rule of Wilbur F. Storey. He continued editor of the Times until Mr. Storey bought the paper at the beginning of the war. Governor McComas remained a resident of Chicago for several years, throughout the period of the war, and during that time not only continued his newspaper work but also his practice as a lawyer. He was on intimate terms of friendship with Stephen A. Douglas, and his beautiful tribute to that great statesman after his death was widely read and appreciated. Throughout his residence in Chicago Governor McComas was a prominent figure in nearly every public occasion. He had the courtesy of the heart which distinguished the true type of the old Southerner, and as an orator his services were much in demand. It is recalled that on the visit of the Prince of Wales to Chicago Governor McComas was chosen to deliver the address of welcome, and it was to him and other members of the committee that Lord Lyons made the acknowledgment in behalf of the prince for his entertainment.
After the war Governor McComas returned to his old place in Virginia, which in the meantime had become West Virginia, and he lived there until 1868. While there he had looked after the affairs of his father and remained until his father died. In 1868 he removed with his family to Nebraska, settling on a farm near Omaha, but in 1870 he came to Fort Scott and lived there the rest of his life. A short time before his death he removed from the city to the farm which he had given his son Gordon McComas, six miles north of Fort Scott, and there death came to him by the same disease which had taken away his father, heart failure.
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During his residence at Fort Scott he won a special place of esteem in the hearts of all the local citizens. His great ability and advice were invoked upon every important occasion of public concern. He showed himself always progressive and gave his indomitable energy to every public movement. His eloquent voice and powerful pen were always ready in behalf of public improvement and he did much to insure the city’s permanent welfare. He served as the first president of the Board of Trade of Fort Scott and only ill health caused him to decline the office for a second term. His last years were spent quietly and he found much pleasure in reading and writing.
Governor McComas did not confine his writing entirely to newspaper editorials and special articles, but wrote and published several books, all of them of a philosophical or religious character. His first was entitled: “A Rational View of Jesus and Religion,” the second was “The Divine Problem,” and the third was “A Concept of the Universe.”
Governor McComas married Ariana Holderbay, who was also of a Virginia family.