By Al Bates

Judging from time they spent away from Arizona during their terms of office many of our early territorial officials would rather have been somewhere else.  But who could blame them?

They came from privileged backgrounds and all were used to the latest in modern conveniences in the way of travel, communication and housing; none of which could be found in their new surroundings.  The record of the first chief justice of Arizona Territory provides a case in point, establishing a personal record for absenteeism that would be hard to top.

Chief Justice William F. Turner was a late addition to the first set of territorial officers when Governor John Gurley died before he could take office.  Turner had been a successful lawyer in Ohio and Iowa before he began attempting to obtain federal appointments in 1863, including petitioning President Lincoln to become Gurley’s replacement.  Lincoln chose John N. Goodwin instead, but named Turner as Goodwin’s replacement as territorial chief justice.

Though Gurley’s death had put an additional delay on the departure of the appointed officials, Turner was later yet, joining the Governor’s party and their military escort, at Fort Larned in southwestern Kansas about three weeks after their late September 1863 departure from Leavenworth, Kansas.

Barely two months after the territorial officers established temporary quarters at the original Fort Whipple some 20 miles north of today’s Prescott, Justice Turner applied for a four-month leave of absence in order to bring his wife to Arizona.  Before permission could be granted—due to the lengthy lag in communication between Arizona and Washington, D.C.—Turner was on his way, not to return to the territory for well over a year (he was gone from April 1864 to November 1865).

His travels included stops at Baltimore for the Republican national convention and at D.C. to lobby for improved mail service, and then on to New York City.  He was in Ohio when his leave expired and was granted an extension to January 1865.  A further request then for another extension was denied, but the Turners still would not be in Arizona for another 11 months.

Meanwhile, Associate Justice William T. Howell had left the territory in June 1864, thus Arizona Territory’s three judicial districts were inadequately served for almost all of its first two years.  As was common in the western territories, the three justices presided over both federal and territorial courts as well as meeting as the Territorial Supreme Court, so those absences were acute.  Only Associate Justice Joseph Pratt Allyn was available for duty from June 1864 until Turner’s return in November 1865.  The first session of the Territorial Supreme Court was held in December 1865 after Howell’s replacement finally arrived.  Only one case was heard.

Justice Turner with his strong views as a member of the “radical” wing of the Republican Party came into conflict with those who encouraged a non-partisan approach to territorial affairs, including the first three territorial governors who he accused of corruption.  He also quarreled with local military officers and ran afoul of Arizona Miner Editor John Marion, a staunch Democrat.  Despite growing opposition to him in Arizona, Turner was appointed to a second four-year term in February 1868 by President Johnson.

In January 1869, with a growing list of enemies clamoring for his removal, Turner once again obtained a leave of absence, not returning until that July.  He traveled east with hopes of replacing Richard McCormick as Arizona governor but lost out to Anson P. K. Safford who aligned himself with the political clique of his predecessors in calling for Turner’s removal as chief justice.  President Grant ultimately granted the wish of Turner’s enemies, ending his tenure in the spring of 1870.  Justice and Mrs. Turner soon left the territory, going to Kansas where he practiced law and engaged in banking.

Her husband was controversial to many, but Justice Turner’s wife Harriet was remembered fondly for her good deeds and has been credited with co-founding Prescott’s first Sunday school with her friend Mrs. Mary Catherine Brooks.  Mrs. Turner died in 1896.  They had no children.

There is no known likeness of Chief Justice Turner who died in 1899 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Indianapolis, Ind.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.