(left) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 12 Feb 1925 (right) William Martin JonesRecently, I have been reviewing the William Jennings Bryan (D, P)/William McKinley (R) election of 1896 — looking closely at the rhetoric surrounding Bryan’s August 1896 campaign stop in Rochester — for a forthcoming article comparing Bryan and Bernie Sanders, both of whom railed against big corporations and found many faults with capitalism.
In doing so, I came across Rochesterian W. Martin Jones (1841 – 1906) whose papers are held in the Rare Books Room at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library. A prominent lawyer, Jones was the Prohibition Party’s candidate for Attorney General in 1885 and for Governor in 1888, garnering over 30,000 votes.
However, in 1896 Jones, alarmed at the possible election of Bryan, switched to the Republican Party as reported by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:
Not surprisingly, given that the Democrat and Chronicle strongly endorsed McKinley, the article cast an approving tone, citing Jones’ fears about Bryan. In the 1896 evocation of socialism, today we could imagine the excerpt as a broadside from Fox News against Bernie Sanders.
Jones also campaigned for McKinley in Michigan against the wishes of the Prohibition Party.
In Michigan, Jones reported that business leaders were pushing back against Bryan’s populism. Bryan had been nominated for president by both the Democrat and Populist parties.
In his anti-populist and anti-anarchist stance, Jones’ rhetoric was typical of the election — and won the day (watch out Bernie Sanders). McKinley carried Michigan 53% to 43% while the Prohibition candidate received only 1,800 votes. According to historian Blake McKelvey, in Rochester Bryan got less than two fifths of the vote.
I also found another curious tidbit on Jones’ political views. Following the Spanish-American War, the United States occupied the Philippines, debating what to do with the former Spanish colony. In a November 1898 article, Jones offered an extensive and detailed rationale that the United States should purchase the Philippines from Spain for as much as $50 million. Unlike Trump’s failed bid to buy Greenland, in 1899 the United States did in fact buy the Philippines for $20 million.
In his 1906 obituary (see full obituary at end), the Democrat and Chronicle makes a noteworthy claim: Jones was the first person to propose the idea.¹
Furthermore, supposedly Jones’ proposal drew such wide attention and was so convincing that it was included in the Treaty of Paris authorizing the sale. The claim itself feels dubious. In the historical record, I’ve found no mention of Jones in relation to the Philippines. Whether the purchase was Jones’ idea or not, the treaty was not well received in the Philippines. Filipino nationalists were incensed at the arrogance of the imperial powers to bargain away their independence for the tidy price of $20 million with not so much as a pretense of consultation.²
Finally, when I googled Jones, I discovered the most striking aspect of his life. At age 23 and Chief Clerk of the Consular Service in the State Department, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater, Jones was sitting in front of the private box prepared for the president, less than 20 feet away from Lincoln.
Ten days later Jones wrote an 11 page letter to Captain H. Bowen of Medina, NY, considered to be finest and most detailed description of the assassination in existence. As seen in the UK’s Daily Mail, ‘Sharp and clear sounded the pistol’: The most detailed eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to go on sale 150 years after former president was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth (Jan 22, 2015), the letter gained notoriety when it was auctioned in Dallas on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death.
Interestingly, until 19 years after Jones’ death, the D & C makes no mention that he was at Ford’s Theater and so close to Lincoln. From the beginning, Jones seems to have been reticent about his night at the theater.
The Heritage Auction’s description of the letter, Lincoln Assassination: Most Extensive Eyewitness Account Extant, says, “The account may have been published in an upstate New York newspaper [possibly in Medina], as Jones gives his permission to do so, as long as his name was omitted.”
Jones’ D & C obituary mentions a “close association” with Lincoln but nothing about the assassination. The only other D & C reference to Jones and Lincoln is a 1904 announcement of a Memorial Day talk on Lincoln in Phoenix, Oswego County. In a 10 page piece on Jones, the 1902 Biographical Record of the City of Rochester and Monroe County, New York barely mentions Lincoln and nothing about Ford’s Theater. (see at end) Jones’ 1907 obituary appearing in the Proceedings and Committee Reports, Volume 30 of the New York State Bar Association makes but one reference to the assassination. (see full obituary at end).
In his address in Phoenix, Abraham Lincoln : address delivered by W. Martin Jones at Phoenix, N. Y. on the thirtieth day of May, 1904, Jones only spends two paragraphs of a 40 page pamphlet on his observations of the assassination. Unlike in the letter, in the speech Jones eschews vivid details and personal responses.
A D & C reader would only have known that Jones was at Ford’s Theater in 1925, nineteen years after Jones’ death. In a Lincoln’s Birthday Special Dispatch from Washington D.C. , the paper reported on Susie Clark, supposedly one of three living witnesses to the assassination, who was with Jones at the theater.
In addition, in 1991 the D & C ran an advertisement for an auction in Canandaigua of the W. Martin Jones Historical Collection. The auction lists “hand written journals by Jones incl. Lincoln’s assassination.” Perhaps Jones made a copy of his letter to Captain Bowen that was part of the collection perhaps sold to Donald P. Dow — who specialized in Abraham Lincoln memorabilia — and resold in 2015.
Finally, Don Ackerman, from Heritage Auctions, wrote of Jones:
Very little is known about Jones. . . . His sole claim to fame, though, consists of a casual decision he made to take in a night of theater.
First, Ackerman is guilty of shoddy research considering the 1902 Biographical Record calls Jones, “one of the well known citizens of the Empire State.” Much is known about Jones who merits consideration — in Jim Memmott’s apt phrase — as a Remarkable Rochesterian.
Second, during that era, historical records show that thousands claimed to be at Ford’s Theater. If as Ackerman says the letter Jones wrote would have made him genuinely famous, why did Jones not make the letter public or mention it? We will never know.
The Daily Mail‘s ‘Sharp and clear sounded the pistol’: The most detailed eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to go on sale 150 years after former president was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth (Jan 22, 2015), provides the best overview of Jones’ letter. Below are three pages of the letter with the Mail‘s captions.
Also, a fascinating conversation took place on the Lincoln Discussion Symposium, W. Martin Jones’s Eyewitness Account of Assassination For Sale, in which Lincoln fans debate the veracity and significance of the letter.
SEE ALSO Michael J. Nighan’s John Wilkes Booth Slept (and Slipped) Here examines Booth’s theatrical appearances in Rochester, uncovering a startling historical coincidence.
¹ Jones’ son, W. Martin Jones Jr., graduated from the University of Rochester, settled in Rochester, fought in WWI rising to Corporal, was a successful patent lawyer and is buried in Plot C204 in Mt. Hope Cemetery. Like his father, Jones frequently wrote letters to the D & C. In 1940, the D & C remarked on Jones’ letter to the editor in which the newspaper again claimed that Jones Sr. was the first to propose the purchase of the Philippines.
² Jones’ views on American interventionism appear to be conflicted. In 1898, Jones supported the gubernatorial candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt, the hero of the Spanish-American War who, according to the 1902 Biographical was Jones’ “warm personal friend.” At the same time, in 1901 Jones penned an extended piece arguing that United States — who entered the war on behalf of Cuban Independence — should fully remove itself from Cuba, a position not endorsed by Roosevelt. One wonders if by 1901 Jones had second thoughts on his 1898 proposition that the United States buy the Philippines. The occupation of the Philippines precipitated the bitter and bloody American-Filipino War (1898 – 1902).
My research also discovered the Dr. A.T. Barrett, Class of the University of Rochester 1869, also was at Ford’s Theater on April 14th, 1865. If so, this contradicts the D & C story on the same day that Susie Clark was one of three living witnesses to the assassination but failed to mention Barrett. Barrett settled in Tennessee after graduating from UR, but his brother, also a UR alumnus, settled in our city, becoming a noted Reverend.
In contrast to Jones who wrote, “The words ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ was hissed between compressed lips. Another instant and the form had vaulted over the balustrade and upon the stage below – a distance of over twelve feet.” Barrett says that such reports were false and Booth never uttered the words that have become part of Lincoln hagiography.