From the Land and Freedom: An International Record of Single Tax Progress, Vol. 3, 1904.
A distinguished figure in Illinois public life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mysterious Western Starr was one of those obscure political figures who remained without a face to place with his name for over a decade-- that was until the discovery of the above portrait! A candidate for the Illinois state senate as well as for the U.S. House of Representatives, the distinct lack of information regarding Mr. Starr's life and public exploits kept me from compiling a biography for him here for the past three years, and if it hadn't been for the discovery of a biographical passage in Vol. 3 of the Land and Freedom Single Tax Review the following write-up would not have been possible.
However obscure he may be, the number of newspapers and period literature that give passing mention to Mr. Starr prove that in his day he was a remarkable figure. Active as a farmer, attorney, public speaker, writer, politician and civil service reformer, Starr's humorous name will certainly give people a case of the giggles in this day in age, and it's quite interesting to note that many of his contemporaries also found it odd, with sources referring to the name as "harmonious", "luminous and heavenly" and even "unlikely but colorfully appropriate", frequently making references to celestial subjects like the stars (quite appropriate!) and the solar system.
The life of this intriguingly named man began in the then-burgeoning city of Davenport, Iowa, where he was born on September 14, 1854, one of three children born to James Comfort Starr (1824-1895) and the former Cynthia McKoon (1832-1899). The Starr family removed from Davenport around 1859 and settled in Rock Island, Illinois, where young Western would first attend school. He went to high school in the city and during adolescence took on a position as a farm hand, and in the late 1870s worked construction on a bridge, later traveling to Colorado to stake a claim in mining.
Returning home in 1877, Starr used personal funds to put himself through school, enrolling at the Oberlin College in that year. After studying here for a time he attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and graduated in the class of 1880. He continued studies at Columbia University, being a classmate of future President Theodore Roosevelt, and earned his law degree from this institution in 1882.
After being admitted to practice Starr removed to Chicago, where for a year he practiced law, and in 1883 he relocated to Dickinson, North Dakota to continue his practice. During his residency, he was appointed as a territorial assessor and magistrate. While residing in North Dakota Starr re-encountered his old Columbia classmate Roosevelt, who, while ranching in the Bad Lands, had captured three horse thieves and, with the help of two companions, brought the outlaws to Dickinson to be arraigned, where, by coincidence, Starr was serving as a justice of the peace!
Western Starr continued to reside in North Dakota until 1889 when he returned to Chicago to both practice law and start up a real-estate brokerage firm. He married here on December 29, 1897 to Ms. Edith Hammond (1870-1968), with whom he would have two children, James Hammond Starr (1898-1978) and Martha Starr Larson (1901-1987). Within a few years of settling into family life, Starr became connected with the Civic Federation of Chicago's civil service reform committee, serving as the secretary of this body for two years. In 1901 he became chairman of that committee, and also took on a position as legal counsel for Civil Service League of Chicago.
Starr's involvement with the civil service reform committee saw him become a veritable watchdog for the group, being a "fighter for honest legislation", as well as trying to route out corrupt political practices then rampant in Chicago. While Starr tried to be an advocate of honest government and "clean" politics, newspapers of the time often had a field day with his name, and the snippet below (stemming from Starr's accusation of incompetency on the part of John J. Sloan, then Superintendent of the Chicago House of Correction), proves that Chicago newspaper editors didn't pass up a chance to chide Starr on his funny name!
"That legal luminary, Western Starr, has again peeped above the horizon of the Civil Service Commission, this time in an attempt to throw some light on certain proceedings in the house of correction."----The Chicago Eagle, October 5, 1901While he may have refrained from running for public office, Western Starr was by no means politically naive, and a search of Google Books shows that between 1883 and 1920 Western Starr lent the tip of his pen to numerous periodicals centering on hot-button political issues of the day, including giving advice on crime ("A Radical Cure for Crime", published in the Liberal Review in 1906), and also was a fervent advocate of the establishment of a single tax. While a frequent contributor to newsletters like the "Single Tax Review" and the "Public: A Journal for Democracy", Starr gained further prominence on the lecture circuit, traveling throughout Illinois and elsewhere speaking on such topics as "The Ethics of Conservatism". During the 1900 election year, Starr was described by the Chicago Daily Herald as hitting the campaign trail, "doing considerable platform work for the Democratic National Committee" and stumped for the party in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio.
From "The Public: A Journal for Democracy", 1903.
In the 1902 election year, Western Starr made his first attempt at elected office, being a candidate for a seat in the Illinois State Senate from Cook County. Stating in the Chicago Daily Herald that the "nomination was not one of my seeking", Starr further related that:
"This is a case where the nomination sought the man and not the man the nomination. In response to the urgent solicitations of the eminent gentlemen who are the representatives of all political parties, and shades of political thought in this district, I consented to accept this nomination with the hope that I might be able to crystallize in this campaign all of those political forces which are tending toward the elevation of political standards, and the character of public service and public life. In the strictest sense the campaign in which I am engaged cannot be regarded as a political or partisan campaign."Running against Starr in that year's campaign was one John Humphrey (1838-1916), a native-born Englishman who had first been elected to the state senate in 1886. As the incumbent Republican, Humphrey's decades-long career in state politics was targeted by Western Starr in the November 1, 1902 edition of the Chicago Daily Herald, noting:
"I oppose Senator Humphrey because he has for 30 years been a personal representative of a political philosophy, which I do not agree and which, I am convinced the people of this district will not support, once its true inwardness is once understood."Rallying against "Humphreyism", Starr stumped throughout his district in support of votes in the latter part of 1902, and, as in years past, newspapers picked up on his peculiar name, with the Chicago Eagle using some very clever word play to describe the contest between John Humphrey and Starr, noting:
"His opponent is one Western Starr, and if Humphrey's sun is to suddenly set now in the declining days of his life, it is a question if the new luminary is one which will shed a more beautiful light on the political horizon of the Seventh district. Mr. Humphrey's opponent is not a "Starr" of the first magnitude, as everybody who knows him is aware, but there is a large and young element of the community in the Seventh Senatorial district composed of bright people who are sick and tired of 'Old John' and his ways and who would put up with anything for a change."Western Starr's political platform touted "equal rights for all, special privileges for none, Municipal Home Rule, public ownership of public utilities and honest assessment and equal taxation", and he was widely considered to be a shoe-in at the polls. However, on election day 1902, John Humphrey eked out a win over Starr, besting him by a vote of 7,013 to 5,834. Despite a loss margin of nearly 1200 votes, Starr was not one to let a loss get the best of him. Between 1903 and 1908 he continued to be a forceful voice on the lecture circuit and in political newsletters, and in 1908 re-entered the political area, announcing his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois. His opponent that year was George Edmund Foss (1863-1936), a six-term Republican incumbent who, like Starr, had been a graduate of Columbia University. Starr's congressional candidacy received a write-up in the Single Tax Review that year, which touted his longstanding membership in the Single Tax movement and his willingness to be a "force in the war for economic righteousness."
Unfortunately, when the votes were tallied in November 1908, Starr was dealt another loss, losing to Foss by a wide margin, 31, 130 votes to 14,840. An electoral result from that contest was published in the 1910 Tribune Almanac and Political Register and is shown below.
A few years following his congressional loss, Western Starr removed with his family to Baltimore, Maryland, where he became active in both agriculture and the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1918 he gave a statement in front of Congress in connection with the Revenue Act of 1918, and during his testimony gave examples of land monopoly and the effects of too much taxation on farm owners. Starr later appeared in front of Congress once again in July 1921 on behalf of the Farmer-Labor Party, speaking to the Joint-Commission of Agricultural Inquiry.
Around 1919 Starr relocated once again, this time to Washington, D.C. During his residence here he was a contributing writer to The Searchlight, a journal on Washington politics and congressional proceedings. In addition to being a contributor to this journal, Starr also served as Treasurer of the Searchlight Publishing Company for a time, resigning this office in 1921. Starr continued to be active in public service well into his seventh decade, with notice being given as to his service as a "special investigator in the investigation of contributions and expenditures of senatorial candidates" in August of 1930.
The remaining years of Western Starr's life post-1931 are a mystery, as are his date of death and burial location. He is recorded in the 1940 census as being an 85-year-old patient at the Washington Home for Incurables in Washington, D.C. Starr's name is not listed in the 1950 census, so one can deduce that he died sometime between 1940 and 1950. His wife Edith Hammond Starr lived on for nearly three more decades, being a resident of Wilmington, Delaware, where she died at the great age of 97 in 1968.