Monday, June 11, 2018

Eskridge Hampton Morton (1866-1940)

Portrait from the 1937 West Virginia Blue Book.

  A leading political figure in Webster County, West Virginia for the better part of four decades, Eskridge Hampton Morton began his political ascent early in his life, winning election as county school superintendent at the age of just 23. In the succeeding decades, Morton won election as county prosecuting attorney, served two terms in the state house of delegates, two terms in the state senate, was a delegate to the 1912 Democratic National Convention from West Virginia, and in 1908 and 1922 was an unsuccessful candidate for the offices of state attorney general and U.S. Representative from West Virginia. Truly a man of political distinction!
   The story of this now obscure West Virginian begins with his birth on a Webster County farm on June 16, 1866, the son of George Washington and Hannah (Kyer) Morton. Young Eskridge attended schools local to his home county of Webster and, after deciding to pursue a law degree, enrolled at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown. Graduating with his bachelor of laws degree in the class of 1891, Morton would return to Webster Springs to establish a law practice, forming a partnership with William C. Wooddell that would extend "throughout both men's lives." Morton married on December 24, 1890, to Mary McCray (1870-1947). The couple's near five-decade marriage would produce several children, including Ernest (born 1892, Meta (1894-1911), Mayme Edith (1896-1994), Abbie Dale, Mary Vivian, Eskridge McCray (1903-1984) and Nancy.
  "E.H." Morton (as most sources of the period refer to him) first entered the political life of his state in 1889 when he was elected as county superintendent of schools. He would serve one term in that post and in 1892 advanced to the post of Webster County prosecuting attorney, serving from 1893-97. At the conclusion of his term as prosecuting attorney Morton was selected to serve as assistant prosecuting attorney for the neighboring county of Nicholas (remaining in that post until 1902) and during his service pulled political double duty, as he had been named as Sergeant-at-Arms for the West Virginia House of Delegates for the 1899 session.
  Following his stints as house sergeant-at-arms, Eskridge Morton set his sights on a house seat for himself, and in the 1902 election year was elected to that body as a representative from Webster County. Serving during the session of 1903-04, Morton left office after one term and returned to his law practice, being retained as an attorney for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co

From the Men of West Virginia, Vol. II, 1903.

  In August 1908 Eskridge Morton returned to the political forum when he received the Democratic nomination for West Virginia state attorney general. Opposing Morton in that year's contest was Republican William Gustavus Conley (1866-1940), a newspaper editor and former mayor of Kingwood. When the votes were tallied in November 1908 it was Conley who emerged triumphant, besting Morton by a vote of 135, 389 to 113, 823. Conley continued to serve as attorney general until 1913, and in 1929 won election as Governor of West Virginia, holding that post until 1933.
  Despite his defeat in the race for attorney general, Morton refused to let a loss get the best of him, and in 1912 served as part of the West Virginia delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore that saw Woodrow Wilson nominated for the Presidency. In 1914 Morton entered into the race for state senator from West Virginia's 10th senatorial district and that November won election to that body, handily defeating his opponent, E.A. Barnes, by a vote of 7, 694 to 262. During the 1915-19 session Morton would on the committees on Education; Forfeited, Delinquent and Unappropriated Lands; the Judiciary; Privileges and Elections; Public Printing; and Roads and Navigation.
  In November 1918 Morton won his second term in the Senate, defeating oddly named Republican nominee Otho Hunter Kee by a vote of 6,390 to 5,355. This term (1919-23) saw Morton named to four new Senate committees, those being Federal Relations, Forestry and Conservation, Insurance and Virginia Debt.

Portrait from the 1919 West Virginia Blue Book.

  Towards the end of his second Senate term in 1922, Eskridge Morton was selected by then Governor Ephraim Morgan as the chairman of the West Virginia Code Commission, a body responsible for modifying the West Virginia law code. In that same year, Morton launched a candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives from his state's 3rd congressional district. His opponent that year was three-term incumbent Republican Stuart Felix Reed (1866-1935), a former member of the West Virginia Senate in the late 1890s. On November 7, 1922, Reed eked out a narrow win over Morton, garnering 32,066 votes to his opponent's 31, 382.
  Following this congressional loss, Morton returned to his law practice in Webster County, and in 1936 was returned to government service when he was elected to the house of delegates for a second term, thirty-two years following the conclusion of his first term in that body. Seventy years old at the time of his election, Morton's final term in the legislature saw him named to the committees on Arts, Science and General Improvements; the Judiciary; Medicine and Sanitation; Roads, and chaired the committee on Railroads. Morton wasn't a candidate for reelection in 1939 and for the remainder of his life practiced law in Webster County, dying there in 1940 at age 74. He was survived by his wife Mary, who, following her death in 1947, was interred alongside him at the Blacks Chapel Cemetery in Camden-on-Gauley, West Virginia. Far from a forgotten figure in Webster County, Morton's massive red brick mansion in Webster Springs (erected in 1912) was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 1986.

One of many portraits located of Eskridge H. Morton (from the 1922 West Virginia Blue Book).

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