John R. Thomas

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John Robert “J. R.” Thomas, Sr.
John R. Thomas Oklahoma judge.jpg
Former Northern District Judge of
Indian Territory

From: June 30, 1897 – June 30, 1901
Predecessor ???
Successor ???
Former U.S. Representative from Illinois's 20th Congressional District
From: March 4, 1883 – March 3, 1889
Predecessor (none, district established)
Successor William R. Morrison
Former U.S. Representative from Illinois's 18th Congressional District
From: March 4, 1879 – March 3, 1883
Predecessor William Hartzell
Successor William R. Morrison
Party Republican
Spouse(s) Charlotte Marie "Lottie" Culver (died 1880–81)
Jessie Beattie (m. 1884)
Military Service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Union Army
Rank Captain
Unit 120th Illinois Regiment
Battles/wars American Civil War

John Robert Thomas, Sr. (October 11, 1846 – January 19, 1914), also known as J. R. Thomas,[1] was a judge from Illinois who served as the state's U.S. representative for five terms from 1879 to 1889. He was later appointed by President William McKinley to serve for a post in the Indian Territory (contemporary Oklahoma).[2]


Thomas was born in Mount Vernon, Illinois, to Caroline Neely and William Allen Thomas.[2] After attending common schools in Indiana, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Joining the army with the initial rank of Private, Thomas was active in the Battle of Franklin where he was wounded. He later achieved the rank of Captain.[2]

Following the war, Thomas proceeded to study law, and in 1869 was admitted to the Illinois bar.[2]

Political career

U.S. House of Representatives

Thomas was first elected to Congress in the 1878 midterms, narrowly defeating Democrat William J. Allen by two percentage points with a plurality polling 47% of the vote.[3] He was re-elected four times, with the margins being similarly narrow.[4]

In 1883, Thomas was one of only seven House Republicans to vote against the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act,[5] which replaced the traditional spoils system with a bureaucratic civil service system. The conservative Republican Stalwart faction which earlier opposed civil service reform almost entirely voted for the Pendleton Act under immense political pressure following the assassination of James A. Garfield.

Thomas did not run for re-election in 1888, and was succeeded by Democrat William Ralls Morrison.

District Judge of Indian Territory

In late June 1897, Thomas was appointed by President McKinley to become a U.S. district judge for Indian Territory (also known as "I.T.").[2]

During his tenure, Judge Thomas was particularly notable for refusing to hesitate in punishing white residents who tortured and murdered Seminole Indians, ordering death sentences for the perpetrators.[2] The just rulings at the time received national attention, and also consequentially led to Thomas' unpopularity among some settlers.

Although Thomas initially backed statehood for the Oklahoma and Indian Territories separately, he subsequently changed his mind in advocating for them to become a single new U.S. state due to the belief that congressional Republicans would oppose allowing for an addition four Democrat U.S. senators.[2]


While working in a penitentiary in mid-January 1914, a violent prison escape broke out and Thomas was among seven people killed[1] by the convicts.[2] Following the possession of a gun by three prisoners, they took keys to unlock themselves from their confinement spaces and barged into offices to use stenographer Mary Foster as a human shield.[1] When the convicts barged into the warden's room, they demanded everyone else to surrender with their hands in the air. Thomas, who was described as physically stout, did not respond quickly and was fatally shot in the heart.[1]

An obituary asserted that Thomas was:[6]

...perhaps one of the best known and best loved men who ever lived in Oklahoma.

—Obituary by his daughter, Carolyn T. Foreman, January 19, 1914

Thomas was initially interred at Green Hill Cemetery in Muskogee, Oklahoma, though the burial location was later moved to Arlington National Cemetery.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 January 20, 1914. Seven are Slain in Prison Battle. The New York Times. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Wilson, Linda D. THOMAS, JOHN ROBERT (1846–1914). Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  3. IL District 18 Race - Nov 05, 1878. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  4. Candidate - John Robert Thomas. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  5. TO PASS S. 133, A BILL REGULATING AND IMPROVING THE U. S. CIVIL SERVICE. (J.P. 163). Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  6. January 19, 1914. Obituary of Judge John R. Thomas. Thomas-Foreman Historic Home. Retrieved November 10, 2021.

External links