George Washington Williams, deceased, late of Owensboro, one of the leading lawyers of his time, was born in Hancock (then a part of Breckinridge) County, Kentucky, November 27, 1814. He was a son of Otho and Mildred (Anderson) Williams.
His father was a native of Louisa County, Virginia, where he married Mildred Anderson, before removing to Kentucky. The date of his coming to Kentucky is not recorded, but he was one of the pioneers, and a man of great strength of character and moral standing, who was able to encourage and help his neighbors at a time when good leadership was so much needed. He cleared away the forests and literally hewed himself a home and farm out of the wilderness. He was an industrious farmer, laboring with untiring energy in the woods and fields during the week, studying the Bible by the light of his winter fire at night, and preaching the gospel on the Sabbath day. Of course, this was possible only in the Methodist Church, in which the true spirit of religion was counted of more importance in the minister of the gospel than a classical education. But Rev. Otho Williams, farmer, not only preached the gospel on Sunday, but lived it during the week, an example of a godly man whose life was an argument in favor of the religion he preached. In naming his son George Washington, he indicated the patriotism and loyalty to his country which was one of his chief characteristics.
George W. Williams was brought up under the wholesome influence of pious parents, in a new and but partially settled country, and his educational opportunities were limited. The hard fortune that beset his youth, however, only made him the more determined to acquire an education, and ere long the doors of learning were unbarred and by persistent industry and study, he was enabled to drink deeply at the fountain of knowledge.
When twenty years of age, by the aid of his brothers, he was permitted to supplement the superficial schooling which he had received by a two years’ course in Louisville, where he applied himself most assiduously; and after this he studied medicine, a profession that proved distasteful to him and which he never practiced. In 1837 he went to Helena, Arkansas, and taught school for one year; and, returning to Louisville, he began the study of law in the office of Thomasson & Boone. He was admitted to the bar in 1840 and opened an office in Hawesville, where he practiced law until 1872. In 1858 he purchased a farm near Hawesville, to which he removed with his family, employing an overseer, and continued his professional work in Hawesville; and, in 1866, he again removed his family to Hawesville, where he lived for six years. In 1872 he removed to Owensboro, where he was soon known as one of the leading lawyers of the city and of the Second Congressional district.
During the greater part of his professional career he was alone, but was at one time in partnership with Eli H. Brown, and at another time, with Colonel J. D. Powers. His political career was not remarkably successful, because he was not a politician, a fact which was by no means discreditable. In 1851-52 he was a member of the legislature, representing Hancock and Ohio Counties; in 1856 he was presidential elector for James Buchanan in the Second district; in 1857 he was the Democratic candidate for the state senate, but was defeated by John B. Bruner, the Know Nothing candidate; in 1867 he was elected circuit judge of the district, but resigned that office in 1870; became a candidate for judge of the Appellate Court in the same year, but withdrew before the day of election; in 1882 he was a candidate for judge of the Supreme Court, and was defeated by Judge Bowden of Russellville by a slight majority.
He completed his half century of professional labor, and during all that time he was conspicuously identified with the administration of justice in the courts of the Second district and in the Appellate Courts of Frankfort. He proved himself not only a profound student of legal science, but his reading and investigations in other fields of knowledge were varied and extensive, and he was one of the best informed men of his day.
Upon the announcement of his death, Monday, September 9, 1890, the courts adjourned until Thursday, a very unusual mark of respect. The members of the bar met and paid tribute to his memory. The remarks made by the leading lawyers recalled the facts that Judge Williams was a man of extraordinary talent and spotless character, a lawyer of the highest attainments, a constant and tireless worker, a generous friend, a sympathizer with the poor and oppressed and an unostentatious, true-hearted gentleman. Resolutions of respect were adopted, from which the following extracts are taken:
“In addition to other marks of our affection and reverence for our deceased associate, the late George W. Williams, we, on behalf of the Owensboro bar and the officers of court, offer this further testimonial:
“Realizing that on like occasions formal expressions are ordinarily regarded but the perfunctory observance of customary respect for the dead, it is deemed proper to here protest that his brethren of this bar testify only to his character and conduct as they have witnessed it, and speak the things that they do know.
“Their estimate and appreciation of the life and character of their late associate is not the sudden offspring of sorrow for his death, but is the declaration of matured opinions formed and cherished while he yet walked in and out in his ministrations at the high altar of justice and of law
“As he appeared to the general public he was an absorbed man, and sometimes unjustly counted a cold one. He, was often misunderstood and sometimes misconstrued, and it was only given to those who associated with him to thoroughly understand and appreciate the strength and manifold graces that supported and adorned his character.
“In his professional career he at all times manifested those solid and exalted virtues that assure success to the profession and honor to his calling. Endowed by nature with a keen perception and a logical mind, which long experience had polished and profound study had stored, to these he superadded the virtues of diligence, accuracy, patience, integrity and trustworthiness. For more than a generation in the forefront of legal conflict, he has ever been a sword and a shield for his clients, the exponent of exalted lawyership, and, withal, the pink of knightly courtesy.
“As a judge on the circuit bench, he brought to the discharge of his high and responsible duties extensive attainments, befitting dignity, absolute impartiality, the capacity for dispatching business and the correct solution and determination of legal problems.
“As a philosophic thinker his mind was ever open to the reception of truth from any and every quarter, and in dealing with all questions—social, scientific or political—he gave them candid, patient and earnest consideration, and whilst respectful to the opinions of others, thought for himself and came to his own conclusions, which were always logical, original and forcible.
“As a citizen he shirked no duty or responsibility, and while rarely concerned in the conduct of public affairs,’ he took a live interest in all that affected the common welfare. He was a friend alike of his people and his country, equally attached to the rights of one and the glory of the other.
“As a man he was of strong will, industrious, honest, brave, magnanimous and true, faithful and confiding with his friends, unswerving in his attachments, fixed in his principles, a pleasing companion, and devoted and affectionate to those bound to him by natural ties. Simple in tastes, frugal in habits, dignified and decorous in manner, gracious in address, and at all times and in all companies, by his bearing and appearance, showing that ‘His tribe was God Almighty’s gentlemen.’
“Resolved, That in his death the community, he state, the bar and his kindred have sustained an irreparable loss. (Signed.) W. N. Sweeney, W. T. Owen, G. W. Jolly, Wilfred Carrico, J. H. McHenry, Lucius P. Little, Committee.
“After the adoption of the resolutions, on motion they were ordered to be spread upon the records of the court and published in the city papers and copies sent to the bereaved widow and the Western Kentucky Bar Association.”
His mind was so concentrated on his business that he was frequently misjudged and was regarded by some as cold and haughty, and, while he was not a good mixer, no one was ever more kind or sincerely anxious to help all striving young people to get a start in life, or more ready to aid in any good work for the advancement of others. His quiet demeanor and becoming dignity and his absorption in business militated against his popularity as a politician, and for this reason he did not reach positions to which he sometimes aspired, and for which he was so eminently qualified.
He was married November 15, 1841, in Hancock County, to Mary W. Hamilton, daughter of Sarah and Andrew Hamilton of Boone County, General John Davis, a minister, officiating.
Mrs. Williams was born March 31, 1815, and is now living with her devoted daughter, wife of Judge W. P. Baker, in Owensboro. Judge Williams reared a large family, consisting of six sons and three daughters, of whom Hamilton W., Theophilus, James Russell, William, George and Mildred are deceased. The surviving son and daughters are: lone, married to Judge W. P. Baker of Owensboro; Ruth, wife of W. E. Crutcher of Beaver City, Nebraska; and Hugh Anderson, attorney-at-law of Owensboro. The children entertain the greatest admiration for their father, whose devotion to his family was one of the most beautiful traits of his exalted character.
Source: Biographical Cyclopedia of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. John M. Gresham Company, Chicago, Philadelphia, 1896.