Archive for September 15th, 2017

James Waller Somers: “He knew Lincoln…”

Friday, September 15th, 2017

It’s surprising how many Hollywood Forever Cemetery residents have a unique connection to Abraham Lincoln. There is Senator Cornelius Cole, a close friend who visited Lincoln on the day of his assassination. And Joseph Hazelton, who as a boy, was present at Ford’s Theatre on that night. Now we profile James Waller Somers, who knew Lincoln in his boyhood in Urbana, Illinois, and continued that friendship into adulthood.

James Waller Somers, the son of Dr. Winston and Mary (Haines) Somers, was born at Mt. Airy, North Carolina, on January 18, 1833. His father was a physician, and in 1843, moved his family to Urbana, Illinois. Somers became friends with Abraham Lincoln while in Urbana, one of the towns of the Eighth Judicial Circuit where Lincoln once practiced law.

“My recollections of Lincoln,” Somers said, “date back to 1843 or 1844, when as a boy ten years old, I arrived in Urbana, Champaign County, Illinois, with my father’s family from North Carolina. Urbana was then a mere village, containing a population of perhaps 150 persons. The Courthouse was a double, one-story frame structure, unpainted, and of primitive architecture. It was in the center of the village, surrounded by about an acre of ground enclosed. It was in this court yard I remember first seeing Mr. Lincoln. He was tall and ungainly but of very striking appearance.

“It was court week, and he was striding across the yard toward the Courthouse, in that peculiar manner characteristic of him, a sort of meditative shambling gait, head drooped forward and his hands behind him. He was lank and angular, with a massive head, covered with a short, stubby, dark-brown hair, brushed up in front, without any pretense of parting in the middle or anywhere else. He had a high forehead, thick lips, cheek bones of an Indian-like prominence, and a wart on the side of his face near his large nose, which was eliminated from his later photographs by the retoucher’s brush. His face was smooth shaven. His ears, hands and feet were abnormally large and his arms unusually long.”

At the age of 21, Somers studied law in the office of his uncle, William D. Somers, with whom he became a law partner after being admitted to the bar in 1856.

“When I was studying law with my uncle, Judge Somers, Mr. Lincoln frequently came into our little one-story office, near the hotel, to swap stories with ‘Uncle William,’ who was himself a good story-teller, though Lincoln far surpassed him as he did everyone one else. He used to sit on a rush bottomed chair with his feet on the rung, telling stories, hour after hour. He frequently laughed more heartily than anyone else, but the laughter was neither boisterous nor vulgar. His whole body swayed with merriment, wholesome and infectious, and his eyes would sparkle with amusement, while he ran his fingers through his close cropped hair, always standing on end.”

Originally a Whig, Somers helped to organize the state Republican Party and actively campaigned for Lincoln in 1858 and 1860. Henry Clay Whitney called Somers “the promising orator of our Circuit of the young men.”

By 1860, Somers had developed serious hearing problems which made the practice of law difficult. He wrote to Lincoln seeking advice on his future career. Lincoln responded on March 17, 1860, recommending that he resettle in Chicago where Whitney had offered him a partnership. Lincoln closed saying that his advice was given, “with the deepest interest for your welfare.” A week later Lincoln wrote a recommendation:

“My young friend James W. Somers I have known from boyhood and I can truly say that in my opinion he’s entirely faithful and fully competent to the performance of any business he will undertake.”

In 1861, President Lincoln appointed Somers to a position in the Department of the Interior, which led to a distinguished career of 25 years of public service in Washington.

During the Civil War, Somers received news that two of his nephews, both minors, had been forced to join the Confederate Army in North Carolina and were captured as prisoners of war in Elmira, New York. Somers asked Lincoln to have them released and sent to Urbana, with the assurance that they would not take an active part in the war.

“I was cordially received at the White House,” Somers said, “in his old familiar way. After talking a few moments on home affairs I stated my errand and he at once wrote an order to Adjt.-Gen. Fry of the War Department, directing the release of the young men and upon their taking the oath of allegiance to send them to their uncle in Urbana. In a few days my cousins were on their way West and did not again take up arms against the North.”

When Somers retired from the Department of the Interior in 1895, he moved to San Diego where his brother resided. In 1903, he moved to Hollywood to live with his niece, Mrs. H. G. (May) Condee at her home on what is now Cherokee Avenue. The library was adorned with some of Somers valuable collection, which included various portraits, busts and autographed letters from Lincoln.

On June 6, 1904, at 7:25 pm, Somers was returning from the post office and was crossing Hollywood Boulevard at Whitley Avenue when he was struck and killed by an electric cable car. At that intersection there was a strong arc light, and it was supposed that Somers confused it with the headlight of the electric car and, not being able to hear the warning bell, crossed the track just as the car came upon him.

J. W. Somers funeral was held at the home of his niece and interment was at Hollywood Cemetery.

The grave of James Waller Somers at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It is located in Chandler Gardens (Section 12), just a short distance behind the J. Ross Clark family mausoleum.

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