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Cool Things - Delahay Portraits

Delahay portrait on ivory

These portraits of Mark Delahay at opposite ends of his career only hint at the man's complexities.

Lawyer, newspaper editor, political opportunist, alcoholic, and finally corrupt judge --Mark Delahay's story may never be seen through completely objective eyes. Much of what was written about him is either praise for his many accomplishments or scathing commentary about his personal habits and ambition.

Mark William Delahay was born in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1817. He began traveling early in adulthood; a small portrait on ivory (at top, right) shows him aboard a steamboat around 1840. He first landed in Illinois, editing the Virginia Observer in Virginia, Illinois, and studying for the bar. Next he established a law office in Mobile, Alabama, in 1853.

Opportunities in Kansas

The opening of Kansas Territory brought new opportunities to those looking westward in the mid-1800s. Delahay joined the wave of settlement, moving his family to Leavenworth in 1855 where he continued his legal practice. He was a Democrat at the time and believed strongly in popular sovereignty. He started the Kansas Territorial Register, an outspoken anti-slavery newspaper. Although Delahay came from a slaveholding family, his mother, of Quaker descent, had taught her children that the buying and selling of slaves was wrong.

Delahay quickly threw his hat into the political ring in Kansas Territory, serving as a member of the antislavery Topeka constitutional convention in 1855. Although the convention elected him a congressional delegate, Delahay never served because Congress refused to recognize the actions of this technically illegal government.

Many free-staters in the territory were threatened because of their antislavery political persuasion. Delahay, too, felt the wrath of proslavery supporters. While he attended a free-state convention in December 1855, the Kickapoo Rangers ransacked his printing office and threw the press into the Missouri River. The Delahay family fled for a time to Alton, Illinois, but returned to Kansas in the spring of 1857, when Delahay started the Wyandotte Register with a new press.

Ties to Abraham Lincoln

Delahay's political aspirations continued to grow as he actively supported Abraham Lincoln in his 1860 run for the presidency. Lincoln and Delahay had known each other as lawyers in Illinois, and Delahay's wife was Lincoln's cousin. The candidate stayed with the Delahay family for a week while speaking in the Kansas towns of Elwood, Atchison, and Leavenworth. Delahay also helped found the Kansas Republican Party (Lincoln was the national Republican Party's candidate for President).

Lincoln apparently felt some obligation to Delahay because of these personal and professional ties, and he rewarded the Kansan for his loyalty. Delahay had already tasted success (he was chief clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1860) when the newly elected President Lincoln appointed him Surveyor General of Kansas in 1861. He was next appointed U. S. District Judge of Kansas in 1863 following the death of his predecessor. This outraged many of Lincoln's friends. It was generally opined that Delahay did not possess the right amount of experience, was "not famous for hard sense," and as Henry Clay Whitney, a fellow attorney noted, he was "distressingly impecunious and awfully bibulous," implying that he was often without money and tended to drink to excess.

Delahay portrait

Corruption

Drink and charges of "corruption, malfeasance, and incompetency in office" eventually brought about the end of Delahay's career. Talk of impeachment began late in 1868. To avoid the charges, Delahay wrote out his resignation, which he later withdrew. According to an editorial in the Wyandotte Gazette of June 19, 1869, "It was one of the weakest acts we ever knew of President Lincoln, to appoint Mr. Delahay to the Judgeship in the first place, and he has disgraced the office by his drunkenness and imbecility ever since."

Official impeachment proceedings were initiated in 1872. Testimony regarding Delahay's behavior included that offered by Senator Robert Crozier, who said, "I am compelled to say that Judge Delahay frequently becomes inebriated. I have seen him in that condition very frequently off the bench, and several times on it." There also was evidence of misappropriation of funds. R.W. Tayler, Comptroller of Treasury Department, wrote in a letter to the committee, "I have to state that no 'money in confiscation cases, from the district of Kansas, has been paid into the Treasury of the United States' since the year 1860." Delahay was finally forced to resign during the same year that his son-in-law, Thomas A. Osborn, began a term as Governor of Kansas in 1873. Mark William Delahay died in 1879. The portrait featuring a bearded Delahay (at lower left) was likely done after his death.

The Kansas Museum of History collections also include the Lombard banner that Delahay used while campaigning for Lincoln. For more information on Kansas' turbulent territorial era, see the online exhibit Willing to Die for Freedom.

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Entry: Cool Things - Delahay Portraits

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: October 2006

Date Modified: August 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.