Charles Negus: Fairfield Iowa lawyer, historian

November 1, 2010

Charles Negas of Fairfield, ia.
“Yours &c.,
Charles Negus”

Hon. Charles Negus

Tall, dignified and majestically imposing, equally well-versed in legal principles and human frailty, Charles Negus was a notable pioneer lawyer in Fairfield as well as a diligent and entertaining historian of Iowa.

One of our greatest delights while researching Fairfield’s pioneer days was the discovery of Charles Negus’s “Early Times in Iowa,” published in the Annals of Iowa in installments in the 1870s. In an age of Victorian prudery and ancestor-worship, Charles stands out by revealing his Fairfield contemporaries of the 1840s and ‘50s with wit, humor, sympathy and pathos, but above all with honesty. If a certain well-known hotel-keeper was also a coin-forger and a chicken-thief, Negus tells us. If a married county treasurer destroyed his life believing a prankster’s forged love-notes were from a comely young woman, Negus informs us. If a respected county prosecutor and estate trustee was also a thief, note-forger and destroyer of evidence, Negus lets us know. He gives the facts, and he names the names.

Born on December 19, 1815, in Webster, Worcester Co., Massachusetts, Charles Negus was the only child of Susan (Cortis) and Lyman Negus. His father died when Charles was less than a year old, and he was raised first by doting grandparents and then – in shocking contrast – by a stepfather who was a gambler and alcoholic, causing Charles to abstain from both pitfalls his entire life.

Charles graduated in 1838 from Wesleyan College in Middletown, Connecticut, and then for a year taught privately near Dinwiddie Courthouse in Virginia. He was admitted to the bar in 1840, and came the following year to Fairfield, Iowa, where he practiced law for the next 36 years. In 1844 Charles was a trustee of the Methodist Mission in Fairfield; that same year he married Martha Eleanor Smith of Richmond, Virginia. Between 1846 and 1851 they had three children.

Fairfield rewarded Charles for his energy and diligence; he served as county judge of Probate Court in 1844-1846 and 1856, representative to the General Assembly in 1850, president of the Fairfield and Mt. Pleasant Plank Road Company in 1852-53, and treasurer or president of the Jefferson County Agricultural Society from 1852 for ten years.

With bricklayer Jesse B. Winn, Charles built a large three-story brick building at 55-57 South Court St in 1852. The Odd Fellows owned and occupied the third floor of Winn’s building, No. 55, while the Freemasons used the third floor of the Negus Block, No. 57. On August 27, 1853, the new Jefferson County Public Library opened in a room in the Negus Block. Dr. J. M. Shaffer was the first librarian, while Caleb Baldwin, James F. Wilson, and the doctor organized a lecture-course early in 1855. Charles Negus also offered the third story of his building for Rev. William Adderly’s monthly Episcopal services, and was later elected a member of the first vestry of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. By October 1854 the Sons of Temperance met also in No. 57, probably on the second floor. That year his building-partner Jesse Winn moved west to Council Bluffs, and two years later was shot and killed in a land dispute in Elk Horn City, Nebraska.

During the antebellum years Charles Negus continued to excel, serving as West Point visitor in 1855, and as the county’s prosecuting attorney in 1857. But Negus was a dedicated Democrat, and when the Civil War erupted in 1861, he was the only attorney in Fairfield who refused to take the oath of allegiance to support the U. S. Government: an oath moved by Democrat George Acheson and seconded by Republican James F. Wilson. During the War Acheson became a Republican, but Negus remained ever a Democrat and “Copperhead,” and was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1864. During those difficult years, Negus was reviled as a traitor by many former friends.

Charles’s honor was not permanently stained by the war; he served as president of the Iowa Railroad Company from 1865 to 1877, and as president of the City Board of Education from 1868 to 1877. He held the first meeting in 1874 to encourage Parsons College to come to Fairfield. Only two years after its founding here he died, on May 4, 1877. But in the Annals of Iowa his warmth, his wit, his humor and his honesty speak to us as keenly and clearly as ever.

A good photo of the Negus Block appears here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=147183795326649&set=a.147182405326788.25692.105927739452255#!/photo.php?fbid=147183795326649&set=a.147182405326788.25692.105927739452255&pid=234458&id=105927739452255

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