William H. Copley

August 2, 1959

Adventures In History

William Copley Was First Cabell Senator

By Jessie Baker
of Kermit, W. Va.

A biography of Wm. H. Copley, one of the representatives from Wayne County at the Wheeling Conventions of 1861 and, subsequently, first senator from Cabell County in the first legislature of the new state of West Virginia in 1863, would reveal many of the elements one would expect to find in a sensational piece of fiction.

A grandson of Josiah Marcum, Revolutionary War soldier and pioneer settler of Cabell and Wayne Counties; grandfather of Harry Kendall Thaw, a millionaire industrialist's son whose name led the headlines in every scandal sheet of the nation. Wm. H. Copley is remembered in West Virginia history as one of the untiring leaders in the cause for statehood and one of the framers and signers of West Virginia's "Declaration of Rights."

Family Life Broken

As with many others who have given themselves to a cause, he had to forfeit many of the satisfactions of life which the average person holds most dear. His family life was broken; his business was destroyed; and neither he, nor a member of his family ever lived or made a home in the state which he helped to find.

Wm. H. Copley was born (1820) near the Falls of Tug, a son of James and Rebecca (Marcum) Copley, and was one of the numerous grandsons of Josiah Marcum.

By the time he had reached early manhood, an act of the General Assembly of Virginia on January 18, 1842 had created Wayne County from territory taken from Cabell which included the Copley homestead on Tug River.

Moved Near Ceredo

When the town of Ceredo was founded (1857) by abolitionist and anti-slavery leaders, Copley moved to the vicinity of that first town of Wayne County and operated a general merchandise store which was frequented by his kinsmen where they made their runs of timber to the Ohio.

By late 1860 all Western Virginia had been alerted to the possibility of secession from the Union. The startling news finally trickled through to Wayne County that the dreaded Ordinance of Secession had been adopted at Richmond on April 17, 1861.

The time had come for the Union sympathizers to marshal their forces.

News Spread Slowly

The news was spread from person to person. Preachers announced it from their pulpits and as they rode along their circuits. The country storekeeper discussed it with customer after customer until it finally reached the sparsely settled regions by men on foot, on horseback and in pushboats.

Copley was chosen as one of the delegates from Wayne county to the First Convention of the People of northwestern Virginia to be held at Wheeling, Virginia.

The first Wheeling Convention opened on Monday, May 13, 1861. It adjourned May 15, 1861, after having provided for the meeting of a second convention in the event that the Ordinance of Secession should be ratified.

Ordinance Ratified

The Ordinance was ratified by the people in the election of May 23, 1861, and Copley went to Wheeling where he was active and voting in all business in the second Wheeling Convention which opened June 11, 1861.

The delegates from Wayne County were treated with special courtesy and each was placed on an important committee.

On June 12, at the afternoon session, Wm. H. Copley was appointed to the committee on Business headed by John S. Carlile who, in the previous convention, already had set off the first bombshell when he offered a resolution to set up a new state.

Committee of 17

After the various names were read for the Committee on Business it was found that 13 names had been called with Copley's the 13th.

A later motion increased the committee from 13 to 17 members. Thus began the famous "Committee of 17" which acted on all important matters of business throughout the entire period of organization for statehood.

By June 13, the committee of 17 had formulated a Declaration of Rights which was read before the assembly. This document, modeled upon the Declaration of Independence of 1776, enumerated the grievances of the people of the West. Among them were the statements that the authorities at Richmond had attempted to overthrow the government of the United States, and that they had required the people to wage war on their own government and thus commit acts of treason.

Declaration Engrosssed

On June 17, after much discussion from the floor and several changes noted, the Declaration was ordered to be engrossed on parchment.

At the afternoon session, the Declaration was read by the Secretary and the votes taken with the result of Yeas, 56; Nays, none.

Mr. Carlile whose spirited speeches fired the enthusiasm of the entire group, pointed out a happy coincidence and one which he hailed as an auspicious omen.

"We have," he said, "56 votes recorded in favor of our Declaration, and we may remember that there were just 56 signers to the Declaration of Independence."

Battle Anniversary

Carlile's apt reminders on this anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill brought cheers and applause throughout the hall.

This Declaration, or Bill of Rights, now considered one of the most important state papers of the State of West Virginia serves the same purpose for our state that the Declaration of Independence does for the nation.

Throughout the entire Civil War period, Wm. H. Copley was active and voting on all the measures brought before the conventions for the purpose of setting up the Loyal Government of Western Virginia, and later, for creating the new state of West Virginia, and the adopting of a Constitution.

Our First Senator

When the first legislature was organized, he took his place as the first senator from the 8th District which included Cabell County.

Meanwhile, changes had been taking place in his family life. His wife, Nancy, and their five children - Lafayette, Marinda, Zetta, Wayne, and Mary - had remained at their home.

Just what happened to bring about the final break would be difficult to determine from later family accounts. The general merchandise store had been burned and they had returned to farming as a livelihood.

Call for Volunteers

August of 1861 found Lafayette, barely 18 years old, answering Governor Pierpont's first call for soldiers for the union. He reported at Wayne Court House with a group of his uncles and cousins and became a corporal in Company F of the 5th Virginia Regiment which kept him in active service for the duration of the war.

According to Lafayette Copley's later p[e]nsion records, he was never married. Within a few months after he was discharged he went as a lumber jack to the great North Woods of Minnesota where he stayed and worked around the lumber camps until 1916.

Then, at the age of 74, he moved on to Portland, Oregon to live with relatives until his death in 1917.

Had Other Children

Succeeding generations of Kinsmen in West Virginia and Kentucky can give no information about the older children of Wm. H. Copley, or any of their descendents [sic].

All are listed in the Wayne County census of 1850 except Mary, who was born after that time.

Wm. H. Copley had taken his youngest daughter, Mary, with him to Wheeling where she grew to womanhood.

Married William Thaw

Soon after the close of the Civil War, Mary Copley was married to William Thaw who has been described as a "pioneer coal, rail, and steamship baron." They established their home at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where they reared a large family.

By the turn of the century the Thaws had become multi-millionaires and had joined the ranks of the "new-rich" Americans who were invading the established society of the Astors and the Vanderbilts in New York.

Margaret Thaw became the Contesse de Perigny when she married into the French nobility and returned with her husband to Europe. Another daughter married Geoffrey G. Whitney of Massachusetts.

The Thaw Scandal

The names of Lawrence Copley Thaw and Harry Kendall Thaw have become familiar to many readers over the first half of the 20th century.

The most publicized scandal of this period took place in that first decade when Harry K. Thaw killed Stanford White on June 25, 1906.

Harry Thaw had married Evelyn Nesbit, a model for the famous American artist, Charles Dana Gibson, and one of Gibson's famed "Florodora" girls. Long before her marriage to Thaw, her name had been linked with that of Stanford White, wealthy architect who was on a social level with the Vanderbilts and the Astors.

Killed His Rival

It is said that White threatened to kill Thaw, and Thaw was advised to carry a gun in self-protection.

At a chance meeting at the old Madison Square Garden roof - a building White had designed and built - Thaw used his gun in full view of top New York society and killed his rival, Stanford White, the nation's most famous architect.

The trial dominated the news for weeks. His wife['s] testimony saved Thaw from the death sentence. His life was ruined although he lived to the age of 76 with intermittent bursts of publicity which lasted over a period of 40 years. He died February 22, 1947.

Changed In Fortunes

Wm. H. Copley had no share in his wealthy daughter's life and fortune. His political luck changed and he went with friends to Indiana where he lived for several years.

Late in the 1880's, he returned with a second wife, Milly, and made his home at Catlettsburg, Kentucky with a younger brother, Sylvester Copley.

He died in a Cincinnati hospital January 7, 1901 at the age of 81. His body was returned to Sylvester Copley's farm home on Chadwick's Creek, Boyd County, Kentucky and buried by the side of his wife, Molly, who had preceded him in death.

Mary Copley Thaw never returned to this region.

Through the influence of Dr. James F. Record she became interested in the newely [sic] established Pikeville College at Pikeville, Kentucky.

Contributed To College

Dr. Record became president of the college in 1899. A few years later, he was at Pittsburgh on some business of the church school and was introduced to Mrs. Thaw at a church gathering.

She began to contribute annually to the running expenses of the college. She gave $20,000 toward the construction of the present Administration Building which was completed in 1925.

It is said that Mrs. Thaw told Dr. Record that she wanted to distribute her property herself as she felt that her life was nearing the end. Her executives told her that she was being too liberal with such a small school, but the gift went as she directed.

As long as she lived, Mary Copley Thaw contributed to Pikeville College hoping that, in some way, she could "help her people down in the mountains."

Government and Politics

West Virginia Archives and History