John R. Thomas

John Robert Thomas (October 11, 1846 – January 19, 1914) was a U.S. Representative from Illinois. He was later appointed a U.S. District Judge in the Indian Territory, which then encompassed most the eastern part of present-day Oklahoma, serving from 1898 to 1901. After statehood, he served on the Oklahoma State Code Commission which was tasked with reviewing and editing the new state laws that had been hastily put together during the rush to statehood. After returning to his private law practice, he went to the Oklahoma state prison at McAlester to interview an inmate on January 19, 1914, when he was killed by three other inmates who shot him to death while escaping prison.

John Robert Thomas
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 18th district
In office
March 4, 1879 – March 3, 1883
Preceded byWilliam Hartzell
Succeeded byWilliam R. Morrison
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 20th district
In office
March 4, 1883 – March 3, 1889
Preceded byDistrict created
Succeeded byGeorge W. Smith
Personal details
Born(1846-10-11)October 11, 1846
Mount Vernon, Illinois, United States
DiedJanuary 19, 1914(1914-01-19) (aged 67)
McAlester, Oklahoma, United States
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery, Virginia, United States
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Charlotte Maria Culver

Judge Thomas was also the father of Carolyn T. Foreman, who married banker Grant Foreman in 1905. After their marriage and the judge's death, Carolyn and Grant become noted Oklahoma historians.


Born in Mount Vernon, Illinois, Thomas attended the common schools and Hunter Collegiate Institute, Princeton, Indiana. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and rose from the rank of private to that of captain of Company D, One Hundred and Twentieth Regiment, Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He was wounded at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. Wilson wrote that he never fully recovered from his wound.[1]

After the war, Thomas studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1869. He became city attorney of Metropolis, Illinois, 1869 and 1870 and served as State's attorney 1871-1874.[1]

Thomas was elected as a Republican to the Forty-sixth and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1879 – March 3, 1889). He served as chairman of the Committee on Levees and Improvements of the Mississippi River (Forty-seventh Congress). He was not a candidate for renomination in 1888.

He resumed the practice of law in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and also served as a United States judge in the Indian Territory from June 30, 1897, to June 30, 1901. During this service, he handed down the first death penalty ever issued in the Territory. In 1899, he tried a group of white men who were arrested and convicted of torturing and murdering some Seminoles. The men were convicted of the crimes, which angered a great many white settlers.[1]

Although he personally favored the two-state proposal for Oklahoma statehood, he later realized that the national government, which was dominated by his own party, would never approve the possibility of adding four more Democratic senators in Washington D. C. So, he changed his mind and supported the single-state proposal at the Republican convention. He was nominated for judge of the supreme court by the first Republican State convention of Oklahoma, but declined the nomination. Instead, he served as member of the Oklahoma State Code Commission 1908-1910.[1]

He died in McAlester, Oklahoma on January 19, 1914, and was interred in Green Hill Cemetery, Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was reinterred later in Arlington National Cemetery.[1]


According to an account by J. Stanley Clark that appeared in the Chronicles of Oklahoma in 1974, Judge Thomas had gone to the penitentiary to interview Abraham Collier, who was serving a seven-year sentence for larceny. While he was in the Warden's office, an attempted jailbreak occurred. Three other convicts,[a] each armed, broke into the office and ordered everyone inside to stand up. When Judge Thomas reached for his cane, he was shot and died immediately. The intruders then killed Assistant Warden D. D. Oates, day sergeant, F. C. Godgrey, H. H. Dover, and wounded three other people.[2]


He was the son of Major William Allen Thomas and Caroline (Neely) Thomas. He married Charlotte "Lottie" Maria Culver in 1870. Their daughter, Carolyn, who married Grant Foreman, was an author and historian who wrote several books about Native Americans and the history of Oklahoma. A son, John R. Thomas Jr., was a "celebrated hero of the Spanish–American War with the Rough Riders." Thomas-Foreman Historic Home In 1884, while serving as US Congressman, John Robert Thomas was also Grand Master for the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Illinois.


  1. ^ These convicts were Tom Lane, Chiney Reed, and Charles Kuntz.


  • United States Congress. "John R. Thomas (id: T000176)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

  This article incorporates public domain material from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress website

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
William Hartzell
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 18th congressional district

Succeeded by
William R. Morrison
Preceded by
District created
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 20th congressional district

Succeeded by
George W. Smith