Here comes the judge . . . with Karen right behind

By Karen Zach

Three aspects regarding James Ford Harney were discussed in his lengthy obituary in the Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, all helpful in realizing this man may have been Montgomery County’s greatest ever! In the obituary, he was tagged as one of “nature’s noblemen – stalwart in body, stalwart in mind and stalwart in spirit.”

First of all, in his day he would about be considered a giant of a man. Just over 6’, he was quite tall in his time frame and along with that he was well-built, strong, agile and cautious. He could outwork and outlast the best in any physical situation.

Intellectually, he was just as impressive, constantly reading and improving his mind. He loved good literature but also read about the “most obtuse and difficult problems.” Often quoted, he loved to give his own expression to, “face the rugged issues!” In fact, he had such a mad desire for knowledge that after spending a lengthy and successful career in politics, he decided to study law – becoming a lawyer at age 57! Imagine that in that time era! (see CDPL photo)

The third aspect discussed in his obituary centered upon his soul. “No man had loftier ideals of duty and life. Every hour of every day since early manhood was spent in active, earnest work.” He was always courageous, independent, reliable, good-tempered and no matter what was thrown in his way, he “never for a moment lost faith in himself or his God!”

J.F. Harney was born on the first day of May, 1824 in Shelby County, Kentucky and in 1834, came to our county with his parents, Gilbert and Charlotte Harney. She passed away quite young and his father in 1846 (the same day as his brother, John falling into an open well filled with gas), leaving J.F. as the father to his four younger brothers and sisters. Actually, he was serving his country in the Army during the Mexican War and had to return home to enforce this duty and he accomplished it with respect and love.

In 1851, he married America Harrison a daughter of an amazing man, Joshua Harrison, who, although a slave owner was completely opposed to owning another person. In 1829, he moved his family to Montgomery County, leaving his slaves to run his Kentucky place, and although they were not free per se until after the Civil War they were basically in the capacity he left them. When they were finally free, no one rejoiced more than Joshua Harrison. He was loved by all and passed away at America and J.F.’s home at the age of 90.

The Harney’s had a wonderful marriage, producing six children, their first son passing in infancy. Another son, John H, who was editor of the Ladoga Journal died fairly young of consumption. Carey Thomas Harney was a large grain merchant in Macon County, Illinois, and George Selby Harney was amazing, a Wabash grad, official of the American Zinc Mill, officer in the Spanish-American War, one of the founders of the Crawfordsville Elks, editor of the Crawfordsville Review, and the list goes on. Their daughters were Sarah Foster and Mary Roadamour who was very into literature as was the rest of the family. The Harneys were married more than 50 enjoyable years, celebrating with their family in a wonderful day on their anniversary.

Harney was elected into the House several times in the 1850s and ran for Congress against the professional politician, Godlove Orth. Harney lost! Later, Harney did win a seat in the senate and

drafted the bill providing the construction of the state house, and it was often said that he saved the state over a half million dollars.

Okay, we’re ready for De Judge. Yep, James Ford Harney was thrown into the run as judge (after he had practiced law at Ladoga for a few years) with the opposition laughing since he had no experience as a judge. Fooled. He won and served six years, with such an amazing record he had but six of his cases that were sent to the Supreme Court overturned. He was so very careful in studying the whole of each case, that he was loved and appreciated by all parties involved, simply because he was always fair, knowledgeable and complete. Oh and in his six years, he only missed four days.

He had fun, too, dubbing one day a week as divorce day since we had so many here at that time. On that day, he would basically have a theme where the lawyers and others might dress in full evening dress suits, the room beautifully decorated in honor of the occasion. The papers enjoyed harassing him on these days “Judge Harney wore a new shirt and sunny smile when he mounted the royal throne in the circuit court Wednesday and donned the robes of spotless ermine.” Or, “the wild but winning orgies of ‘divorce day,” or . . . Judge Harney’s “shirt was so shiny it was like a mirror” . . . always making for enjoyable reading.

One minus for the judge was his handwriting. Although he was an intellectual, impressive writer as per his content, his writing itself was poor. Three men tried to decipher one decree and finally took it to the judge, hoping he could make sense out of it. Instead, he viewed it and noted, “In the name of all that’s terrible, what is this?”

The Judge impressed me so much, I could easily write a book about this man, but let me tell you one other quick thing and I’m out of room. He got to meet and was thoroughly impressed with Abe Lincoln, after seeing Sec. of State Stanton and being refused a pass to check on the daughter of one of Montgomery’s esteemed citizens (Thomas Harris). She had gone to Virginia to visit right before the war broke loose. Henry S. Lane took Harney to see Lincoln. At first Abe wasn’t going to help them but he plopped into his chair, drummed his finger on his desk and soon said, “I need a message taken to . . . and you’d do that for me, right?” So, Harney did get to cross the line, thus being able to set up the daughter leaving on a steamer that occasionally exchanged passengers and mail, she being on the next boat.

Oh, just a taste of this wonderful man did I give you but suffice to say his beloved nephews laid him to rest at his passing (26 March 1904) all involved in the large wake, realizing that James Ford Harney, one of the best in mind, body, and spirit was now at his final peace!

Karen Zach is the editor of Montgomery Memories, our monthly magazine all about Montgomery County. Her column, Around the County, appears each Thursday in The Paper of Montgomery County. You can reach her at Karen@