John LaPorte the judge

The road along Spruce Creek in 1873

John LaPorte overcame the early death of his father, rose to become a respected citizen and a court judge, but died almost blind and impoverished. He had a large family, nine sons and a daughter, with his wife Mary Ann, but the sons brought much grief to the family. Two died in infancy, one died from disease worsened by the Civil War, one went insane, and one was convicted of murder and sent to prison. The murder trial probably hastened the death of Mary Ann, as her obituary hinted. In the end John and Mary Ann were buried at Graysville Presbyterian cemetery, along with almost all of their children.

John was born in 1811 in Jersey Shore, Lycoming County, the oldest son of Samuel and Nancy LaPorte. His father died when John was about twelve, leaving the family destitute. John left Lycoming County and moved to Warrior’s Mark, Huntingdon County, where he learned to be a wagon maker.1 On November 29, 1832 he married Mary Ann Jones.2 She also had lost her father when she was twelve, and was living with an aunt and uncle. John and Mary Ann settled down in Franklin Township, on the road that runs through Spruce Creek Valley. When they first appear in the census, in 1840, they already had four young sons.

From then on John and Mary Ann lived in Spruce Creek and raised their family.  A map of  Franklin Township, Huntingdon County, in 1873 shows the road along Spruce Creek, past the houses of John Ingram, John LaPorte, and Samuel Wigton.3

John worked as a farmer and wagon maker. His opinion was repected. When the county held its annual Exhibition of the Agricultural Society, he was on the committee that judged agricultural implements like plows and cultivators.4

The children came reliably every two years. John and Mary Ann followed tradition in naming them. Samuel was named for John’s father, and Benjamin Jones was named for Mary Ann’s father. Sarah was named for Mary Ann’s mother. From the census records we can tell that the sons went to school until they were about 14. After that they worked as wagon makers or farm laborers, following the trades of their father.5

By 1860 Mary had borne her last child, and the Civil War was about to begin. Four of the sons served in the war. Samuel was the most affected. He may have had typhoid fever before he enlisted, but whatever it was, the war made it worse. John remembered going to visit Samuel in the hospital, possibly in Washington, to try to get him discharged. Samuel was eventually discharged on account of illness, came home and died soon after. Lemuel was placed in a “lunatic home” in Harrisburg after the war, and died there. Anson served without any apparent ill effects. Adolphus was wounded in the foot.

In 1870 John and Mary were still in Franklin Township, with three of their children: James H., Sarah and John, plus Mattie, age 24. Who was Mattie? Was this the wife of Adolphus, temporarily living with her in-laws, or an otherwise-unknown daughter?

John was active in Republican party circles, and in 1880 he was elected as a judge for Huntingdon County in 1880; by 1883 he was the senior associate judge. A newspaper in 1884 referred to him as “ our old Republican friend, Judge LaPorte”. By then he was retired from farming, still living in Franklin Township, with Mary Ann, and Jack, the youngest son, who was working on the farm.6

On May 28, 1885, disaster struck the family. Jack was drinking with friends, became drunk, fell into an argument with one of them, and cut his friend’s throat. The next morning he appeared at his brother Hunter’s house. John met him there and told Jack that as an officer of the law he was duty-bound to deliver him to the Sheriff. So he harnessed a horse and drove to Spruce Creek to take the first train to Huntingdon, then to the jail. (The New York Times was impressed with this and called it a “heroic action” by a judge, who put his duty above his loyalty to his son.) John and Mary Ann hired a defense team on his behalf, which may have drained their finances. The trial began on September 16.  John sat with his fellow judges for the preliminaries of bringing in the grand jury indictment, but he left the bench before his son was brought in by the sheriff, and sat with the defense team.7 The trial continued for several weeks, the sensation of the county. The defense argued that Jack was insane, with hereditary insanity running in both sides of his family. His mother’s mother (Sarah Waters Jones), his father’s mother (Nancy Norville), his father’s sister (which one?), his brother (Lemuel), and Jack himself—all would be shown to suffer from various signs of insanity. The testimony at the trial suggested a close-knit family. Jack was convicted and sentenced in October to six years of solitary confinement in the Western Penitentiary. He survived the sentence and returned home to Tyrone, but he probably never saw his mother again.

Mary Ann died in July 1887, of “nervous prostration”.8 Her obituary in the Tyrone Daily Herald called her a “kind and affectionate mother”, adding that “She never fully recovered from the shock and nervous prostration produced by the trial and conviction of her youngest son some two years ago”.

By 1897 John was almost blind, from cataracts in both eyes. He applied for a pension, on the strength of Samuel’s service in the War. “Since the death of my wife I have no family. I have lived with strangers and non-relatives. Some of my sons have contributed voluntary to the payment of my boarding. I am deprived of things necessary for my comfort and demanded by my infirmities. This is none of my sons own real estate and could not be forced to maintain me except so far as they choose to do it and that is uncertain.”9 He may have exaggerated in order to get the pension; one would like to hope that his sons did support him. He went on to say, “I am entirely penniless and appeal to the generosity of my county.”

The examiner, F. F. Dean, summarized, “The claimant in this case is an old man and he is getting very feeble. His mind is not just what it ought to be although in talking with him any one would think he was very strong in that respect. He has made some errors as to dates but he can be excused for that on account of his old age and failing memory. The man is nearly blind so near in that he cannot recognize his friends or acquaintances while shaking hands with them unless he can hear their voice. He is an object of charity and entirely dependent upon others for support. In his day he has been a man of considerable means but according to reports one of his sons robbed him of all that he had and he is now left with nothing. Rather than leave the little village where he has always made his home and go and live with some of his children he prefers to board with his old friends and I judge it is they mostly who take care of him. At one time he was Associate Judge of Huntingdon County and has always been a respected citizen thereof. This claimant sent six sons into the Union Army, two of whom died soon after the war, one in the Insane Asylum and one on whose account he is now claiming a pension.”

Note that John actually sent four sons into the army, not six. It is not clear which of his sons “robbed him of all that he had”; could this be a reference to the cost of the defense team for Jack’s murder trial?

John died in on April 10, 1899. According to his obituary in the Democratic Watchman of April 14, he died in his house in Franklinville, survived by five sons and a daughter.10  John and Mary Ann are buried at Graysville Cemetery, along with Jones and Leander, Samuel, Hunter and Elizabeth, Lemuel, Elmore, John Jr, Jack, and Martha Diven LaPorte.11

The tradition was passed down in our family that John was descended from the Laportes of Azilum. My grandmother heard this somewhere and told it to me, although she did not say where she had heard it. She was not the only one who made this connection. John LaPorte lived next door to the family of Samuel and Eliza Wigton. Samuel’s granddaughter Mary was impressed by the romantic story of the French nobles in the wilderness and wrote a story connecting it to her family’s LaPorte neighbor.

“In the old, old Province of Limousin, in the city of Tulle lived a Huguenot family by the name of LaPorte …Barthelency LaPorte was evidently much looked up to in the plans for the trip across the Atlantic…He had a nephew killed by the Indians…This nephew of Barthelency LaPorte had at least two children, that we know of.  John LaPorte was the older one, who wanted to be an attorney, but when his father died there was no money for that education, so he had to learn a trade instead.  He chose ‘Wagon making’. He was strong and rugged and of a typical French build. Charles, the second son, studied law and practiced it in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania all his life. Well, the old letters tell of John being sent to Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania to learn his trade. He was only twelve years old. It is disappointing that we really do not know the name of John LaPorte’s father.  All we know is his uncle’s name — Barthelency LaPorte, from Tulle, France.… What a homesick little boy of twelve years, [John] must have been, torn from his mother and home even the language strange to him.12 Mary’s mother knew John as an old man, when he was known as the Judge. He was not living in his house by then, but came back once in a while to visit his neighbors, walking down the road with his cane.  We don’t know whether John was actually related to Bartholomew, but it is a pleasing picture to imagine him stopping by to visit, venerated and admired.

{Next post: the children of John and Mary Ann}

  1. Why did he go so far? There were no known LaPortes there at the time. Was a relative of his mother Nancy living there?
  2. His own statement in his pension application. (Available from National Archives). I have not been able to trace Rev. Daniel Moses on the web; John claimed that he was the minister who married them.
  3. Map online at the USGWArchives. The road today seems to be known as Willow Oak Road.
  4. Huntingdon Globe, Oct. 6, 1869, from the Penn State digital library.
  5. The 1850 census showed John in Franklin Township, age 38, a wagon-maker, with wife Mary, age 37, and some of the children.
  6. John Kinch and his wife Angeline were close neighbors. She would later make a deposition when John applied for a pension.
  7. Court records, Huntingdon County Courthouse.
  8. Deposition of Angeline Kinch for John’s pension application, from his Civil War papers. And the card file of obituaries at the HCHS.
  9. The pension application, from National Archives.
  10. The Democratic Watchman was published in Bellefonte, Centre County. (From the Spangler notebooks in the Centre County Library in Bellefonte.) The Tyrone Daily Herald of April 10, 1899 also had an obituary.
  11. Graysville Cemetery Records at the Huntingdon County Historical Society.
  12. Mary Wigton Reeve, “My Huguenot Neighbor”, manuscript. What is disappointing to us is that she didn’t put in more material from the ‘old family letters’. Why did she assume that he spoke French? She is not reliable in details about the family.

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