James Madison Thurmond, born on February 22, 1836, in Tennessee, to Philip and Rebecca Ann (Snead) Thurmond, was an attorney, judge, and mayor of Bryan and Dallas. He married Amanda Jane Morton in Dallas on February 15, 1880, and they had a son, James Morton Thurmond, later that year.
Little is known of Thurmond’s childhood or formal education; he grew up on his family’s farm in Crittenden County, Kentucky, and was one of eleven children. His father owned slaves, and he served in the Confederate Army. He was captured in Liberty, Tennessee, in April 1863 and quickly swore an oath of allegiance to the Union. He was released in May and relocated to the Idaho Territory.
Thurmond established himself as a lawyer in the mining towns along Alder Gulch in present-day Montana. In December 1863 he served as a member of the defense council for George Ives, who was accused of murdering a young man. Ives, rumored to be a highway robber, was tried in Nevada City in an ad hoc people’s court, where he was convicted in three days on scant evidence and summarily executed without a chance to appeal. Thurmond and his co-councils, particularly H. P. A. Smith, were outraged by the nature of the proceedings, while others believed that such courts were too slow and cumbersome. The lead prosecutor, Wilber Sanders, was among those who formed a vigilance committee to deliver more swift justice in the region. Thurmond and Smith organized an “anti-vigilance committee” to counter the extralegal activities of the vigilantes. When the two groups clashed over the vigilantes’ execution of five men the following month, Thurmond and Smith were banished from the territory under the threat of death.
Thurmond moved to Salt Lake City in the Utah Territory and opened a legal practice. In January 1865, when Jeremiah M. Fox, one of the founders of the vigilance committee happened to be in Salt Lake City, Thurmond brought a lawsuit against Fox. Thurmond sought $10,000 for loss of property and damages to his health, earnings, and respect as an attorney. He was ultimately awarded $8,000. Following Thurmond’s legal victory, the vigilance committee sent Sanders to pressure Thurmond into ceasing his litigation against the committee or else bring him back to Montana to be lynched. Thurmond did not pursue any further legal action against the vigilantes.
Thurmond was a founding member and served as secretary of the Mt. Moriah Masonic Lodge, chartered in February 1866 in Salt Lake City. In October 1868 he was involved in a near-fatal political argument when he and his interlocutor drew their weapons on each other. This was not the last time that the confrontational Thurmond’s personal and political quarrels would lead to violence.
Thurmond moved to Bryan, Texas, in early 1869. In April of that year, the Fifth Military District appointed Thurmond, a moderate Republican, both mayor of Bryan and county judge of Brazos County. In February 1870 he resigned from both offices, and in March he was appointed district attorney of the Third Judicial District of Texas. The following month, at a meeting of Republicans in Bryan, Thurmond was unanimously elected chairman of the party’s district committee and recommended for appointment as judge of Bryan’s judicial district and its state senator. Around the time of the meeting, he violently took his cane to Bryan’s state representative Charles W. Gardiner, a Radical Republican, over comments Gardiner had made about Thurmond.
In mid-1870 Governor Edmund J. Davis appointed Thurmond as judge for the Thirty-first District on the condition that Davis be empowered to force Thurmond’s resignation at any time, as the governor was concerned about “certain charges affecting his integrity.” Later convinced of Thurmond’s impropriety, Davis removed him from office in February 1871.Thurmond moved to Corsicana, where he briefly published two local newspapers, the Corsicana Independent in 1872, which became the Navarro Banner when his proprietorship ended, and the Corsicana Progressive Age, a weekly Republican newspaper, from 1873 to 1874. In 1872 he also published the first newspaper, which was also a Republican publication, in Hearne.
In 1872 Thurmond established a new legal practice in Dallas. His most notable case involved securing the acquittal of three White men previously convicted of the lynching of Reuben “Rube” Johnson, a Black man. By 1876 Thurmond was affiliated with the Democratic party.
In April 1879 he was elected Dallas’s seventeenth mayor, defeating the incumbent W. L. Cabell. He was elected on an independent ticket as a reform candidate. Later in 1879 he considered running for lieutenant governor on the Greenback ticket, but the following May he was ejected from the Greenback party.
In July 1880 city aldermen voted to remove him from office for malfeasance. He was accused of making defamatory comments about the police; attempting to bribe a police officer; using abusive and disparaging language toward various persons while acting as a judge; and not enforcing a minimum fine for gambling violations. The council formed an investigation committee, which conducted three days of hearings regarding these accusations.
On July 16, 1880, aldermen delivered the findings of their investigation. Mayor Thurmond opened the meeting but then retired from the chamber as he was “the object of the charges.” The committee declared that Thurmond had violated the gambling ordinance, but that supposed bribery attempt was a misunderstanding brought about by Thurmond’s undignified manner. The council proclaimed its “entire want of confidence” in Thurmond and declared the office of the absent mayor vacant. Thurmond challenged the legality of this decision, but on August 17, following legal arguments, the council sustained Thurmond’s removal by a vote of 6–1. As of 2021 Thurmond remains the only Dallas mayor to be removed from office.
Dallas held an election for a new mayor on September 14. Thurmond ran in this election, but he lost to John J. Good. During and after the brief campaign, Thurmond maintained that he had been unconstitutionally removed from office. After the election, he continued his legal practice.
On March 14, 1882, Dallas lawyer Robert E. Cowart shot and killed Thurmond at the Dallas courthouse. Cowart was one of the lawyers hired by the city council to prosecute his removal. Cowart also took an active role in Good’s campaign against Thurmond. Afterwards, rancor had existed between the two men. The immediate cause of their final altercation is not known. Thurmond produced a weapon first, but Cowart shot first and killed Thurmond. Cowart was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to seven years in prison. In a retrial, he was acquitted with self-defense noted as the reason for the shooting.
Thurmond was interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas, Texas. The Salt Lake Herald remembered him as “a brilliant fellow, eloquent... but a bulldozer, reckless in the extreme” who had nothing “in the nature of what the world calls moral principles.”