Born in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, February 18, 1825, Jacob Turney was the son of Dutch immigrant Jacob, Sr. and Margaret (Singer) Turney. He received a common-school education, graduated from the Greensburg Academy, and learned the printer’s trade from his older brother, Samuel Singer Turney, editor of the Argus.[i] His father participated in local government and served as a Democratic delegate to the 1826 Harrisburg Convention.[ii] In 1846, Jacob, Jr. became register of Westmoreland County and read law with Albert G. and Henry C. Marchand.
Senator Turney joined the Westmoreland bar in 1849, becoming the first elected district attorney of the county. He returned in 1853, serving through January 1857. On February 2, 1854, Jacob married Mary S. Richardson of Westmoreland County.[iii] Settling permanently in Greensburg, Jacob attracted statewide recognition, prosecuting several high-profile criminal trials, most notably the murder of “Big Mary Corrigan” in the 1858 case, Commonwealth v. Hugh Corrigan.[iv]
A Buchanan Democrat and 1856 presidential elector, Jacob successfully represented Westmoreland in the same year’s state senatorial election, later sharing a close friendship with renowned Philadelphia Senator Samuel James Randall. Turney obtained the Speaker’s gavel in April 1859, however, suffered defeat for re-election during the opening days of the 1860 session at the hands of Republican William Francis of Lawrence County. Turney voted in support of Republican John Penney’s General Banking Act, also joining GOP Senator Finney in passage of the miner’s fair wage act. He cast against the sale of the state canal system and crossed party lines to vote against the Lecompton Resolution. He chaired Finance in 1859, casting as a high-tariff Democrat.
The senator failed re-election to the Senate in 1871, losing to Senator Harry White. Turney, nevertheless, successfully ran for Congress in 1875, repeating the feat in 1877.[v] During four years in Washington, Jacob served on the Privileges and Elections, Mines, Territories, and Currency Committees. Congressman Turney played a major role in framing the 1878 Bland-Allison Act, reintroducing the legality of silver coinage.[vi] He retired from public life in 1879 and retreated to his Greensburg law practice. Despite an impressive political career, Jacob Turney considered it a “great error” in ignoring his chosen legal profession for the “blandishments of political honors.”[vii] Westmoreland barrister Albert H. Bell noted Senator Turney “was genial in disposition, democratic in manner, handsome in personal presence, approachable to the young and old, rich and poor, learned and unlearned.”[viii] The Honorable Jacob Turney died in Greensburg on October 4, 1891, age-66.
(From double negative, Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress)
[i] Old and New Westmoreland, vol. IV, ed. Fenwick Hedley and John Boucher (New York: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1918) 81.
[ii] Ibid., 944.
[iii] Westmoreland County Marriage and Death Notices, 1818-1865, from Weekly Newspapers (McKeesport, PA:McKeesport and Greensburg Chapters of DAR, 1962), 229.
[iv] Hedley, 82.
[vi] Albert H. Bell, Esq. Memoirs of the Bench and Bar of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania (Westmoreland County: Albert H. Bell, 1924), 117