History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/4/Joseph M. Beck

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[J M Beck]

JOSEPH M. BECK was born in Clearmont County, Ohio, April 21st, 1823, of English-Welsh descent, of best ancestry on maternal and paternal sides—in some respects distinguished families. He was educated in Indiana schools and at Hanover College, Madison, Indiana, where he read law with Judge Miles C. Eggleston. He taught in Kentucky—characteristically advocating anti-slavery views at that perilous time. (As a nephew of Thomas Morris, U. S. senator from Ohio, who as early as 1832 was a fearless abolitionist, this was quite natural.) He came to Montrose, Iowa, in 1847. Two years later he went to Fort Madison, his home until his death. In 1850 he was elected mayor of Fort Madison. The same year he was elected prosecuting attorney. In 1867 he was elected to the Iowa Supreme bench and re-elected three times, serving continuously twenty-four years—“the peer of any member of the bench, old or new.”

“He was always a leader in the affairs of his state, devotedly attached to the party and church of his choice, to education and everything tending to the upbuilding of our commonwealth. As a lawyer he was fearless in all he undertook, safe and discreet in counsel, honorable and gentlemanly at the trial table, an admitted power in every stage of a prosecution, or defense. He was an able judge, of spotless integrity, most industrious and faithful to the highest trusts, laboring with a fidelity seldom equalled, to know and declare the law, utterly regardless of who might be helped, or injured, pleased, or offended. He believed that men should live honestly and soberly, so to work as to insure integrity, morality, temperance and all that tends to make us better citizens. He was naturally and logically apt to solve every issue in favor of all that led this way” … “in such matters his mind was a very Gibraltar of conviction, a constant menace to evil doing and all violation of law.”

During these twenty-four years the procedure of courts, questions concerning land grants to settlers, railways, etc.; constitutional questions, for example the right of the people to tax and govern themselves—these, and other matters of vital importance, were adjudicated. Laws as to property rights, domestic relations, common carriers, protection of life and property, etc., were made and interpreted. By inclination and necessity Judge Beck became an authority on these subjects. His work appears in 88 vols. of Iowa Reports—his opinions as justice in 62 of these volumes.

He had few superiors as a conversationalist, for he had great mental power, a fine memory, knew history and literature, appreciated the best in the arts, had been an observant traveller and was in sympathy with current affairs. “As trustee of the State library during his long term he was largely instrumental in building it up in law, literature and all departments.”

A marked characteristic was his devotion to his children, to his beloved wife—a woman of rare charm, culture and spirituality—and to his home, where he died May 30th, 1903.

Note.—The above sketch, condensed from Vol. 89, Iowa Reports, addresses by Senator and ex-Chief justice George G. Wright and ex-Chief Justice Robinson, is a part of the records of the Supreme Court.