Biography of George A. Knight
Humboldt County, CA Biographies





GEORGE ALEXANDER KNIGHT. - The genealogy of the Knight family is traced back to the colonial period of New England history and thence to substantial ancestry in England. Records, whose accuracy has been emphasized by the traditions of successive generations as well as the written accounts of the period, indicate that the family had patriotic participation in the Revolutionary war. Even now there are many of the name within the borders of New England, but the greater number have sought the larger opportunities of the middle west or the Pacific coast country. High among them all, adding prestige to a name honored throughout the entire history of our nation, but particularly worthy as the artificer of his own fortunes and the winner of his own success, is George Alexander Knight, the silver tongued orator of California, the man of intellectual powers well reinforced by integrity of purpose, the citizen whose patriotic plans promote progressive legislation and the eloquent and tactful standard bearer of the Republican party through many stormy convention sessions memorable in politics and decisive in results. His parents, George H. and Elizabeth Knight, the former a native of Providence, R. I., and the latter of St. Andrew's, New Brunswick, Canada, lived during the early part of their married life at Worcester, Mass., and there his birth occurred July 24, 1851. When two years of age he was brought to California, where the family established a home at Eureka, Humboldt county, and where his father conducted the first hotel for many years, meanwhile endeavoring to promote the development of the community and direct attention to latent local resources. In the sports on the playground of the Eureka grammar school the boy proved to be a recognized leader. In the schoolroom he stood at the head of his classes. So generous was he in heart, so bright in mind, so honorable in soul and so tactful in friendship that he became popular in every circle. Older people predicted a future of great promise for him, for they recognized his admirable endowment of intellect.

The advantages of the Oakland high school and three years in Oakland College supplemented a grammar school course of study and enabled Mr. Knight in 1870 to take up the study of law with a substantial substratum of classical education. In selecting the law for his profession he was singularly fortunate in appreciating the bent of his talents. His fine mind assimilated the theories and practices of the law with facile readiness. Nor was he less quick in his processes of logical reasoning. With the swiftness of lightning he grasped a case in all of its intricacies. Combined with this facility of mental grasp there was an ease of expression, a fluency of language, that even in early youth marked him as about to enter upon a career of promise and professional prominence. To such an one admission to the bar with honors was a foregone conclusion of his studies. It was also to be anticipated that in his six years of service as district attorney his powers should be expanded, his knowledge of the law broadened and his ability to conduct difficult cases increased. Even in those early years he had aligned himself as a stanch supporter of the Republican party, but he allowed no partisan influence to detract from the success of his administration as district attorney, in which capacity his official opinions were regarded as of great value and he exercised his influence toward the righting of wrongs that interfered with the functions of government. In the prosecution of criminals he displayed remarkable efficiency and at that early date gave evidence of the splendid legal abilities that afterward brought him to the front of his profession in the west. "Our George," the people of Humboldt county then learned to call him and in this way they still affectionately refer to him. During that period he laid the foundation of his later influence and proved himself unexcelled in the administration of our criminal laws.

With the campaign of Hon. George C. Perkins for governor of California on the Republican ticket, Mr. Knight suddenly sprang into prominence, and from that year (1879) to the present (1914) he has been one of the leading orators and statesmen of the west. It was a source of pride to his admirers in Humboldt county that his remarkable oratorical ability, of which they had been fully aware, should take the entire state by storm during a memorable campaign that brought into prominence every gifted orator in the state. Of all the speakers who went forth to "stump" the state for Mr. Perkins none was more effective or popular than the young orator from Humboldt county and Mr. Perkins always gave to him much of the credit for his gratifying victory at the polls. In appreciation of his work the governor and party leaders urged him to become a candidate for congress the following year, but the Democratic party was then in the ascendancy, and their candidate, Charles P. Berry, defeated Mr. Knight. What seemed a defeat, however, proved to be the greatest good fortune of his life, for it caused him to determine to devote himself to the law and to relinquish all office seeking allurements, and to that decision may be attributed his subsequent eminence at the bar. Removing to San Francisco and opening a law office, he soon became known as one of the best posted lawyers in the western metropolis, where the firm of Knight & Heggerty long has held rank with the leaders of the profession and has retained the clientage of some of the wealthiest litigants of the period, besides taking part in many of the most famous criminal and civil cases in the state's history. Indeed the reputation of the firm is practically national in its scope.

There are many attorneys (and among them Mr. Knight himself) who consider his greatest legal forensic effort to have been his address on the final trial of Josh Hamlin, charged with the murder of John Massey. Hamlin, convicted of murder in the first degree, but granted a new trial, lost his attorney by death, and Judge Toohey appointed Mr. Knight to defend the accused man at the new trial. The talented Henry Edgerton was on the opposing side. It would have seemed almost folly to attempt the defense of a case in which the opponent was an attorney so famed for logic and eloquence, but by a succession of court battles Mr. Knight managed to save the life of his client, who escaped with a light sentence. This trial in 1882 enhanced the reputation previously made by the rising young attorney, who later became even more prominent through the subsequent defense of Dr. Llewellyn Powell, charged with the murder of Ralph Smith, editor of the San Mateo Gazette, at Redwood City. After five trials in this case an acquittal was secured. In the case on appeal it was decided that the statute authorizing the change of venue to the people was unconstitutional.

National interest was aroused by the trial of Cordelia Botkin, charged with murder, by poisoning, of two women in Dover, Del., a case involving a number of important questions never before presented for adjudication in the California courts. In this case Mr. Knight appeared as attorney for the defendant. Aside from criminal cases he has gained distinction in the civil branch of his profession, notably in the litigation over the great estate of Thomas Blythe, the contest of the will of Jacob Z. Davis and the contest in behalf of Charles L. Fair over the will of ex United States Senator James G. Fair. Difficult indeed would it be to enumerate all of the cases, civil and criminal, that have engaged the attention and kindled the ambition of Mr. Knight in legal victories. Suffice it to say that he has been more or less intimately identified with every important case in his home city for more than a quarter of a century, and his professional eminence renders consonant the specific recognition accorded to him throughout the entire west.

A firm advocate of the principles for which the Republican party stood from the first era of its organization, Mr. Knight early in life became interested in political affairs. Since 1879 he has participated perhaps in every state and national campaign, giving his services without remuneration and solely for the good of the cause dear to his heart. Considered the strongest convention man in the state, he has appeared as a delegate at every Republican national convention since 1884 with the sole exception of 1888, when he received the largest electoral vote of the party for that year. One of his most noteworthy sessions of service as delegate occurred in 1884, when, at the age of thirty three, as the champion of James G. Blaine, he opposed the famous orator, George William Curtis, editor of Harper's Weekly and a supporter of Arthur. No one who attended the convention has ever forgotten the oratorical effort of Mr. Knight, who defended Blaine in one of the most eloquent convention addresses ever delivered. The speech was the climax of the convention. Every sentence, almost every word, received a deafening applause. In the opinion of one of the noted correspondents and press reporters of the convention, it was worth half a lifetime to witness such a scene and the effect upon the great audience of the impassioned appeal of Mr. Knight, a gem of oratory, worthy of Demosthenes or Patrick Henry. That morning Mr. Knight had been comparatively unknown outside of the west. That night his name was a household word. Twelve years later a similar occasion occurred in the Democratic convention when William Jennings Bryan leaped from obscurity into prominence through an eloquent effort. However, such scenes are rare in the history of a nation, and whatever may be the cause of the flow of oratory its effect is a distinct addition to political literature.

As a delegate to the convention of 1892 Mr. Knight assisted in securing the nomination of Benjamin Harrison for the second term as president. Four years later he secured the entire vote of California for William McKinley and was elected a delegate to the St. Louis convention, where he formed strong personal friendships with Mr. McKinley and others of the foremost statesmen of the country. During 1900 he seconded the nomination of President McKinley upon the invitation of the latter. It had been a great convention, but those in the rear of the vast building had been unable to hear any of the speeches, and when suddenly the voice of the silver tongued orator broke upon them, the confusion and noise ceased as if by magic. As a consequence he won the heartiest applause given any speaker. Great and small alike listened eagerly to his eloquent address and were quick to do honor to his ability. In the national convention of 1904 Mr. Knight was requested by Theodore Roosevelt to make one of the speeches seconding his nomination. Of this speech Collier's Weekly gave the following report: "The last day was devoted to nomination oratory. It was a severe test for the speakers, since the day was hot and the list of speakers unconscionably long. The nominating address for president, by ex Governor Black of New York, was epigrammatic and ornate. That of ex Senator Beveridge, who made the first seconding speech, was excellent, although a trifle overrhetorical for the occasion. Indeed the soporific dominated in the addresses and the big audience wearied of it. The best speaker of the day was George A. Knight of California. He had terse, meaty, sense bearing phrases and his magnificent voice reached every man in the great hall. His first words, `Gentlemen of the Convention,' brought ringing cheers from the straining audience. His next sentence was interrupted by a voice from a remote gallery, 'Not so loud,' and everybody, including Mr. Knight, roared with laughter. Mr. Knight should stand hereafter with Mr. Thurston in voice attainment. And his speech as a whole was a really great effort, by far the finest of the entire convention." The New York Sun mentioned the same address in these words: "Mr. Knight is California's pet orator. He has a voice like a Sandy Hook foghorn. He hadn't said three words of his speech before a voice from a gallery roared out, `Not so loud, if you please.' This brought forth cheers and laughter, which Mr. Knight acknowledged by a gracious bow. Several of Mr. Knight's utterances were graciously applauded." The New York Evening Post gave this mention: "The convention was treated to an agreeable surprise in the speech of George A. Knight of California, who revives in physical type, in voice and in oratorical methods the liveliest memories of the late Robert G. Ingersoll. He made the great hit of the whole convention and could have stormed it for any political favor he had to ask. The applause, whenever called for, came in gusts and storm, sweeping the hall and sometimes coming back again after it seemed to have spent its force."

During this convention Mr. Knight was selected to represent California on the national Republican committee. His services were called into requisition in the east and middle west, and such was his popularity that he was invited to speak in Madison Square Garden, that vast hall where the measure of true orators is so promptly taken. Of that address a reporter gave this verdict, which was one of countless others of a similar tenor: "Standing in the presence of twenty thousand Republicans, George A. Knight, California's silver tongued orator, got a reception in Madison Square Garden that will be talked of in party annals for years to come. Knight was third on the list of speakers. `Eli' Root, the idol of New York Republicans, and Frank Higgins, the popular nominee for governor, had already spoken at length, and the audience, enthusiastic as it had been was growing weary of much oratory and the lateness of the hour. California stretches her hands across the mountains, deserts and fertile valleys tonight to the Republicans of the Empire state, and bids you stand with her and give a mighty majority for Theodore Roosevelt, the champion of human rights,' said Knight, and his victory was won. From thence on it was cheering and singing for over an hour. When Knight, after a glorious tribute to Grant, said, 'The Republican party offers you another Grant for a leader' a cheer went up from ten thousand throats that shook the garden. On the platform were two score party veterans of fifty years. When Knight spoke of them as pathfinders who had followed Fremont as the first Republican leader, the old men rose in a body and led the most remarkable demonstration of the night. Knight in closing said that in the olden days the farmer made a man of straw and stuck him in the fields where the crops were choice, to let the crows know where the good stuff was. 'So the Democrats have placed bogie men in the Philippines to let the people know the grand work the Republican party has accomplished,' said Knight, and the audience cheered for five minutes. The Californian tried to cut short again and again, to make way for Senator Fairbanks, but each time the audience roared its disapproval and told him to talk 'all night.' During that same memorable address delegates from Columbia, Princeton. the University of New York, Yale and Harvard, present in large numbers, gave exhibitions of "rooting" never before equaled in a political convention.

When the national convention of 1908 was held in Chicago, Mr. Knight attended as delegate from California and seconded the nomination of William Howard Taft at the personal request of that gentleman. In this speecn he fully sustained his high reputation as an orator. During the convention he was again chosen to serve on the Republican national committee. Nor has he been less prominent as a leader in state conventions than as one of the principal men in the national gatherings of the party. As chairman of the state convention in 1894 that nominated M. M. Estee for governor, he wielded large influence in the work of the party. During 1908 he acted as chairman of the state convention that chose delegates to the national convention of that year. In all of this intimate connection with party affairs he has held aloof from office seeking and only occasionally has permitted his name to be used for office, as in 1905, when he was prominently mentioned for the position of United States senator. Under Governor Perkins he served as state insurance commissioner, while later he was judge advocate on the staff of Governor Markham and attorney for the state board of health under Governor Gage.

In the midst of professional, political and public duties of vast importance and continuous demand upon his time, Mr. Knight has found the leisure for participation in social and fraternal activities and has been especially interested in Masonry as a member of the chapter and Cornmandery No. 1, K. T., California Lodge, and Mystic Shrine. While yet a resident of Humboldt county he was honored with the office of grand master of Humboldt Lodge No. 77, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and more recently he has been an influential member of the Bohemian and Pacific Union Clubs of San Francisco. A type of the public spirited citizen, upright business man, talented attorney and gifted orator, his name is worthy of perpetuation in state annals not alone as the "silver tongued orator," but also because of the force of character that made possible his rise and the integrity of purpose that permitted no blemish or evidence of injustice in his entire record, public or private. Courage and confidence have characterized his career; an intelligent purpose has pointed the path to progress; superior attainments have enabled him to surmount many obstacles in the struggle for supremacy, but withal he has retained the kindliness of heart that sees good in all, the earnestness of character that is unaffected by prosperity or adversity and the thoroughly admirable attributes that have made him a man among men.

From:
History of Humboldt County, California
With a Biographical Sketches
History by Leigh H. Irving
Historic Record Company
Los Angeles, California 1915


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