The Backstory: "Honest Jim" Kingsley

We've all heard of "Honest Abe" Lincoln, but Ann Arbor had its own "Honest" politician back in the day too.

James "Honest Jim" Kingsley was born in Canterbury, Conn., in 1797. After studying law, he was admitted to the bar in his home state. When he was 26, Kingsley moved to Virginia to be a private teacher. Three years later, he found himself in Mississippi until an epidemic of yellow fever broke out. For reasons lost to history, he then moved to Ann Arbor and made the city his own.

Judge Kingsley's accomplishments were incredible by the standards of both his time and our own. He began a law practice in Ann Arbor and became the first person admitted to the Ann Arbor Bar. Less than two years later, in 1828, he was appointed as a Washtenaw County probate court judge. Simultaneously, Kingsley served in the Michigan territory’s legislature.

Many townies know that John Allen was postmaster of Ann Arbor's first post office, which was built in either 1824 or 1825. After his arrival in town, Kingsley was Allen's deputy postmaster. Mail arrived once a week, and Kingsley would sometimes put the mail in his hat and carry it around to the recipients. (Allen also studied law under Kingsley, which was the way people got admitted to the Bar back then. He likely paid the usual tutoring fee of $300 for this privilege).

But Kingsley’s good deeds were not limited to Ann Arbor. After Michigan became a state in 1837, Kingsley served in the state House in 1837 and then in the state Senate in 1838, 1839, and 1842. While in the state Senate, Kingsley drew up the first charter of the Michigan Central Railroad and was a consistent advocate for railroads and train travel.

Kingsley might as well have invited the phrase "a rolling stone gathers no moss" because the man just kept on rolling. He served as a member of the 1850 Michigan Constitutional Convention, as Ann Arbor's mayor from 1855 to 1856, and as a regent of the University of Michigan from 1852 to 1858. Kingsley has a long and impressive association with the university, as he was credited with being one of the major proponents of locating the university in our fair town.

At the age of 72, Kingsley returned to the state House. Notwithstanding his advanced age (for the time), the Michigan Argus gave him a glowing recommendation, as "in mature age he has preserved the quality of his youth."

Before the concept of "work-life balance" was a thing, Kingsley was out there making it happen. At Ann Arbor's first Fourth of July celebration in 1824, he met Lucy Clark, whom he would marry in 1830. Clark was known about town as the owner of Ann Arbor's first piano, also the second piano west of Detroit. She was also one of the founders of the Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor. After they married, Kingsley served as lay leader for both that group and the Presbyterians, who worshiped in the same house. Kingsley once made a crack that he wrote a "high-toned Calvinist" sermon for the morning Episcopalian service and added a "very different doctrine" before the afternoon service for the Presbyterians.

Kingsley and his family built a house at North and Detroit streets, impressive enough to be dubbed "Kingsley Castle." In 1835 the family built a second home at the west corner of Lawrence and Division. Both houses were eventually moved a short distance from their original locations.

The Kingsleys had one daughter, Frances, and three sons, James Jr., George, and Frank. Frances married Charles A. Chapin and they had three children, Lucy, Volney, and Mary Chapin. George had two children and Franklin served in the Civil War and died in battle.   

Jim Kingsley lived to the ripe old age of 81. When he died in 1878, he left behind his progeny and the town he loved. But his story was not quite over.

The street on which Kingsley resided was originally called "North", for the simple reason that it was at that time the northernmost street in the village. But after Kingsley’s death, talk began about renaming the street. At the July 8, 1892 meeting of Common Council (Ann Arbor's pre-City Council governing body), citizens submitted their requests for a formal name change. Their requests stated that the street name of "North" was no longer appropriate, as the street was no longer the northernmost street in the city. A petition, supported by a letter from Michigan Governor Alpheus Felch, requested that the street be renamed after Kingsley. The motion passed the council unanimously.

So how did this accomplished man get the nickname "Honest Jim"? History is hazy on the exact origins of the nickname, but the eulogy Felch composed for Kingsley in the Michigan Argus offers ample testament to his disposition. "Judge Kingsley was a man of great simplicity of character," Felch wrote. "No display or show was ever exhibited by him … He was kind and generous in his impulses, a true sympathizer with the poor and unfortunate, and a warm and sincere friend." From lawyer to teacher to legislator to street namesake, Kingsley left his mark on our city and our state in a truly remarkable way. The fact that he was so many things, but held up as a man of integrity, speaks to the kind of people — yes, even politicians! — we have in our lovely town. 
 
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