William Smith O&Rsquo;Brien

Submitted to the West Virginia Biographies Project by:
Valerie & Tommy Crook
April 13, 2000

The History of West Virginia, Old and New
Published 1923, The American Historical Society, Inc.,
Chicago and New York, Volume III,
pg. 406-407

HON. WILLIAM SMITH O’BRIEN, former circuit judge of
the circuit composed of Webster and Upshur counties, has
been one of the prominent lawyers of Buckhannon for
thirty years. He is an editor and publisher, and at all
times exerts a forceful influence in polities and in com-
munity affairs.

Judge O’Brien was born in Barbour County, West Vir-
ginia, January 8, 1862, and is a son of Emmet J. and
Martha Ann (Hall) O’Brien. The paternal family runs
back into Irish history for many generations, and with
distinguished connections, including the famous Robert
Emmet. The grandfather of Judge O’Brien was Daniel
O’Brien, who was born in County Clare, Ireland, in 1774
and came to America in 1796. In 1804 he moved to West
Virginia from Baltimore, and became a merchant at
Beverly. He died in 1844. In 1815 he married Hannah
Norris, daughter of Capt. John and Mary (Jones) Nor-
ris, of Lewis County. She was a relative of Gen. George
Washington, connected through the Jones and Ball fam-
ilies. She died in Upshur County in 1880. The Norris
and Jones families were from Fauquier County, Virginia,
and were of English descent.

Emmet J. O’Brien, father of Judge O’Brien, was born
at Beverly, and though he had only the advantages of the
common schools he excelled in mathematics, particularly
in geometry and surveying. He learned the trade of stone
cutter and mason, became a bridge building contractor, and
with his brother Daniel they constructed the abutments
of the bridge across the Tygart’s Valley at Philippi, West
Virginia. He was a member of the first Constitutional
Convention of West Virginia, and in 1867-68 represented
the Sixth District in the State Senate. Before the War of
the Rebellion he was commissioned a brigadier general of
the militia by Governor Wise of Virginia. He was offered
a commission in the Confederate Army, but refused be-
cause his sympathies were with the Union. He died in.
1888, near Weston. General O’Brien married Martha Ann
Vandervort, widow of Joseph Vandervort. She was a
daughter of Jonathan and Elizabeth (Reger) Hall, and
was born and reared on Big Skin Creek, Lewis County,
West Virginia. Her great-grandfather, Jacob Reger, was of
German descent, and settled on the Buckhannon River,
near Volga, Barbour County, about 1776. Her paternal
ancestor, Joseph Hall, father of Jonathan Hall, was born
in England, and was a pioneer settler in the Reger settle-
ment. His wife was Ann Hitt, a French Huguenot from
North Carolina, who was married first to a Mr. Martin
and then to William Strange, who was lost in the forest.
His body was afterward found near the head waters of what
is known as Strange Creek, Braxton County, West Vir-
ginia. She next married Joseph Hall.

The other children of General O’Brien and wife were:
Alonzo Lee, who was a graduate of West Point Military
Academy and was a lieutenant in the Regular Army at the
time of his death; Daniel U., who attended West Virginia
University, was prominent in the Cadet Corps at the Uni-
versity, served as captain in the Spanish-American war,
and is now a farmer and stock dealer in Gilmer County;
Mary Lillian, deceased wife of the late William M. Arnold,
of Ravenswood, West Virginia.

William Smith O’Brien was a child when his parents
moved from Barbour County to Weston in Lewis County,
where he was reared on a farm. He did the work of the
farm, was employed in brick yards, attended public schools
and West Virginia University, and taught for about ten
years in Lewis County. While teaching he studied law,
his chief instructor being Judge John Brannon, of Weston,
one of the ablest lawyers of the state. He graduated from
the law department of West Virginia University in 1891,
and the following year began practice at Buckhannon. For
several years he was junior partner with Hon. William D.
Talbot, until his death in 1907.

In 1912 Judge O’Brien was elected judge of the Twelfth
Judicial Circuit, composed of the counties of Webster and
Upshur. Early in his term what is known as “The West
Virginia Bribery Cases” were removed from the Kanawha
Circuit Court to Webster County for trial. Five members
of the Legislature stood indicted for bartering their votes
for money in the election of a United States senator.
Judge O’Brien presided over the lengthy trials. They were
convicted and sentenced to serve terms in the penitentiary.
The Supreme Court of Appeals refused appeals.

The Upshur-Webster Circuit was heavily republican, but
the campaign was in a sense non-partisan. In 1920 the
state was redistricted, and Randolph and Upshur were
joined. The circuit was republican, and Judge O’Brien
went down in the landslide, but reduced his opponents’
majority very materially. After retiring from the bench.
he formed a partnership with Jerome V. Hall, and under
the firm name of O’Brien and Hall he again entered into
the active practice of the law. He is also editor and man-
ager of the Upshur Record, a democratic weekly newspaper
published in Buckhannon. Judge O’Brien has been active
in business and community affairs. He was one of the
promoters and organizers of the Peoples Bank of West
Virginia, one of the leading banking institutions of the
city, and was one of its directors for many years. He is a
member and trustee of the First Methodist Episcopal
Church of Buckhannon. He was president of the County
Sunday School Association for many years, and teacher
of the “O’Brien” Sunday School Class for nearly twenty-
five years.

He is a past chancellor of Buckhannon Lodge No. 54,
Knights of Pythias; is affiliated with Franklin Lodge No.
7, A. F. and A. M.; Upshur Chapter No. 34, R. A. M.;
and Buckhannon Commandery No. 24, Knights Templar.

He was commissioned captain of Company B, Second
Regiment of the State Guards. During the World war he
served as chairman of the Legal Advisory Board for
Upshur County, and was active in every war movement
as opportunity afforded. In politics he affiliates with the
democratic party.

On October 14, 1896, Judge O’Brien married Miss Emma
White, daughter of Alexander P. and Mary White, of
Camden, Lewis County. Mr. White is a first cousin of
Stonewall Jackson. Mrs. O’Brien was educated in the
common schools and in Broaddus College. Judge and Mrs.
O’Brien have four children: Perry Emmet, born August
2, 1898, a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College;
Daniel Pitt, born August 31, 1900; Mary Martha, born
November 30, 1902, and William Talbot, born August 29,
1904, who are now students in West Virginia Wesleyan