James Bowie McConnell, 1829-1914

Member and vice-president of the Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund; counsel for the defense of JLN’s last will and testament

The Josephine Louise Newcomb Letters Project is possible only because James McConnell issued a call to JLN’s friends and family for letters she had written to them for possible use in the defense of her will. Most of those letters were presented as evidence in the court case. Others, those we’ve transcribed here, were kept in his personal files. Five of those letters were written to McConnell.

Paul Tulane appointed James McConnell to the Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund at its establishment in 1882, and at Tulane’s request was made vice-president, a position he held until his death. As the attorney for the Administrators, JLN trusted him absolutely. She followed his suggestion that she write an olographic will (purportedly an unassailable form according to McConnell), and leave her “property real, personal and mixed”, to the Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund as her “universal legatee.” She also appointed him as attorney for her executors, Brandt Dixon and Joseph Hincks, should any litigation ensue.

McConnell’s law career began in admiralty law yet, over the years, he gained prominence as a defense attorney and was president of the Louisiana Bar Association for more than twenty years. His early career was interrupted by the Civil War when he served as a lieutenant and provost marshal of Mobile. Born on a plantation below Baton Rouge, he moved to New Orleans with his parents when he was eleven years old. His father was a well-known surgeon and friend of James Bowie, the Texas revolutionary, and hence McConnell’s name. McConnell attended college in Virginia (and/or possibly Washington Academy [now Washington & Jefferson College], Washington, PA) and studied law under Judge Christian Roselius, who was dean of the faculty and professor of civil law at the University of Louisiana, which in 1882, became Tulane University.

McConnell was joined on the Tulane board by an illustrious group of civic leaders, many of whom are still memorialized in the names of University buildings and New Orleans city streets. Tulane left to the judgement of that first board the type of educational institution that would develop from his donation. Yet at the same time, he presented several of his own ideas about education and “intellectual advancement.” However, University historian John Dyer argues that the board had only one of two choices: “it could establish an entirely new educational institution, or it could put the money into a strengthening and rehabilitation of the then-existing [and financially strained] University of Louisiana.” McConnell favored the latter and worked towards its adoption. He is credited with convincing the board of the University of Louisiana that its future lay in accepting the Tulane donation, and as a member of the Tulane board’s Committee on Education, strongly recommended that it devote the income to the development of the University. After much discussion, numerous negotiations and promises, the state University of Louisiana was reorganized as the private Tulane University of Louisiana on November 22, 1882.

McConnell also was involved in another matter critical to the development of the reorganized University. At the request of Paul Tulane, McConnell had drawn up a codicil to Tulane’s last will and testament in which Tulane left his entire estate to the University bearing his name. However, when Tulane died in 1887, no will was ever found and the entirety of his estate went instead to his relatives (though Tulane had never married and had no children). One can only imagine the distress this caused McConnell and the other Administrators. It also may account in some part for McConnell’s interest in knowing the location of JLN’s will and ensuring that it clearly state that the bulk of her estate, with the exception of a few small bequests, was to be left to the Administrators for the development of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College. And further, that such a will was unassailable.

The defense of JLN’s will was one of McConnell’s most important legal cases. He had all his briefs and evidence printed and bound, which was required in the New York courts, and customary elsewhere. Shortly after his successful defense of her will (1908), McConnell gave one set of these volumes to Tulane University. They contain his penciled annotations to the evidence and also short notes on the case, but he also told of the very hot New York summer of 1903, when he was presenting before the judge. Tulane University Law Library accessioned these bound volumes in 1936.

Besides McConnell’s widely known role for his handling of the Newcomb case, he also was associated with an earlier well-known case, the Myra Clark Gaines case, which wound its way through the Unites States courts from 1834 until 1891. McConnell’s involvement as lead counsel for the defense (City of New Orleans) lasted from 1855 to 1879.

Additionally, McConnell was well-known in the chess world as a gifted and life-long chess player. He began playing chess when he was about ten years old and considered the New Orleanian Paul Morphy to be the greatest chess player. When Morphy was ten years old, his father invited McConnell to their home to play several games. McConnell (then twenty) and Morphy played about a dozen games of chess, three of which were won by Morphy and just one by McConnell. McConnell was known to tell this story on himself on numerous occasions. There are actually several YOUTUBE historical chess videos on Morphy and McConnell’s games. McConnell also was said to have played Harry Nelson Pillsbury, and to have defeated Wilhelm Steinitz in a game of chess in New York.

McConnell, a longtime member of St. Paul’s Episcopal church, was actively involved in both church and veteran affairs. At the time of his death, he was head of the Church Club of Louisiana, and president of the veterans group comprised of those who had served the Confederacy in the Army of the Tennessee (River).