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Governor William Stephens

William Stephens was an American politician who served as the 24th Governor of California (1917-1923), and was a 3-term U.S. Congressman (1911-16).

He served briefly as Lieutenant Governor of California, and acted as interim mayor of Los Angeles for a few days in 1909. Stephens was active in the public affairs of Los Angeles and played a prominent role in the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Governor William Stephens
William Stephens
Biographical fast facts

Full or original name at birth: William Dennison Stephens

Date and place of birth: December 26, 1859, Eaton, Ohio, U.S.A. *

Date, place and cause of death: April 25, 1944, at Santa Fe Hospital, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. (Heart ailment) **

Spouse: Flora Rawson (m. June 17, 1891 - April 21, 1931) (her death)
Wedding took place in Poway, San Diego County, California, U.S.A.

Daughter: Barbara Stephens

Father: Martin F. Stephens (b. September 24, 1827, Preble County, Ohio - d. 1902, Los Angeles, California)
Mother: Alvira Leibee (b. April 24, 1830, Middletown, Ohio - d. July 28, 1888, Los Angeles, California)

Burial site: Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Error corrections or clarifications

* A couple of sources erroneously report December 18th as his date of birth.

** A few sources erroneously state Governor Stephens died "April 24, 1944." All contemporary accounts were in agreement that he died April 25, 1944, at Santa Fe Hospital, in Los Angeles, California.


William Dennison Stephens was the third of nine children born to Martin and Alvira Stephens. He made his debut in the world in Eaton, Preble County, Ohio, on December 26th, 1859.

Though he'd studied law extensively throughout high school, he was initially unable to pursue a career as a lawyer since finances required that he immediately begin contributing to the family coffers.

After graduating from Eaton High School in 1876, he spent three years as a schoolteacher. He next worked for a railroad construction company as a member of their engineering corps (1880-87). Looking for warmer, drier air to improve his mother's health, the Stephens family made the move to Los Angeles, California, in 1887. The climate proved to be of little benefit as she was dead just a year later.

He found work as a traveling salesman and manager for an area grocer, then in 1902 became a partner in the wholesale and retail grocery business of Carr & Stephens. He increasingly became involved in civic affairs, serving on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce from 1902 to 1911, had a brief stint as its president in 1907, and was chairman of its harbor committee. He was also a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education (1906-07); served on and also presided over the Board of Water Commissioners and was a member of the advisory committee for building the L.A. Aqueduct.

Built by William Mulholland, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was a true engineering marvel. At over 200 miles in length, it was the world's longest aqueduct at that time. As a dedicated member of the advisory committee, W.D. Stephens was one of those with the foresight to recognize the city's future need for additional water supplies in order to maintain its rapid growth. The water it brought south from the melting snow pack of the Sierra Nevada Mountains allowed the dry city of 100,000 to eventually grow into the second largest city in America.

He briefly served as vice president of American National Bank in 1909, and as a member of the California National Guard, Major Stephens was on the scene of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire. He and his First Brigade figured prominently in relief efforts that followed.

In 1909, he acted as interim mayor of Los Angeles for a few days. The following year, Stephens, a Republican, received nearly three times the number of votes tallied by his Democratic opponent to represent the 7th District in the U.S. Congress. He remained a member of the U.S. Congress for three terms, serving the 7th District from 1911 to 1913, and the 10th District from 1913 to 1916. He resigned from congress in 1916 when he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of California.

He would have little time to make much of an impact in his new position. In March 1917, Governor Hiram W. Johnson resigned to serve in the U.S. Senate. Stephens served the remainder of Johnson's term, before winning election in 1918 to a full term in his own right.

One of the most contentious issues Gov. Stephens faced was the case of labor leader Thomas J. Mooney. Mooney had been convicted of complicity in the deadly 1916 San Francisco Preparedness day parade bombing. Following Mooney's conviction, Stephens' administration faced numerous threats and extortion attempts that culminated in an explosion at the governor's mansion. A dynamite bomb detonated at the rear of the residence and did extensive damage to the kitchen. The governor was uninjured in the attack, which was blamed on activists with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The now-forgotten December 17, 1917 bombing served to harden positions on both sides of the issue.

Worldwide attention was increasingly focused on the questionable evidence used to convict Mooney, and great pressure was brought to bear on Governor Stephens to grant clemency to the convicted labor leader. After President Woodrow Wilson personally appealed to the governor, Stephens commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. More than 20 years after his conviction and long after Stephens had retired from public life, Thomas J. Mooney was pardoned. The militant labor organizer later admitted he was responsible for a series of unrelated bombings that targeted Pacific Gas and Electric Company assets. He reported his campaign of dynamiting PG&E electrical towers was done in support of the company's workers.

Governor William D. Stephens was a leader in the campaign to secure passage of criminal syndicalism laws that targeted violent tactics used by some labor movements. The laws which prohibited doctrines and activities involving the use of violence as a means of social change, became increasingly popular in the U.S. in the waning days of World War I. Stephens was also a supporter of prohibition, and an early proponent of major new highway construction.

Long before World War II, he was one of the earliest and most prominent public officials to sound the alarm about the growing threat posed by Japan and the escalating influx of Japanese into California. Gov. Stephens was an advocate of strict exclusion laws to blunt what he saw as a growing menace posed by ever-increasing Japanese immigration.

As California's governor during World War I, the welfare of returning veterans was of paramount concern to him. He spoke eloquently of the need to provide benefits, retraining and employment for vets and was instrumental in establishing a veteran assistance program.

His long-delayed early dream of becoming an attorney was finally realized when he was admitted to the bar while still serving as California governor.

William Stephens' tenure as the 24th Governor of California stretched from March 15, 1917, to January 8, 1923. After failing in his bid for reelection, he returned to Los Angeles and established a law practice. He would never again hold public office, though he remained active in public affairs.

Governor Stephens passed away nearly 13 years to the day after the death of his wife Flora. His death occurred April 25th, 1944, at Santa Fe Hospital, in Los Angeles, California and was the result of a heart ailment.


The most in-depth of more than two dozen sources consulted in preparing this profile:
American Genealogical Record (various editions)
Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States (various editions)
Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year 1945
Peter Stephens and Some of His Descendants, 1690-1935 (1936)
Who's Who in America (various editions)
Los Angeles Daily News obituary (April 26, 1944)
Los Angeles Examiner obituary (April 26, 1944)
Los Angeles Times obituary (April 26, 1944)

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