John Gabriel Woerner, a celebrated St. Louis lawyer, legal scholar, journalist, and politician, was admired by St. Louisans for his promotion of local artistic, literary, and philosophical efforts. In addition to his contributions to the study of American law, Woerner composed and published numerous plays and novels (in both German and English), the most significant of which was his semi-autobiographical novel, The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story of Love, Politics, and War. He was one of the founding members of the St. Louis Philosophical Society in 1866, an organization that channeled the energy of the so-called St. Louis Hegelians into the St. Louis movement in philosophy, education, and municipal reform. Woerner married Emilie Plass in 1852, with whom he had three daughters and a son. The son, William F. Woerner, followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a noted St. Louis lawyer.
Born on April 28, 1826, in the German state of Württemberg, Woerner immigrated with his family to Philadelphia before landing in St. Louis in 1837. Soon thereafter the senior Woerner, a carpenter by trade, died, and John Gabriel received what his nineteenth-century biographers William Hyde and Howard L. Conard described as “but a scant education.” Woerner passed his later teen years clerking in country stores in southwestern Missouri before returning to St. Louis to secure a job as a printer’s devil for the German-language Tribune. In 1848 he became captivated by the revolutionary events in Germany. From motives equally journalistic and political, he spent the years from 1848 to 1850 in Germany as a correspondent for the St. Louis Tribune and the New York Herald. Hyde and Conard suggest that Woerner’s disillusioned return to St. Louis was inspired not so much by the ultimate failure of the 1848 revolution as by his disagreement with the aims and tactics of some of the Forty-Eighters.
Upon his return to St. Louis, Woerner purchased the Tribune and as proprietor-editor changed its alignment from Whig to Democrat. Yet his political migration by no means involved agreement with mainstream Democrats; he became a spokesman for the aging former senator Thomas Hart Benton at a time when the latter grew more critical of the Southern wing of his party’s position on the extension of slavery.
In 1852 Woerner severed all connections with the Tribune to begin the study of law. He passed the bar in 1853 and in the same year gained the clerkship of the St. Louis Recorder’s Court. He served successively over the next ten years as clerk of the Board of Aldermen, city attorney, and city councillor.
Of Woerner’s career as a practicing lawyer, his biographers remark upon “his absolute fidelity to the interests of his clients and his great ability in conducting their litigation to a successful issue.” Among his clients between the late 1850s and the late 1860s was the Pacific Railroad. Since he was simultaneously a state senator (as a minority conservative or Union Democrat) for much of that period, Woerner was involved in some ethically suspect actions, though formal charges were never brought against him. In part due to his influence in the Missouri Senate, agents of the Pacific Railroad were able to persuade the state in 1868 to sell its $11 million investment in the company for a mere $5 million. This arrangement not only amounted to an enormous state grant to the company (in addition to millions in grants during the 1850s), but also restored to the Pacific Railroad enough control over its finances to forestall a takeover by eastern investors. Woerner’s involvement in the affair was compounded by the fact that he chaired the joint investigative committee that on March 24, 1868, hastily cleared both legislators and railroad lobbyists of charges of wrongdoing. Historian James Neal Primm suggests that Woerner and his fellow “conspirators” escaped public censure and indictment because the connivance of public officials and private entrepreneurs in the Pacific Railroad and other cases meant “progress” and prosperity for Missouri, especially for St. Louis financial interests.
Woerner returned to the judiciary in 1870 when he was elected as a judge of the probate court, and he served in this capacity for twenty-four years. Hyde and Conard describe Woerner as a charitable judge who did much to reduce the cost of judicial administration in St. Louis. His long tenure as probate judge made him a national as well as a local expert in his field, and his experience and erudition found expression in two major legal texts, The American Law of Administration and The American Law of Guardianship. Woerner saw himself in the German tradition of the administrator-scholar-poet whose role it was to serve the public as well as the world of culture. He died on January 20, 1900.
Hyde, William, and Howard L. Conard, eds. Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis. Vol. 4. New York: Southern History, 1899.
Primm, James Neal. Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764–1980. 3rd ed. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1998.
Rowan, Steven, trans. Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the St. Louis Radical Press, 1857–1862. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.
Woerner, John Gabriel. The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story of Love, Politics, and War. Boston: Little, Brown, 1899.
Published January 10, 2023
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)