Justice William P. LyonWisconsin Supreme Court Justice: 1871–1894
Chief Justice: 1892–1894
"Personally he was kindhearted, just, wholesome, companionable, modest. In the judicial office he was splendidly equipped for his task both because of his fine physique and the great breadth of his experience in the world's affairs." – William M. Kearney, Lyon's memorial service (1913)
William Penn Lyon was born October 28, 1822, in Chatham, New York. He attended public school and worked as an assistant in his father's store. At age 15, he taught in the local public school at a salary of $15 per week. In 1841, his family moved to Walworth County, Wisconsin, and he studied law. After being admitted to the bar, he became a justice of the peace for what is now the Town of Lyons.
In 1850, Lyon moved to Burlington and formed a law partnership. He moved to Racine County in 1855 and was elected its district attorney. He was later elected to the state Legislature and served as speaker in 1855 and 1856.
Many soldiers from Racine were either injured or killed in the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. As a result, the citizens of Racine held a massive meeting and raised money to support volunteer troops. Lyon enlisted and was elected the captain of a company in the Eagle Regiment. He was later promoted to major and then brigadier general.
After his first battle, Lyon wrote to his wife: "You ask me how I felt when going into battle. It is hard to analyze my feelings. I did not forget the danger to myself, but I was cool and self-possessed. The predominant thought was that possibly many of the brave men who followed me would never return, and I wondered-if I came out alive-over which of them the scalding tears would fall ere the sun should set."
While stationed in Huntsville, Tennessee, in March 1865, Lyon received a telegram from Janesville, Wisconsin, announcing that he had been nominated circuit judge for the 1st Judicial Circuit. Lyon was surprised, especially because the opponent was a well-known incumbent judge. He accepted the nomination and won election by a wide margin. He resigned from the army in 1865 and returned to Wisconsin to fill his judgeship.
In 1865, the 1st Judicial Circuit was one of the largest and busiest circuits in the state. Lyon took few vacations or holidays in his six years on the trial bench. He traveled the five counties in his circuit year round. Although he loved the work, after years of outdoor life and vigorous exercise in the army, it was a difficult adjustment.
Lyon ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 1870, but was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court by Governor Lucius Fairchild in January 1871. He was subsequently elected, re-elected and became the chief justice in 1892. His opinions span 59 volumes of the Wisconsin Reports.
Upon retiring from the Supreme Court in 1894, against the wishes of many friends and colleagues, he was appointed to the State Board of Control of State Charitable, Penal, and Reformatory Institutions.
Toward the end of his life, Lyon moved to California to be near his two children. He was married to Adella Duncombe. He died April 4, 1913.