Stories Behind the Portraits: Judge Priestly H. McBride

The person who most likely gave the brooch to Mary Snell McBride that is the most popular item in the exhibition, George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History was her husband, Judge Priestly H. McBride (1796-1869).  Judge Priestly McBride was known as a fair judge. He was a staunch Democrat but refrained from politics while he on the bench. He was also known as “an earnest man of strong convictions, strong prejudices and strong attachments, jovial in his disposition, and of undoubted personal integrity.” (Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Missouri, 1878.)

Time was short when I wrote the label for the portrait of P. H. McBride for the new museum. Readily accessible biographical information was confusing.  The obvious solution was to go to primary sources.  I contacted the Missouri State Archives.  Even though staff returned my call rather quickly, I was already on my way to back to the Midwest  for the installation.  When I returned to the Pacific coast after the opening, , Denise from the Archives and I spoke.  By way of emailed pdfs, she sent me 27 pages of original source material, mainly legislative proceedings and court summaries.

With that additional information, here is the expanded version of Priestly’s biography: Priestly H. McBride was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, in 1796, the second of four sons: John Haggin (1793-1830), Ebenezer Walker (1803-1867) and James Haggin (1814-1864).  When the McBride brothers emigrated to Missouri, they originally settled in Columbia. It was there in 1827 that Priestly married Mary Snell.  The following year, on January 6, 1828, Governor John Miller appointed him Missouri’s fifth Secretary of State.  Priestly was 33. About the same time, the McBride brothers moved to the town of Paris in a newly formed county in the state’s northeast, Monroe County. By the fall of 1830,  Priestly resigned as secretary of state to become the county’s first judge. Ebenezer was appointed the first county clerk.  James worked as a merchant while studying law.  In December 1830 Ebenezer married Julia Ann Snell, a sister of Priestly’s wife.

In the 1830s, Missouri grew so quickly that by 1836 the state needed more circuit court districts . To re-organize the judicial system, the legislature first passed a constitutional amendment to remove all existing judges from office. P. H. McBride refused. Charged with exercising the duties of a judge without a commission, he appealed to the state supreme court. He argued that the amendment was passed by a 2/3 quorum majority, not by a 2/3 full majority, and was, therefore, unconstitutional. The court overruled him and fined him court costs.  Before long, circuit courts were re-districted, and McBride resumed his work as judge of the 2nd circuit court.

In alliterative prose, an 1884 history described an incident in July 1838 in Judge McBride’s frontier court, “Pioneer lawyers were not only powerful in polemics…but plucky as pugilists…Samuel C. Glover…and E. G. Pratt both let their angry passions rise and fought bravely with fists and feet until separated.”  Judge McBride fined Glover $10 for “contempt of court in striking E. G. Pratt,” and fined Pratt for :insulting language used and striking S. T. Glover.” (History of Monroe and Shelby Counties, Missouri, Brookhaven Press, 1884, 36/647)

In 1845, Judge Priestly McBride was named to the Missouri Supreme Court and served until 1849. He outlived all his brothers. John Haggin McBride died in 1830.  James died in 1864, as a Brigadier General in the Confederate Missouri Army.  Ebenezer drowned in the Mississippi River in 1867, not far from Memphis, when the steamship he was struck a sunken gunboat.  Priestly was 73 when died May 21, 1869.

George Caleb Bingham painted portraits of Priestly, Ebenezer and their wives not long after McBride’s constitutional dispute with the state legislature. The compositions are so tight, they could be snapped to a grid. The tip of the nose is the center point with each feature squared from it. As with all of the artist’s early work, bright light illuminates hard lines. Yet there is some subtlety at the edge of eyes and mouth. The background of glowing light within shadows gives depth to the canvas and weight to the subject.  In the McBride family a photograph of James Haggin McBride has been passed down through the generations.  It is said that the youngest McBride brother did not wear a confederate uniform in the original, that it was painted on later. The image is dated between 1861-1864 when the subject would have been in his 50s.  To me, the subject looks younger.  I suspect the photograph may be of a George Caleb Bingham portrait, cut down with uniform added, painted in 1836/1837 along with those of his brothers and sisters-in-law when James was 23.  If there was indeed a third portrait, it probably no longer exists, but it’s an interesting question.  Do you think the photo may be of a George Caleb Bingham portrait?

George Caleb Bingham, Judge Priestly McBride, c. 1837, Kenneth B. and Cynthia McClain Collection, Independence, Missouri

George Caleb Bingham, Judge Priestly Haggin McBride, c. 1837
Kenneth B. and Cynthia McClain Collection, Independence, Missouri

James Haggin McBride (1814-1864)

James Haggin McBride (1814-1864)

George Caleb Bingham, Ebenezer Walker McBride 1837, Private Collection

George Caleb Bingham, Ebenezer Walker McBride 1837, Private Collection


____________, Laws of the State of Missouri Passed at the First Session of the Ninth General Assembly Begun at the City of Jefferson on Monday, the Twenty-First Day of November, in the Year of Our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty-Six. Second Edition, Vol. 3, 1836-1838 (Saint Louis: Chambers and Knapp – Republican Office, printed by order of the Secretary of State, 1841), 55-59 

____________, Laws of the State of Missouri Passed at the First Session of the Ninth General Assembly Begun at the City of Jefferson on Monday, the Nineteenth Day of November, in the Year of Our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty-Eight. Second Edition, Vol. 3, 1836-1838 (City of Jefferson: Calvin Gunn, 1838), 33-34

National History Company, History of Monroe and Shelby Counties, Written and Compiled from the Most Authentic Official and Private Sources Including a History of Their Townships, Towns and Villages Together with a Condensed History of Missouri; a Reliable And Detailed History of Monroe and Shelby Counties – Their Pioneer Record, Resources, and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens; General and Local Statistics of Great Value; Incidents and Reminiscence, (Saint Louis: National History Company, 1884), 38-39, 114, 194, 207-208, 645-647

W. B. Napton, Attorney General and Ex-Officio Reporter, edited and annotated by Louis Houck, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri, from 1835 to 1837, Volume 4 (Cape Girardeau, Mo., 1870), 186-190

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2013
All Rights Reserved

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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