William M. Farmer was born on June 5, 1853 in Fayette County, Illinois. Farmer’s grandparents resided in both North Carolina and Kentucky. It was William Farmer’s father who first moved to and remained in Illinois. Originating from the south, the Farmer family owned slaves; however, they favored abolition of slavery and were strong supporters of the Union cause during the Civil War.
As a boy, Farmer studied at the local district schools until he attended McKendree College. His first two years at McKendree, Farmer devoted himself to classical studies. As a boy, Farmer had become interested in law. His father held the position of Justice of the Peace, and he would often watch the cases brought before his father. Thus after three years at McKendree College, Farmer decided to pursue law as a field of study and entered Union College of Law, located in Chicago. In June of 1876, Farmer was admitted to the bar, and immediately in July, opened up his own law office in Vandalia. Right before he was admitted to the bar, Farmer married a Miss Henninger. The couple was married on December 23, 1875. The two would go on to raise three children.
After four years of practicing law in his own private firm, Farmer was elected to the position of state’s attorney in 1880 for Fayette county. Farmer only served one term in this capacity and then once again devoted time to his private practice. Farmer was always, however, an avid Democrat and deeply cared about the party and politics. In 1888 he was elected to the House of Representatives in the General Assembly. After serving a two-year term, Farmer was elected to be a state senator. In the senate he was chairman of the judiciary committee, and served as a delegate to the Democratic national convention. In 1891, Farmer was part of the “101” senate members, who voted ex-Governor Palmer to the United States Senate. In addition to being an avid Democrat, Farmer was also a member of the Knights of Pythias, and was known as a very sociable individual.
In 1897, Farmer was elected to the Circuit Bench of Illinois, serving in the Fourth Circuit. He was re-elected in 1903, and was later appointed to the Appellate Court in the Second District. After serving on the Appellate Court for a only brief time, Farmer was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1906, and was re-elected in 1915, and again in 1924. Farmer resigned from office on June 6, 1931. On August 28, 1931 barely three months after his resignation, William M. Farmer died in his home at the age of 78.
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- Ed. John M. Palmer. The Bench and Bar of Illinois: Historical and Reminiscent. Volume II. Lewis Publishing Company: Chicago, 1899.
- “William M. Farmer.” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Archives.