Born in Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County, Emanuel Willis Wilson grew up working in the town's United States Armory. A self-educated lawyer, Wilson was elected to the House of Delegates in 1870. Wilson returned to the House after a brief term in the state senate, during which he successfully opposed the sale of public improvements in the Kanawha River to a private corporation. As house speaker, he led resistance to the increasing problem of monopolies.
As governor, Wilson continued his opposition to monopolies and dealt with the issue of political corruption. He failed to secure legislation forbidding the pollution of streams. Wilson gained national attention by refusing to extradite members of the Hatfield family to Kentucky during the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Out of gratitude, family patriarch Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield named one of his sons after the governor.
Wilson became the only governor to serve a five-year term, 1885-1890, because of the controversial election to succeed him. The 1888 election for governor between Democrat Aretas Brooks Fleming and Republican Nathan Goff, Jr. was decided by just over one hundred votes. Fleming, the losing candidate, disputed the vote counts in several counties and appealed to the legislature to choose him as the rightful winner. The legislature failed to act by the end of Wilson's term on March 4, 1889, and both Goff and Fleming were sworn in as governor. As president of the state senate, Robert S. Carr also claimed the governorship. The state Supreme Court decided Wilson should remain governor until the matter was settled. In January 1890, the legislature, controlled by Democrats, chose Fleming.
After leaving office, Wilson was defeated in the 1896 Congressional elections. He practiced law and invested in various business ventures in Charleston, including the city's Arcade building. He died in 1905.
Gubernatorial Papers Finding Aid (1885-1890)
West Virginia's Governors
West Virginia History Center