Noted North Dakota newspaper editor Clement Lounsberry once wrote that William Purcell was "recognized as the most able attorney in the state,” and “he is without a doubt, the best known attorney in North Dakota.” Usher Burdick profiled Purcell in his book "Great Judges and Lawyers of Early North Dakota."

In 1888, President Grover Cleveland appointed Purcell to serve as U.S. Attorney for Dakota Territory. In 1889, Purcell resigned from that position after he was elected to serve as a delegate to the North Dakota Constitutional Convention, where he became a leading architect in writing the legal portions of the new constitution. Purcell later served in the North Dakota Senate and U.S. Senate.

Just as Purcell’s busy schedule and valuable contributions in North Dakota began to wane in the second decade of the 20th century, his niece, Margaret Sanger, emerged in the national spotlight with her campaign to learn about and make public, better, safer and more reliable forms of birth control.

Margaret Sanger as photographed in 1922. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
Margaret Sanger as photographed in 1922. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

Soon thereafter, her campaign became controversial in some religious, political and legal circles, and even today, 55 years after her death, Sanger’s creation of organizations that would evolve into Planned Parenthood remains a major touchstone of controversy.

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William Edward Purcell was born Aug. 3, 1856, in Flemington, N.J., the 10th of 11 children born to Joseph and Johanna (Dugan) Purcell. The Purcells were recent immigrants from Ireland and devout Roman Catholics, and Mass was often celebrated in their home. William attended the public schools in Flemington and, when he became old enough, “was compelled to help provide for his own support by working as a hired hand on a farm.” He also worked at a pottery, a place where ceramic vessels were made.

William attended night school, and when he was 19, began to study law. “He entered the law office of John M. Voorhees in Flemington in February 1876 and, in February 1880, was admitted to the bar of New Jersey. He then remained in the employ of Mr. Voorhees one year.”

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The Purcells were a close-knit family and all of William’s siblings remained in the northeastern region of the U.S., but a year after his mother, Johanna, died on May 19, 1880, William decided to venture to Dakota Territory. In 1880, the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba/Great Northern Railroad had crossed the Red River at Wahpeton, N.D., and the city’s population skyrocketed, going from 400 people in 1880 to 1,400 in 1883.

In July 1881, William Purcell established his law office in Wahpeton and, with the booming population surge, he soon had a very lucrative practice. Lounsberry wrote, “It was not long before Purcell’s thorough legal knowledge, his keen insight, and convincing logic won recognition and, for years, he held a foremost place among the lawyers of the state.”

Besides his law practice, Purcell also took an active role in community and church affairs, and also became interested in Democratic Party politics. On April 5, 1888, President Cleveland appointed Purcell to be the U.S. Attorney for Dakota Territory. His duties in the territory were to “prosecute criminal cases brought by the federal government, prosecute or defend civil cases where the U.S. is a party, and collect debts owed to the federal government where administrative agencies are unable to do so.”

When the decision was made to divide Dakota Territory into two states and enter them into the Union in 1889, delegates from the newly proposed state of North Dakota were to meet in Bismarck in July and August and write a constitution for the state. An election was held on May 14, and Purcell was one of three delegates elected to represent Richland County.

Since he was well versed in the law, his directional leadership was greatly appreciated by most of the delegates. Shortly prior to traveling to Bismarck for the July 4 start of the convention, Purcell turned in his resignation as U.S. Attorney for Dakota Territory. At the general election on Oct. 1, 1889, Purcell was elected district attorney of Richland County, a position he held until 1891.

In 1896, he ran for state’s attorney of Richland County, but was defeated “by a very small vote total” by his Republican opponent, Porter J. McCumber. This may have been the only time in North Dakota history where the two opponents in a county election later served in the U.S. Senate.

William Purcell as photographed in 1910. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
William Purcell as photographed in 1910. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

In 1899, Purcell received word that his sister, Anne (Purcell) Higgins, had died of tuberculosis on March 31, at her home in Corning, N.Y. In 22 years, Anne had 18 pregnancies, seven of which were miscarriages, and this may have contributed to the poor health she had at the time she came down with TB. According to Time magazine, Anne’s 19-year-old daughter, Margaret, “confronted her father at her mother’s coffin and said, ‘You caused this, mother is dead from having too many children.”

After she received her nursing degree and married William Sanger, Margaret launched a tireless campaign to inform women about better, safer and more reliable forms of birth control. She strongly believed that women with poor health or poverty issues needed to control when, or if, they should become pregnant.

In 1916, Margaret opened her first birth control clinic and, in 1923, she founded the American Birth Control League which became the Planned Parenthood Federation in 1949. In 1902, Purcell joined others in establishing the First National Bank in Hankinson. He was also part owner of the People’s National Bank in Wahpeton and served as vice president of both banks

In 1903, Purcell took on a bright, young law partner with the addition of Arthur Guy Divet, who had been practicing law in Forman. The firm of Purcell and Divet soon became one of the leading law firms in North Dakota, South Dakota and western Minnesota, as they were licensed to do legal business in all three states. They also formed a partnership to establish the large Brookside Farm, near Wahpeton, that became “one of the showcase farms in the southern Red River Valley.” On the farm they raised corn, oats, wheat, cattle and hogs, and “were the first successful alfalfa growers in the state.”

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In 1906, Purcell successfully ran for the North Dakota Senate from District 12 in Richland County. On Oct. 19, 1909, U.S. Sen. Martin Johnson died in office, and Gov. John Burke named Fountain Thompson as Johnson’s replacement. On Jan. 31, 1910, Thompson announced that he was resigning because of “ill-health,” and the next day Burke named Purcell as his replacement. Purcell resigned his seat in the North Dakota Senate and took his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Porter J. McCumber, Purcell’s opponent back in 1896 when both men were running for the office of Richland County state’s attorney, made the announcement to his colleagues in the Senate. Both Purcell and McCumber were from Wahpeton, and this marked a rare time in state history when both senators from North Dakota were from the same town.

In a special election in 1911, to fill Martin Johnson's unexpired term in the Senate, Purcell was defeated by U.S. Rep. Asle J. Gronna, from Lakota. Purcell returned to his business and legal interests in Wahpeton and, shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, Gov. Lynn Frazier appointed Purcell as chairman of the North Dakota Food Conservation Commission. The commission “was an all-volunteer run organization that saw the state through the early months of America's entrance in World War I, during which time they worked to organize throughout the state, at the local level, in order to meet federal food and foodstuff regulations.”

William Edward Purcell died on Nov. 23, 1928.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at