John Wallace Maher was born on December 18, 1856, in Streator, Illinois, the son of Bartholomew “Batt” Maher and Margaret Wolfe Maher, both Irish immigrants. He had six siblings: Catherine “Kate” (b. 1853), Johanna (b. 1857), James Francis (b. 1864), Bartholomew “Bartie” (b. 1865), Jeremiah L. (b. 1867), and Maurice Edward (b. 1869).
Maher studied law at the University of Michigan, earning a JD in 1880. He established a practice in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and in 1883 moved to Devils Lake in Ramsey County. He practiced law there until 1905. He served as district attorney of Towner County and treasurer of Ramsey County, both in North Dakota. He established a farm loan business in Devils Lake, managed the newspaper Devils Lake News, and founded the Devils Lake Nursery. He was an organizer of the Twin City Life Insurance Company and of the Farmers Railway.
Maher married Sarah “Sadie” Cecilia Coleman, of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 29, 1884. The couple had six children: Mary (b. 1885), Josephine (b. 1886), Kathleen S. (b. 1889), Charles Howard (b. 1891), John Wallace Jr. (b. 1893), and Evangeline G. (b. 1897).
On July 22, 1895, one of Maher’s former clients who disputed a bill of $100 for services in a land case shot the lawyer in Devils Lake. Maher survived. Patrick McNamara had lost his land case and blamed his lawyer, refusing to pay. In response, Maher put a lien on McNamara’s property. The Grand Forks Daily Herald published a dramatic front-page account of the shooting on July 23:
Patrick McNamara emptied four chambers of a 44-caliber bull-dog revolver at John W. Maher this afternoon [July 22]. The first bullet struck Maher in the back striking the spinal process of one of the lumbar vertebrae. Maher, [who] was standing by a fence near a restaurant started to run yelling loudly—McNamara followed flourishing the revolver, overtook him on the porch of Sidney Thompson’s residence endeavoring to gain admittance. McNamara fired again—the bullet missed, entering the woodwork of the residence. Maher turned and tried to catch McNamara, but fell off the sidewalk on the street. McNamara, standing over him, commenced shooting again, the bullets again going wide of the mark … After being arrested, McNamara said he was sorry he hadn’t killed him.
Maher was released from the hospital about a week later. McNamara was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill; he pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. A jury convicted him on December 16, 1895, after seven hours of deliberation. A judge sentenced him to four years, nine months in prison. “The feeling against him [McNamara] was bitter,” the Grand Forks Daily Herald reported on December 25, “and the sentence is regarded as a very light one.”
In 1896, Maher, a Republican, served as a delegate to his party’s state convention and as chair of the McKinley Club, a 100-member group in Devils Lake organized in support of William McKinley’s presidential candidacy. Maher represented North Dakota’s new state bar association at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association, at Saratoga, New York, August 29–31, 1900. He also was an officer of the North Dakota Chautauqua.
Sarah Coleman Maher died in 1923. John Maher died at sea on July 30, 1936, near the isthmus of Panama, en route from Balboa to San Francisco. He and his wife are both buried at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Devils Lake, Ramsey County, North Dakota.
image: a cartoon published in the Grand Forks Daily Herald on July 9, 1896, and signed “Straub” is titled “What Most of the Boys Missed” and captioned “John W. Maher, of Devils Lake, entertained the half dozen editors who gathered there Tuesday.”