Early life and pre-judicial career (1866–1905)
Boyhood and early career (1866–93)
The five Landis boys in November 1882; Kenesaw (second from left) was almost sixteen years old.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born in
Millville, Ohio, the sixth child and fourth son of Abraham Hoch Landis, a physician, and Mary Kumler Landis, on November 20, 1866. The Landises descended from Swiss
Mennonites who had emigrated to
Alsace before coming to the United States. Abraham Landis had been wounded fighting on the Union side at the
Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, and when his parents proved unable to agree on a name for the new baby, Mary Landis proposed that they call him Kenesaw Mountain. At the time, both spellings of "Kenesaw" were used, but in the course of time, "Kennesaw Mountain" became the accepted spelling of the battle site.
Abraham Landis worked in Millville as a country physician. When Kenesaw was eight, the elder Landis moved his family to
Delphi, Indiana and subsequently to
Logansport, Indiana where the doctor purchased and ran several local farms—his war injury had caused him to scale back his medical practice. Two of Kenesaw's four brothers,
Charles Beary Landis and
Frederick Landis, became
Kenesaw Mountain Landis (at left) and his four brothers, two of whom served in Congress, as illustrated in 1908.
As "Kenny", as he was sometimes known, grew, he did an increasing share of the farm work, later stating, "I did my share—and it was a substantial share—in taking care of the 13 acres ... I do not remember that I particularly liked to get up at 3:30 in the morning."
 Kenesaw began his off-farm career at age ten as a news delivery boy.
 He left school at 15 after an unsuccessful attempt to master
algebra; he then worked at the local general store. He left that job for a position as errand boy with the
Vandalia Railroad. Landis applied for a job as a brakeman, but was laughingly dismissed as too small. He then worked for the Logansport Journal, and taught himself
shorthand reporting, becoming in 1883 official court reporter for the
Cass County Circuit Court. Landis later wrote, "I may not have been much of a judge, nor baseball official, but I do pride myself on having been a real shorthand reporter." He served in that capacity until 1886. In his spare time, he became a prize-winning bicycle racer and played on and managed a baseball team. Offered a professional contract as a ballplayer, he turned it down, stating that he preferred to play for the love of the game.
In 1886, Landis first ventured into
Republican Party politics, supporting a friend, Charles F. Griffin, for Indiana Secretary of State. Griffin won, and Landis was rewarded with a civil service job in the Indiana Department of State. While employed there, he applied to be an attorney. At that time, in Indiana, an applicant needed only to prove that he was 21 and of good moral character, and Landis was admitted. Landis opened a practice in
Marion, Indiana but attracted few clients in his year of work there. Realizing that an uneducated lawyer was unlikely to build a lucrative practice, Landis enrolled at Cincinnati's YMCA Law School (now part of
Northern Kentucky University) in 1889. Landis transferred to Union Law School (now part of
Northwestern University) the following year, and in 1891, he took his law degree from Union and was admitted to the Illinois Bar. He began a practice in Chicago, served as an assistant instructor at Union and with fellow attorney
Clarence Darrow helped found the nonpartisan Chicago Civic Centre Club, devoted to municipal reform. Landis practiced with college friend
Frank O. Lowden; the future commissioner and his law partner went into debt to impress potential clients, buying a law library secondhand.
Washington years and aftermath (1893–1905)
Executive and State Department listings from 1894, showing Landis's salary of $2,000.
In March 1893, President
Grover Cleveland appointed federal judge
Walter Q. Gresham as his
Secretary of State, and Gresham hired Landis as his personal secretary. Gresham had a long career as a political appointee in the latter part of the 19th century; though he lost his only two bids for elective office, he served in three Cabinet positions and was twice a
dark horse candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Although Gresham was a Republican, he had supported Cleveland (a
Democrat) in the
1892 election because of his intense dislike for the Republican nominee, President
Benjamin Harrison. Kenesaw Landis had appeared before Judge Gresham in court. According to Landis biographer J.G. Taylor Spink, Gresham thought Landis "had something on the ball" and believed that Landis's shorthand skills would be of use.
In Washington, Landis worked hard to protect Gresham's interests in the State Department, making friends with many members of the press. He was less popular among many of the Department's senior career officials, who saw him as brash. When word leaked concerning President Cleveland's
Hawaiian policy, the President was convinced Landis was the source of the information and demanded his dismissal. Gresham defended Landis, stating that Cleveland would have to fire both of them, and the President relented, later finding out that he was mistaken in accusing Landis. President Cleveland grew to like Landis, and when Gresham died in 1895, offered Landis the post of
United States Ambassador to Venezuela. Landis declined the diplomatic post, preferring to return to Chicago to begin a law practice and to marry Winifred Reed, daughter of the
Ottawa, Illinois postmaster. The two married July 25, 1895; they had two surviving children, a boy,
Reed, and a girl, Susanne—a third child, Winifred, died almost immediately after being born.
Landis built a corporate law practice in Chicago; with the practice doing well, he deeply involved himself in Republican Party politics. He built a close association with his friend Lowden and served as his campaign manager for
governor of Illinois in 1904. Lowden was defeated, but would later serve two terms in the office and be a major contender for the 1920 Republican presidential nomination. A seat on the
United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois was vacant; President
Theodore Roosevelt offered it to Lowden, who declined it and recommended Landis. Other recommendations from Illinois politicians followed, and Roosevelt nominated Landis for the seat. According to Spink, President Roosevelt wanted "a tough judge and a man sympathetic with his viewpoint in that important court"; Lowden and Landis were, like Roosevelt, on the progressive left of the Republican Party. On March 18, 1905, Roosevelt transmitted the nomination to the Senate, which confirmed Landis the same afternoon, without any committee hearing.