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Historical Biography

Francis J. Kearful

Francis Kearful, AAG Public Works
Francis J. Kearful
2nd Assistant Attorney General, Public Lands, -

Early History/Schooling:  Francis Joseph Kearful was born in St. Joseph, Missouri on June 28, 1871 to Charles and Phoebe Kearful.  He attended Yale Law School, graduating in 1896.  He wrote a 240-page entry for the 1902 Cyclopedia of Law and Procedure, Vol. III on “Arbitration and Award.”

Tenure as AAG:  President Wilson nominated Kearful to be AAG in 1917.  During his tenure, Kearful oversaw litigation over control of the Elk Hills oil lands and, in March 1919, argued that case before the Supreme Court (United States v. Southern Pacific Co., 251 U.S. 1).  Kearful contended that the railroad company had fraudulently obtained a patent by asserting that the lands were not mineral but agricultural (when it was known that they were mineral) and sought to cancel the patent.  The Supreme Court sided with the Justice Department and Elk Hills was returned to United States’ control.  The same lands would later be embroiled in the Teapot Dome and Interior Department leasing scandals.  In June 1919, the new Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer suggested Kearful leave his post.  Kearful had diligently prosecuted several land, mineral, and railroad suits in California against big companies.  Kearful left the Justice Department in June 1919, and Palmer dropped several of the lawsuits.

Career: In 1913, Kearful opened a law office in Mexico City.  Soon after leaving the Department, Kearful began to work for the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Relations, playing a significant role as counsel and examiner for an investigation of Mexican affairs.  In 1919, U.S.-Mexico relations, already strained by numerous incidents, were further exacerbated by the potential instability of post-revolutionary Mexico.  In 1920, Kearful subpoenaed several prominent Mexicans to testify before the Subcommittee, for allegedly spreading a report that President Wilson or Secretary of State Robert Lansing had personally posted bail to release American Consulate William Jenkins from a Puebla jail.

Personal:  Kearful was an active member of the Democratic party and lived in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

This material is based on the review of a variety of historical sources, and its accuracy cannot be guaranteed.  If you have any corrections or additional information about this individual or about the history of the Division, please contact ENRD.

Updated June 8, 2023