Dakota Datebook

Honest John

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Perhaps our tenth governor, John Burke was not as well-known as Abraham Lincoln, but the two share a similar incident that earned them the same sobriquet. As many may already know, Lincoln became known as Honest Abe when he repaid his debts after his store went bankrupt; what few may know is that although Burke had long been known as Honest John because of his candor in business dealings, a business venture similar to Lincoln’s, which would only reinforce his honest character.


After serving as United States Treasurer to Woodrow Wilson, Burke went to New York to join a broker by the name of Louis Kardos. There, the two set up the Kardos and Burke brokerage firm, but his ventures would take a turn for the worst when several firms, including Kardos and Burke were caught up in a swirl of brokerage failures. Kardos and Burke went bankrupt on February 1, 1922. The bankruptcy left Burke on the verge of losing his entire fortune, but like Lincoln, he was determined to maintain his reputation. According to the Grand Forks Herald, “Every cent of his personal fortune was turned over willingly by Burke to the firm’s creditors, even a paid up life insurance policy. Therefore at the age of 63, he faced life admittedly penniless and with the laconic statement of ‘I’ll begin over again.’” Burke returned to North Dakota virtually penniless, but Burke still had one thing of value: his reputation as Honest John. In fact, after this incident, Burke became synonymous with Lincoln, by becoming known as North Dakota’s Lincoln.


After the bankruptcy of his brokerage firm, Burke returned to Fargo to practice law, with the intention of starting anew, and he did with the help of North Dakota voters. Today in 1924, Burke returned to serve North Dakota once again as a member of the North Dakota Supreme Court. Burke served on the court until 1937, and served two terms as the Chief Justice.


This, however, was not the first time Burke got a new start in North Dakota. Burke had been the son of a poor farmer in Sigourney, Iowa. After expressing his wish to go to college, his father, John, Sr., did all he could to help in making that wish come true. Burke was able to attend Iowa State University and studied law. Upon graduation, Burke moved to North Dakota and began as most immigrants in the state had at that time: he worked as a harvest hand in Traill County. Burke’s start in politics began when he moved to Rollette County where he practiced law, taught school, helped publish the newspaper, and eventually became the county judge. From then on, Burke became a favorite in North Dakota and did much for the state as a legislator and three-time governor. His election to the Supreme Court showed that Honest John was still a favorite in the state and that North Dakotans were always happy to offer Honest John a fresh start in North Dakota.


Dakota Datebook written by Tessa Sandstrom



“John Burke, 1859-1937.” Office of the Clerk: http://clerk.house.gov/histrecs/halls/House_vir/statues/ndjb.htm

“‘Honest John’ Burke comes back riding on North Dakotans’ faith,” Grand Forks Herald. Nov. 7, 1924: 3.

“Gov. Burke and father,” Sigourney Review. Oct. 2, 1907: 1.

“John Burke, Tenth Governor.” State Historical Society of North Dakota: http://www.state.nd.us/hist/ndgov2.htm#burke.



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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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