William B. Ross was born in Dover, Tennessee on December 4, 1873. He attended Peabody Normal School in Nashville. He moved to Cheyenne in 1901 and soon developed a successful law practice. Ross had met Nellie Tayloe, of a prominent Nebraska family, in Dover while she was visiting family. They married in Omaha in 1902 and made their home in Cheyenne. They would have four children.
Ross was a member of the Episcopal Church, a Mason, and a member of the State Board of Law Examiners. He was also a charter member of the Young Men’s Literary Club, founded in 1902. Ross served as prosecuting attorney for Laramie County from 1906 to 1907 and campaigned unsuccessfully for Congress in 1910 and for Governor in 1918.
Ross, a Democrat, again campaigned for the office of Governor in 1922 and was nominated by his party. In the general election he benefited from a divisive Republican campaign between incumbent Robert Carey and John W. Hay of Rock Springs. Carey was well liked, but many voters felt more should be done to reduce taxes and Hay took advantage of the poor economic climate. Hay won the primary election by a fairly narrow margin. Ross won the general election by 723 votes, apparently benefiting from crossover voting by Carey supporters and stronger prohibition views.
The new Governor addressed prohibition, which had been law since 1920, in his address to the legislature: “In order to secure enforcement,” said Ross, “It is necessary for the Executive to have the power to remove any officer who fails to discharge his full duty in this regard.” Although there were incidents of egregious zeal in the enforcement of prohibition law, local officials were more likely to ignore violations. Governor Ross feared that violation of the law was “breeding contempt for all laws.” In 1923 he recommended imprisonment for first offenders, but stiffer penalties made jury convictions less likely. During his time in office Ross brought about the resignations of two elected county officials for failure to enforce prohibition law.
Republicans controlled both houses after the 1922 election, but Ross, stressing strict measures to meet a national economic crisis, got along well with the Republicans. He favored consolidation of state departments, and emphasized the need for the state to live within its income. He also supported a prepared military ready to be called on if the international situation warranted.
As the 1924 election approached, Ross, known for his eloquent speeches, stumped for an amendment to the state constitution to allow for the collection of a severance tax on oil to increase state revenues. After speaking in Laramie on the topic on September 23, Governor Ross became ill with acute appendicitis. Surgery was performed on the 25th, but the Governor did not recover. He died on October 2, 1924.
Secretary of State Frank Lucas served as Acting Governor for the last few months of the year. The office of Governor was added to the 1924 ballot and Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected to succeed her husband as Governor, becoming the first woman to fill that office in the United States. Wyoming residents did not approve the severance tax amendment for which William Ross had fought. A significant percentage of people who voted on the amendment (39,109 for to 27,795 against) favored its adoption. However, many of the 84,822 voters did not cast a vote on the issue, so the needed majority of electors was not achieved.
The official records of Governor William B. Ross in the Wyoming State Archives are relatively scant. The collection consists of a few files of correspondence, records of appointments, requisitions and extraditions, and a several miscellaneous documents.
–Curtis Greubel, State Imaging Center Supervisor