I am researching the fragmentation that occurred among Watch Tower readers in the 1880s. William Conley is one of the people who will find a place in this chapter. I've found some surprising things. Here are the first few paragraphs of the section that considers him. Any comments that address documentation issues would be helpful. [footnotes have been omited.]
William Henry Conley’s association with Russell was short-lived but significant. Conley was born June 11, 1840, in Pittsburgh to George Washington Conley and Matilda Balsley. His father died about 1852, when Conley was twelve years old, and Conley went to work in a woolen mill in Alleghany.[i] In 1855 he was apprenticed to an uncle, a printer in Blairsville, Ohio. In 1857, he moved with his uncle to Plymouth, Ohio, where he met Sara Shaffer (also spelled Shafer), two years his junior and a transplanted Pennsylvanian. They married in 1860.
Significantly, Conley associated with the Lutheran Church in Plymouth, Ohio. There is little documentation for Conley’s life in Ohio, but it is into this time that one can fit his first acquaintance with George N. H. Peters, later the author of the massive three volume Theocratic Kingdom. Peter’s obituary as found in The Lutheran Observer of October 22, 1909, notes his service to the Plymouth, Ohio, church.[ii] Another source shows him serving as pastor in Plymouth during the years of Conley’s residence.[iii] While it is possible that Russell met Peters through another, it is likely that he met him through Conley. It is also extremely likely that Conley’s interest in the Lord’s return and last-times events derived from his association with Peters.
There are three William Conleys listed among Civil War soldiers from Ohio, but none of the biographical notices of William H. Conley list Civil War service. At or toward the end of the war the Conley’s moved back to Pittsburgh where he joined a commission house, a brokerage firm. Later he became a bookkeeper for James M. Riter whose company, established in 1861, worked in sheet metal and copper. The business seems to have been prosperous though not large. Riter supplied major portions of the iron work for the Escanaba furnace in 1872.[iv]
Riter died in 1873 Conley “took a half-interest in the business with Thomas B. Riter, the firm name being changed to Riter & Conley; he attended to the financial and office work while Mr. Riter attended to the outside and mechanical part.” Eventually Riter & Conley “became the most extensive of its kind in the world.” [v] That Conley focused on a major business venture that year is a strong indicator that he did not take the predictions of Jonas Wendell, Nelson Barbour and others seriously.