Judge Landis was born in Ohio and got his unusual name from the fact that his father was wounded during the Civil War at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia (note different spelling). He was one of five brothers, two of whom were elected to Congress. Landis lived in Ohio and Indiana as a boy growing up but once worked as an errand boy for the St. Lous, Vandalia, and Terre Haute Rail Road and he later graduated from Union College of Law (now Northwstern University School of Law) in Illinois. He married the daughter of the Postmaster in Ottawa, Illinois and eventually settled in that town before President Teddy Roosevelt appointed him as a Federal Judge in 1905. He first came to national attention when he forced John D. Rockefeller to appear in his Chicago court room and in a case involving Standard Oil fixing rail road rates. On August 3, 1907, Landis pronounced sentence. He fined Standard Oil the maximum penalty, $29,240,000, the largest fine imposed on a corporation to that point. The corporation quickly appealed; in the meantime, Landis was lionized as a hero because much of the nation could hardly believe a federal judge had finally cracked down on a trust.
He was also the judge who presided over the trial of the owners of the SS Eastland which was the tour boat disaster the led to the loss of more than 800 employees of Western Electric who drowned in the Chicago River when the ship rolled over at dock in the summer of 1915 at the start of what was supposed to be a trip to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. It was the worst loss of life for any Great Lakes vessel. In 1915 Landis heard testimony in a suit by the upstart Federal League against both the American and National League for unfair labor practices regarding basball player contracts under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. But Landis never ruled after one year and the three leagues reached an out of court settlement. That non ruling might have set the stage for the offer the came from White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to hire Landis as the first commissioner of baseball after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. Landis was a long-time fan who had often left the court house to watch both Cubs and White Sox home games. Landis lived in Ottawa, Illinois and during World War I, his only son Reed Landis became an aerial ace as a pilot for the U.S. Army in France. Reed became famous in his own right as an aviator after the war also.