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TCL > July 2002 Issue > Thomas Patterson

July 2002       Vol. 31, No. 7       Page  27
Six of the Greatest

Thomas Patterson
by Sybil Downing







Thomas Patterson
by Sybil Downing

Sybil Downing is the great granddaughter of Thomas Patterson. She also is the award-winning author of the novel The Binding Oath, two other novels, thirteen young adult and children’s books, and the biography Tom Patterson: Crusader for Change, which she co-authored with Robert E. Smith.

Courtesy, Colorado Historical Society

The four men from the American Protective Association ("APA") faced the publisher of the Rocky Mountain News in the spring of 1894. Thomas Patterson was a man of medium height, in his early fifties, a scattering of gray hair in his trim mustache. His build was slender, yet compact, with the look of someone who spent time in the out-of-doors. His steel-framed glasses gave his blue eyes a quizzical look. Arms folded over his chest, he had tipped back in his swivel chair as the men launched into how the News must back their cause of ridding the state of Catholics.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Patterson sprang out of his chair and told them to get out. Astonished, the visitors started toward the door, though not fast enough to suit Patterson. Yanking it open, he added some choice words to his orders. The men swore that major advertising accounts would boycott the News from then on.

Patterson slammed the door in their faces. An Irish immigrant who had seen his share of hard times, he’d been threatened before and would be again. He had no doubt the men would make good on their promise. Nevertheless, he had another editorial to write against the APA.

History and family stories are filled with such accounts of Tom Patterson. They make clear that my great grandfather was a man of high principle who believed in himself and the causes for which he sometimes put his life on the line. A successful criminal and civil trial lawyer, he served as a territorial delegate, the first congressman to represent Colorado, a U.S. Senator, and a leader of the Democratic Party in Colorado for more than forty years. He was also the owner and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News and later the Denver Times.1

A Boy on His Way

Thomas McDonald Patterson was born on November 4, 1839, in Carlow, County Carlow, Ireland.2 His father, James Patterson, decided to take his wife and two sons and daughter to America in 1848. For a time, they lived in New York City and Long Island. By 1853, the family had moved to Crawfordsville, Indiana, where his father resumed his business of repairing watches.

At age 14, Tom went to work in the composing room of the Crawfordsville Review. He had been doing a good job, saving his money, he said later, until an all-night poker game cleaned him out. After a night of soul-searching, he quit his job and walked forty miles to Indianapolis to start fresh as a printer for the Indianapolis Journal.3

By early 1861, the nation was on the brink of civil war. On April 18, three days after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Lincoln called for volunteers. Tom and his brother James enlisted and were assigned to Company I, Eleventh Regiment, Indiana Infantry4—one of the regiments known as the Zouaves, whose members wore cropped jackets, baggy trousers to the knee, with gaiters snug about the calves, and flat-topped blue caps. Later, Tom would tell of the forced marches through the night when he literally fell asleep on his feet.

When their three-month enlistment was up, Tom entered Asbury College, now DePauw University—attending classes in the morning, working as a printer in the afternoon, and studying at night. No student of mathematics, he was obliged to turn to a tutor, Katherine Grafton. Shortly after, he transferred to Wabash College, where he graduated, and he and "Kate" were married.

Law Business and Politics

Tom "read the law," passed the bar examination in 1870, and became the partner of Judge J. R. Cowan.5 The law business was brisk. Tom’s booming tenor voice carried for great distances, and his ability to quote Scripture at length, though he was only a nominal Episcopalian, made him a popular speaker.

Tom was ambitious. As an immigrant, he could not be elected president, but the Senate was within his reach—if he played his cards right. As a Democrat in a state where Democrats were having a hard time of it, his chances of success in Indiana seemed dim. So he and Kate decided a move was in order. But where?

Believing the West, particularly Colorado Territory, offered opportunity, Tom set off for Denver in 1872, at a time when Denver was a raw town of dirt streets, board houses, and few trees. Tom saw possibilities. "This thin air and alkali water agree with me amazingly. . . . Everybody who acts with energy and ordinary prudence is growing rich," he wrote Kate on July 10.6

He checked out the legal competition in Denver. Walking up one of the business streets, he spotted a small shingle that announced Charles Thomas, Attorney at Law. Immediately, Tom mounted the steep stairs to a small, sparsely furnished room. Seated behind a pine table that served as a desk was Charles Thomas, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School7 who had arrived in Denver the previous December. Tom sized him up as they talked, discovering that Thomas was from Georgia, had served briefly for the Confederacy, and knew what hard work was about. Tom took an instant liking to the man. Still saying nothing about being a lawyer himself, Tom asked him to look into a piece of property he was thinking of buying, and left.

Six months later, Tom, who had moved Kate and their three children to Denver, called on Thomas again, and he agreed to become Tom’s junior partner. They opened a one-room office on what was then Holladay Street. Their partnership and friendship would last for another twenty years. From this small beginning, their partnership developed into one of Colorado’s most prominent nineteenth-century law firms. The firm eventually gave Colorado a congressman and U.S. Senator (Patterson) and a governor and U.S. Senator (Thomas).

Two years later, in 1874, Tom ran for city attorney and won. Next, he announced he was a candidate for territorial representative to Congress, and set out across the territory on a speaking tour, traveling on horseback. But the long absences played havoc with his marriage. Kate was distraught over the death of their infant daughter. Stuck in a little house, far from the center of town, with little money and few friends, she wrote to Tom, begging for his love. In one reply, he summed up the conflict that would shadow their marriage. "I am torn between the love of my wife and the people whom I must convert to my same frame of mind."8

After defeating his opponent, Tom set off for Washington, D.C., with the mandate to work for statehood. Though not the first Democratic territorial delegate to Congress, he was the first since the Democrats had gained the majority in the House. The upcoming presidential race between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes promised to be a close race. Patterson was quick to see that if Colorado became a state, its three electoral votes would be crucial.

Patterson set about buttonholing every Democratic congressman and senator, barging into the sacred Chamber at will with all his Irish brass, and promising that if Colorado became a state it would go Democratic, thus helping to ensure the election of Tilden. And it must have worked. In spite of opposition and claims that Colorado was filled with roving bands of semi-barbarian adventurers,9 the Enabling Act passed on March 3, 1876; on August 1, Colorado became a state. But Tilden’s victory was not to be. Much to Tom’s dismay, Colorado’s three electoral votes went Republican and helped to throw the outcome to an Election Commission. As a result of all the confusion of the election, Hayes became U.S. President.

Back in Washington, the Democratic House and Senate members whose arms Patterson had twisted were furious. They claimed he had sold the Party down the river. Twenty-five years later, when he returned to Washington as U.S. Senator from Colorado, some of the same Senators were still there. They had not forgotten, and never in his six years in office did they allow him to forget.

After Colorado had become a state, Tom ran for Colorado’s first congressional seat against J. B. Belford. In another unusual set of circumstances, both men claimed victory; both traveled to Washington, D.C., armed with credentials. Turmoil broke out in the House. The clerk refused to place either name on the roll. In the end, it was Patterson’s gift of gab—or so he believed10 —that decided the vote. He was sworn into office in 1877.

The Leadville Experience

By the late 1870s, the law firm of Patterson, Markham, Thomas, and Campbell was well known throughout Colorado. Tom was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877.11 He was regarded as one of the most able criminal lawyers in the state. By 1879, the partners were so involved in mining litigation that they opened another office in the booming mining town of Leadville. The office averaged $10,000 monthly in cash and defaults.12 Tom began to spend more and more time there.

The Wild West aspects of the place fascinated him. "One murder yesterday and one today, both shootings and on slight provocation in the approved Leadville style," he wrote Kate. On one occasion, after a particularly difficult coach ride when he finally reached Saguache, he wrote Kate of the bone-chilling cold and of the nightmare he’d had the previous night. He’d dreamed their two-year-old son, Tom, had fallen from a horrible height and been killed.13 Six months later, little Tom died of influenza in Denver while his father was in Leadville.

Not only was Kate left to bury her son alone, but their older son, James, had run away from home, and there were rumors of Tom’s infidelity. Kate asked Tom for a divorce; he would not hear of it. Even so, in March of 1880, Kate left for Europe with their three children. To the outside world, she and Tom were giving their children a European education; Tom would visit when he could. Privately, he loathed eating his meals alone in his Welton Street home. He missed his family. He grieved for his father who had died recently. There was nothing to do but bury himself in work.

Because many of Tom’s mining cases required a working knowledge of the mines themselves, he spent weeks in rugged country, often deep in mine shafts. In 1888, he wrote to his wife, "Day before yesterday I spent going through some of the mines in which I am employed as an attorney. It was hard work, as for nearly a whole day
I was crawling on my belly through the drifts and levels underground making the necessary investigations to enable me to conduct the trials intelligently."14

Patterson and Thomas frequently participated in litigation that determined the validity of conflicting mining claims. One such case, Iron Silver Mining Co. v. Cheesman, resulted in three separate trials, until the decision was finally upheld by the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Colorado.15

As violent as Leadville was, it was no surprise that Tom often handled murder cases there, and he took other criminal cases across the state. By the 1880s, the Denver papers were reporting that Tom Patterson’s clients could be sure of victory. And if the occasion warranted, he could put on quite a performance. Though he always claimed he never had to resort to theatrical tactics, opponents accused him of putting red pepper in his handkerchief, blowing his nose with gusto, and calling forth glistening tears at strategic moments. True or not, he was so much in demand, he could pick and choose whom he wanted to represent.

So when the madam of a whorehouse from Wyoming appeared to beg Tom to defend her boyfriend, a gambler nicknamed Tin Hat, against a murder charge, Tom refused. The woman pleaded with him. Tom upped his fee. She departed, but ducked into a nearby room, pulled up her skirts and removed a wad of bills from her garter. She returned and handed Tom the money.

Tom discovered he had his work cut out for him. Tin Hat and another gambler had disappeared from town on the same day following a heated argument. A body alleged to be the second gambler’s was found a year later in a shallow grave, and Tin Hat was charged with the murder. Though largely circumstantial, the evidence was convincing. Tom quickly realized that his only hope lay in proving the corpse could not be positively identified.

The prosecution called an expert witness who testified that the body was that of a man five feet, seven and a half inches tall, the height of the missing gambler. Tom sensed something was wrong with the expert’s figures. He asked the foreman of the jury, the local school superintendent, to recheck the calculations. And, sure enough, the corpse was actually five feet, nine inches tall. Tin Hat was no sooner acquitted than he left town. Was he innocent? Tom never knew. But he had learned never to trust expert witnesses.16

The Press and
More Politics

Tom Patterson’s fortunes and fame as a lawyer grew. He also was becoming a dominant force in politics. He ran for governor and almost won. The press began to write about "Tom Patterson and his crowd."

By the mid-1880s, Kate and their children had returned from Europe. Mary and Margaret enrolled in Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, James attended Johns Hopkins, and Kate stayed with friends in the East. With his family on American soil, Tom’s spirits rose.

In early 1890, Tom fulfilled another lifelong dream: he became the owner of a newspaper—not just any newspaper, but Colorado’s first newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. Tom directed everything from editorial policy to advertising placement. Confident as always, he plunged into politics with the News at his side, and took on the battle for silver, a dominant issue throughout the West in the 1890s. During the Civil War, paper money was issued without the backing of a precious metal. Small farmers were particularly hard-hit. When the gold standard was reinstated, Patterson was convinced "bimetallism" would restore the economy of the nation and of Colorado, a major silver-producing state.

Tom also began representing unions as they went out on strike for recognition and better wages. Because he never had abandoned his workingman’s roots and had seen the conditions in the mines, he was one of the few attorneys in Colorado willing to help unions.

Then more personal tragedy struck. Within two months of each other, James, Tom’s son, died of a codeine overdose and Mary, his oldest daughter, succumbed to an unknown illness. Unable to cope with the deaths, Kate turned to friends in the East, leaving Margaret, my grandmother, to look after Tom. As always, he picked himself up and went on.

By 1901, after nearly ten years of political maneuvering, Tom saw his chance to fulfill another dream: the U.S. Senate. Republican Edward Wolcott, up for reelection, had never allied himself with the cause of free silver. The Democrats thought they could capture the seat.

Among those who also threw their hats in the ring was Charles Thomas, by then, Governor of Colorado. Thomas and Patterson had parted ways several years earlier over personal matters: Thomas had always been a team player; Patterson was anything but.

In the days before the direct election of U.S. senators, the winner was chosen by the legislature in smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors. Charles Thomas knew as many tricks of the political trade as Patterson did. Thinking Tom would be asleep and miss the deadline, the Governor waited until just before midnight to have documents delivered that had to be signed by both candidates. But Tom was very much awake. He immediately telephoned the News and told them to stop the presses, then rewrote the front page for the morning edition. The campaign and political shenanigans were now out in the open. In the end, Tom Patterson won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1901.

The victory, however, was bittersweet. Kate had accompanied her husband to Washington to act as his hostess, only to die a few months later. Again, Tom threw himself into his work—the business of the Senate, taking up such causes as government-control of railroads and getting the United States out of the Philippines. Along the way, he made powerful enemies within his own Democratic Party, one of them his former law partner. Knowing he could not get reelected, he declined to run again.

Patterson’s Last Years

Back in Denver, Tom joined Progressive Ed Costigan and Judge Ben Lindsay to devote full time to the fight against the Speer machine and the private utility companies, which worked hand in glove, skimming off huge profits. Once again, Tom used the News and Denver Times, which he’d just bought, to win over the public to his views. In 1910, an amendment to the City Charter, allowing for municipal ownership of utilities, was passed. All the while, he battled The Denver Post, whose owners, Tammen and Bonfils, he regarded as thugs for sale to the highest bidder.

On one occasion, when the competition between the papers was particularly intense, Patterson was attacked by unknown assailants on his way to his office. When he discovered they had been hired by the Post, Patterson took the publishers to court and won with a judgment: the Post was required to print one-inch apologies on the front pages of the paper.

By 1913, Patterson decided to sell the News to John Shaffer; and in 1914, he ran for governor again. He lost the election, but continued to practice law and work on various community projects. He walked to his law office every day. On July 23, 1916, Tom Patterson died in his sleep at home.

A self-made man, Patterson came by his sense of justice from both his workingman’s background and his experience as a defense attorney. Eternally optimistic and stubborn, he never lost his belief that all people, especially the poorest, deserved a fair chance. A maverick and crusader, Tom Patterson was a man whose legacy is that Colorado is a more just, more forward-looking state than it would have been without him.


1. Horace Hawkins, "Tribute to the Memory of Honorable Thomas M. Patterson," a speech delivered on the occasion of a memorial service held by the Denver Bar Association (March 26, 1917), Arthur C. Johnson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

2. Mary Bell Johnson Pease, unpublished account of the Patterson family history, Arthur C. Johnson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

3. Chase, "Thomas Patterson," Rocky Mountain News (Feb. 10, 1928).

4. Claim for pension by Thomas M. Patterson, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Wash., D.C. (Aug. 7, 1914).

5. Rocky Mountain News (July 24, 1916).

6. T. M. Patterson to K. M. Patterson, July 10, 1872, Patterson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

7. Thomas, Silhouettes of Charles S. Thomas (Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1959) at 13.

8. T. M. Patterson to K. M. Patterson, August 8, 1874, Patterson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

9. Hall, History of the State of Colorado, Vol. 2 (Chicago, IL: Rocky Mountain Historical Co., Blakely Printing Co., 1890) at 237.

10. Keating, Gentleman from Colorado (Denver, CO: Sage, 1964) at 90.

11. Certificate admitting T. M. Patterson to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, 1877, Patterson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

12. Thomas, supra, note 7 at 51.

13. T. M. Patterson, Saguache, CO, to K. M. Patterson, Denver, CO, Dec. 2, 1879, Patterson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

14. T. M. Patterson, Leadville, CO, to K. M. Patterson, Denver, CO, Jan. 23, 1888, Patterson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

15. Rodman, Mining Frontiers of the Far West: 1848-1880 (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963) at 173-75.

16. T. M. Patterson, from undated written account of this episode, Patterson Papers, Western Historical Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder.

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