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TCL > July 2003 Issue > Edward O. Wolcott

July 2003       Vol. 32, No. 7       Page  27
Six of the Greatest

Edward O. Wolcott
by David L. Erickson

David Erickson, who practices law in Denver, is Colorado Bar Association Historian and was twice elected president of the Colorado Authors' League, the state's largest nonprofit organization for the professional writer.

When Edward O. Wolcott died in 1905, at the relatively young age of 57, front-page obituaries noted his great skill and accomplishments as a public official, diplomat, politician, lawyer, and orator. An irresistible and engulfing personality, he was a dominant political figure in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, both locally and nationally.

The Wolcotts

Born in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1848, his parents, Rev. Samuel W. Wolcott and Harriet Amanda Pope Wolcott, had eleven children, ten of whom survived to adulthood. Edward was the third son. The Wolcott family had an illustrious history. Oliver Wolcott signed the Declaration of Independence, and his son was the second Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, succeeding Alexander Hamilton. Three Wolcotts also served as Governor of Connecticut and one served as Governor of Massachusetts.1 Edward’s father, Rev. Wolcott, moved his family from Massachusetts to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1861, when Edward was 13 years of age.

In 1864, at age 16, Edward enlisted as a private in the 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and served with the Union Army during the remainder of the Civil War. In 1866, he enrolled at Yale University, and then withdrew to attend Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1871. He also studied briefly in the Boston law offices of C. T. Russell and T. H. Russell. As a young man, Wolcott was a fine athlete, excelling at running races. He also was a noted billiards player.

Wolcott arrived in Colorado on September 20, 1871, at the age of 23, following his older brother Henry R. Wolcott, who arrived in 1869 to engage in mining. Edward Wolcott taught school for a short time in Black Hawk and Central City, and then moved to Georgetown during Christmas week of that year. He wrote a great deal for Colorado and eastern newspapers and became editor of the Georgetown Miner in April 1873.2

A Career in Law and
The Legislature

Wolcott became a member of the Colorado Bar on February 12, 1873, and began practicing in Georgetown. He represented Georgetown mining entrepreneur William Hamill3 in the contentious and protracted Pelican-Dives litigation in Silver Plume, where the parties contested rights to valuable intersecting veins of silver in adjoining mining claims. In 1876, Wolcott was elected District Attorney of Clear Creek County.

Elected to the Colorado State Senate from Clear Creek County in the fall of 1878, Wolcott moved to Denver the following spring. He served in the Colorado Senate from 1879 to 1882 and practiced law in Denver. In 1879, after the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad went into receivership, Wolcott became its attorney. He also formed a law partnership with Judge J. A. Bentley, which continued until 1885.

At that time, Wolcott formed a partnership with Joel F. Vaile that lasted for many years. Vaile was a specialist in corporation and railroad law. Wolcott and Vaile became general attorneys for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and local counsel for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company.4

In the fall of 1889, after a spirited campaign, the state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate as a Republican, succeeding Thomas M. Bowen. He took office on March 4, 1889, and moved to Washington, D.C. Although he was re-elected to the Senate in 1896, the Republican Party was fracturing, and Wolcott’s personal and political ties began to erode.

The Silver Issue

In 1898, during a chaotic political year, Edward’s brother, Henry R. Wolcott, ran for Governor of Colorado as a Republican, but did not win. At that time, before direct election of U.S. senators, the winner was chosen by the state legislature. In September of that year, the Democrats nominated Charles S. Thomas during their convention in Colorado Springs. At the same time, the Populists and Teller Silver Republicans were holding their conventions in Colorado Springs, and they joined the Democrats in completing a state ticket that all three parties could support. This "fusion ticket," headed by Thomas, won the November election by a substantial majority.

After a European trip in August 1899, Edward returned to Denver and, from his offices in the Equitable Building, took up pending political matters and his business interests. The financial panic of 1893, caused by disastrous federal legislation affecting the production of silver, had devastated the state and national economies. Colorado, as a leading silver producer, was particularly hard hit. However, Wolcott felt gratified by the improved commercial and industrial conditions throughout the country and was encouraged by similar economic conditions overseas.5

As a "bi-metallist," an unpopular position in Colorado, Wolcott felt that prosperity would be enhanced and made more permanent if silver were restored as a money metal, but only on some fair parity with gold.6 He also made a plea for unity in a fractured Republican Party, asking party members to bury bitterness and differences and to work for the future success of the Party, stating:

The Republican party of Colorado is no corporation or syndicate and has no keeper or director or board of management. We stand upon the one broad platform of loyalty to the flag and to the government, to the protection of American labor and American industries, and there is only a hearty welcome to everybody who will come and sit at the common board.7

Wolcott sought a third term to the Senate in 1901, but was vulnerable, as he had never aligned himself with the cause of free coinage of silver—a position strongly favored by a majority in Colorado. Democrats saw a rare opportunity to capture a Senate seat that had been held exclusively by Republicans up to that time. Among the Democrats who threw their hats into the ring were Governor Charles S. Thomas and Thomas Patterson, the feisty owner of the Rocky Mountain News. Although Thomas and Patterson had formerly been law partners, they were political opponents in the election, but united in the desire to deprive Wolcott of a third term.

Thomas and Patterson, though formidable candidates themselves, both feared the persuasive powers, charm, and charisma of Wolcott. Skillfully using the Rocky Mountain News to promote his campaign and expose the political shenanigans at the statehouse, Patterson won the election.8 Although defeated, Wolcott remained a leader of the Republican Party in Colorado and a substantial national political figure.

A Personal Life

On May 14, 1890, and at age 42, Wolcott married Frances Metcalfe in St. Paul’s Church, Buffalo, New York. They had no children. Wolcott used a considerable portion of his fortune to build a magnificent 500-acre summer estate, Wolhurst, fourteen miles south of Denver, adjoining the South Platte River.

Starting in 1893, he and his wife entertained lavishly. His residence was created from a former corral "by the expenditure of liberal amounts of money and the exercise of rare taste and judgment."9 The grounds included a fourteen-acre lake, supplied by the diversion of water from the Platte River. Wolcott also owned an eclectic collection of paintings, including pieces by French impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, which were hung in the library of his home until his death.10

Wolcott was an overwhelming personality. Thomas Fulton Dawson, in his book on Wolcott’s life, stated:

The most striking characteristic of Mr. Wolcott was bigness. Tall and well rounded out, he rose physically above the average man, and whether taller or otherwise bigger of body, his eyes were more expressive; his grip stronger; his step was more energetic; his language readier and more to the point; his grasp of events quicker and more comprehensive; his generosity greater; his follies more extreme. Whatever he did, good or bad, he did on an unusual scale. There was no "half-way house" on his road. . . .11

He was a man of the world. He lived the life of the man of the world. He played his part both night and day, and he led the game all the time. . . .

A man of the world? A man of many worlds—of the political, the official, the social, the business, the literary, the art, the travel, the social, the club world, and of the "about-town" world. He was a part of all these worlds, and he knew them all. His experience was wide, his life crowded.12

This lifestyle apparently affected his marriage:

It seemed that while Mrs. Frances Wolcott enjoyed "tea and crumpets," Edward preferred "rum and strumpets." Wolcott, renowned for his eloquence and culture, was known locally as "Edward of Navarre" because of his patronage of the Navarre, a plush house of ill repute.13

On March 5, 1899, it was reported that while in Washington, D.C., the Wolcotts separated, and Frances began divorce proceedings based on "incompatibility of temper."14 Edward, uncharacteristically stoic, stated: "I have nothing whatever to say."15

Frances, represented by Henry T. Rogers, received a divorce in March 1900 in Denver on grounds of desertion. Joel F. Vaile, Edward’s long-time partner, represented Edward. The divorce proceeding was described as "the most refined, genteel and distantly polite divorce procedure ever witnessed."16

The parties worked out an agreement whereby Frances was to receive $7,500 a year in alimony, payable semi-annually. Late that year, when Frances returned from a trip abroad, her old friend Edith Carow Roosevelt, the second wife of President Theodore Roosevelt, tried unsuccessfully to arrange a reconciliation of the couple.17

Siblings of Note

Two of Edward Wolcott’s siblings became prominent in Colorado history. Henry R. Wolcott arrived in Colorado in 1869, two years before Edward, and was involved in mining. He became treasurer of the Colorado Smelting & Mining Company and was elected a director of the Equitable Life Assurance Society. He was largely instrumental in the building of the Equitable Building and Boston Building, both in Denver.18

Henry was elected to the Colorado Senate from Gilpin County in 1878, and served a simultaneous four-year term with his brother, Edward. He was chosen President Pro Tem of the Senate and, therefore, was called on to be acting Governor of the state. In 1882, he was the leading candidate for Governor going into the state Republican convention, and was nominated by Edward. However, "elements entering into the United States Senatorial contest caused his defeat, although he was [a] very popular man for the position."19

Anna Wolcott Vaile, one of Edward’s sisters, received an education at Wellesley College. She was principal of Wolfe Hall of Denver from 1892 until 1898, and then became founder and principal of the Wolcott School for Girls in Denver, where she continued until 1913. In 1910, she was elected a regent of the University of Colorado, serving until 1916.20

Anna also was a director of the School of American Archaeology, and served as vice-president of the Colorado Society of the American Institute of Archaeology. She was a director of the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs, president of the Colorado Society of Colonial Dames, and a member of the Civil Service Commission by appointment of the Governor. On January 4, 1913, she married Joel F. Vaile, Edward’s former law partner, but he died April 3, 1916. In 1924, Anna was a member of the Republican National Committee from Colorado.21

Two other Wolcott sisters also lived in Colorado at that time and were socially prominent. One, Katherine Ellen, married Denver attorney Charles H. Toll, who became Attorney General of Colorado. The other, Harriet Agnes, married prominent Denver businessman Frederick O. Vaille.

Wolcott’s Last Years

In mid-November 1904, Wolcott became seriously ill and was secluded at Wolhurst.22 Two weeks later, he and his brother Henry traveled to New York, and on December 7, 1904, left by boat for Italy, in the hope that a change in climate might cure him. They made brief stops in Rome, Naples, and Milan before arriving in Monte Carlo, where he died of influenza on March 1, 1905. After being cremated in Paris, his ashes were interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City. In Denver, a special memorial to Wolcott in the form of a life-sized portrait in stained glass was placed in a window of the Colorado State Capitol Building the year after his death.

Immediately after his death, a group of wealthy individuals announced that they were making plans to form a stock company to acquire Wolhurst and convert it into one of the finest and most exclusive country clubs in the West.23 However, the estate was purchased by Thomas F. Walsh,24 the discoverer of the Camp Bird Mine in Ouray and one of Denver’s richest citizens. Walsh used it as a private residence.

Many important politicians and judges eulogized Wolcott. Henry Cabot Lodge, a fellow senator at the time Wolcott served, stated in 1909:

To me personally Senator Wolcott was a great loss. . . . He was a man of great natural ability improved by reading and observation. . . . Added to all of this were a wit and a humor which never failed and which made what he said as effective as the way he said it. . . . [H]is career, both at the Bar and in the Senate was a most distinguished one. . . .25

David J. Brewer, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, remarked:

Mr. Wolcott was a . . . lawyer of splendid insight; an orator of convincing power. . . . He was absolutely honest in his views, and we have had few public men who were so courageous in expressing their real convictions.26

As a lawyer and legislator, Edward O. Wolcott was truly one of Colorado’s "greatest."


1. Stone, History of Colorado, Vol. II (Chicago, IL: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1918) at 9.

2. Weekly Rocky Mountain News (April 23, 1873) at 3.

3. Hamill was sometimes referred to as "General Hamill," the appellation apparently being obtained through Indian fighting.

4. Smiley, History of Denver (Denver, CO: The Denver Times/The Times Sun Pub. Co., 1901) at 698.

5. The Denver Times (Aug. 27, 1899) at 1.

6. Id.

7. The Denver Times (Aug. 27, 1899) at 3.

8. Downing, "Thomas Patterson: Six of the Greatest," 30 The Colorado Lawyer 28 (July 2002).

9. Rocky Mountain News (June 4, 1893) at 1.

10. At the time of his death, these valuable paintings were left to his younger brother, Rev. William E. Wolcott of Lawrence, MA. When Rev. Wolcott died in 1911, the paintings were willed to the White Fund, a nonprofit charity established in Lawrence, MA in 1852.

11. Dawson, Life and Character of Edward Oliver Wolcott, Vol. 1 (New York, NY: The Knickerbocker Press, 1911) at 369.

12. Id. at 371.

13. Leonard and Noel, Denver-Mining Camp to Metropolis (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Press, 1990) at 78.

14. The Denver Times (March 5, 1899) at 1.

15. Id.

16. The Denver Post (March 6, 1900) at 6.

17. The Denver Times (Dec. 11, 1901) at 1.

18. Stone, History of Colorado, Vol. II (Chicago, IL: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1918) at 12 and 13.

19. Id.

20. Id. at 62-63.

21. Id.

22. The Denver Times (Nov. 15, 1904) at 10.

23. The Denver Post (March 2, 1905) at 1 and 5.

24. Thomas Walsh’s daughter, Evalyn, later acquired the Hope Diamond, which now resides in the Smithsonian Museum.

25. Dawson, supra, note 11 at vi.

26. Id. at iii.

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