By Ray Schultz
James Monroe Pattee was “a diamond in the rough, as sharp as pointed steel and as far seeing as the wisest of ancient seers.” That was his opinion, anyway. To others, he was nothing but a common swindler.
Born in New Hampshire in 1823, Pattee grew up on a farm, but he “injured himself by over exertion so as to unfit him for manual labor.” From there, the path led straight to mail fraud.
At 30, having run a “writing school” in Boston, Pattee headed west and created land promotions that were “too sharp to be honest.” In 1866 he ran his first lottery for the Nevada City, California school system, raising $500 for the schools and one can only guess how much for himself.
But there was a more promising locale. Two days before delivering the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln was asked to decide the eastern terminal of the transcontinental railroad: The choices were Omaha, on the West bank of the Missouri River, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the East. Lincoln allegedly pointed to Council Blufs on a map, and said, “I’ve got a quarter-section of land right across there, and if I fix it there they will say that I have done it to benefit my land. But I will fix it there anyhow.”
It was the wrong choice. The developer, Thomas C. Durant had no desire to build a bridge across the Missouri, so he pretended to misunderstand, and the terminal was built in Omaha after Lincoln’s demise By 1871, the town had a roundhouse and a pork-packing plan, but it didn’t have a library, and Pattee, who had last visited Omaha in 1854, when there were “few residents of European ancestry,” decided to get it one: with a lottery. “I pledge my honor as a man that I have done everything in my power to build up such a library that the people of this city may hereafter remember and respect me,” he told the crowd prior to the drawing..
Those poor fools. The drawing went on for days, and the grand prize was won by a bookeeper in Boston, whose existence was never proven. But Omaha finally had a library—of sorts—over L.B. Williams’ dry goods store. “For this beneficient gift, our children and our children’s children will call him blessed forever,” one resident wrote, neglecting to mention that few people used it.
More to the point, people wondered how much Pattee had skimmed off the top, and they asked similar questions after his next two lotteries: For a Catholic hospital and the unbuilt Nebraska State Orphan Asylum.
Pattee promised that the latter scheme had been approved by the “highest authority of the State and best business men.” But the city clerk J.M. McCune wrote to an inquirer that the city councilmen had “no connection whatever with the scheme to which you refer, and do not countenance anything of a like character.” The Omaha Republican denounced the “Pattee lottery swindles,” although it was still accepting Pattee’s advertising money.
For the Orphan Asylum drawing, Pattee staged gala prize drawing at Redick”s Opera House, a building he owned, with music by the Germania band. And he was joined onstage by some of the city’s finest men as such things went in Omaha, like Judge John R. Porter, a double-chinned man with a balding head and a sour expression, who swore in the officials.
Pattee, then around 50, was a thin man “of common size and ordinary mould,” with neatly combed gray hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. “Look at him and you see nothing wonderful,” said a biographical sketch. But he knew how to work a crowd.
“I have only to say to you this morning that as there are a large number of prizes, as time is precious, as people all over the country are waiting anxiously to hear the flash of lightning over the telegraph wires, that speechmaking will be short,” he said. “I have the pleasure of announcing to you that notwithstanding the false stories that have been put forth, that I have succeeded, and am able to go forward and fulfill my contract with every patron and purchaser of tickets.”
That, of course, was a matter of opinion. The lottery drawing over, the $75,000 grand prize supposedly won by a man in Iowa, Pattee left town. He was planning to visit his children at school in Heidelberg, he said. But first he had some business in Leavenworth, Kansas, and one can guess what it was: Levenworth was about to start a “Grand Gift Concert” to raise money for a juvenile reform school.
But the Lottery King was in for a surprise. A warrant from Omaha caught up with him there, and he was returned to Nebraska and hauled before the very man who had sworn in the officials at the drawing: Judge Porter. Then the tedious process got underway.
Pattee’s own clerk charged that he had sold “duplicate and in some cases, even triplicate tickets,” including identical booklets to two men in Nevada. And other evidence was introduced.
Not to worry—Pattee could afford the best lawyers. He was free on bond within minutes, and out of town within hours. But he clearly decided it was time to revaluate his business plan.
Fortunately, Pattee had built a mailing list with hundreds of thousands of names—of suckers and of people who had done as instructed in the ads: “For balance of Prises send for Circular.” To these souls he now sent a steady stream of mail.
In Omaha, he had delivered these letters to the post office in a storeroom on 15th St., and from there they were carted to the Union Pacific terminal on 10th. Next, they were loaded into mail cars, and transported west through the Platte River Valley, or east over the new Missouri River Bridge.
Some went to cities, and were delivered to private mailboxes by uniformed postmen. Others found their way to rural general stores. These audiences were separated by geography, economics and way of life, but they shared one thing: That they wanted something for nothing. Pattee gave them nothing for something. “The people wanted to be humbugged and it was my business to do it,” he said.