Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a five-part series on the Patten family. Please click here for part one, here for part two, here for part four and here for part five.
In the fall of 1908, James Patten watched as traders were selling wheat futures. Patten began buying. While he later denied that he had been “gambling” or “speculating” in the market, he did acquire such vast quantities of wheat that prices for wheat, flour and bread skyrocketed around the world.
This act was a variation of others he had performed in the past, known as “cornering” a market, i.e. holding enough of a commodity to be able to control its price.
The economic consequences were dramatic. “As a by-product of Patten’s business practices,” wrote Anne Morra, “mills were forced to close, workers were laid off and, with their wages curtailed, could not afford the rising cost of bread.”
The markets teetered. Some predicted “riots” in the face of soaring bread prices.
After Patten divested himself of his wheat holdings, prices dropped dramatically. Soon it was revealed that Patten reportedly made $4 million in just three days. And by April 1909, Patten would become known around the world as the “Wheat King.”
Many considered Patten’s speculation unethical and his wheat deal brought him “wholesale condemnation from every part of the world.” Newspapers vilified him; There was talk of passing legislation to ban futures trading. And a character based on James Patten would make his way into D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film, A Corner in Wheat, loosely based on a story by writer and former Chicago resident, Frank Norris (1870-1902).
In the wake of the wheat deal, Patten denied that he had done anything wrong. “Why, I am nothing but a farmer clod. I’m a freak, an accident; No education, nothing of that kind. All I know is wheat,” he told one reporter.
Soon, though, Patten stopped talking to reporters. In April 1909, he hired a bodyguard after receiving numerous death threats.
Patten left Evanston and traveled to New Mexico and Colorado for a rest. Along the route, reporters clamored for a statement, but Patten reportedly appeared angry and was “peevish” with them.
A few weeks later, Patten returned to Evanston and he now talked genially to reporters. He was rested and ready to get back to work, he said. In November that year he presented the City of Evanston with a little gift: a strip of land along Lake Michigan running from Lake Street to Greenwood Boulevard that he had recently purchased.
That gift, coupled by another small piece of lakefront land that Northwestern University soon gave to the City of Evanston, made a “continuous park on the lakefront from the southern end of the university campus to Greenwood Boulevard.”
Just about a year after he was crowned the Wheat King, Patten announced that he, his brother George, and their partner, W. H. Bartlett, were withdrawing “from active business” on the Chicago Board of Trade. “I have more money than I can spend,” Patten said.
The firm would be taken over by a newly formed corporation, the Bartlett-Frazier Company. The members of the old firm would remain intact, however, with future business conducted by its younger members, including Patten’s younger brother, Henry.
By that summer, the 58-year old Patten was spending much of his time at his Evanston home with George, his brother. George had planned to take a trip around the world after retiring, but he was now suffering from tuberculosis – the same disease that had cut short the life of his father, Alexander R. Patten, many years before.
Just before Patten announced his retirement, he made another infamous deal. In January 1910, after unloading vast amounts of cotton before the bottom dropped out of the market, Patten made a reported $4 million. He had now cornered the wheat, corn, oat and cotton markets.
He again raised the ire of people worldwide. In March 1910, on a visit to the cotton exchange in Manchester, England, a group of brokers appeared ready to attack him, furious at the losses they’d suffered as a result of Patten’s speculation, now increasingly referred to as “manipulation” of the markets. The police had to hustle Patten off the trading floor.
Soon after, in August 1910, Patten and several others were indicted by a federal grand jury for “conspiring to monopolize interstate commerce in available cotton.”
The case would not be resolved until 1913 and only after it had reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Charged with a criminal “conspiracy to run a $10 million corner on cotton in 1910 on the New York Cotton Exchange, in violation of the Sherman anti-trust law,” Patten did not fight the charges, but instead plead guilty. He was fined $4,000. Patten’s lawyer explained to reporters that the “plea is made by my client without any consciousness of being guilty or any moral turpitude or of offending in the slightest degree against any law or proper rule of conduct.”
On Sept. 28, 1910, one month after he was indicted, James Patten’s brother George passed away. After George’s death, Patten gave Northwestern University an endowment for medical research with the “request that attention be turned first to tuberculosis.”
At over $200,000, it was the largest gift the university’s medical school had ever received.
Patten pledged to continue to use his money to help stamp out tuberculosis. But soon the dreaded “white plague,” as the disease was then known, struck a second blow to the Patten family: In the spring of 1911, the Pattens suffered the loss of their eldest son, 17-year old Thomas Beveridge Patten, who died in May 1911, after an illness of several months.
His sickness had kept him bedridden weeks, with reports that he had “the grip,” then pneumonia, and finally, tuberculosis.
In the wake of his son’s death, Patten announced that he was still in the process of dispersing portions of his vast wealth to the “most appealing charities.”
In just six months, he donated a reported $2 million to a variety of organizations including Northwestern University, the Evanston YMCA, and the Evanston Hospital.
And, as he revealed, almost “innumerable appeals had come to him from the widows, the orphans, the poor and the distressed.” The Evanston Boy Scouts, the Woman’s Club of Evanston, the Chicago “free ice fund,” and even Evanston city employees were among the many beneficiaries of his gifts.
(For many years Patten purchased Thanksgiving turkeys for Evanston city employees.)
The Pattens traveled widely following the loss of George and Tom. They went often to New York City (with a usual stay at the Plaza Hotel); they went west to California and other warm climates, and they visited Europe frequently. In fact, they were even on the continent when the outbreak of World War I forced their harried departure.
While Patten continued to speculate on the markets, he also continued to invest in real estate, securities and a variety of companies.
He also took on or continued in numerous positions, serving, for example, on the board of directors of the Continental and Commercial National Bank; the City National Bank of Evanston; People’s Gas, Light and Coke Company; Commonwealth Edison Company; the Chicago Title and Trust Company; and the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railway Company.
In 1917, he was elected president of Northwestern University’s board of trustees, after serving as a trustee since 1905.
In the summer of 1920, Patten retired from Northwestern University’s board of trustees.
A university official explained that Patten wished to “cut down the extent of his activities,” but a friend of Patten’s revealed that he had a deeper reason. “I don’t know what we’re coming to,” Patten reportedly said.
“Since the war the human race seems to be standing on its head. Nobody wishes to work and yet everybody wishes a lot of easy money. I wish to get away from it all.”
But Patten did not fade from public view. In March 1922, Patten appeared at the Woman’s Club of Evanston to give a talk where he railed against labor unions.
“Chicago,” said Patten, “is the worst town in America as regards labor troubles. We’ll clean it up or die in the attempt.” Patten went on to explain that for three years he had done no interior decorating or any other work in his mansion on Ridge Avenue because he was “disgusted with the way the unions broke their pledges. I told Mrs. Patten we’ll live like pigs rather than give in to them.
“Anybody with common sense can be a lather,” Patten continued. “All you have to do is pound nails. An intelligent man can learn the trade in a week.”
The hall was crowded and a large group of hecklers began to shout back at Patten. “Go to hell!” came a cry from the back of the hall. “How did you get that way?” another shouted.
“I’ve started out to say something, and by God, I’m going to finish,” Patten retorted. “I always finish what I start.”
Once more, here was classic Patten. Newspapers covering Patten’s talk noted that this was not “James A. Patten” speaking, but the old “Jim” Patten, the man hustling on the Chicago trading floor, the Patten of the public “performance” – from sleeping in a tent outside his mansion to trying to catch scorchers on an Evanston street corner.
Towards the end of the 1920s, Patten appeared to be in a period of reflection.
In the fall of 1927, The Saturday Evening Post published his brief memoir and account of his business dealings in a six-part series titled “In the Wheat Pit.” He and his brother Henry also took part in the dedication of a plaque marking the cabin where his grandparents lived and operated a station on the Underground Railroad.
By 1928, Patten would find himself making headlines again. This time, the “plainspoken, upstanding, old-time ‘wheat king’ of the Chicago Board of Trade,” as Time Magazine described him, had been called to testify before a Senate committee investigating the Teapot Dome scandal.
That scandal implicated members of the Harding administration in a variety of crimes and bribes revolving around the leasing of government land to private oil companies.
Patten told the committee that in 1923, he had been asked to purchase $25,000 in bonds to help “make up the Republican National committee’s 1920s presidential campaign deficit.”
Patten testified that he had “spent a troubled night of thought” after receiving the bonds, wondering why a bank had not been asked to make the purchase. It was later revealed that the bonds were indeed part of a “slush fund” related to the scandal and cover-up. Patten was never charged with any wrongdoing related to the Teapot Dome scandal.
On Dec. 8, 1928, Patten died in his home from pneumonia. The flag in Evanston’s Fountain Square was lowered to half staff. Patten’s funeral was held at the First Presbyterian Church at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue.
Patten was buried in the family plot at Oak Mound Cemetery near his childhood home. “He died as stoically as he lived in the fretsome days of 1908 and 1909, when he had the Board of Trade in the hollow of his hand,” wrote The New York Times in its obituary. “Mr. Patten’s years numbered 76, and his friends say he enjoyed them all.”
34. “James A. Patten, Capitalist, Dies at Home in Evanston,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 9, 1928.
35. Anne Morra, “A Corner in Wheat,” Museum of Modern Art, March 15, 2012.
36. “Wheat King Patten Tells How He Made Millions in Few Days,” Spokane Press, April 17, 1909.
37. “James A. Patten Dies at 76,” New York Times, Dec. 9, 1928.
38. “A Corner in Wheat,” Library of Congress.
39. “Wheat King Patten Tells How He Made Millions in Few Days,” Spokane Press, April 17, 1909.
40. “Patten Flees From Scene of Strife,” Albuquerque Journal, April 22, 1909.
41. “New Park for Evanston,” Inter-Ocean, Jan. 10, 1910; “Name Park For Patten, Former N.U. Trustee,” Daily Northwestern, Oct. 2, 1923.
42. “Pattens Retire from Business,” Evanston Index, March 5, 1910; “Grain at Chicago,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, May 26, 1910.
43. James A. Patten and Boyden Sparkes, In the Wheat Pit, 1927, 7. Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post.
44. “Mob of Brokers Attack Patten,” Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1910.
45. “Wheat King and Friends Indicted,” Press-Telegram, Dec. 6, 1910.
46. “Patten Suit May Fail,” New York Times, Oct. 24, 1912.
47. The case, United States v. Frank Hayne, James A. Patten, et al., was resolved January 6, 1913. It sustained the indictments against Patten and the others. U.S. Department of Justice, The Federal Antitrust Laws with Amendments, List of Cases Instituted by the United States, and Citations of Cases Decided Thereunder or Relating Thereto (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1914), 39.
48. “Patten Fined for Cotton ‘Corner,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 12, 1913.
49. “George Patten Succumbs,” Daily Northwestern, Sept. 29, 1910; Northwestern University, “President’s Report,” (Chicago and Evanston: Northwestern University, 1910-1911), 9; “Gives $200,000 to Disease War,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 8, 1910.
50. “ ‘Tom’ Patten’s Death,” Evanston Index, May 20, 1911.
51. “Patten to Help Suffering Mankind,” Oregonian, May 12, 1911.
52. “Thanksgiving Birds for City Workers,” Evanston Index, Dec. 2, 1911.
53. “Steamship Finland Brings 1,082 Home,” Trenton Evening Times, Aug. 19, 1918.
54. “James A. Patten, Speculator,” The Annalist, Feb. 17, 1913, 132.
55. “James A. Patten Dies at 76,” New York Times, Dec. 9, 1928.
56. “City Pays Tribute to Mrs. Patten,” Evanston News-Index, Jan. 28, 1935.
57. “Elect Mrs. James A Patten,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1913.
58. “Patten Tired of World,” Oregonian, July 3, 1920.
59. “Hecklers Fail to Stem Wrath of Jim Patten, Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1922
60. “ ‘Damns’ Fly Fast at Meeting of Woman’s Club as Speaker Assails Labor Union Method,” Denver Post, March 19, 1922.
61. The series, written in collaboration with Boyden Sparkes, ran from SepT. 3 to Nov. 19, 1927.
62. “First Cabin in This County to Be Given Marker,” Daily Chronicle, Aug. 25, 1925.
63. “Corruption: Juggled Bonds,” Time Magazine, March 19, 1928.
64. “Patten Reveals Oil Bond Deals,” Daily Northwestern, March 10, 1928; “Teapot Dome Slush Fund,” Kusko Times, March 17, 1928.
65. “James A. Patten Dies at 76,” The New York Times, Dec. 9, 1928.