There was a time when lotteries were entirely respectable, operated by charitable organizations to obtain quick funds for schools, orphanages, church buildings, and even universities, like Princeton. They were over quickly and winning numbers were selected in public with uninvolved individuals drawing the winning tickets.
It was with this background that the Wyoming Territorial Legislature in 1869 authorized lottery “schemes” with the requirement that lottery operators pay the county sheriff $100 for a three-month license. There was no requirement that prizes actually be given to the winners.
In 1875, New Yorker James Monroe Pattee (1823-1888), an experienced swindler, became aware of the lenient law and set up shop in Laramie after his Nebraska lottery was exposed as a fraud.
In February 1875, the Laramie Independent newspaper reported that Pattee “will shortly arrive” to begin lottery operations, and that he had secured another “gentleman of large means,” H.L. Lowman of Connecticut to set up the business above the grocery store of A.G. Swain on 2nd Street. Pattee also conned two local men, George H. Hildreth, the Justice of the Peace in Cummins City (Jelm today) and J.A. Roden as lottery “Commissioners,” though by summer 1875 Lowman had severed his relationship with Pattee.
Henry N. Roach of Laramie may also have been involved; as the Laramie Daily Sun noted in December 1875, “his connection with the Wyoming Lottery may have created…the desire to invest in others” in the course of announcing his marriage to Henrietta Owen.
According to the Laramie Sentinel in March 1875, Pattee paid the sheriff of Albany County $400 in cash for a one-year license to operate his lottery despite the fact that Pattee would later claim when arrested in New York (on a warrant from Wyoming Territory) that he had never been in Wyoming.
Although Pattee’s lotteries elsewhere had actually provided funds for some of the stated purposes, when he came to Laramie he dispensed entirely with any charitable purpose. They were strictly games of chance, with the promise of rich rewards to the lucky.
Soon Laramie newspaper printing presses were turning out thousands of lottery flyers distributed nationwide through the Laramie post office. Some said Pattee had something to do with the appointment of J.H.Hayford, Sentinel editor as Postmaster during this time, a claim that Hayford denied, saying Pattee had actually opposed him. But in short order the dollars started rolling in at the Laramie post office, bushel-baskets of $4,000 to $5,000 daily, according to Phillip G. Nordell, writing in the October 1962 issue of Annals of Wyoming.
Pattee gave employment to a number of local people. The late John Hildreth of Laramie was related to lottery “Commissioner” George H. Hildreth (1843-1886), one of those taken in by swindler Pattee. John Hildreth’s unpublished paper on his hapless great-uncle George reports that there were 15-30 Pattee employees. They were fired every Saturday and rehired Monday morning since it was unlawful to work a lottery for more than 10 days, according to Hildreth.
According to T.A. Larson, Pattee refrained from advertising his lottery in Wyoming, thus most locals avoided being bilked.
A year after it started, the US Congress clamped down on lotteries like Pattee’s, declaring it a federal crime to advertise lotteries through the US mails. Some claim that no prizes were ever given out by Pattee, others say that there were 50-cent and dollar winners, but never winners of the monthly $50,000 advertised.
Pattee was acquitted on the charges brought against him in New York in 1877 and immediately turned his attention to operating lotteries out of Canada and marketing worthless Carbon County Wyoming mining stock. Amazingly, he was back in Laramie in 1880, tossing money around “liberally—to churches and saloons” according to the Sentinel. Editor Hayford called him “A good fellow, despite the number of humbugs he has been involved in.”
Yet just months earlier Hayford had called all of Pattee’s mining schemes, principally the “Bullion Gold and Silver Mining Co.” worthless, mines with no equipment, and no prospects of any. “Anyone who invests in them is contributing to a lot of dishonest dead beats who are making their living by gulling the public,” said Hayford in 1879.
Although arrested a number of times, it appears that Pattee was never convicted, and lived well, though warily, until his death in an affluent neighborhood of St. Louis in 1888, according to Nordell.
By Judy Knight
Caption: 1876 flyer announcing James M. Pattee’s Wyoming Lottery that gave a “temporary boost to Wyoming’s economy” according to T.A. Larson. The unscrupulous Pattee peppered other states with these flyers from his Laramie headquarters, thanks to a Wyoming Territorial Law of 1869-70 that allowed lotteries—but he pocketed most of the money. Photo courtesy of Emmett D. Chisum Special Collections, Coe Library, University of Wyoming.