William Thompson was a very practical, honest, hard-working man. But he also had some some annoying personality quirks, friends and acquaintances weren’t impressed with his looks, and his children were scared to death of him. That’s the very mixed portrait of this great American pioneer that emerges from interviews done 80-odd years ago with the people who knew him.
The sometimes snarky reminiscences were collected by Hermann Hagedorn, the biographer of Thompson’s first-born, William Boyce Thompson. They have been preserved in boxes squirreled away inside the Library of Congress. Most of the papers look like they’ve barely been touched.
It’s hard to make out who is writing or making some of the comments. Some guy named Palmer, for instance, remembers William Thompson as “a little man, very slim, with a high-pitched voice; and a funny way of saying, ‘By Joo.’ He was not over-attractive.”
Philip Wiseman, who was even less flattering about the Thompson patriarch’s looks, recalls him as a “small, short, dried-up man with chin whiskers.” But Wiseman also sounds a common refrain when he mentions that “everybody looked up to him as very reliable.”
The fact is that nearly everyone interviewed had at least something bad to say about William Thompson (1832-1900), my great, great, great grandfather. Thompson, whose father died when he was nine, was already working with his hands by age 11. Born in Cobourg, Ontario, he moved with his family to Detroit after his father died then set off on his own to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota before arriving in Virginia City, Montana, in 1862 at about 24, seeking fame and fortune
Thompson married Anne Maria Boyce (1846-1894) in 1867. His wife was universally regarded as an angel, though a sickly one who often resorted to neurotic whining to get her way. She had 10 children. Only half lived to adulthood.
“The Thompson household was friendly and harmonious with the father away much of the time engaged in his lumber business and the mother easy-going and kindly,” remember Mrs. Flora McNulty and Mrs. Mary Rovano. “Mr. T was full of fun and optimistic; but his photographs suggest other, less attractive qualities.”
“WB’s father was not impressive,” remembered some guy named Holter, probably the son of Anton Holter, one of Thompson’s early business partners. “He was small and slight, a worrier and a whiner, but he was fundamentally fine and no one questioned his integrity.”
It turns out that the elder Thompson was quite litigious, which might account for some of his unpopularity. William Boyce Thompson remembers that his father was always engaged in one lawsuit or another. He would sometimes sue people on principle.
This strategy worked to the benefit of Edward B. Howell, William Thompson’s lawyer, who remembered him as a man of “thorough honesty and great energy. He enjoyed the confidence of everybody….He was a very satisfactory client–mentally alert, willing to fight for his rights at whatever cost, and vigilant at every stage of every case. When his sudden death came in 1900, I felt that I had lost one of the best friends that I ever had.”
But Howell also remembers William Thompson as an “odd person, with a ball on the end of his nose, and short, stubby whiskers. He was very active and very keen-witted, taking a lawyer’s interest in every detail of the litigation in which he was constantly involved. He was a great hustler and the family was always well provided for, but he was always investing money and losing it, always making it and yet never wealthy.”
“It’s true that father frequently had some litigation on his hands,” William Boyce remembered. “Where there was any crookedness, he was no compromiser, and if he thought someone was not doing right, he would go after him. He would keep at a thing eternally to redress a wrong. He had these lawsuits from time to time. There was no trickery in them, but in a lot of people of that day as well as now there was a good deal of trickery, and he just would not stand for it when he was involved. He would fight grimly on principle.”
Howell notes that the elder Thompson’s strong principles made him a great politician. “He was in the State legislature for several terms and was one of the best mayors that Butte ever had. Even his political enemies conceded that he was honest.”
The Daily Inter Mountain newspaper couldn’t help but suck up to Thompson, whom it remembered on September 26, 1889, as “one of the best men in this or any other country….He was the father of the wages lien law which makes the laborer’s wages the first claim upon any property attached, thus positively assuring their payment….Mr. Thompson is honest, straight-forward and capable and makes a most useful legislator. No working man in this country can vote against him without voting against his own interests.”
Several associates, though, couldn’t help but comment on Thompson’s poor oratory skills. C.P. O’Connell, for instance, remembers W.B.’s father as a “solid, practical” man, who made an excellent mayor of Butte. “(B)ut he was not much of a speechmaker. A man who was asked to report what the mayor had said on a certain occasion answered, ‘He just opened his mouth and let it say what it had a mind to.'”
Reviews of Thompson’s business acumen were mixed. He always earned good money, enough to properly feed and clothe his family. But he never struck it rich because he was always chasing the next deal, sometimes foolishly.
In the beginning, Thompson operated a lumberyard in Virginia City that also sold groceries and had a sawmill outside of town. Together with his partner, Griffith, Thompson erected many of the buildings in downtown Virginia City, which today is a tourist attraction. “At the start, I had the money and Thompson had the experience,” Griffith recounted to Hagedorn. “When we parted, Thompson had the money and I had the experience.”
Another guy, Haslett, recounts Thompson’s mania for buying sawmills. The problem was that all the big mining companies had a lumber business on the side. “When, however, he came to the Silver Bow Bank to borrow money to purchase another, the officers would not let him have it. ‘It’s awfully cheap,’ he protested, but they were adamant. He spread out too much and lost his money in foolish ventures. The sawmill business was none too good.”
“Thompson senior was just a natural-born builder,” remembers Philo Hanson. “He was always developing, always building something or other.”
Despite numerous shortcomings, Thompson managed to impart some important life lessons to his children. One was to hide their feelings, especially in business matters. That’s what Margaret Biddle, William Boyce Thompson’s daughter, remembers. “If WB learned early in his boyhood that life was hard, and that if he was to survive he would have to grow a shell over his sensitiveness, it was his father who taught him.”
Nephew Lynn Boyce remembers William Thompson as “good at heart” but a “strict disciplinarian. He left the direction of the household, however, in the main to his wife who was a tender, loving being, gentle, kind, thoughtful; a wonderful mother with definite principles.”
Thompson apparently had little good to say about his sons. J.E. Thompson told Hagedorn that his father was a “terror” to his children. He worked all the time to support nine children who were afraid of him, Hagedorn wrote. He wasn’t at all companionable; his sons wouldn’t dream of taking their trouble to him. “A hard, just man; made a lot of money in lumber and lost it in mines,” J.E. said.
Biddle remembers that her father’s father “seemed quite obtuse to the gifts of his oldest son and ruthless in the expression of his disgust with him. When Mrs. Thompson, happening to go into the old gentleman’s office on the day that WB became 27, reminded him of the birthday, he answered gruffly, ‘I hope he isn’t such a God damn fool at forty as he is today.'”
William Boyce, though, had many good memories of his father, who “was of a strong physique, stocky. He was not strikingly tall, but of about medium size, and was rather lean. He had a long type of face, of light complexion, and always wore a beard while I knew him. A hard worker.
“He was a sterling character, and he was much respected….Father was a very religious man, and of temperate habits. He never took a drink across a bar in his life–he was opposed to drink. As age advanced on him, it became a habit with him to drink port wine in small quantities.”
He also taught his children to value independence. “If there was one predominate characteristic of my father; not to work for anybody but be independent,” William Boyce remembers. “I never worked for anybody except for him. He held that if you worked for yourself and if you did not have it in you, you did not get very far.”