Benjamin Barr Lindsey never forgot his working class roots, and that’s why I have always admired him.
Lindsey was only 11 years old in 1879 when his family moved to Denver from his native Tennessee. His dad initially had a good position as chief telegraph operator for the Denver South Park and Pacific Railroad, but he became ill and lost his job. Young Lindsey had to quit school at East High and find work to help his struggling family. Further trouble beset the family when his dad took his own life, but young Lindsey got a job clerking in a law office. In 1894, he had studied enough to become a lawyer. At age 32, he became an attorney for Arapahoe County, Denver’s name in those days.
In 1900 he became a judge and early in his career on the bench, Tom Noel reports in his great book “Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis,” Judge Lindsey initially sentenced a young North Denver Italian boy for stealing coal. Noel writes that the boy’s mother ran to Lindsey screaming, tearing her disheveled hair and beating her head against the wall, “as if,” Lindsey remembered, “she would batter the court house down on us all and bury our injustice under the ruins.” Lindsey suspended the sentence and investigated the circumstances of the boy’s family. Lindsey found that the family lived in a two room shack in North Denver. The boy’s father, a smelter worker, could no longer work due to lead poisoning, and the boy stole coal so that the family would not freeze.
This experience made Lindsey realize that juveniles should not be thrown in with adult prisoners so he organized an informal juvenile court, the first in the country. Lindsey supported the 1903 city charter because it included a juvenile detention home.
One of my favorite stories about Lindsey is that he would send juvenile offenders to the reformatory in Golden on the interurban streetcar. He told the guards that they no longer had to accompany the young offenders to the detention home. He gave each offender a dime to pay for their trolley fare to Golden. The guards laughed and said, “no juvenile will ever make it to the detention home in Golden,” but Lindsey kept track of them. Out of 500 kids he sent to Golden with dimes, only two got tempted passing an ice cream parlor and stopped inside instead of going to detention. Lindsey said they immediately came back to court and confessed to the ice cream temptation too hard to resist, so he sent them on their way and with two new dimes the lads finally made it to Golden, to the relief of chastised guards and all. I sure miss the old interurban to Golden.
In his book, “The Beast,” co-authored by Harvey O’Higgins, Lindsey tells the story of his many battles with corruption in the Denver County Courts. He fought the business interests which were running the politicians at the old city hall on Larimer. Lindsey fought voter fraud, corrupt utility companies, and the water companies. Fearlessly, he went after the state and city’s most powerful big money interests including the Guggenheims for unsafe working conditions at the old Asarco Smelter in Globeville. He was the worker’s judge, never forgetting his uncertain roots and troubles growing up without a father.
In 1910, Lindsey described our state in “The Beast:” “The State of Colorado is exploited and the people robbed by a government by the Beast and for the Beast. A system of corruption that aims to pick the corruptible man for public service, and refuses the honest one an opportunity to serve, has made most of the public life and administration of public affairs in Colorado a gigantic failure, a huge oppression.” These prophetic words become an early warning of the corporate collusion in the Ludlow Massacre a few years later.
Lindsey also fought the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. But his downfall came when he supported the idea of “companionate marriage.” He believed that marriage should be a year-to-year contract to be renewed by the consenting party. Enraged, the marrying reverends, rabbis, and priests in town rose up against him. The pope even personally castigated him. Reminding folks that his mother was Catholic and his father Protestant did not help Lindsey in this battle.
He retired to California where he became a judge and told people I know here in our city that he always missed Denver and his work with the Juvenile Court. Ben Lindsey was a profile in courage, a fearless leader, and a great character who left Denver better off than he found it.
The Honorable Dennis Gallagher is a former city auditor, city councilman, state senator and state representative. He shares thoughts and stories from North Denver’s past and future in his monthly column in The Denver North Star.