Joseph Scott (1867-1958): Devout English Emigrant to Fame and Fortune in Los Angeles, Part One

by John Sharpe

We are very happy to welcome back John Sharpe, who has contributed several posts based on his extensive research on the Workman family, who long resided in Clifton, England, where he has lived for many years. This three-part post concerns another native of that area of northern England, specifically Penrith, just a few miles from Clifton, who migrated to Los Angeles and made a mark on the Angel City. Enjoy the first part of John’s comprehensive discussion of the life of attorney and civic leader, Joseph Scott, and join us over the next two days for the rest of this fascinating story.

Abraham Lincoln’s gaunt features in bronze accompany his Gettysburg Address in front of the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Nearby stands the statue of a man in formal attire above the inscription:        


Beloved citizen, distinguished lawyer, civic leader                         

Practiced law in Los Angeles from 1894 to 1958

Established Knights of Columbus in California 1902

Served as President of the Chamber of Commerce, Board of Education, Community Chest, Boys’ Week and Draft Board

Stalwart champion of Americanism and militant foe of communism

Lifelong crusader for recognition of the Irish Republic               

Nominated Herbert Hoover for President of the United States 

Recognized by Church and State with highest honors many times.

The Scott statue was erected on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles in the 1960s. A decade earlier, a fulsome tribute to Scott by California Representative Gordon McDonough in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives opened with these lofty sentiments:

A youthful Scotch-Irish immigrant to the United States who moved among and was the equal of the giants of his day in all walks of life, but who never lost the common touch of the ordinary man. A great humanitarian, defender of the weak, protector of the poor, a master in the courts, an unequaled expounder of the law of the land in pursuit of justice, scornful of the powerful who would oppress the weak. Champion of the dignity of man in the image and likeness of God. Defender of his faith, Christian gentleman, as humble as sackcloth and ashes, as majestic as a king, statesman, scholar, poet, a good father and husband, a friend of humanity.

Joseph Scott grew up with Los Angeles from the time it was a sleepy pueblo to its present metropolitan status as the third largest city in the United States. In spite of his 85 years, he is still active every day in his law practice and in court. This is not only a story of the life of Joe Scott. It is also a historical account of Los Angeles and of the many outstanding events in the Nation in which he participated.”

In his sixty-five years in Los Angeles, Scott saw the city’s population of  60,000 in the 1890s mushroom to millions by his death in the late 1950s, as the Owens River aqueduct brought water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Hollywood made it the world’s entertainment capital, while he made a giant contribution to its development in many fields. With his formidably bushy eyebrows and shock of white hair, he was a charismatic figure and a spellbinding orator who won fame as a tireless opponent of racial and religious intolerance. As a lawyer, his combativeness inside the courtroom was as legendary as his charity outside.  

Joseph Scott (1867-1958), from a photo in the Homestead’s collection.

Scott was born at the market town of Penrith in the old English county of Cumberland on 17 July 1867, second of eight sons of a Scots-Presbyterian father and an Irish-Catholic mother. Joseph Scott, Sr., a native of Cockermouth (west of Penrith and where poet William Wordsworth lived) was a 26-year-old newspaper printer when he married Mary Donnelly in Wexford, Ireland in 1862, despite her family’s misgivings on religious grounds (but with the blessing of the wise old priest who married them), and their son William Isaac was born in Ireland before they left for England. Joseph junior had great respect for his father, who never objected to his nine children being raised as Catholics, but he always insisted, “I am what I am by reason of my mother.”                                                                      

Poor and barely literate, Mary Donnelly from tiny Duncormick had lived at Enniscorthy in the shadow of Vinegar Hill, where British guns killed 500 Wexford pikemen in the Irish uprising of 1798, and had seen shell-shocked Irishmen coming home from the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Her son Joseph was born during a frightening Cumbrian thunderstorm, and Joseph, Sr. recalled Mary’s whispered prophecy about their newborn son – “He came to me in thunder and lightningHe’ll ride the hurricane all his life.”                                                      

Just three months later, Mary was outraged by the hanging in industrial Manchester of three young Irish Fenians for shooting a policeman.   Such was her distress at what happened to “these mere boys . . . no more felons than any American Revolutionary hero . . . they wanted to make Ireland free . . .,” that she would tell young Joseph as she knelt over his crib and said, “I prayed for them and my tears fell upon your face, and you were baptised a second time.”   Deeply moved, Joseph would always see this “second baptism” as the gift of a love for, and a pledge to, freedom.           

The Scott family as enumerated in the 1871 English census at Stafford, north of Birmingham.

Many years later, a Los Angeles dinner marking Joseph Scott’s fifty years in America was attended by the great and good of California, among them a former U.S. ambassador to the Irish Republic, a federal judge, an archbishop and former president Herbert Hoover. When a speaker remarked on Scott’s conspicuous religious faith, the great man could still hear his devout Catholic mother murmuring to him, a small boy, as they stood by the crib in the little church near their English home sixty years before, “There, my boy, is the helpless Babe, shivering in the manger. In 30 years’ time He will be agonizing on the cross. This is the ideal you must follow, boy; that is what you must understand. Always be true to the Star of Bethlehem and Calvary.”  

Victorian Britain was a world superpower at the height of its industrial prowess, and the nation’s newspapers were booming. Young newspaper printer Joseph Scott was ideally situated at his workplace to see all the advertisements for people with the right technical skills and experience to keep the news presses moving, and he was prepared for travel to better himself, despite – or perhaps because of – a growing family to feed.  He had left his hometown of Penrith in his twenties and crossed the Irish Sea to Wexford, and this ambitious move would be just the first of several.

On leaving Ireland for England with their first-born infant son, Joseph and Mary Scott lived for a short time in the grimy industrial town of Barnsley at the centre of the giant Yorkshire coal field, before moving over a hundred miles north to Joseph’s hometown of Penrith in rural Cumberland. There it seems likely that they moved in with Joseph’s parents at their modest inn called “The Grate” on the busy little town’s main street, where their second son Joseph was born in 1867.

The Scott family’s listing in the 1881 English census at Darlington, where William Workman’s brother, Harrison, died over seventy years earlier.

Not long after Joseph was born, the restless Scott family was on the move again, this time around a hundred and fifty miles south to the ancient Midlands town of Stafford, just north of Birmingham. Stafford again was not permanent, and the family’s next move was back north to busy industrial Darlington in county Durham. Young Joseph by then was in his ‘teens, and this latest move to a little terrace house in a working-class area of Darlington would prove crucially important for the growing boy’s education and his future prospects.

On a windswept hillside not far north of Darlington were the awesome Gothic towers of Ushaw College, founded in 1808 and by Victorian times one of England’s leading seminaries for training Roman Catholic priests. Joseph Scott’s education there was funded by the Hexham diocese, and the high academic standards that were rigorously applied at the College would be the making of him. He attended Ushaw College with distinction in the 1880s and his deep religious faith was nurtured there. While he was most successful in grammar and rhetoric, his best-recalled instructor was the Anglo-Spanish teacher of French Raphael Merry del Val (1865-1930), who became Cardinal Secretary of State to Pope Pius X.

Joseph matriculated at London University but did not pursue the academic or clerical life that might have been expected of him, explaining years later that there was no place at all for a man of his blood and faith in England in those days. Going on to account for his decision to cross the Atlantic, he said his first conception of America with its ideals of liberty and democracy came from his Irish mother who had told him as a little boy about the Irishmen who came back to county Wexford from America with stories of the gaunt, haggard man who stood at Gettysburg and prayed that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”    

Reference to Scott’s admittance to the bar to practice law, Los Angeles Express, 3 April 1894.

Joseph’s distraught mother and father were at the Liverpool dock to see him off on his great adventure in 1889, and he thought he would never see them again. Joseph and Mary had already had their heartbreaks. Their sixth son, Walter Francis, was just nine months old when he died in 1880 and they had lost eldest son William Isaac at the age of 19 in 1882. They were not to know that fateful day in Liverpool that their youngest son William, then four years old, would die just three years later in 1892, and three more of their eight sons would not live beyond their thirties. Apart from Joseph, the only one of the eight Scott brothers to survive to middle age would be fifth son Frederick, who was destined to follow his brother Joseph to California and live out his retirement in San Diego.

Joseph had barely parted from his parents when he was held on the ship’s gangplank and briefly detained as an Army deserter in a case of mistaken identity, but he arrived in Boston with $50 in his pocket and a letter of introduction to an Irish-American newspaper editor, with hopes of becoming a journalist. Frustrated in that ambition, he shovelled coal in a Massachusetts paper mill for 12 cents an hour and was down to his last two dollars when he got a job as a labourer at 20 cents an hour on a New York building site. “God forgive me,” he would recall years later at a speaking engagement in Los Angeles, “it was a Protestant church!”

After just five months in the United States and still only twenty-two years of age, Joseph’s innate Irish eloquence—together with his astute acquisition of an appropriate text-book and some useful insider information from an old friend from Ushaw days—elevated him to professor of rhetoric and English grammar at St Bonaventure’s College, Allegheny, New York, where forceful use of his hod-carrier’s physique in an early confrontation with a rebellious student established his reputation as a man who was not to be trifled with. At $300 a year, the College salary was adequate for Joseph’s immediate needs but hardly enough for a man who wanted to marry and raise a family.

An early ad for Scott’s law office, just before that of his friend Isidore Dockweiler, from the [Los Angeles] Catholic Tidings, 29 June 1895.

In June 1893, he and an equally ambitious friend, Father Joe Noonan, left New York by transcontinental train for California. Robbed of cash and train tickets in a crowded hotel lobby in Chicago, which was teeming with visitors to the World Fair, they bumped into world heavyweight boxing champion “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, soon after his defeat of John L. Sullivan.    Corbett, who had known Noonan before he became a priest, was delighted that his old friend Joe was now wearing the collar. Living up to his name, the genial boxer saw the badly shaken travellers’ plight and promptly rescued them with a gift of $500.

At the end of that 3,000-mile train trip from the ceaseless bustle of New York, the then small city of Los Angeles made a profound impression on Joe Scott, with its leisurely pace of life in the sun on the plain between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The surrounding countryside, with its citrus and olive groves, dusty desert roads and dilapidated mission churches from the Spanish/Mexican era, put him in mind of the Holy Land.

Scott was introduced by Los Angeles priest Joseph Doyle, a friend from Allegheny who had persuaded him to come out West, to the influential Isidore Dockweiler, head of a leading pioneer family, who rekindled in the young man an interest in the law that had begun in his spare time at Allegheny. Dockweiler had trained as a lawyer himself under Los Angeles Judge James Anderson, a Memphis-born former officer in the Confederate Army who, like many others, had come out west to start over again after being impoverished by the Civil War.   He suggested going into Anderson’s office or that of Judge Stephen White. As White was “deep in politics”, Joseph chose the former option and was soon immersed in his legal studies. That decision would win Joseph Scott a long and distinguished—not to say fearless and sometimes controversial—legal career, besides elevating him to the highest echelons of California society and enabling him to undertake worldwide travel.

A description of the nuptial of Scott and Bertha Roth, Los Angeles Herald, 12 June 1898.

Joseph’s boyhood dreams of the Wild West had already been indulged in the United States with a visit to the Iroquois Indians on the Allegheny River. His fascination with the natives soon combined with a desire for a break from the law books to take him on a much more dangerous mission, when he supplemented his own Winchester rifle with a pair of borrowed six-guns to join a cowboy posse led by Judge Anderson’s son, who happened to be sheriff of Yavapai County, Arizona. Their quarry was the dreaded Apache Kid, a murderous young renegade from an Indian reservation whose three victims in the previous week included the deputy marshal of Phoenix. A gun battle among the cactus left two native Americans dead but the wily Kid escaped to fight another day.  

Back in Los Angeles, Scott was admitted to the California Bar in 1894 and, being a fine bass singer, joined the choir of the city’s St Vibiana’s Cathedral, where he met, and later married, 27-year-old Bertha Roth from an old San Francisco family with French and Mexican roots. He and Bertha were destined to have eleven children, seven of whom would survive to adulthood.

Join us tomorrow for part two of this absorbing and informative sketch of the long life of Joseph Scott and thanks again to John for sharing it with us!                              

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