Patrick Bernard Wolfe, known as P. B. Wolfe, was born on October 7, 1848, in Cook County, Illinois. His parents were John Richard Wolfe, an Irish Catholic farmer, and Honora Buckley Wolfe. He had seven siblings who survived to maturity: James Buckley (b. 1843), Johanna (b. 1849), John Buckley (b. 1851), Maurice Buckley (b. 1855), Margaret I. (b. 1857), Catherine “Kate” (b. 1860), and Richard B. (b. 1862). Two sisters, Margaret and Catherine, died in infancy.
In 1847, Wolfe’s parents and brother James immigrated to the United States from Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland, along with John R. Wolfe’s first cousin Maurice Wolfe and his family. (John and Maurice Wolfe shared a grandfather, James M. “The Barrister” Wolfe.) The families arrived in New York on August 23, 1847, and from there made their way to Chicago, where Patrick Wolfe was born. The Wolfes then traveled on to LaSalle County, Illinois, where a number of John R. Wolfe’s brothers and cousins settled. John R. Wolfe and his cousin Maurice both moved on to Clinton County, Iowa, arriving sometime around 1855.
Wolfe attended public schools in Liberty Township, Clinton County, and studied one year at the Christian Brothers Academy in LaSalle, Illinois. In 1870, he earned a bachelor of law from the State University of Iowa in Iowa City. In January 1871, he opened a law practice in DeWitt, Clinton County, and six years later partnered with W. A. Cotton, founding the firm Cotton & Wolfe. He remained with the DeWitt firm until 1888.
On May 1, 1878, Wolfe married Margaret G. Connole, the daughter of Irish immigrants, in DeWitt. They had three children: a child who was born in 1869 and died the same year; John Loyola (b. 1879); and Mary Zeta “Molly” (b. 1881).
POLITICAL AND JUDICIAL CAREER
Wolfe was active in public affairs. According to his obituary, he was “for three or four years city solicitor,” presumably of DeWitt. He sat on the DeWitt school board for fifteen years and was a member of the public library board of Clinton. On June 5, 1890, he was elected a state delegate at the Iowa state convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
In 1885, he was elected to the first of three terms in the Iowa Senate, representing District 22 as a Democrat. He served from January 11, 1886, to January 8, 1888; from January 9, 1888, to January 12, 1890; and from January 13, 1890, to January 10, 1892. Wolfe sat on the Judiciary Committee and the committees on County and Township Organizations and Private Corporations. He appears to have been an active senator, introducing a number of bills in his first session, including File No. 175, “a bill for an act to punish the crime of sodomy or buggary.” (The law was passed on March 26, 1892, after Wolfe had left office; it was repealed in 1978.)
On August 6, 1890, the state convention of the Democratic Party, meeting in Cedar Rapids, nominated Wolfe as a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court. In November, he narrowly lost to the Republican candidate, J. H. Rothrock, by a vote of 191,394 to 188,248.
In October 1891, Wolfe resigned his Senate seat after being appointed to replace Andrew Howat on the court of the seventh judicial district. Howat had resigned due to ill health. Wolfe sat on the court until September 1, 1904, when he resigned to practice law with his son. He later wrote, “It is a unique fact that Judge Wolfe has resigned from every public office which he has held.”
While on the court, Wolfe upheld the provisions of the Mulct Act. Passed by the Iowa Legislature in 1894, it allowed localities to decide for themselves whether saloons could operate, while also providing for petitions and appropriate taxes. (A mulct is a fine or penalty.) In August 1895, Wolfe sentenced four saloonkeepers in Clinton to ninety days in jail each for violating the act. In December 1903, he ordered an investigation into whether blackmail was behind the prosecution of some Clinton liquor dealers.
On March 28, 1903, the Los Angeles Times noted that Wolfe had “just rendered an important decision regarding the right of assessors to assess taxes on property in the hands of a trust company as trustee. The court holds such property is liable to assessment both for county and city taxes.”
The DeWitt Observer newspaper praised the judge in 1903:
Words of praise for Judge P. B. Wolfe can be found in every paper published where he holds court. The Muscatine News-Tribune says: “this is said to be the 51st consecutive affirmance of Judge Wolfe in the supreme court, without a single intervening reversal. This is a splendid record for the Judge and probably never been equaled in this state.,” to which the Clinton Age adds: “A most remarkable record sure. We doubt if there are many cases of a like record having been made by any judge in this broad west, or perhaps it might be safe to say in this broad land. Judge Wolfe is to be congratulated by everybody.”
On July 27, 1910, the Democratic state convention, meeting in Ottumwa, again nominated Wolfe for the Supreme Court. On November 8, he received the fewest votes of four candidates: Horace E. Deemer, Republican, 208,830; William D. Evans, Republican, 204,561; A. Van Wagenen, Democrat, 155,628; and Wolfe, 153,698.
In 1911, Wolfe served as editor-in-chief of the mammoth, two-volume Wolfe’s History of Clinton County, published by B. F. Bowen and Company of Indianapolis. Such publications were in vogue at the time, offering readers a combination of state and local histories and celebratory biographical sketches of the area’s leading white male citizens. The title of the book, no doubt designed to peak interest and sales, suggests something of Wolfe’s countywide, and perhaps statewide fame at the time, and among those profiled in Wolfe’s History were Wolfe’s older brother James and the judge himself. The sketch of James Wolfe begins this way:
The Emerald Isle, far-famed in song and story, has furnished a number of enterprising and high-minded citizens to the United States, and they have ever been most welcome, for we have no better class of citizens. They are, almost with no exceptions, industrious, and they are loyal to our institutions and may always be relied upon to do their full duty as citizens in whatever community they may cast their lot. Among this large class the name of James B. Wolfe, whose long, strenuous and interesting career has resulted in much good to himself, his family and to his friends and neighbors, for his example has ever been exemplary and his influence salutary.
Such hyperbole probably reflects the more tenuous position of Irish and German immigrants at the turn of the century. They were only just beginning to reap the rewards of American citizenship, and such advances could be quickly reversed, as Iowa Germans discovered during World War I (1914–1918).
The sketch of Patrick B. Wolfe, undoubtedly approved by the judge, nevertheless contains several curious assertions. It claims that the Wolfe’s father was born in 1824 (the more likely date is 1809), that he “helped to organize the ‘Young Ireland’ party” (almost certainly not true, at least on a national level), and that he came to the United States in 1848 (it was actually a year earlier). He notes that his mother’s brother, Michael Buckley, was “the leader of the Belfast bar for many years,” suggesting that “it was natural for the American descendants to turn to the bar in choice of a profession.”
In spite of its various shortcomings, Wolfe’s History provides an often fascinating history along with a rich sampling of the attitudes and even, indirectly, the insecurities of the day.
Wolfe finished his years with the firm Wolfe & Wolfe in Clinton, founded with his son, John. The younger Wolfe followed his father into the state legislature, serving in the House of Representatives from 1909 until 1911.
P. B. Wolfe died at his home in Clinton on June 11, 1922. His wife died on July 28, 1943. They are buried together at Saint Ireaneaus Cemetery in Clinton. On June 14, the Davenport Democrat and Leader noted that the federal district court judge Martin J. Wade, a fellow Democrat, had opened his court with a tribute to his former colleague:
This court ought not to be in session at all today, for today the entire state is paying tribute to Judge P. [B.] Wolfe, one of Iowa’s most earnest, loyal and sincere jurists. For thirteen years Judge Wolfe was on the bench in this district. He met the arduous duties of his life in a patriotic, earnest and sincere manner. No judge in Iowa had more respect from the public and from his fellow jurists. He realized his obligations deeply, and never failed to fulfill them.
images: Portrait of P. B. Wolfe from the Davenport Democrat Leader, June 12, 1922, page 1; title page of Wolfe’s History of Clinton County (1911); a card addressed to P. B. Wolfe and postmarked February 18, 1890