James de Mattos served seven non-consecutive terms as mayor of Bellingham (and its predecessors, Whatcom and New Whatcom) during the community's formative years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He also served one colorful term in the state legislature. He was a progressive Republican in what was then a more conservative Bellingham, but his political career was marred by a tendency to make his fights personal and public, which earned him many lasting enemies. An energetic man who was known for his short stature and flowery oratory, de Mattos left an impression on most everyone he met.
James Paterson de Mattos was born on February 20, 1854, in Jacksonville, Illinois, the son of Antonio de Mattos (d. 1891) and Isabella Paterson de Mattos (ca. 1821-1867). His father was from Portugal and his mother was from New Brunswick, which later became part of Canada. He was the first child of the couple; two brothers followed, but only his youngest brother, Frederic (1860-1924), survived into adulthood.
De Mattos's mother died in 1867, and the following year his father remarried. Angered by the marriage, James de Mattos moved to New Brunswick and lived with his maternal grandparents. In 1871, at age 17, he moved to Washington, D.C., and enrolled in law school at Columbian College (now George Washington University). The law school curriculum lasted just one year, and de Mattos was admitted to the Bar a year later. In 1873 he obtained an additional law degree from another Washington, D.C., school, National University. But instead of practicing law, he worked in the mail division of the Treasury Department for the next two years.
In 1875, de Mattos moved to Colorado. He lived off and on in Georgetown for four years before moving to Leadville in 1879, where he practiced law and later that year was elected justice of the peace. It was an adventurous time for the young lawyer. One story of his Leadville days says that while he was hearing a case he had to come down from the bench and separate two attorneys who had drawn guns on each other, while another holds that de Mattos kept his own pistol at the ready in a different case when he was representing the plaintiff against an especially dangerous defendant.
He left Leadville in early 1881 with an impressive judicial record -- a local newspaper claimed that only three cases out of nearly 1,000 that he decided were reversed by the state superior court -- and the title "judge," which stuck with him for the rest of his life. After drifting through several Colorado communities in 1881 and 1882, he moved to Washington Territory. He arrived in Tacoma in December 1882, and in Whatcom (now Bellingham) on January 12, 1883.
Whatcom, New Whatcom
De Mattos wasted little time letting his neighbors know he was in town. He advertised his services in Whatcom's Reveille and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and soon was practicing law. He performed a wide variety of legal work, and became so adept at title work that he established an abstract company, which (along with politics and the law) would become one of his principal professions throughout his life. He was a hard man to miss in Whatcom, and his short height made him even more conspicuous. In an insurance application de Mattos claimed to be 5 feet, 5 inches tall, but anecdotal and photographic evidence suggest he may have been several inches shorter. Whether this contributed to his forceful personality can be debated, but while he could be a hilariously funny man as well as a practical one, he could also be stormy and vindictive, particularly if he felt he was being personally attacked. He had a knack for making both strong friends and enemies; if people met de Mattos, they didn't forget him.
It was this gregariousness that in part helped him become the first mayor elected in the new municipality of Whatcom in December 1883. Out of 171 votes, de Mattos won by four. He received an assist from an unexpected quarter: women. Women were given the right to vote in Washington Territory in 1883 (it was withdrawn four years later and not permanently restored until 1910), and they represented one-quarter of the mayoral votes in Whatcom. His standing with women -- most who eschewed alcohol -- may have been aided by the fact that he similarly did not imbibe. "God bless them!" de Mattos exclaimed in his inaugural address (Roth, 236).
Though de Mattos did not drink alcohol, he was realistic enough to appreciate the fervor of those who did. During his one-year term he did not close Whatcom's saloons, which likely hurt his standing with women and others sympathetic to the temperance movement. He lost the 1884 mayoral election by seven votes. He displayed a particular rancor in his farewell address, not only toward his political enemies but toward the press too, referring to the opposition newspaper, the Reveille, as "the Reviler" (Roth, 250). The newspaper in turn described the mayor as "too small of body to contain a large soul, too narrow of mind to be courteous to an adversary ... His administration has been devoid of dignity, vindictive and extremely narrow-gauged. Slang disfigures every page of his 'messages'" ("City Affairs"). It was the beginning of a hostile relationship between de Mattos and the press, which persisted throughout his life.
De Mattos served for nearly a year as city attorney during 1885, but then was out of office for five years. In 1890 he was elected mayor of the newly created city of New Whatcom, but his term was brief. In early 1891, New Whatcom merged into the original Whatcom, and this was quickly followed by another mayoral election in the consolidated New Whatcom. De Mattos was defeated after having served for less than seven weeks. However, he was by this time involved in another project that kept his attention for the next several years.
Sunset Block and the Legislature
In 1890 de Mattos built the Sunset Block (building), sometimes referred to as the de Mattos Block, on the northwest corner of East Holly and State streets. The contractor abandoned the project before it was completed, and de Mattos finished it at a price roughly one-third higher than the original contract price. The attractive, three-story building (a fourth floor was added, and part of the building expanded, in 1907) featured a Romanesque first floor, and part of the structure was finished in sandstone from a Sehome quarry. Three years later the United States plunged into an economic depression that lasted for much of the rest of the decade, and revenue from the Sunset Block declined. De Mattos sued the contractor's sureties (insurers) for breach of contract but lost in a drawn-out legal proceeding that lasted for years. The Sunset Block itself fared better, and enjoyed its own history for 80 years until it was torn down in 1971.
De Mattos pursued his other interests in the meantime, particularly politics. He was elected New Whatcom's mayor for two single-year terms in 1896 and 1898, and he served one year in the state legislature in 1897. Nicknames, almost all related to his size, followed him wherever he went: "the little mayor" and "the diminutive executive" (Langum, 6) during his mayoral years, while a nemesis during de Mattos's term in the legislature coined him "little tomatoes" ("How de Mattos ...").
Though his time in the legislature was short, de Mattos left an impression. He introduced a proposed amendment to the state constitution granting women the right to vote, but it lost in the all-male election that year. He introduced a bill calling for the creation of a board of pardons, and early in his term he introduced a bill calling for taxes on mining corporations and other companies. The Seattle Times reported that this bill "provoked the first interesting and heated discussion of the session" ("Legislature"). And in an era when grandiloquent speeches were common, de Mattos flowed with the best, as he demonstrated in one debate:
"I am attached to no candidate's chariot wheels ... Little cliques have caucused and nominated their candidates. I have participated in none of these because I will not commit myself to any candidate who does not receive a majority vote in caucus of the whole party. I expect to stay here until Hades becomes congealed ... We are on a fence in the middle of the road. The people of the state of Washington are pulling the rails. We must jump to the right to success or to the left to oblivion. Will we do right or get left?"
Observed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "This unique speech caused no end of comment and considerable laughter" ("Cline Gives It Up").
De Mattos ran again for the legislature in 1898 but came in last in a field of four candidates. Several weeks later, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against him in his case against the sureties. He had lost most of his finances because of his Sunset Block venture, and perhaps it stung more than he cared to admit, because in early 1899 he abruptly pulled up stakes and left New Whatcom. He wandered through a cornucopia of Western communities for the next five years -- Republic, Washington (where he ran for mayor and lost), Teller City and Denver in Colorado, and Tishomingo in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). He was living in Bisbee, Arizona, in early 1904 when he decided to return to the newly minted city of Bellingham, which had been created by the merger of Whatcom (the "New" was dropped from its name in 1901) and Fairhaven in December 1903.
He resumed his legal and abstract work, and it wasn't long before he was back in politics. He was elected to serve as mayor for a two-year term in 1908 and 1909 and was reelected for the 1910-1911 term. It was a heady time in Bellingham. In May 1908, de Mattos headed the reception when the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet, nicknamed the "Great White Fleet" after its white-painted battleships, visited the city. In July 1909, he led the Bellingham delegation at Bellingham Day and Whatcom County Day at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. And in October 1911, de Mattos presented President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) to a cheering crowd at the city's circus grounds.
During his terms as Bellingham's mayor, de Mattos focused on local issues that had a direct impact on the city. In particular, the automobile was edging out the horse and wagon during these years as the preferred mode of transportation, and he worked on building and improving streets; during his final term (1914-1915) he pledged to connect Bellingham's roads to the nascent but growing state highway system. He also dealt with the city's expanding electrification and water systems.
Uncharacteristically, de Mattos gave in to political pressure and ordered the police to close Bellingham's red-light district in 1910. He later explained, "Personally, I would like to abolish them [the brothels], but regard it as an absolute impossibility to effectuate what hundreds of other mayors from the year one have failed in" (Langum, 22). The effort was not successful. The prostitutes simply scattered throughout the city, making it almost impossible for the police to obtain evidence to make an arrest. There was another reason why de Mattos was reluctant to close Bellingham's brothels: When the red-light district had been open, it had paid $17,000 in fines and taxes in the year prior to the closure. This represented more than 10 percent of Bellingham's 1910 budget, and de Mattos was quick to point out that closing the brothels would force the city to cancel the purchase of two fire trucks.
He engaged in a years-long battle with the local First Baptist Church to reinstate his membership, which the church had withdrawn in 1889. It was not a quiet affair. De Mattos -- as he often did when he felt personally affronted -- went public with his fight. He finally prevailed in 1910, and when he subsequently was personally invited to services by several prominent members of the church, he refused and demanded a letter of dismissal so he could join another church. He received a good-standing dismissal letter right away.
Defeated in his 1911 bid for reelection, de Mattos gave a customarily caustic address at his successor's inauguration, attacking the press as well as his opponents. "[It was] the only discordant note of the harmonious proceedings," commented The Seattle Times ("Lawyer Heads Police ..."). He was reelected in 1913 but lost again in 1915. Afterward, Frank Sefrit's (1867-1950) Bellingham Herald was happy to give him a sendoff in an editorial: "... the City has reached the dawn of a new day -- one marked not by echoes of ancient quarrels, but by hope of harmony and co-operation ... Bellingham is no longer desirous of nursing a spirit of gangrene" ("Hopefulness").
It was indeed the end of de Mattos's political career. He gradually lost interest in politics, and later withdrew entirely from the political scene. In a 1928 letter to his nephew's daughter, Virginia de Mattos, he remarked, "I have not attended any political or other meetings for nearly 5 years past. Practically drawn into my shell as it were, which I never expected to do" (Langum, 23-24). He spent his time focusing on his legal and abstract work; as he was a lifelong bachelor, there were few family obligations for him to handle in his final years.
In the first days of 1929, de Mattos developed what was described as a choking condition in his throat. It was not serious, and at first he kept working despite being urged by friends to get some rest. He eventually called his doctor, S. H. Johnson, to his residence at 508 Chestnut Street on a Sunday noon, January 13, 1929. As the doctor examined de Mattos and joked with him about having a "pretty good chest" for a man his age ("Judge J. P. De Mattos ..."), the former mayor suffered a stroke and died within minutes, leaving a legacy intertwined with Bellingham's early days.