Eccentric, Libertarian, cantankerous, opinionated, insane, brilliant; there are many words that have been used to describe the late Snohomish author John Patric (1902-1985). Perhaps the most accurate description would be "controversial." Patric spent much of his life on the road, roaming through the U.S., Mexico, and overseas. He attended at least eight colleges, graduated from none, and then traveled through Asia and Europe, writing of Japan and Italy in the years leading up to World War II. In the 1950s he returned to Snohomish, where, occasionally using the pen name Hugo N. Frye, he fought philosophical wars against a variety of individuals and institutions as editor of The Snohomish Free Press. Patric was forced to prove his sanity in a 1958 court proceeding, one of more than 60 court appearances for Patric in his peripatetic life.
Child of Snohomish
John Patric was born on May 22, 1902, in Snohomish. His earliest years were spent living on the second floor of the town's library; his mother, Emmeline Eleanor Crueger was the town’s first librarian. Patric’s father, Arthur Noah Patric, owned and operated a hardware store in Snohomish, which remained in the family for decades. The Patric family had five children, four of whom survived into adulthood.
By all appearances, John's childhood was a reasonably stable one for the times, enriched by his adventuresome spirit and a freedom to roam as he pleased. According to his unpublished manuscript, Hobo Years, young John spent much of his time exploring with other boys from Snohomish, and frequently picked up odd jobs over the summer to fund his activities. By the time he was in high school, he was itching to leave his small-town home. In Chapter 1 of Hobo Years, titled "The View From Fiddler's Bluff," Patric wrote of his hometown and his yearning for far-away places:
"This story begins in a little town that stretches haphazardly between rolling hills and a slow-flowing tidal river, deep and navigable. Less than ten miles to the west are the cliff-shores, coves, and tide flats of Puget Sound, and beyond, the Pacific. Not much more distant eastward begin the first steep, forested foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
"The best place to stand and look upon this world-of-our-boyhood was Fiddler's Bluff, across the river to the southwest.
"It was easy to get there. At the Northern Pacific railway yards we waited, alert for Shoespecks, the policeman, until the afternoon freight pulled out for Seattle. We swung aboard. We hung on tightly while it rolled slowly across the narrow trestle so high above our broad river. The engineer gathered all the speed he could on the flatlands beyond. But the grade over Fiddler's Bluff was steep, and at its crest the engine, for all the power in its steam, had slowed to a walk.
"We stepped off at a cut on the top of the bluff; we scrambled up its banks. Then, looking back at the town, we saw unrolled below us all the geography that made our boyhoods memorable.
"We saw the river-to-the-sea that gave our town its name, and we saw the sternwheel steamers, the fishing boats, and rafts of logs upon it.
"We saw Frenchie Slough -- cider-colored, still, mysterious -- winding through the catfish swamps between gnarled and mossy spruces and old maples.
"We saw Blackman's Lake behind the town, and a bit of the Creek that was its overflow: the Creek where our Cave was, the Creek without a name -- a shy, timid, friendly Creek that took as part of its trail-to-river the bottom of a steep and wooded Gulch right behind our house.
"From Fiddler's Bluff, too, we could see the railroads: the Northern Pacific, over which we had come; the Milwaukee on the far side of the river, and the mainline of the Great Northern on the nearer.
"We liked the Great Northern best. Over its heavy rails ran the finest and fastest train we knew -- the Oriental Limited to Chicago and New York. Sometimes we crossed the river to the Great Northern depot, just to watch the Oriental Limited come in, and to look at her passengers.
"If we stood on a high-wheeled hand truck on the station platform we could see, through the big windows of the dining car, the fabulous passengers at dinner. They were seated at tables always covered with linen so fresh and clean that the creases showed, even from where we stood.
"The men, as memory brings them back across the years, all had heavy gold watch chains, signet rings, and breast pockets stuffed with big cigars. Their women were better looking than those who lived in our town, and their dresses were far, far more beautiful than those our mothers and the neighbor women wore.
"So now, as we looked down from Fiddler's Bluff upon the Oriental Limited, she was more to us than just a train-in-the-distance. She was a living something that would someday take us from the oilcloth covered kitchen tables, the black coffee pots, the overalls and checkered aprons of our simple town, on journeys to fabulous, far-off cities -- cities where dwelt, so we thought, mostly people like those we saw in the Great Northern dining cars" (Hobo Years, 1-3).
One summer Patric ran away to ride the rails, living as a hobo on a trip that took him all the way to Mexico and back. This formative experience of absolute freedom set the tone for much of his adult life. Upon returning to Snohomish, he re-entered Snohomish High School for his senior year, where he was elected student body president and graduated as his class’s valedictorian. Despite these successes, his stay in Snohomish was only temporary; soon he would return to life on the road.
Patric’s late teens and early 20s took him all over the United States and formed the bulk of the material later included in Hobo Years. Much of this time was spent pursuing higher education at different universities and building a reputation for his skill as a journalist. By the end of this period, Patric had attended schools in at least seven different states, never graduating from any; later he would claim that he had been expelled from eight different schools. Throughout his travels, Patric wrote serialized books that first appeared in newspapers and magazines, later publishing condensed versions whenever and however he could. While toiling away in Texas, he wrote the material that became known as Simon Legree's Book (published in 1933); the series of humorous anecdotes contained within were originally published as a column in The Daily Texan.
During the Great Depression, Patric made his living as a traveling salesman, sleeping in his car and selling rubber stamps. He made the decision to live as frugally as possible to save money for a trip to Asia; he had a strong desire to see Japan before war broke out. After saving up $400, Patric left in 1936 to travel through Japan on a paper-thin budget. Over the next two years, he worked his way through Japan, as well as China and Korea, penning articles for the National Geographic, Readers Digest, and World Digest. Patric wrote of a region that was rapidly changing and modernizing, challenging the romanticized notions of Asia held in the West:
"Changing countries – like both the United States and Japan – are always far beyond the best of the storybooks. Just as our own old West has vanished in a world of change, it still lives on in romance, and there are people in our own country who believe it still exists. And they are right, for there are places hard to find where even yet it does.
"Kyoto was almost like that. It came near – if imperfectly – to being the Japan of the songs and the poetry and the Japanese paper lanterns we knew about when we were young (Patric, 1945)."
In 1943, Patric's Asian travel writing was condensed into his best-selling book Yankee Hobo in the Orient, originally published as Why Japan was Strong. Yankee Hobo went on to sell more than 12 million copies and was dramatized for television.
Patric spent the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II traveling Europe, continuing to write for National Geographic. Of particular note during this time was his work covering Benito Mussolini’s Italy – during which time he even dined with the dictator; the conditions in pre-war Czechoslovakia; and wartime shipyard production in the United States for Reader’s Digest. This last topic earned him an invitation to testify at a Congressional hearing, where he controversially argued that union rules were slowing production. This would not be the only time in his career that Patric would voice anti-union sentiments – a tendency that would earn him a fair amount of criticism. Patric also at one point offered his services to the United States as a spy, but those offers appear to have been declined.
Investigating the World of Auto Repairmen
After returning from his world travels, Patric took a six-month road trip around the United States with co-author Roger William Riis and a hired accomplice named Ms. Lioy May. The goal of this trio was to investigate the allegedly unscrupulous practices that abounded in the nation’s auto-repair shops and filling stations. To test their theories, the group purchased an unassuming mid-range Buick sedan, concocted a simple but easy to replicate issue for the mechanic to diagnose, and sent the car into repair shops with May at the wheel. The results of these experiments were detailed in a series in Reader’s Digest and published in 1942 as Repairmen May Get you if you Don’t Watch Out. Patric republished the title in 1949 under his own Frying Pan Creek imprint using the dubious title Repairmen May Gyp You.
The investigative reporting of Patric and Riis received praise for both for its humor and relatability. On the book jacket for the Frying Pan Creek edition, the Boston Globe is quoted as saying "no one could ever pass this book with indifference. Whatever your experience with repairmen may have been, you’ll find its counterpart here. You will point it out in great satisfaction, and you’ll say: 'There! That’s exactly what happened to me once.' And you’re lucky if it has happened only once. The Globe can’t think of any subject for research that touches more people" (Patric and Riis, 1949).
Frying Pan Creek
While Patric was engaged in wartime reporting, he began to spend his off time at a remote property he had purchased in Oregon. At his ranch on Frying Pan Creek, Patric lived frugally and spent increasing amounts of time working alone. It was during this period that he began to compile his unpublished Hobo Years manuscript, which eventually reached 47 chapters at an estimated 500 pages. He also wrote frequent letters to the editors of different newspapers. In one such letter, submitted to the Libertarian publication Faith and Freedom, he explained that he lived an austere lifestyle because he wanted to remain independent from government assistance, and wanted to avoid, as much as possible, giving the Federal Government any of his money. These attitudes would be echoed in the years to come in his dealings with the press and local government employees.
Return to Snohomish
In the late-1950s, Patric moved back to Snohomish, citing family issues. He had long believed that Snohomish was a troubled town plagued by corruption, so he wasted no time in making his opinions known. With the aid of a typewriter and a hectograph purchased at a local pawn shop around 1957, Patric began producing a newsletter originally called The Snohomish Free Press. It was during this time that he started occasionally adopting the pen name Hugo N. Frye (you go and fry). The publication schedule, according to the masthead, was "Whenever John Patric has anything to say." Not surprisingly, editions came out with great regularity. During his tenure at the Free Press’s helm, Patric went to war against a variety of individuals and institutions, from members of local law enforcement to the junk mail enabled by the United States Postal Service.
In May 1958, Snohomish Police Chief Clarence Boyd charged Patric with mental incompetence, which resulted in his involuntary commitment in Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Woolley. Patric was detained for four months in the hospital and the Snohomish County jail, until he was granted the right to defend himself in a trial to prove his sanity. (The proceedings of this trial are the topic of a series of podcasts produced by the Everett Public Library at https://wpls.org/325/john-patric.) Patric managed to successfully defend himself in court, and after 10 minutes of jury deliberation was declared sane and freed. This was far from being Patric’s last brush with the court system; in 1975 he told The Seattle Times that he had been to court no fewer than 67 times for a variety of offenses. Publicity from the trial brought in so many subscription requests that Patric resumed publishing his newsletter under the title The Saturday Evening Free Press.
For his renewed publication efforts, Patric attained the status of pariah in many eyes, and endured physical assaults, vandalism, and possible arson. He wrote of one assault in a November 1959 issue of the Free Press:
"This time, the Sodomish cop who’d called on us said that we had referred to his wife by a foul epithet from the vulgate. The word is one we’ve never used, either in our speech or writing. We have no information about – nor quarrel with – the cop’s wife. The husky cop slammed a barefisted right-to-the-left-jaw. It was a knockout blow. When we revived ... our glasses lay six feet away. We had not been asked to remove them ... We were certain that we had been attacked to stop us from continuing sale of the Free Press ... It was therefore important to resume its sales that very night ... When we had made certain that work would reach the Sodomish Copdept. that Free Press ed had not yet been intimidated, we returned to Free Press park and our typewriters" (Patric, 1959).
That night two masked men returned to Patric’s home, tied and blindfolded him, and severely beat him. While he was subdued, they entered the home and destroyed issues of the Free Press, as well as Patric’s printing equipment. The assailants were never positively identified. When asked about his motivations for publishing despite the repercussions, Patric remarked, "I was forced to do the only thing I could – since all other avenues of protest were closed to me. I went down and bought a ten-dollar typewriter which you see there smashed up by the cops ... As soon as I started, they started fighting back" (Image Northwest, 1967).
In addition to courting trouble with his pen, Patric also had a passion for running for office, or at least filing to run. During his time in Washington, Patric unsuccessfully ran for dozens of public offices. Seattle Times reporter Rick Anderson once joked that he "not only didn’t run for office, he didn’t even crawl" ("Perennial Candidate ..."). Patric’s purpose in entering numerous races, from school board to U.S. Senator, was that he felt that nobody could criticize public officials as bitterly as he did if they were unwilling to file for public offices themselves.
Aside from filing the necessary paperwork and paying filing fees in loose change, Patric essentially did all that he could to lose each race he entered. Despite his lack of campaigning, he had enough fans to earn a respectable amount of votes. In the 1968 race for Governor, Patric tallied 13,246 votes against Dan Evans, though he never made any campaign speeches. In his 1974 Senate run against Warren Magnuson, Patrick earned 20,000 votes. Perhaps these minor successes said more about the unpopularity of the rival rather than the appeal of Patric as an elected official.
In his later years Patric lived an increasingly eccentric and reclusive existence in his cluttered home on the corner of Avenue D and Third Street near downtown Snohomish. Having never married, he lived alone among his work; he once remarked, "I regard women as a deterrent to getting anything done" (Image Northwest, 1967).
On the afternoon of February 11, 1972, firefighters were called to fight a stubborn blaze at the residence. Efforts were complicated by stacks of documents and fuel lumber that crowded the rooms of the historic home. The fire began in the ground-level print shop where Patric published the Free Press. Patric was not home when the fire began, but he lamented that he was unable to get anything out of the burning building. After the home was safe to return to, it was discovered that much of Patric’s written material had survived. Manuscript materials in the care of the Everett Public Library still bear evidence of scorch marks and water damage. Nobody was injured in the blaze and a cause was never disclosed. A November 1975 notice in the Everett Daily Herald mentioned that the property had suffered at least five fires to date; by 1976 the property had been mostly cleared by court order.
Patric’s health began to decline in the early 1980s. Despite his strong dislike of accepting aid of any kind, he had to enter a nursing home after suffering a fall. At 83 years old, Patric contracted pneumonia while receiving care. He died on September 27, 1985; 27 years to the day after he had been declared legally sane. His cremated remains were interned in the Snohomish Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery; his tombstone bears the following inscription, complete with printer’s pun:
“Hugo N. Frye”
A Little Eccentric, But Justified