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The Man Who Struck Billy Patterson

Tintype by unidentified photographer, enclosed in a carte de visite mount. "Who struck Billy Patterson" was one of the most asked questions in America during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. A search of the newspaper database displays 935 results, mostly dated between 1838 and 1936, although references to the quirky expression show up as late as 1965.


Many origins of the phrase were put forth over the years, all fantastic claims by various individuals, including this rowdy-looking lad.


One of the best explanations I've found comes from the pen of Albion Smith Payne. The Virginia physician, who frequently wrote under the pen name "Nicholas Spicer," contributed this account:


In May 1852, the annual meeting of the American Medical Association was held at Richmond, Va. One evening about twenty-five of the fraternity were returning to the city hotel from an entertainment. As they reached a well-known restaurant, the door flew open and out came Billy Patterson, a notorious bully, full of liquor and "spoiling for a fight." He charged into the column of physicians, struck out right and left, and knocked down several into the street, muddy from recent heavy rains. One of the men thus laid low was Dr. Usher Parsons, surgeon to Commodore Perry, at the battle of Lake Erie, a genial, white-haired old gentleman and a friend of Dr. Payne, who was at the rear of the procession. This sight so roused "Nick Spicer's" wrath that he put himself into fighting position and gave Billy a couple of blows that felled him as he has felled others. Patterson was carried into the restaurant more dead than alive, and early the next morning two policemen came to the hotel to find his assailant. Thereupon the hotel-keeper, "Buck" Williamson, called two street gamins, and giving each a dollar, instructed them to ask every person they met, "Who struck Billy Patterson?" In a few hours the query was in everybody's mouth, and the disgusted policemen gave up the search. The local papers took it up, and by degrees the phrase spread through the country.


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Taken on June 26, 2012