John Henry Patterson (author)

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John Henry Patterson
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John Henry Patterson
John Henry Patterson.jpg

Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, DSO (10 November 1867 – 18 June 1947), known as J.H. Patterson, was a British soldier, hunter, author and Zionist, best known for his book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), which details his experiences while building a railway bridge over the Tsavo river in Kenya in 1898–99. In the 1996 Paramount Pictures film The Ghost and the Darkness, he was portrayed by actor Val Kilmer.


Youth and Army service[edit]

Patterson was born in 1867 in Forgney, Ballymahon, County Westmeath, Ireland, to a Protestant father and Roman Catholic mother. Young Patterson joined the British Army at the age of seventeen, rose quickly through the ranks, and eventually attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Essex Yeomanry. He retired from the military in 1920.

Tsavo adventures[edit]

In 1898, Patterson was commissioned by the Uganda Railway committee in London to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo river in present-day Kenya. He arrived at the site in March of that year.

Tsavo railway and man-eaters[edit]

Colonel Patterson with the first Tsavo lion – killed 9 December 1898

Almost immediately after Patterson's arrival, lion attacks began to take place on the worker population, with the lions dragging men out of their tents at night and feeding on their victims. Despite the building of thorn barriers (bomas) around the camps, bonfires at night, and strict after-dark curfews, the attacks escalated dramatically, to the point where the bridge construction eventually ceased due to a fearful, mass departure by the workforce. Along with the obvious financial consequences of the work stoppage, Patterson faced the challenge of maintaining his authority and even his personal safety at this remote site against the increasingly hostile and superstitious workers, many of whom were convinced that the lions were in fact evil spirits, come to punish those who worked at Tsavo, and that he was the cause of the misfortune because the attacks had coincided with his arrival.

The man-eating behaviour was considered highly unusual for lions and was eventually confirmed to be the work of a pair of rogue males, who were believed to be responsible for as many as 140 deaths. Railway records officially attribute only 28 worker deaths to the lions, but the predators were also reported to have killed a significant number of local people of which no official record was ever kept, which attributed to the railway's smaller record.[citation needed]

While various theories have been put forward to account for the lions' man-eating behaviour (poor burial practices, low populations of food source animals due to disease, etc.)[citation needed], further studies opined the cause may have been dental disease; one of the lion's skulls was found to have a badly abscessed canine that could have hindered normal hunting behavior.[citation needed] However, this hypothesis only accounts for the behavior of one of the lions involved, and Patterson himself personally disclaimed it, saying he had damaged the tooth.[citation needed] There was also a slave trade route through the area, which contributed to a considerable number of abandoned bodies. Patterson reported seeing considerable instances of unburied human remains and open graves in the area, and it is believed that the lions (which, like most predators will readily scavenge for food) adapted to this abundant, accessible food supply and eventually turned to humans as their primary food source.

With his reputation, livelihood, and safety at stake, Patterson, an experienced tiger hunter from his military service in India, undertook an extensive effort to deal with the crisis. After months of attempts and near misses, he finally killed the first lion on the night of 9 December 1898 and the second one on the morning of 29 December (narrowly escaping death when the wounded animal charged him). The lions were maneless like many others in the Tsavo area, and both were exceptionally large. Each lion was over nine feet long from nose to tip of tail and required at least eight men to carry it back to the camp.[citation needed]

The second Tsavo lion – killed 29 December 1898

The workers and local people immediately declared Patterson a hero, and word of the event quickly spread far and wide, as evidenced by the subsequent telegrams of congratulations he received. Word of the incident was even mentioned in the House of Lords in the British Parliament, by then Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.[citation needed]

With the man-eater threat finally eliminated, the workforce returned and the Tsavo railway bridge was completed on 7 February 1899. Although the rails were later destroyed by German soldiers during World War I, the stone foundations were left standing and the bridge was subsequently repaired.[1] Ironically, the workers, who in earlier months had all but threatened to kill him, presented Patterson with a silver bowl in appreciation for the risks he had undertaken on their behalf, with the following inscription:

"SIR, – We, your Overseer, Timekeepers, Mistaris and Workmen, present you with this bowl as a token of our gratitude to you for your bravery in killing two-man-eating lions at great risk to your own life, thereby saving us from the fate of being devoured by these terrible monsters who nightly broke into our tents and took our fellow-workers from our side. In presenting you with this bowl, we all add our prayers for your long life, happiness and prosperity. We shall ever remain, Sir, Your grateful servants,

Baboo PURSHOTAM HURJEE PURMAR, Overseer and Clerk of Works, on behalf of your Workmen. Dated at Tsavo, January 30, 1899."[2]

Patterson always said that he considered the bowl to be his most highly prized and hardest won trophy.

In 1907, he published his first book, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, which documented his adventures during his time there. It was the basis for three films; Bwana Devil (1953), Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959) and the 1996 Paramount Pictures film, The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Val Kilmer (as Patterson) and Michael Douglas (as the fictional character "Remington").

Eland discovery[edit]

In 1906, Patterson returned to the Tsavo area for a hunting trip. During the trip, he shot an eland, which he noted possessed different features from elands in Southern Africa, where the species was first recognized. On returning to England, Patterson had the head of the eland mounted, where it was seen by R. Lydekker, a member of the faculty of the British Museum. Lydekker identified Patterson's trophy as a new subspecies of eland, which Lydekker named Taurotragus oryx pattersonianius.

Game warden and Corporal Blyth[edit]

From 1907 until 1909, Patterson was Chief Game Warden in the East Africa Protectorate, an experience he recounts in his second book, In the Grip of Nyika (1909). Unfortunately, while on a hunting safari with a fellow British soldier, Corporal Audley Blyth and Blyth's wife Ethel, Patterson's reputation was tarnished by Blyth's mysterious death by a gunshot wound (possible suicide – exact circumstances unknown). Witnesses confirmed that Patterson was not in Blyth's tent when the shooting took place, and that it was in fact Blyth's wife who was with him at the time, as she was reported as having run (screaming) from the tent immediately following the shooting. Patterson had Blyth buried in the wilderness and then insisted on continuing the expedition instead of returning to the nearest post to report the incident.

Shortly afterward, Patterson returned to England with Mrs. Blyth amid rumours of murder and an affair, and although he was never officially charged or censured, this incident followed him for years afterward in British society. It was most notably referenced in the film The Macomber Affair (1947), which was based on Ernest Hemingway's short story adaptation of the incident.[citation needed] It is often thought that this incident (along with the anti-semitic issues he encountered from the British military establishment during World War I, when he commanded the Jewish Legion) led Patterson to eventually disassociate himself from British society and ally himself with those of the Jewish faith and their pursuit of a permanent homeland.[citation needed]

Field Museum donation[edit]

In 1924, after speaking at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, Patterson agreed to sell the Tsavo lion skins and skulls to the museum for the then sizeable sum of $5,000. The lions were then taxidermed and are now on permanent display along with the original skulls. The reconstructed lions are actually smaller than their original size, due to their skins' having been originally trimmed for use as trophy rugs in Patterson's house.[citation needed]

War service and advocacy[edit]

Patterson went on to serve with the 20th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry, in the Boer War (1899–1901), for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in November 1900.[3]

Colonel Patterson commanded the West Belfast regiment of the Ulster Volunteers during the Home Rule Crisis of 1913–14 [4] He later served in World War I. Although he was himself a Protestant, he became a major figure in Zionism as the commander of both the Zion Mule Corps and the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (aka Jewish Legion[5] of the British Army) in World War I, which would eventually serve as the foundation of the Israeli Defence Force decades later. During his time in command of the Jewish forces (who served with distinction in the Gallipoli and Palestine campaigns), Patterson was forced to deal with extensive, ongoing anti-semitism toward his men from many of his superiors (as well as peers and subordinates), and more than once threatened to resign his commission to bring the inappropriate treatment of his men under scrutiny. He retired from the British Army in 1920 as a Lieutenant-Colonel (the same rank he held when the war started) after thirty-five years of service. It is generally accepted that much of the admiration and respect of his men (and modern-day supporters) is due to the fact that he essentially sacrificed any opportunity for promotion (and his military career in general) in his efforts to ensure his men were treated fairly. His last two books, With the Zionists at Gallipoli (1916) and With the Judaeans in Palestine (1922) are based on his experiences during these times. After his military career, Patterson continued his support of Zionism. He remained a strong advocate of justice for the Jewish people as an active member of the Bergson Group Hillel Kook and a promoter of a Jewish army to fight the Nazis and to stop the Holocaust. He was a member of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. During World War II, while he was in America, the British government cut off his pension, arguing they had no way to securely transmit his funds to him. This left Patterson in severe financial difficulty. Just the same, he energetically continued working toward the establishment of a separate Jewish state in the Middle East, which became a reality with the statehood of Israel on 14 May 1948, less than a year after his death.

Patterson was close friends with many Zionist supporters and leaders, among them Vladimir Jabotinski and the late Benzion Netanyahu (father of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). He was also the namesake[6] of and Godfather to Benzion's elder son, Lieutenant-Colonel Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu, who was the commander of the elite Israeli army commando unit Sayeret Matkal.

Later life, death, and final request[edit]

During the 1940s, Patterson and his wife, Frances ("Francie") Helena, lived in a modest home in La Jolla, California. Eventually, with his wife in need of regular medical care and his own health in decline, he took up residence at the home of his friend Marion Travis in Bel Air, California, where he eventually died in his sleep at seventy-nine years of age. His wife would pass away six weeks later in a San Diego nursing home. Both Patterson and his wife were cremated, and their ashes were interred at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, niche 952-OC in Los Angeles.

According to Patterson's grandson, Alan Patterson (his only known living descendant), one of his grandfather's final wishes was that both he and his wife eventually be interred in Israel, ideally, with or close to the men he commanded during World War I.[7] The Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation (JASHP), Alan Patterson, Canadian representation and Beit Hagdudim have undertaken a coordinated effort to honor this request.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Patterson, J.H.(1907) The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Macmillan. In the introduction to the Peter Hathaway Capstick Libray edition (1986: St. Martin's Press), Capstick writes, "As for the Tsavo Bridge? Alas, the German forces blew it to atoms during the East African Campaign, wasting all the terror, death, and horror that surrounded its creation in the first place."
  2. ^ Baboo PURSHOTAM HURJEE PURMAR, Overseer and Clerk of Works, on behalf of your Workmen. Dated at Tsavo, January 30, 1899.
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27359. p. 6307. 27 September 1901.
  4. ^ A. T. Q Stewart, The Ulster Crisis (1967), p. 122; Timothy Bowman, Carson's Army: The Ulster Volunteer Force, 1910-22 (2007), p. 60. Denis Brian's biography does not mention any involvement with the UVF, but is rather vague on this period of Patterson's life.
  5. ^ EMAIL, Jewish Magazine. "the Jewish Legion and the Israeli Army". Retrieved 3 October 2011. 
  6. ^ "The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: how an Irish lion hunter led the Jewish Legion to victory" by Denis Brian (pub. 2008), pg. xiii
  7. ^ Jerry Klinger. The Struggle for the Jewish Legion and The Birth of the IDF. The Jewish Magazine (October 2010)