The Patterson Episode
“Concerning Sigma Pi”
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The Patterson Episode
The story of how Sigma Pi Fraternity received its name is an involved and fantastic tale. The leading characters in the drama are Robert George Patterson, then a freshman at Ohio State University (no relation to Founder George Martin Patterson); William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for president of the United States; and William Raimond Baird, publisher of Baird’s Manual of American Fraternities (published regularly since 1879).
Patterson is solely responsible for influencing the members of Tau Phi Delta to change the name of their organization to Sigma Pi Fraternity. In 1896, as a lad of 11 years, he heard Bryan make a campaign speech. Thrilled by Bryan’s eloquence and striking appearance, he was convinced he had seen and heard the greatest American of his time. Bryan was to become the central figure in the drama that created Sigma Pi Fraternity.
Soon after the presidential election of 1896, Patterson’s father purchased a best seller of that day, The First Battle by William Jennings and Mary Baird Bryan. There, in a brief biographical sketch, he read: “Upon entering the academy (prep department of Illinois College), he joined Sigma Pi Society, and was an active member for six years, profiting much by the training in essay, declamation, and debate.”
Soon the direction of Patterson’s early years was established. His hero was William Jennings Bryan. Patterson determined he would become a member of Sigma Pi. Upon completion of his secondary education, he made a trip to Jacksonville, Illinois, where Illinois College is located. There he visited the Sigma Pi Hall where Bryan had perfected his speaking ability. It is located in Beecher Hall, the oldest college building in Illinois. Patterson, then and there, determined to enroll at Illinois College and to do everything possible to become a Sigma Pi.
Sigma Pi Society of Illinois College was founded in 1843. Among its 14 founders were a number of outstanding men. One was destined to be one of the founders of the U.S. Office of Education, another a Congressman, a third, a pioneer missionary in South Africa. One was seriously considered for appointment at Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. In many ways, it was a college society very similar to Tau Phi Delta. Because of its greater age, it had produced a long list of distinguished alumni members. When Patterson visited the hall, the most distinguished members were: Bryan, Richard Yates, Governor of Illinois and honorary member Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.
Returning to his home in Ohio, Patterson told his parents he was planning to enroll at Illinois College in the fall. This was not to be. His parents decreed he would attend nearby Ohio State University. Dutifully, he obeyed, but was still determined to become a Sigma Pi.
Freshman Patterson soon contacted Sigma Pi Society at Illinois College. He proposed the Society join with him to expand Sigma Pi into a national fraternity. His proposal was rejected.
Patterson’s study of fraternities led him to discover an organization named Sigma Pi at the University of Toronto. It had been founded in 1901 and is unrelated to Eta-Omicron Chapter. We have circumstantial evidence, but not actual proof, that it, too, had been founded by admirers of Bryan who wished to carry on in the image of Sigma Pi of Illinois College. Patterson invited the Toronto organization to join with him to found an international fraternity. Again his offer was declined. The Toronto group wished to remain exclusively a Canadian organization.
Undaunted, freshman Patterson decided to try to build a national fraternity — of course it would be named Sigma Pi.
Before the semester was over, Patterson learned there was an outstanding college organization at Vincennes University. Without even knowing its name, he sent a letter addressed to “The President of the Men’s Greek Letter Fraternity” at Vincennes University.
This letter asked if the Vincennes University group would be willing to “consolidate with us and become a chapter of the Sigma Pi Fraternity.” He continued: “the Sigma Pi Fraternity is, perhaps, the oldest and most exclusive fraternity in the United States (sic), having been first founded as early as 1752, its charter having been granted at William and Mary by the King of England.” The letter was signed: Robert George Patterson, National Secretary.
At that moment, Sigma Pi Fraternity of the United States was nothing more than an idea in the mind of Patterson. He was its only member.
The letter offering consolidation fell on fertile ground. Tau Phi Delta had ambitions towards expansion. Within two months, the Vincennes group made plans to consolidate. By some persuasive method, they were able to become the Alpha Chapter of a Fraternity that was claimed to have been founded at William and Mary in 1752.
Now Patterson’s study of American History and of American Fraternities came into use. His imagination and flamboyant style of writing served him well. He explained Sigma Pi had indeed been founded at William and Mary in 1752. To some of the early members at Vincennes University he cautiously showed a crudely engrossed Charter which he claimed was granted by King George II. Later, those who did view the Charter wondered how they were taken in by it.
It is generally admitted the first American College Fraternity was Phi Beta Kappa founded at William and Mary in 1776. Patterson claimed his Sigma Pi predated it by almost a quarter of a century. He even maintained Phi Beta Kappa was actually founded by members of Sigma Pi. As proof, he turned to the reverse side of the Phi Beta Kappa key and pointed to the letters “SP” embossed thereon. Patterson maintained they stood for Sigma Pi and not Societas Philosophiae as claimed by the fraternity. This made a convincing argument for the antiquity of Sigma Pi.
Patterson anticipated most of the needs of his fraternity. He claimed it had expanded to several colleges in the East and South before going out of existence during the Revolutionary War. It was easy to explain how a fraternity might die or become dormant during a war. Many fraternities ceased to exist during the Civil War. He also had an explanation of how it continued to exist. After the Revolutionary War, he claimed his Sigma Pi became an organization passed on from father to son in a manner similar to the First Families of Virginia. Among its early members he claimed Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Richard Henry Lee. Of the Civil War period, he claimed Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Henry Ward Beecher.
According to Patterson’s story, Sigma Pi was revived in 1801 through the efforts of Payne Todd, a stepson of James Madison. It was stated it had a successful existence until 1835 when it was suppressed through the pressures of adherents of the Anti-Masonic Party. From 1835, until Sigma Pi emerged under the leadership of the flamboyant Patterson, he maintained it had survived as a hereditary organization, membership having been handed down from father to son, somewhat in the manner of the Sons of the American Revolution and other patriotic societies.
To add to the aura of authenticity he hoped to create, Patterson wrote the words to a Sigma Pi hymn. It was set to the music of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” which is also the musical score for “God Save the King.” A pin designed by a jeweler was ready for use when new members wanted to purchase one. A shield was designed for letterhead that resembles the present one used by Sigma Pi. The only real difference was the crown at the top which was removed when the fraudulent nature of Patterson’s story was finally revealed.
In his continuing effort to establish Sigma Pi as the oldest American college fraternity, Patterson developed a list of early chapters. They were:
- Alpha William & Mary (1752)
- Beta Washington and Lee (1816)
- Gamma Lehigh (1823) (Note: Lehigh was founded in 1865)
- Delta Charlotte Hall (prep school — no date)
- Epsilon Illinois College (1843)
Exhaustive investigation at the first four institutions mentioned indicates no organization named Sigma Pi ever existed on their campuses. Only Sigma Pi of Illinois College was a reality.
Soon after Tau Phi Delta became the Alpha Chapter of Sigma Pi Fraternity of the United States, Patterson was listed as National Secretary on the Fraternity’s letterhead. The four other designated officers were his schoolmates at Charlotte Hall prep school. None of them ever belonged to Sigma Pi. The letterhead also claimed 1752 as the founding date.
Despite the incredible story concocted and defended by Patterson, all went well for a time. Several new chapters were established. Patterson, after less than one year of college, became a cub reporter. In this capacity, he met William Jennings Bryan several times. As some members of the new Sigma Pi began to question Patterson’s story, he leaned heavily upon his meetings with Bryan. It was clearly known that Bryan belonged to Sigma Pi of Illinois College. Patterson was able to arrange a meeting in Columbus between Bryan and all of the members of Gamma Chapter at Ohio State University. Patterson made Bryan an honorary member of Sigma Pi Fraternity. Bryan posed for a picture with the group (see below). The use of the Bryan connection kept dissension down for a time.
Finally, in 1909, a series of events developed that brought down the house of cards Patterson had so carefully built. The trouble started when the World Almanac first mentioned Sigma Pi among its list of fraternities with a founding date of 1752. Listed as its two most famous living alumni were Bryan and Yates. Both were members of the Illinois College Society.
When Sigma Pi Society of Illinois College learned the Fraternity was claiming to be a chapter and also claiming its alumni members, a spirited correspondence developed. Bryan was contacted and advised what had happened. Immediately he dispatched a number of letters stating there must be some mistake. He said he was a member of Sigma Pi Society of Illinois College but had no connection with the Fraternity of the same name.
A crushing blow developed when Patterson submitted material regarding Sigma Pi Fraternity to Baird for inclusion in his upcoming (7th) edition of Baird’s Manual of American College Fraternities. Baird was quick to reply with a challenge to the claims of Patterson.
After a spirited correspondence, Baird said, “all the statements concerning the alleged ancient origin of this society are inherently incredible.” He then suggested the story seemed to “be the product of a rather sophomoric imagination.”
The claim of Sigma Pi as being the oldest American college Fraternity stimulated a deluge of inquiries from members of other such organizations. They appealed to Baird, the dean of authorities regarding American college fraternities. Finally, Baird wrote an article entitled: “A Ready Made Antiquity!” Sigma Pi Fraternity was ridiculed by the entire Greek establishment because of the fraudulent claims made by Robert George Patterson.
All of this was almost too much for the infant fraternity to bear. It is miraculous it survived. Within months, Patterson was expelled by Gamma Chapter, Ohio State. For nearly 70 years his name was never mentioned in the publications of Sigma Pi, the name he had given to the Fraternity.
Of the service of Robert George Patterson to Sigma Pi, we call on Judge Curtis G. Shake (Vincennes 1906) for an evaluation. He said: “Patterson cannot, in any sense, be regarded as the founder of the Fraternity; nor did the idea of developing it into a national organization originate with him. He was, however, solely responsible for Tau Phi Delta changing its name to Sigma Pi.”
While it was a relatively simple step for the members of Tau Phi Delta to change the society’s name and call themselves a “national” fraternity, it was quite another matter to create the actual organization as we now know it. In fact, more than a year passed between the day Alpha Chapter of the Sigma Pi Fraternity of the United States came into being and a second chapter was actually chartered.
The tendency towards expansion was first seen in the fraternity as early as 1905. However, the first real steps toward creating another chapter did not take place until the first national “Congress” on May 6, 7, and 8, 1908, held in Vincennes. At this meeting were representatives of the Sphinx Club at the University of Illinois and of Phi Kappa Phi at Ohio State University. The petitions to charter submitted by these two organizations were approved by the meeting’s delegates. The Sphinx Club had been organized by Byron R. Lewis (Vincennes 1907), a Tau Phi Delta alumnus, with the express purpose of becoming a chapter of Sigma Pi. On May 21, 1908, Lewis officially installed the Fraternity’s second chapter at Illinois as Phi Chapter. Two weeks later, on June 6, the Ohio State local became Gamma Chapter in a ceremony conducted by Francis L. Lisman (Vincennes 1905), newly elected national president.
The ritual used in these installations was known as “The Cryptic Art.” Over the following summer, however, a committee composed of Lewis, Shake, and Alba A. Jones (Illinois 1910) wrote a new ceremony referred to as “The English Chivalric Ritual.” It was put into use by the three chapters in September.
On March 13 of the following year, the Fraternity’s fourth chapter was added: Sigma Delta local fraternity at Temple University was installed as Kappa Chapter of the fledgling fraternity.
Two months later, Sigma Pi held its first Biennial Convocation. Delegates from the four chapters were hosted by Gamma Chapter in Columbus, Ohio. Much discussion must have taken place, for the charade being played by Robert George Patterson had just begun to break apart. Minutes of the meeting were not fully kept, but the delegates did approve and accept the petition to charter from Sigma Omicron Pi, a local fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Columbus meeting was adjourned shortly thereafter, but its business was continued in a “special convocation” held on June 5 after the installation of Delta Chapter at the Pennsylvania campus.
In the summer and fall of 1909, the Patterson Episode fully exploded. Robert G. Patterson was finally expelled from the Fraternity in December, and a massive reordering of the Fraternity’s history and heraldry began. Both the badge and coat of arms were redesigned, eliminating the crown from the former’s upper arm and from the latter’s crest. It was replaced with the present radiant triangle. M. Atlee Ermold (Temple 1909) and Lewis were appointed to rewrite the initiation ritual. “The Golden Quest,” as it was to be called, was first used in April 1910, and has remained the ritual since. It was based upon the ceremony used by Kappa Chapter in its days as Sigma Delta local fraternity.
So disturbing were the events fostered by Patterson that even the Fraternity’s history was redefined. The entire Patterson Episode was “written out” of it, and Sigma Pi established its legitimate founding as that of Tau Phi Delta in 1897. This refuted Patterson’s claim of a birth in 1752 at the College of William and Mary. Not until recent years has this part of the history of Sigma Pi been allowed to resurface.