Lindsey, Ben B. (Ben Barr), 1869-1943.
Ben B. (Ben Barr) Lindsey (1869-1943), recognized as the founder of the U.S. juvenile court system, was born in Jackson, Tennessee on November 25, 1869. The eldest of four children, he grew up on a plantation owned by his grandfather until his father, Landy Tunstall Lindsey, moved the family to Denver for a job as a telegraph operator when Ben Lindsey was 11. He first attended Catholic school in Denver but returned to Jackson to enroll in a Baptist preparatory school when his father lost his job and the two eldest Lindsey boys were sent to live with their grandfather. When Lindsey turned 18, his life underwent great upheaval when his father committed suicide, leaving the burden of the family on his shoulders. He juggled several jobs simultaneously, including day work as an office boy for a local attorney and evenings as a janitor. Lindsey struggled under the intense pressure and responsibility nearly being overwhelmed by a sense of failure and hopelessness that led him to attempt to take his own life. He held a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger, but miraculously the gun misfired. In that instant, Lindsey gained the determination to fight his circumstances, an overarching attitude that shaped his path as a lifelong social reformer and advocate for youth.
Ben Lindsey eventually took on more responsibilities as a law clerk and began studying law with a group of other like-minded young men. He was admitted to the bar in 1894 and practiced law for several years until he was appointed Denver county court judge at the age of 31. Noted for his ability to empathize and defend, Lindsey took on the issue of juvenile justice, penning legislation in 1899 that would establish the first Juvenile and Family Court of Denver. He advocated for laws that recognized juveniles differently from adults, not as criminals but as misguided youth in need of education and reform. He also wrote legislation that held parents accountable for juvenile delinquency. Lindsey served as Denver's juvenile court judge from 1907 to 1927, when he was ousted from the bench in a fierce political battle with the Ku Klux Klan.
Judge Lindsey married Henrietta Brevoort of Detroit in 1914, and the two worked closely and traveled together. In 1915, they joined Henry Ford's Peace Mission on a tour of the European front. The couple eventually adopted a daughter whom they named Benetta, a combination of their first names.
An outspoken champion for justice and social reform, the judge stirred up controversy wherever he went and gained national recognition in the press. Lindsey made public statements, wrote articles and books, and gave speeches on progressive issues of his time as a proponent of women's suffrage, modern marriage, birth control, sex education, charity, conservation of natural resources, labor rights, and freedom from censorship in motion pictures. A complex character, he attracted many loyal friends, among them Teddy Roosevelt, and countless enemies. His opponents continuously sought out opportunities to ruin his reputation and career. In 1929, they succeeded and he was disbarred by the Colorado Supreme Court for receiving compensation for legal services rendered while serving as a judge. He was later reinstated by the Colorado State Bar Association in 1935 after a long persistent court appeal.
The judge and his family moved to Los Angeles, California in 1931 followed by a cloud of controversy. Despite continued opposition in his new home town, Lindsey ran for California Superior Court judge in 1934 and won in a huge landslide. He continued his advocacy for juvenile justice, writing legislation to establish the California Children's Court of Conciliation, on which he served as founding judge until his death. Ben Lindsey died on March 26, 1943 of a heart attack at the age of 73.
Though imperfect and at times overly dramatic, Lindsey undeniably poured his soul into making great strides as an individual and through his public contribution to protect children and to entitle them to a childhood, an education, and a more promising future.From the finding aid for Ben B. Lindsey papers 1893-1965 (University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections.)