Not only did the Populist Party win the Colorado Governorship in 1892, they also won the Attorney General’s Office. Populist candidate Eugene Engley defeated Republican Charles Libby by a vote of 41,943 to 38,180. In fact, Engley was the nominee of four political parties.
Engley was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 1853. He was educated in Attleboro public schools. He made his way to the Colorado territory in 1873 at the age of twenty, and was a pioneer settler in the San Juan area in the southwest corner of the territory. He began reading the law in 1873 and was admitted to the bar on June 7, 1880. He married Hinda Gaines in 1881. That same year he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. The law at the time required that weapons be fully exposed.
Engley was one of the incorporators of the City of Durango. He was the owner of the Southwest, the first newspaper in La Plata County, and later published the Daily Republican in Durango. He served as Mayor of Animas City in 1880. His law practice included stints as City Attorney for Durango, County Attorney of Conejos County, City Attorney of Alamosa and Town Attorney of Antonito.
Upon his election as Attorney General, Engley moved to Denver to take the job, which paid $2,000 for the two-year term. He retained two assistants, Messrs. Sole and Thomas, to help prepare briefs, make oral arguments, and render opinions. Stenographer Nettie O’Connor was also an employee of the office. Engley himself served on the Board of Land Commissioners and the State Board of Equalization and many other ad hoc committees.
In 1893, the price of silver plunged even further with the repeal of the Sherman Act, closing the silver mines in Leadville and elsewhere and causing Colorado to suffer an economic recession.
In his Biennial Report for 1893-94, Engley complained that many counties had “dispensed with the services of a county attorney” and his office was “deluged with inquiries” from the counties. He continued the work of his predecessor to recover moneys from former State Treasurers for malfeasance. Engley also became embroiled in the “Cripple Creek War” between miners and mine owners and opined that the El Paso County Sheriff could not organize a militia outside of his own county. The work of extraditing fugitives to and from Colorado was also growing substantially.
During his tenure Engley issued a large number of written opinions. One of enduring significance concluded that by placing the University of Colorado in Boulder, the legislature did not preclude other academic programs, including the “medical department,” from being placed in Denver. Engley was a proponent of women’s suffrage and opined early in 1893 that the current prohibition against women voting in general elections did not prevent them from voting in school elections. After passage of the Women’s Suffrage Act of 1893, he ruled in May of 1894 that women could vote in any election, hold any civil office, but remained ineligible for jury duty or military service. In another opinion Engley held that only a school board and not a teacher could expel or suspend a student. Finally, he opined that if a church building was rented out for any purpose besides religious worship, it became subject to property tax.
In 1894, eighteen years after statehood, the Colorado State Capitol building was finally completed at a total cost of $2.5 million.
Unlike his predecessors, who limited their Biennial Reports to the work done by the office, Engley took the opportunity to advance the Populist agenda by stating his personal opinions on a variety of matters. He urged a new state constitution under which the “people will administer their own governmental affairs” rather than delegating “to a horde of partisan politicians.” The constitution should also abolish the State Senate, which he viewed as a throwback to the conflicts “between the patrician and plebian factions of the Roman Empire.” The Senate should be abolished and “thrown into the waste basket of dead centuries, where it belongs,” he said. The Governor should not have veto power, the Court of Appeals (which was recently established) should be abolished, the death penalty should be abolished, jury trials in civil cases should be abolished and the office of Coroner should be abolished. The penitentiary and state reformatory should be changed to a hospital and school “for the treatment of crime.”
Finally, Engley advocated compulsory public education through high school, and college for those qualified, and the state should pay for books, clothing and food for those too poor to pay themselves. He advocated for an eight-hour workday and a prohibition on employment of children under eighteen in factories and other industries. It is apparent that some of Engley’s views were ahead of his time; others were simply out of step with the views of most Colorado citizens.
After his term in office, Engley returned to the private practice of law in Alamosa. He served in the state legislature for a few years. Among his high profile legal endeavors was the representation of miners who participated in the Cripple Creek mining strikes of 1903-1905, which turned very violent. One of the significant issues in the strike was the miners’ desire for an eight-hour workday. Eugene Engley died of pneumonia on April 18, 1910 at the age of 57. He is buried in the Alamosa Cemetery.