Thomas S. Pettit, a prominent business man and politician of Owensboro, and one of the best known and personally popular men in the state, was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, December 21, 1843, and is a son of Duane and Elizabeth (Zook) Pettit. After his primary schooling in Frankfort, he attended Georgetown College and then learned the printing trade, for which he had a fancy and a remarkable aptitude. He became an adept in all of the mechanical work of the printing office while he was yet in his teens, but he was too ambitious to stick to the cases, and in 1864 he went to Owensboro, and purchased the “Monitor” newspaper from a Mr.Woodruff, and began at once to attract attention by publishing a lively local paper and advocating the principles of the Democratic party. Unlike his predecessor, he freely criticized the Republican party and its war policy, and his articles on such topics brought down the wrath of the United States authorities upon his head; and, as a result, on the 17th of November, 1864, he was arrested by order of General Stephen G. Burbridge, imprisoned and “banished to the Southern Confederacy,” under the general charge of being “notoriously disloyal;” and was sent under escort to Memphis and there transferred across the lines.
He spent the following months until May, 1865, traveling within the Confederate lines, and then, the war being over, he returned to Owensboro and resumed the publication of the Monitor, in which he published in several consecutive numbers a detailed and interesting account of his trip through Dixie, giving his experiences and impressions and relating the hardships and privations which he necessarily suffered during his enforced vacation. These articles attracted much attention and had a very wide circulation, bringing the young editor into prominent notice. The Monitor was one of the brightest papers in the state, and Mr. Pettit soon became widely known as one of the most enterprising newspaper men of Kentucky.
He was the first man to establish a successful newspaper in Owensboro—and he did this before he was twenty years of age—and brought the first Gordon and power presses to that section of Kentucky.
In 1868 he was elected assistant clerk of the House of Representatives, which position he held for six years, when he was appointed private secretary of Governor James B. McCreary, which he resigned to accept the position of reading clerk in the national House of Representatives at Washington. During his service in the Legislature and in Congress, he had the distinction of being known as the best reader in the United States. His strong voice and clear and distinct enunciation enabled him to read, not only so as to be heard from all parts of the house, but he had a ready conception and a quick understanding and could read intelligently documents which he had never seen before. His services in the house were cut short by the Republicans gaining the ascendancy.
To go back to the ‘6o’s again: On the death of John S. McFarland in 1869, through the influence and personal popularity of Senator Thomas C. McCreery, President Johnson appointed Mr. Pettit assessor of internal revenue for the Second District, the duties of which he performed with ability and fidelity until the close of Mr. Johnson’s administration.
In the fall of 1882 Mr. Pettit was a candidate for Congress against J. B. Clay of Henderson and was defeated, after an exciting race, by less than one hundred and fifty votes. In that contest Union was the pivotal county, and the friends of Clay looked after it in such a way as to secure the majority for their candidate. Mr. Pettit has attended more State Conventions than any man in Kentucky and has been elected secretary of all of them, and in this capacity has rendered the Democratic party valuable services, which have been appreciated and highly complimented. He was one of the secretaries in the Democratic National Convention which nominated and elected Cleveland, and was called to serve in the same position four years thereafter and selected as one of the notification committee to inform Cleveland and Thurman of their selection for President and Vice-President.
Mr. Pettit’s political views have not been strictly in harmony with the Democratic party for some years and he has been one of the ablest leaders of the People’s party, having been a candidate of that party for governor in 1895.
He served with ability and distinction as a delegate to the last Constitutional Convention of Kentucky, and advocated such reforms as the secret official ballot, the taxing of corporations like individuals and the two-thirds verdict of juries in civil cases. He was afterwards chosen by a large majority as one of the representatives of Daviess County in the General Assembly, so as
to put into practical operation the provisions of the new constitution, and his election in this instance followed one of the bitterest contests ever known in the state.
He is still actively interested in politics, not for revenue or for honor, but from principle. Having strong convictions upon topics of national import, he has the courage to stand up for them and does not wait to count the noses of those who are ready to stand by him before expressing his sentiments. He has for many years been engaged in industrial or manufacturing enterprises in Owensboro —too numerous to mention in this brief sketch—and his success, which has been uniformly good, has brought him a fair share of this world’s goods. Popular with all classes, industrious, enterprising, generous and philanthropic, he is easily one of the best citizens of Owensboro. He has always been ready to participate in public enterprises, and, in questions of public interest, has always been found on the right side and in the front.
He is Past Grand Master of the Masonic Fraternity, and deservedly holds a high social position.
Mr. Pettit was married in December, 1870, to Margaret Blair, daughter of J. H. Blair, who was a prominent merchant of Owensboro in his day. They have one son, Harvey Blair Pettit.
Source: Biographical Cyclopedia of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. John M. Gresham Company, Chicago, Philadelphia, 1896.