Home > Socialism/Communism > Davenport’s Socialist Mayor & City Council (1920s)

Davenport’s Socialist Mayor & City Council (1920s)

From Davenport Library Blog Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

On April 21, 1920, Davenport’s first (and so far only) Socialist mayor and Socialist majority council (five out of eight members) took office after a sweeping victory.  The new mayor, Dr. Charles L. Barewald was a well-known man with a general medical practice in Davenport.  He had also been a member of the local Socialist party for about three years upon his election (prior to this, he was a member of the Republican Party).

Barewald had run for mayor on the Socialist ticket previously in 1918, which ended with a second place finish—only 25 votes behind the winner, C. M. Littleton of the Citizen’s Party.1 He had another close mayoral race in 1919 after the resignation of Mayor Littleton in May of that year.  According to the City of Davenport’s special charter, upon the resignation of the acting mayor, the council would elect the next mayor, instead of holding a special public election. Barewald and a Mr. Lee Dougherty were nominated.  Dougherty won the vote for mayor 5 – 2 (the two votes being cast by Socialist aldermen George Peck and Walter Bracher).

In 1920, Barewald won the mayoral election by 1667 votes over runner-up Republican Henry Jebens.  This seems pretty good considering neither the Davenport Daily Times nor the Davenport Democrat and Leader provided so much as pre-election profiles of the individuals running on the Socialist platform while members of the Democrat and Republican parties were given meet-your-candidate style coverage for nearly a month before Election Day.

The new Socialist majority council (Aldermen George Peck, Walter Bracher, Fred Feuchter, Chester Stout, and George Koepke) with their three Republican counterparts (Aldermen John Knostman, Charles Lindholm, and Oliver Bloss) got to work right away trying to improve the lot of the laboring man.  One of their greatest achievements would be the building of the Municipal Natatorium.  All seemed fine on the political surface, but things were not going well within the Socialist party.  On January 5, 1921, Mayor Barewald surprised the general public by announcing he had resigned from the Socialist party on December 7, 1920.

The resignation and negative public comments from both sides seemed to indicate little political love still existed between the mayor and Socialist aldermen.2 Within days the mayor (who had chosen to remain without a political party for the time being) received letters of support for his decision locally and nationally as the news attracted national Associated Press coverage.

Life seemed to return to normal at City Hall quickly, but underneath the calm exterior at least one Socialist alderman was not going to let the issue drop quietly by the wayside.

By January 1921, Davenporters were probably questioning the success of their first (and, so far, last) Socialist majority city council which had taken office in April 1920.

Socialist Mayor Charles L. Barewald had announced on January 5th that he had recently resigned from the Socialist party, bringing a private party rift into the public light.  The Daily Times and Democrat and Leader newspapers followed the discord by printing the caustic remarks flying between the Mayor and the five Socialist Aldermen on city council.  Even the Associated Press brought national attention to this local dispute.

Things seemed to cool down after a few days.  The fight disappeared from newspaper headlines. The regular city council meeting was held on January 19th with all council members present.  No excitement ensued, just official business.

This, however, turned out the be the eye of the storm.

The afternoon papers of January 27, 1921 broke the news on how far some of the Socialists in city hall were willing to go in their dispute with the Mayor:  “Spy on Barewald with Dictograph” read the Daily Times headline. “Foil Red Plot Against Mayor” screamed the Democrat and Leader.

It turned out that 2nd Ward Alderman Walter Bracher and City Electrician Harry Strong, both Socialists, had bugged Mayor Barewald’s office.

The newspapers reported that on hte 26th, after an absence from his office, Mayor Barewald had been working at his desk when he noticed fresh fingerprints in the layer of dust on the hanging light fixture directly above.  Barewald told the papers he noticed the disturbance, but didn’t think much about it until later that night.  The next morning, January 27th, the Mayor summoned Police Chief Charles Boettcher to his office.  Together the two men dismantled the fixture.

Within the globe at the base they found the listening part of a dictograph concealed (Strong later admitted to making the dictograph3 at home).  Wires from the listening apparatus ran up through the electrical tubing toward the ceiling. The Mayor’s office was (and still is) located on the third floor of City Hall.  A Detective Moeller and Patrolman Schwinden were summoned and sent up the steep stairs to the attic above to find what was at the end of the wires.

As the two policemen stepped onto the attic landing, the closeness of the area would have forced them to turn to face the room containing the bell tower.4 Who knows who was more surprised when the officers came face to face with City Electrician Strong?5

Electrician Strong asked the officers what they were doing and stated that he was trying to fix the clock on top of the bell tower.  The officers reported that Mr. Strong appeared to be very nervous—and, as it was very cold and windy that day, the officers had doubts Strong had climbed to the top of the bell tower. Strong probably raised further suspicion about himself when—after seening the officers locate the wires emerging from the mayor’s office below, he left not only the attic, but the building.

Moeller and Schwinden followed the wires to the room containing the bell tower.  The room was filled with miscellaneous items.  Looking around, they finally found a large box containing a dictograph receiver buried underneath debris.   The  officers believed that the device was in the process of being connected and tested when they went into the attic, so they hooked it up.  Coversation from the mayor’s office could plainly be heard through the receiver.

One can imagine the scene on the third floor of Davenport City Hall:  Mayor Barewald and Chief Boettcher were in the mayor’s chamber with a dismantled light fixture. Officer Passno, the police figerprint expert, was on the move collecting fingerprint samples from the light and the dictograph; probably several other officers and city workers would have been in the area as well.

Added to this commotion were the newspaper men.  This being a time with different rules for the press, the newspapers were alerted almost immediately after the discovery of the bug in the light fixture and reporters were soon walking about the third floor asking questions and talking pictures.  After all, they had an afternoon addition to make!

Suddenly, Harry Strong reappeared.  With him was Alderman Bracher.  They quickly disappeared into the Electrician’s office which happened to be directly across the hall from the Mayor’s office.  Mayor Barewald ordered the police to bring Strong into his office.  Once there, Chief Boettcher fingerprinted the electrician and the questioning began.

It is probably not surprising that this story has a few more plot twists ahead Who really was involved with bugging the Mayor’s office?  Would the Socialists stand together or fall apart?  And finally, exactly how easy was it to throw someone out of office during these exciting times?

At first, Strong refused to speak. When he did eventually talk,  Strong initially said he only placed the device in the mayor’s office at the command of Alderman Bracher. He argued that he had to follow the directive as Bracher was one of his bosses. Strong stated that he had worked on the light fixture one week earlier when the mayor was out of town. The device he created came from parts found in city hall, an old phone from his home, and two dry cell batteries.

Strong also admitted he knew he was breaking the law—not by installing a secret device to listen to the mayor’s conversations, but by violating a city ordinance and state law forbidding running additional wires through a light fixture, as it created a fire hazard. At the end of the conversation, Officer Passno returned to say the fingerprints on the Dictograph and Strong’s fingerprints was a match.

Alderman Bracher was brought into the Mayor’s office next. Strong identified Bracher as the man who ordered him to install the device. Bracher was then released. He immediately went into a meeting with his legal counsel—who happened to be Socialist City Attorney U. A. Screechfield.  Strong soon sought counsel from Screechfield as well.  Mayor Barewald immediately issued a statement that this was a conflict of interest on the part of City Attorney Screechfield.

Over the next several days, the mayor and police chief accused all Socialist adermen of being in on the plot. Bracher responded by saying the police chief’s office had also been bugged. Strong eventually stated that wasn’t true, but he was in the process of planning to plant one in a clock when caught. The other Socialist aldermen denied knowing about the devices or plans, although the Socialist headquarters was rumored to be active with meetings during this time with aldermen and city workers present.

By January 30th, the commotion had not died down. Socialists now turned on Strong and Bracher, denouncing their behavior and calling for a Socialist investigation. Mayor Barewald retained his own legal counsel for himself and the city in the person of attorney W. M. Chamberlin. Barewald stated a distrust of City Attorney Screechfield as the reason behind his decision to hire Chamberlin.

Hundreds packed the  City Council meeting on February 2, 1921, waiting for some resolution to the situation, but once again the public left disappointed as only city business was presented at the meeting. In mid-February, Mayor Barewald and Attorney Chamberlain presented information to Scott County Attorney John Weir in an attempt to remove Alderman Bracher and Electrician Strong from their positions. Those proceedings failed and charges were never brought against the men.

Under these unusual circumstances, life continued at city hall. Each side continued to accuse the other of wrongdoing. Rumors began to circulate about new employees being hired to work in the city. These individuals were from out of the area and the rumors were they were actually radical Socialists being brought in to take over the party. Conservative Socialists who had joined the Socialist party to help local citizens began to worry.

Re-election time for city workers came in early December of 1921.  With a majority vote, the Socialist aldermen expected another easy sweep for Socialist employees of their choice to fill prime positions.  What they didn’t know was a revolt had taken place within their party.  The conservative Socialists had met, condemned the radical direction the party was taking, and selected Third Ward Socialist Alderman George Koepke to make a deal with the three Republican Aldermen to make sure the radicals were not kept in office.

Not surprising, the one request the Republicans had was for the ousting of Harry Strong, who was up for re-election for position of City Electrician.  A deal was struck.  Now with the vote running four against four, Mayor Barewald would hold the deciding vote on three major employee re-elections at the December 8th council meeting.

The remaining four Socialist aldermen did not have a clue what was coming.  They sat in stunned silence as Alderman Koepke, who did not have a desire to be re-elected as an Alderman in the 1922 election, sided with the Republicans.  Barewald followed suit by siding with the Republican nomination for commissioner of public works, street commissioner, and city electrician.  Losing Sam Murray, the commissioner of public works and a radical Socialist from Milwaukee, and James Selman, the commissioner of streets, was a major power loss to the Socialists.

The newspapers reported Mayor Barewald had a small smile throughout the process.

The Socialist party continued to spiral downwards.  On December 13, 1921, newspaper headlines accused the remaining four Socialist aldermen and soon-to-be-former Commissioner Murray of graft and giving preference to I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) members over local residents for city jobs.  City Attorney Screechfield and Harry Strong now changed direction and sided with the city against the Socialists.  Everyone was out for the radical Socialists.  Murray and Alderman George Peck (considered the head of the radical branch) were top targets.

Commissioners Murray and Selman were suspended immediately from their jobs.  A special council meeting was called for December 21st to decide the fate of the two men and others who were accused in charges.  The meeting opened with Mayor Barewald serving as Justice of the Peace while the aldermen served as jury.  Every sordid detail possible was outlined against the men.   Charges including threat of kidnapping an alderman to keep him away from a council meeting to “protection” offered to establishments serving alcohol illegally were presented. City employee after city employee testified about these charges and more.

But after two days, the aldermen suddenly voted to drop the charges—even before the defense had even presented their case.  Alderman Koepke, who had switched political sides to help roust the men from their city jobs, had apparently switched back to side with the Socialists.  A majority conviction was impossible.  The Republicans agreed if the Socialists allowed Murray and Selman to be fired immediately they would drop the case (instead of waiting until their terms expired on December 31st).

City Attorney Screechfield and Mayor Barwald seemed at a loss to explain what had occurred over the two days.   All the frustrated citizens knew was that the city had spent $500 on a “whitewash” trial.6

On April 3, 1922, the Socialist party was officially swept out of office.  Republican Alfred Mueller, mayor from 1910 – 1916, won by 795 votes over Mayor Barewald, who was now a Democrat.  Socialist Lucy Claussen came in last place with only 1,377 votes.  Police Magistrate Harold Metcalf was the only Socialist re-elected in 1922, largely because he had not participated in the chaos of the previous administration.

First Ward Alderman Peck, Third Ward Alderman Koepke, and Aldermen-at-Large Feuchter and Stout did not run for re-election.  Only Second Ward Alderman Bracher ran for another term; he came in last in his ward with 423 votes compared to 1,176 in 1920.   The Socialist power house was finished; the city had turned to the Republican Party to lead them on a quieter path.

After the 1922 election, now former Mayor Barewald returned to his medical practice.  He remained a well-liked fixture in the community before passing away on April 14, 1932 from a heart attack while at work.  Both papers ran front page headlines reporting on his death and even carried full funeral coverage.  Walter Bracher lived a quiet life working as a truck driver for the Kohrs Packing Company until his death (also from a heart attack) on March 13, 1947 while driving on his route.  Harry Strong stayed in the newspapers for various run-ins with the police over the years.  He worked for many years as an electrician for private companies.  He passed away on June 4, 1967 in Davenport.

As for the infamous light in the mayor’s office, it is long gone as well.

One wonders how many people in 1967—the height of the Socialist scare—remembered the political events of 1920 – 1921.  Did they remember the drama and emotion that took place during what must have been considered by then to be the “good old days?”

One thing is certain: there is no need for embellishment in these posts—Davenport history is never dull!

1 The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center has the official election result forms from 1914 through 1969 and I was able to check the official record myself

2 The Daily Times and Davenport Democrat and Leader, January 5, 1921

3 The Dictograph was invented in the early 1900s.

4 I’ve been in the attic myself for work and the area at the top of the stairs is a tight fit for one person, let alone two grown men.

5 Strong had been elected by council to his position.  Council elections for offices such as City Electrician and City Sexton were held every year at the end of December with the position becoming active on January 1st.

6 Davenport Democrat and Leader and Davenport Daily Times, December 23, 1921, Front Page.

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Categories: Socialism/Communism
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  1. December 9, 2013 at 11:16 AM

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