An Iowa impeachment drama, circa 1919

Iowa Gov. William Harding (Photo from Iowa Legislature)
Iowa Gov. William Harding (Photo from Iowa Legislature)

When the present day gets a bit much, I dive into The Gazette’s archives. Sometimes, you can escape today’s tumult. But not always.

It turns out Iowa had its own red-hot, front page impeachment debate 100 years ago, flaring from February through mid-April of 1919. Instead of a misbehaving president, it was Iowa Gov. William Harding who faced possible removal from office.

You might recall Harding from columns last year marking the 100th anniversary of the “Babel Proclamation” during World War I, making it illegal to communicate publicly in German and languages other than English. It didn’t sit well with many Iowans, especially in immigrant communities such as Cedar Rapids. It also elevated Harding’s national political stature.

But it was a pardon, not a proclamation, making trouble for Harding in 1919.

In the fall of 1918, Harding pardoned Ernest Rathbun of Ida Grove, a young man convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison. In early 1919, as the Iowa Legislature came into session, the pardon quickly became the stuff of scandal.

Eventually, lawmakers would sift through the evidence and decide whether Harding had accepted a $5,000 cash payment from Rathbun’s father in exchange for the pardon.

By February, according to The Gazette, petitions of protest bearing the names of hundreds of Ida County residents began arriving at the Capitol. The petitions insisted Ida County’s “reputation for morality and decency has been shamefully disgraced” by the pardon, which spared Rathbun before he spent a day in prison.

By Feb. 10, the House Judiciary Committee was weighing its options. Meanwhile, a grand jury was being convened in Ida County to investigate charges of perjury connected to the pardon. The governor was expected to testify in person.


But on the way to Ida County, The Gazette reported, Harding came down with a painful “ear infection,” or maybe an “infected gland.” Harding detoured to the hospital in Carroll.

“In the gray of breaking dawn scores of townsfolk gathered at the (Ida Grove) railroad station at 5 a.m. in expectation of the arrival of the governor … but they were disappointed,” The Gazette reported on Feb. 18. No word of pitchforks or torches.

Two days later, a doctor reported Harding had mumps, while also “denouncing published reports tending to minimize the governor’s condition.” The doctor ordered Harding back to Des Moines for potentially weeks of rest.

But the Waterloo Times Tribune diagnosed Harding with a case of “Rathbun-Itis.”

Harding actually did testify on Feb. 24, but other drama grabbed the spotlight. Iowa Attorney General Horace Havner worked out a deal in which Rathbun waived his pardon and agreed to go to prison. The pardon is declared “invalid as it was fraudulently obtained.”

The Gazette’s editorial page balked at the notion the deal ended the case.

“The Rathbun case is not closed. The reformatory doors are closed behind Rathbun, but that is all. The people do not yet know why he was pardoned,” The Gazette opined. “All we do know is an error was made, an error that was outrageously rank.”

On March 6, The Evening Gazette’s front page headline blared “Harding defies his accusers.”

Harding blamed Havner, arguing the attorney general supported a pardon, then overstepped his powers and coerced the Rathbun family into accepting the waiver deal. Harding also insisted he was deceived and called for an investigation leading either to “impeachment or exoneration.”

A House investigation and political jockeying followed.

On March 21 came a bombshell sworn affidavit from Rathbun’s father detailing how he gave $5,000 to lawyer George Clark that was supposed to be passed on to the governor. Harding called the allegation “so utterly preposterous” that he did not consider it worth “dignifying with a denial,” The Gazette reported.


On April 12, the governor defiantly vowed to “stand pat” as the Judiciary Committee’s majority recommended impeachment. A minority report recommended censure.

“Fate of Harding is in the balance,” screamed The Gazette’s banner headline April 16 as the House debated impeachment before a packed gallery. A key factor, the paper noted, is that no proof had yet been found that Harding actually received the $5,000.

Harding’s allies, of course, blamed the media.

“You all know certain newspapers have been bitter enemies of the governor. There were some who thought the governor’s foreign language proclamation was a mistake,” an impeachment opponent argued, pointing to a paper that called for resisting the proclamation.

“That paper hated Gov. Harding more than it loved its country,” he said.

“Both the law and the facts are against the governor,” an impeachment supporter insisted. “It is the governor’s duty to enforce the law and not to obstruct justice …”

Around 1 a.m. April 17, according to the paper, the House voted 70-34 for censure rather than impeachment. Harding survived.

“No man in Iowa has had to submit to more severe political persecution than I,” Harding said in a statement, vowing to expose the conspiracy against him.

Throughout the House probe, The Gazette was skeptical Harding would be impeached. It often used a front page column called “Current Comment” to express that skepticism, and its distaste for Harding.

But it was certain the saga would have at least one effect.

“Regardless of which action comes as a result of this investigation, the governor is as dead politically as Ernest Rathbun is unhappy in his prison cell,” Current Comment commented.

Harding did not run for re-election in 1920.

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