Monday, February 12, 2018

The coup that routed Chariton Mayor George Routt

Prohibition --- a nationwide ban on the production, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages imposed by the Eighteenth Amendment --- became law of the land on Jan. 17, 1920.

In Chariton that January, a coalition of prominent businessmen were celebrating not only this moral triumph, but also the outcome of a coup they had launched three weeks earlier: the ouster of Mayor George Routt --- on charges of intoxication. Now those were interesting times!


The four-deck coup-related headline on Page 1 of the Herald-Patriot of Jan. 1 commenced, "Mayor George Routt Ousted from Office by Order of Court."  Henry Gittinger's report in The Leader of the same date, however, was more concise and to the point than the somewhat rambling Herald-Patriot story. Here's Henry's report:

"County Attorney C.F. Wennerstrum has filed the following petition in court and has asked the permanent removal from office of Chariton's mayor. He went to Albia Tuesday, presenting the petition to Judge D.M. Anderson, who ordered the suspension of the mayor from office pending trial and set January 12, 1920, for the hearing of the case. The mayor will meet the issue and has employed J.A. Penick and C.W. Stuart to defend him.

"Comes now C.F. Wennerstrum, the duly elected and qualified and acting county attorney of Lucas county, Iowa, and for cause of action states:

"1. That George Routt is the duly elected, qualified and acting mayor of Chariton, Iowa, having qualified as said mayor on the 7th day of April, 1919, and that he has been acting as mayor since that time.

"2. Your petitioner here states that on diverse and sundry dates since April 7, 1919, the said George Routt, mayor of chariton, Iowa, has been intoxicated to such an extent as to incapacitate him for the performance of his official duties, and has thus been guilty of wilful official misconduct and malfeasance in office. It is further stated that on the evening of December 21, 1919, certain citizens of Chariton, Iowa, called upon the said mayor .... at the office of the mayor in Chariton, Iowa, in regard to official business connected with the said mayor's office, and at that time the said George Routt ... was in such a state of intoxication as to incapacitate him from carrying on of official duties. It is here further stated that on the 23d day of December, 1919, several citizens of Chariton, Iowa, called upon the said mayor ... at his office in Chariton, Iowa, about 8 o'clock in the evening in regard to certain city business, and there found the said George Routt lying on a couch in his office in a stupor, and in such a state of intoxication as to prevent him from carrying on the duties of his office.

"3. Your petitioner further states that on or about the --- day of August, 1919, the said George Routt, mayor of Chariton, Iowa, in company with other parties, drove in an automobile to the pumping station of the city reservoir several miles east of Chariton about 9 o'clock in the evening, and at the time he was in a state of intoxication, such as to prevent him from properly carrying on the duties of his office as mayor. It is here stated that at that time he evidenced his intoxication by ordering the person in charge of the plant to start all the machinery, engines and electric pump.

"4. Your petitioner further states that at different dates and occasions the defendant herein has been observed in an intoxicated condition on the streets of Chariton, Iowa, and that at certain times since he has been mayor of Chariton, Iowa, the said George Routt has been in attendance at the meetings of the city council of Chariton, Iowa, in an intoxicated condition, and in such a physical state as to be unable to properly carry on the duties of his office.

"5. That for reasons set forth in this petition and the affidavits herein attached, the said defendant should be suspended from office during the pendency of said action, as by law provided.

"6. That in support of this petition for removal and for suspension from office there is attached thereto the affidavits of H.G. Larimer, J.H. Darrah, H.W. Brewer, O.J. Israel and W.C. Milthorpe, all residents of Chariton, Iowa, which said affidavits are attached to this peition and marked Exhibits A. B. C. D. and E, respectively, and made part of this petition.

"Whereas, Plaintiff prays that a time be fixed for the hearing of this petition and that during the pendency thereof the defendant, George Routt, be suspended from the office of mayor of the city of Chariton, Iowa, and upon the final hearing that the defendant be removed from said office and that said office be declared vacant, and for such other and further relief as in equity may be deemed just and equitable."


It may be useful to know a little more about the protagonists here. 

The leader of the pack seems to have been Horace Greeley Larimer, who had preceded Routt as mayor but had not sought re-election. He was senior partner in the retail firm Hollinger & Larimer (Hollinger being his late father-in-law) and a major mover and shaker in Chariton. The Larimers had moved into the old Crocker mansion (now Fielding Funeral Home) on South Grand Street after the unfortunate self-inflicted demise of its builder, Frank R. Crocker, notorious for having single-handedly bankrupted First National Bank in 1907.

Darrah, Brewer and Israel also were among Chariton's leading merchants and Milthorpe, a former railroad detective, was city marshal.

Like Larimer, George Pendleton Routt was a native of Lucas County --- widely known and respected as a hard-working brick mason and masonry contractor. He lived with his family on the "other side" of the railroad tracks, in a modest home on West Armory Avenue about a block from the home in which he had been born.


George Routt had won a two-year term as mayor during city elections on March 31, 1919, by 78 votes in a three-way race. Former Mayor Larimer had backed the Citizens Party candidate (E.R. Welker) in this election, as had most of the city's business community. Routt, running on a Commoners Party ticket, was favored --- according to newspaper reports --- by the "working man." It was generally agreed that the Peoples Party candidate (Clarkson Seward) didn't have a chance of winning, but affected the outcome by attracting votes that might have gone to one of the other candidates.


Mayor Routt's accusers were relying upon what commonly was known as the "Cosson Law" in their effort to depose him. This was a 1909 rewriting of Iowa statutes that already had given disgruntled citizens legal recourse against elected officials --- mayors, county supervisors, county attorneys, sheriffs and police officers. At the instigation of State Sen. George Cosson, "intoxication" had been added to the existing five just causes for removal from office --- neglect, wilful misconduct, corruption, extortion and conviction of a felony.

In the intervening 10 years, the Cosson law had been used with success in several other Iowa cities to depose mayors --- at Marengo and Ottumwa for example --- as well as other elected officials.


George initially had lawyered up and announced plans to contest his removal, but changed his mind during the week that followed and on Jan. 8 resigned. One factor he cited was the expense of defending himself in court --- funds he did not have.

"Mr. Routt, after the acceptance (of his resignation), addressed the council briefly," The Herald-Patriot of Jan. 8 reported. "He expressed his gratitude for the harmony which had prevailed and said that it had been his ambition to be a good mayor and that he had tried to be such. He characterized the charges against him as unjust and untrue and brought about by petty politics on account of factional jealousy. He was particularly bitter against the 'perverted idea of journalism' which had made the charges public. He stated that he should remain a citizen of Chariton and would be loyal to the city in every way, although he should use his influence for his friends and not for his enemies."

Later that month, George B. Van Arsdale --- a prominent farmer, farm manager and entrepreneur who lived at 815 Grace Avenue in the Spring Lake Subdivision --- was appointed mayor and the powers that be congratulated themselves on finding a suitable replacement for Routt.

George Routt continued to live and work in Chariton until 1935, when he died at age 66 as the result of complications following a stroke. Horace G. Larimer had died during 1928 at the age of 52 while consulting at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., seeking respite from an unidentified chronic condition that had plagued him for several years.


Anonymous said...

Is this the same Wennerstrum from Chariton that was, I believe, one of the judges at the Nuremberg Trials?

Frank D. Myers said...

Yes --- also justice and sometimes chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.