Cheryl Mullenbach

Customers at Johnson’s billiard hall in Marquette didn’t take kindly to two strangers who wandered into the establishment one July night in 1930. They wouldn’t identify themselves and that made the local crowd suspicious. They chased the two strangers out of town—one account reported they first kicked the lights out on their car and “did everything in their power to embarrass” the two.

The two strangers were actually federal prohibition agents, R.H. Taylor and H.H. Kirchman. They were in Marquette investigating possible violations of the Volstead Act — which prohibited the sale, manufacture, or distribution of alcohol.

When the two agents reached the nearby town of McGregor just two miles south they were arrested by C.D. Phelps, “special officer” of the police force. They were charged with violating traffic ordinances against double parking — and operating a car without lights. The two were held in the McGregor jail until the next afternoon when they were brought before Mayor J.F. Walter. They were tried, convicted, and assessed fines of $99.99.

By Friday Col. George C. Parsons, deputy prohibition administrator for the northern district of Iowa from Fort Dodge, and U.S. district attorney, B.E. Rhinehart from Cedar Rapids, were headed to Marquette and McGregor claiming they were “going to get to the bottom of the matter.” By the end of the day Col. Parsons declared that the charges brought against federal agents Taylor and Kirchman were “trumped up.” He described the “trial” as a “kangaroo court.”

On Saturday Mayor Walter, special officer C.D. Phelps, Marquette marshal F.J. Barton, and Ernest Lange, a private citizen of Marquette, were on their way to Dubuque under the custody of Col. Parsons, who had arrested them for interfering with federal officers in the discharge of their duties. They were being held in the Dubuque jail under $2,000 bond each. Mayor Walter and special officer Phelps were released after paying the bond; Barton and Lange couldn’t come up with the bond money and remained in jail.

The citizens of McGregor were outraged. The city clerk, W.R. Stone, sent a telegram to Iowa’s Senator Smith W. Brookhart in Washington asking for an “immediate investigation” of the case. “This is an affront to the citizens of this town,” Stone wrote.

The local citizens said their town officials had been “dragged away in handcuffs” by the arresting federal officials who “invaded town” and took the men from their homes “without the opportunity to don coats.” Meantime they were discussing “further means” of defending their city against “similar flouting of the city’s police powers by the prohibition forces.”

Mayor Walter, special officer Phelps, and Marquette marshal Barton “indignantly asserted” that the charges against federal agents Taylor and Kirchman had been true and that they would “fight to the finish.” They said they had merely treated the two as they would any citizens who violated city ordinances.

Col. Parsons said he had “every faith in the integrity” of his agents and that he would “back them in any court fight.” He said Mayor Walter was “playing up to the wet sentiment” of the two towns.

Marquette and McGregor citizens were raising funds to fight the case “through the higher courts if necessary.”

©Cheryl Mullenbach

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