Mexico in 1911, in this photo by Karl Halm. Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

Mary Harrah had been a popular teacher in Newton in 1890. Within just a few years she had made a name for herself in the family cattle business. The Des Moines Register labeled her the “cattle queen” of Iowa and reported that she was central to the success of the 600-acre enterprise where the Harrah’s raised shorthorns.

But Mary didn’t stay on the farm. In 1903 she was living in Davenport and had formed a partnership with a local businessman. They planned to build an electric rail system between Clinton and Davenport. However, the project never took off; and in 1904 a lawsuit was brought by attorneys claiming Mary and her partner had not paid for services related to the railway.


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For a time Mary and another woman published a magazine called the Trident. A former circulation manager sued, claiming he had not been paid a $12 per week salary. In 1906 she sold her half of the publication and announced she was devoting all her energies to her land investment business.

Lawsuits plagued Mary throughout 1907. An investor tried to collect over $4,000 from Mary’s business, the International Land Company. He claimed he had not been paid his share of profits for a land sale in Missouri. And there was some mystery surrounding Mary’s whereabouts when the Des Moines Tribune reported that police chiefs in five cities were trying to locate her. An investor believed he had been swindled by the International Land Company. But shortly after, Mary arrived in Des Moines and explained that a former employee had made the deal with the disgruntled buyer; and she would make things right. A Des Moines Register headline helped to clarify the story: “Cattle Queen No Fugitive.”

By now Mary had moved her offices to Kansas City. The Quad-City Times reported she was taking investors to the “promised land” (Texas) “by the thousands” in special train cars designed for her “tourist excursions.”

And there was the incident in 1908 regarding $1,800 worth of diamonds that had once belonged to Mary. A Davenport man sued another man for possession of the gems. The defendant claimed he was holding the diamonds until the former owner, Mary Harrah, paid him interest on a loan he had made to her. The situation played out over several months; on the day the diamonds were set to be sold to settle the debt, an attorney representing Mary paid off the debt, making her the owner of the jewels once again.

It was January 1910 when Mary was visiting a friend in Davenport that a local constable arrived at the house to serve an arrest warrant. While the constable kept watch over Mary, her attorney set about securing her $1,000 bail. A woman had charged her with selling land under “false pretense.” By March, Mary had been acquitted.

In 1911 Mary was involved with a company called Mexican Irrigated Lands, with offices in Kansas City and El Paso, Texas. She took groups of investors into Mexico despite the country being in the midst of revolution. Mary joined a group of potential investors who left El Paso in March 1912 on a trip into “rebel infested” parts of Mexico. The El Paso Herald reported the group had a “pass” for safe travel from the leader of the revolutionary army. But this venture also led to problems for Mary, when in 1915 she found herself in a federal courtroom charged with “using the mails with intent to defraud.”

Newspaper accounts of Mary’s business dealings stopped until 1932, when the Jefferson City (Missouri) Post-Tribune reported that Mary was under arrest at Gulfport, Miss. Missouri’s governor had issued extradition papers for her as she was wanted in Missouri for fraud charges related to land deals.

A gravestone engraved with two names is located in Newton’s Union Cemetery. One of the names is Bessie Dodge Harrah, Mary’s mother. The other is Mary Harrah Spencer, who died in 1945. The stone indicates both were buried at Lyman, Miss.

The stone gives no clues about Mary’s life. But the Rock Island Argus published this about Mary: “Bankers, business men and the shrewdest of financiers alike have fallen before her personal beauty and charms.”



  • “Ask Requisition for Pair in Mississippi,” Jefferson City (Missouri) Post-Tribune, April 4, 1932.
  • “Attach Land Company,” Rock Island Argus, Nov. 18, 1904.
  • “Back From Texas Land Excursion,” Quad-City Times, March 12, 1907.
  • “Brings Suit to Collect Big Sum,” Daily Times (Davenport), June 28, 1907.
  • “Cattle Queen No Fugitive,” Des Moines Register, Nov. 14, 1907.
  • “Circulation Man Has His Troubles,” Davenport Morning Star, March 12, 1904.
  • “Claims Woman Swindled Him,” Des Moines Tribune, Oct. 30, 1907 .
  • “Harrah Diamonds Will Not Be Sold,” Daily Times, Sept. 7, 1908.
  • “Harrah, Finance Queen, Is Halted,” Rock Island Argus, Jan. 22, 1910.
  • “Jasper County Is Center for Shorthorns,” 1903, Des Moines Register, Aug. 5, 1903,
  • “Land Buyers Leave Juarez on Handcar,” El Paso Herald, March 1, 1912.
  • “Mary Harrah Held on Criminal Charge,” Daily Times, Jan. 20, 1910.
  • “Mexican Land Case Called,” El Paso Herald, Apr 12, 1915.
  • “Miss Harrah Is In the City,” Des Moines Tribune, Nov. 13, 1907.
  • “Summer Weather at Summerfield,” Quad-City Times, Feb. 26, 1907,
  • “Woman Is Acquitted of Fraud,” Greene Recorder, March 30, 1910.

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