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New Book Tells the Story of "Crusading Iowa Journalist" Verne Marshall

The History Press

On Dec. 12, 1934, police raided a canning factory in Cedar Rapids--what they found was an illegal bar and gambling set up.  That incident set off a year-long investigation into graft that reached into all levels of Iowa State government.  It was all driven by Verne Marshall, the editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  Jerry Harrington, an Iowa City writer of Iowa history, tells the story in his new book, "Crusading Iowa Journalist Verne Marshall: Exposing Graft and the 1936 Pulitzer Prize." (History Press)

Harrington, who holds degrees from Cornell College and the University of Iowa, says he learned about this intriguing story after being asked by the History Press to write about it and reading a book by former Des Moines Register reporter George Mills, "One-Armed Bandits and Other Stories."  In the book's preface, Harrington said: "Mills mentions an amazing episode in the 1930s when a Cedar Rapids Gazette editor (Marshall) exposed this network of gambling--slot machines, illegal liquor operations and other crimes going on throughout Iowa, which I'd never heard of before."

The author goes on to tell us that he started looking into the details of what happened by pulling out old issues of the Gazette.  He also learned that Marshall's papers are the the Hoover Library in West Branch, a short drive from Harrington's home in Iowa City.  "I started investigating," Harrington told Charity, "and this incredibly interesting story emerged--not only was it a story of intrigue and corruption in Iowa, but it was also a story of what an investigative journalist can accomplish.  It ended up with Verne Marshall winning the Pulitzer Prize.  He is an amazing character and if you were a reader of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in the 1930s and 40s, you were exposed to a lot of his very interesting journalism."

Harrington told us that Marshall was born into journalism--his father owned a part of the Gazette and at 16, Marshall won a state-wide prize writing about Teddy Roosevelt's inauguration.   After working for newspapers in Minneapolis, Sioux City and other locations, Marshall returned to his father's paper, the Gazette, where in 1920-21 he wrote his first exposes about corruption within the Iowa Commission of Dairy and Food Sanitation, about their failing to test dairy cattle for bovine tuberculosis that were brought into Iowa from Wisconsin.

Later in the hour, Charity asks Harrington about another piece of his writing, an article about Harold Hughes in the Annals of Iowa, called "Iowa's Last Liquor Battle: Governor Harold E. Hughes and the Liquor-by-the Drink Conflict."  Harrington told Charity that in May 1962, George Mills wrote a series of articles in the Des Moines Register about the state's liquor-by-the-drink laws which Mills said were being violated in 66 of the Iowa's 99 counties.  Hughes, then the Democratic candidate for governor, told Iowans that "you either do one of two things--enforce the law or change it."   "What's fascinating about Hughes," Harrington said, "is that he was a recovering alcoholic.  He took this issue and defeated incumbent governor Norman Erbe.  Liquor-by-the-drink was the major issue in the campaign and once Hughes became governor, local officials started aggressively enforcing the exiting laws.  What Hughes did was to put fire under the legislature to change the law."

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa