By January 1921, Davenporters were probably questioning the success of their first (and, so far, last) Socialist majority city council which had taken office in April 1920.
Socialist Mayor Charles L. Barewald had announced on January 5th that he had recently resigned from the Socialist party, bringing a private party rift into the public light. The Daily Times and Democrat and Leader newspapers followed the discord by printing the caustic remarks flying between the Mayor and the five Socialist Aldermen on city council. Even the Associated Press brought national attention to this local dispute.
Things seemed to cool down after a few days. The fight disappeared from newspaper headlines. The regular city council meeting was held on January 19th with all council members present. No excitement ensued, just official business.
This, however, turned out the be the eye of the storm.
The afternoon papers of January 27, 1921 broke the news on how far some of the Socialists in city hall were willing to go in their dispute with the Mayor: “Spy on Barewald with Dictograph” read the Daily Times headline. “Foil Red Plot Against Mayor” screamed the Democrat and Leader.
It turned out that 2nd Ward Alderman Walter Bracher and City Electrician Harry Strong, both Socialists, had bugged Mayor Barewald’s office.
The newspapers reported that on the 26th, after an absence from his office, Mayor Barewald had been working at his desk when he noticed fresh fingerprints in the layer of dust on the hanging light fixture directly above. Barewald told the papers he noticed the disturbance, but didn’t think much about it until later that night. The next morning, January 27th, the Mayor summoned Police Chief Charles Boettcher to his office. Together the two men dismantled the fixture.
Within the globe at the base they found the listening part of a dictograph concealed (Strong later admitted to making the dictograph* at home). Wires from the listening apparatus ran up through the electrical tubing toward the ceiling. The Mayor’s office was (and still is) located on the third floor of City Hall. A Detective Moeller and Patrolman Schwinden were summoned and sent up the steep stairs to the attic above to find what was at the end of the wires.
As the two policemen stepped onto the attic landing, the closeness of the area would have forced them to turn to face the room containing the bell tower.** Who knows who was more surprised when the officers came face to face with City Electrician Strong?***
Electrician Strong asked the officers what they were doing and stated that he was trying to fix the clock on top of the bell tower. The officers reported that Mr. Strong appeared to be very nervous—and, as it was very cold and windy that day, the officers had doubts Strong had climbed to the top of the bell tower. Strong probably raised further suspicion about himself when—after seeing the officers locate the wires emerging from the mayor’s office below, he left not only the attic, but the building.
Moeller and Schwinden followed the wires to the room containing the bell tower. The room was filled with miscellaneous items. Looking around, they finally found a large box containing a dictograph receiver buried underneath debris. The officers believed that the device was in the process of being connected and tested when they went into the attic, so they hooked it up. Conversation from the mayor’s office could plainly be heard through the receiver.
One can imagine the scene on the third floor of Davenport City Hall: Mayor Barewald and Chief Boettcher were in the mayor’s chamber with a dismantled light fixture. Officer Passno, the police fingerprint expert, was on the move collecting fingerprint samples from the light and the dictograph; probably several other officers and city workers would have been in the area as well.
Added to this commotion were the newspaper men. This being a time with different rules for the press, the newspapers were alerted almost immediately after the discovery of the bug in the light fixture and reporters were soon walking about the third floor asking questions and talking pictures. After all, they had an afternoon addition to make!
Suddenly, Harry Strong reappeared. With him was Alderman Bracher. They quickly disappeared into the Electrician’s office which happened to be directly across the hall from the Mayor’s office. Mayor Barewald ordered the police to bring Strong into his office. Once there, Chief Boettcher fingerprinted the electrician and the questioning began.
It is probably not surprising that this story has a few more plot twists ahead Who really was involved with bugging the Mayor’s office? Would the Socialists stand together or fall apart? And finally, exactly how easy was it to throw someone out of office during these exciting times?
(And did I really think this was going to be just a two-part article? Please look for Part III soon!)
*The Dictograph was invented in the early 1900s.
**I’ve been in the attic myself for work and the area at the top of the stairs is a tight fit for one person, let alone two grown men.
***Strong had been elected by council to his position. Council elections for offices such as City Electrician and City Sexton were held every year at the end of December with the position becoming active on January 1st.
(posted by Amy D.)