By the Light of the Moon (Law)

When Iowa entered statehood, many cities were granted Special Charters to help them with municipal administration while the Iowa State Legislature was still trying to get off the ground.

The Charters regulated everything from elections to street maintenance, city clerk duties to the licensing and taxing of certain businesses, and so on. They granted a great deal of autonomy to the Council and its electors, which is one of the reasons the state stopped the practice by 1859.

In fact, one power granted to the residents of a Special Charter city is the right to give up that charter, and so only five remain in Iowa today: Davenport, Camanche, Wapello, Muscatine, and Glendale.

What do Special Charters cities offer their citizens today?

Bragging rights, mostly, since current Iowa law has evolved to make its municipalities—chartered or incorporated— pretty much equal.  Even a century ago, there wasn’t much special left in those Special Charters.

But in 1909, Davenport’s Charter helped keep a man out of jail.

As many of Iowa’s internal conflicts seem to do, it all started with alcohol.

Before the passing of the Twenty-First Amendment by Congress, the state tried its best to go dry, or at least drier, on its own, enacting a series of laws to control the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol.  One of them, called “The Moon Law,” was passed to limit the number of saloons to one for every thousand residents.

Not all Iowa residents were pleased about this, especially those who resided along the Mississippi River.

Davenport’s Charter gave the city council power to “license, tax, and regulate” taverns, groceries, and all places that sold alcoholic beverages, and to “restrain, prohibit, and suppress” drinking establishments.

Traditionally, the Council didn’t bother much with that last part.  And it came to the attention of the authorities that Davenport had 200 drinking establishments . . .and fewer than 50,000 citizens.

Something had to be done.  An example had to be made.  So, in 1909, Ernst Wenzel, the proprietor of a saloon at 305 West 3rd Street, was arrested for opening an illegal establishment under the Moon Law.*

However,  in its zeal, the state had forgotten something.  But Mr. Wenzel’s attorneys** hadn’t.

They argued that the Moon Law wasn’t an amendment to the previous regulatory laws, but was brand new legislation.   And since there was nothing in that new law that specifically mentioned that it applied to Special Charter cities, it obviously didn’t apply to Davenport.  Or Mr. Wenzel.


The court reluctantly agreed and Mr. Wenzel was free to run his business, which he did for several years afterward.

The Moon Law was “corrected” by 1911—to more grumbling by its citizens—but the legislation had learned its lesson and granted Special Charter cities an extra year to comply with the terms.

After all, it takes time to “close” (wink, wink) 150 saloons.



*Mr. Wenzel’s establishment is first listed in the 1909 city directory, so his place appears to have been identified as the first to open after the passing of the new law.

**Ficke & Ficke.


An Act to Incorporate the City of Davenport, 1851.

Davenport City Directories, 1905-1915.

History of Scott County, Iowa. (Chicago, Ill.: Inter-state Publishing Co.), 1882.

“Moon Law’ overreaches.”  Davenport Democrat. August 22, 1909, p.1.


(posted by Sarah)

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