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Dennis A. Mahony


Posted By: Ken Wright (email)
Date: 4/8/2008 at 16:44:45

Recollections and Sketches, Edward H. Stiles, Homestead Publishing Company, 1916.

Dennis A. Mahony stands out as a historic figure of the time in which he lived, a portion of which was of a stirring character. He was born in the county of Cork, Ireland, in 1821, and when ten years of age emigrated with the family to America, settling in Philadelphia, where he received his early education. He read law for three years there under the notable Charles J. Ingersoll, and at the end of that time came, in 1843, to Dubuque, continuing his law studies there with Davis & Crawford. During the winter of 1844-5 he taught school in Dubuque, and in the latter year established an academy in Jackson County, at a place subsequently called Garry Owen. Here he was Postmaster and Justice of the Peace. In 1847 he was admitted to the bar before the Supreme Court at Iowa City, and commenced practice. In 1848 he was elected to the House from the Legislative District, composed of Jackson and Jones Counties, and was made Chairman of the House Committee on Schools, and drafted the bill which became the Public School Law of Iowa during that session.

Having returned to Dubuque in 1848, he became the editor of the Miner’s Express. In 1852 he, in connection with H. Holt, A. A. White, and W. A. Adams, established the Dubuque Herald, of which he was the editor. It was then a weekly and tri-weekly paper, but became a daily during the same year, and is said to have been the first daily paper established in Iowa. In 1854 he was appointed State Printer. In 1855, in consequence of failing health, he sold his interest in the Herald to Col. J. B. Dorr. In 1858 he was again elected to the General Assembly, and was the most influential Democratic leader in that body.* In 1859 he was elected Treasurer of Dubuque County to fill a vacancy. In 1860 he purchased the Herald and resumed journalistic labors, in the course of which he became one of the most distinguished as well as notorious editors in the State. He did not belong to the War Wing of the Democratic Party, and during the war pungently criticized the acts of the administration, declaring some of them to be unconstitutional and indefensible. His writings in that line aroused a storm of indignation. Excitement was the spirit of the times, and Democratic leaders, especially Democratic editors, who faltered in respect to any of the measures adopted for the suppression of the Rebellion, were suspected of disloyalty and denounced as traitors, and sometimes with threats of violence. Under these conditions he was arrested on the 14th of August, 1862, by the United States Marshal for Iowa, taken to Washington and confined for three months in the old Capital Prison. He repeatedly demanded a trial, but never came to one, and it is not known what was the character of the charges upon which he was arrested. He was released in November following his arrest. A large portion of the people in his District felt that this proceeding was wholly unwarranted, and a flagrant violation of the rights of a citizen. So strong was this feeling that while he was in prison, he was nominated by the Democrats of the Third Iowa District for Representative in Congress, and though defeated by William B. Allison, he carried Dubuque County by a majority of 1,457 votes. The year following his release, in 1863, he was elected Sheriff of Dubuque County, and in 1865 re-elected to the same office. In 1866 he went to St. Louis and became Chief Editor of the St. Louis Times. In 1871 he returned the editorial charge of that paper up to the time of his death. He took a deep interest in public affairs, and especially in the advancement of the public schools. He was a member of the first Board of Education of Dubuque. After his release from confinement at Washington, he published a book entitled, “Prisoner of State,” in which was vividly set forth the causes of his arrest and the experience of his imprisonment.

Personally, he was a man of amiable traits, but emphatic in his view, and there is not the least doubt but that in those he expressed in the early part of the war, and which led to his denouncement, he was entirely sincere. By reason of the facts I have briefly adverted to, he became, perhaps, the most conspicuous, as well as one of the most forceful, political writers of that time. He died at Dubuque in 1879.

*Note – When a very young man Charles Aldrich visited Iowa City while the Legislature was in session and in an address before the Pioneer Law makers Association in 1882, which will be found in its published proceedings for that year, and also in volume 2 of the Third Series of the Annals of Iowa, 204, gave the following graphic description of Mr. Mahony, in which, however, he erred in supposing him to have been old, for he was then by thirty-seven, having been born in 1821; but his delicate condition of health so impressed Mr. Aldrich:

“I remember Dennis Mahony, of Dubuque, quite an old man, afflicted with some nervous disorder which caused his head to shake, giving his eyes a very curious and unsteady appearance. But when he spoke, deprecatingly of certain trivial and undignified proceedings then on foot, everybody listened attentively and the House accepted his advice.


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