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VAN LEUVEN, GEORGE M. JR. 1852 - 1915


Posted By: Bill Waters (email)
Date: 3/19/2019 at 20:17:34


George M. Van Leuven, Sr., was born in Rensselaerville, New York, in 1811. He grew up on the family farm and in 1832 married Lucy A. Ryder. He studied law and in 1848 was admitted to the New York bar. In 1856 they moved to Lime Springs, Iowa, a town consisting of a log house and a small store that served the only six families in the township. The town moved and was platted a year later near the recently built railroad.

George M. Van Leuven, Jr., was one of seven children born to George and Lucy. He was born in 1842 and, on May 20, 1861, enlisted in Company D of the 3d Iowa Infantry. He reenlisted as a veteran volunteer in 1864, was promoted to the 52nd U.S. Colored Infantry and was discharged on November 2, 1865. He returned to Lime Springs, practiced law, became a pension agent, worked as a clerk in a dry goods store, became a partner in a drug business and on January 22, 1874, married Georgia Wood. They had two children, Katherine “Kitty” and Charles P. Van Leuven.

Although pension laws changed many times during and after the war, veterans seeking invalid-based pensions were generally required to prove they had served at least ninety days, had been honorably discharged and due to a service-related disability were wholly or partially disabled from performing manual labor. Some handled their own claims while others hired attorneys whose fees were regulated in amount and contingent on the claims being granted. To prove their claims, veterans completed applications and, since regimental medical records were often vague or non-existent, sought to substantiate their claims with affidavits from friends and comrades who could attest to their healthy condition before the war, the injury or illness incurred during the war and the applicant’s present condition. When pensions were granted or increases sought, veterans were required to have medical examinations by surgeons approved by and paid by the federal government. Examinations were by a three-member board when possible, but sometimes a board member would be absent or, especially in remote areas, only one government-approved surgeon was available. Surgeons were paid $2.00 per examination, but the added expense of paying $6.00 for an entire board was thought to give more accurate results. With the granting or increasing of pensions being largely dependent on affidavits from veterans who wanted to help their comrades and relatives and neighbors who were friends of the applicants, it was also thought that the required medical examinations would be a deterrent to fraud. Despite that, in his report to the Secretary of the Interior for the period up to June 20, 1894, the Commissioner of Pensions reported that 294 persons had been convicted of illegal practices.

With three clerks assisting him, George Van Leuven represented veterans in northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota and was one of the most successful pension attorneys in the entire country. The 1883 history of Chickasaw and Howard counties said he had “a very successful pension agency, which he established in ‘65, and is credited with being the most successful pension agent in the state as testimonials which he has received, from the best of authority, would go to prove. References, Hons. Wm. B. Allison, U. S. senator; Thos. Updegraff, N. C. Deering, C. C. Carpenter, members of congress; John McHugh, S. S. Lambert, and Kimball & Farnsworth; he is also W. M. of Howard lodge, A. F. & A. M., and has been for eight years.”

Clients included Tim Hopkins, Joseph Rogers, Sam Withrow, Joseph Radford and William Barber of the 21st Iowa Infantry as well as Philena Mather who applied for a dependent mother’s pension after the death of John, the first of her three sons to die in the war.

Mr. Van Leuven’s unmatched success and the large volume of his cases had not gone unnoticed by the Bureau of Pensions and “the suspicion of the Pension Office was aroused in regard to his methods of doing business by circumstances which came to light in connection with the claim of a Minneapolis soldier.” Minneapolis-based Special Examiner Edward F. Waite was assigned to investigate and on May 22, 1893, Van Leuven was arrested. Also arrested was George Kessel, a Cresco doctor who was secretary of the local pension board. Grand juries were convened in Dubuque and Minneapolis and indictments were issued.

The arrests drew national attention. The Milwaukee Journal included a “sensational article on the unearthing and continued and stupendous pension frauds in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota,” The Minneapolis Journal said pension investigator Edward Waite and Van Leuven “almost had a personal encounter when the examiner got hold of certain important files by force,” the New York Times said “pension rolls are polluted with the names of cowards, deserters, and imposters” and The Chicago Tribune said Van Leuven was “charged with receiving illegal fees as a pension agent” and “conspired with different Boards of Pension Surgeons.” The Milwaukee Journal said that, since 1865, Van Leuven had secured pensions aggregating over one million dollars and in one letter told a client he “had better ‘grease the board.’” The client then sent $30 for Van Leuven to divide “with members of the Cresco board.” In some instances, it said Van Leuven “has been known to have them go long distances to be examined by boards that were supposed to be friendly to him.”

Edward Waite’s investigation continued after the arrests and, on March 28, 1894, The Chicago Tribune reported that “the Federal grand jury has begun to turn out indictments.” Witnesses were constantly arriving at the courthouse in response to subpoenas. “These subpoenas are now being served in the vicinity south of Rochester and witnesses from that section arrived this morning.” Documents from “the famous tin box” in Van Leuven’s office were seized. Included were letters between Van Leuven and pension surgeons “in which terms are agreed on for raising ratings and fixing up the papers in the case.” Van Leuven led clients to believe it was normal to pay the surgeons “and it does not appear that there was, as a rule, corrupt intent on the part of the claimants.” Some documents showed affidavits regarding claimants’ alleged disabilities “were bought from physicians at an average rate of about 50 cents a line” from boards in Cresco and Decorah.

Brad Weeks had been ordered to go to Dubuque for his examination but, on the advice of his brother-in-law, Charles Albright who worked for Van Leuven, he asked to be examined by the board in Decorah. There were twenty-seven or thirty veterans present. When Brad and two others were called into the examination room to be examined by three surgeons, Van Leuven was sitting at a table and said “something like this. Comrades I want you to contribute as much as you can for these doctors because they get small pay and it will be a benefit to you in your claim.” The doctors could hear what was said and see which soldiers were paying. Brad put $20 on the table; some paid more, others less. The total he thought was $200 to $300.

Evidence on some of the charges was weak but ultimately Van Leuven was convicted in thirty-seven cases. On December 14, 1894, he was sentenced “to two years in Anamosa Penitentiary and fine of $1,000 ‘in each case, sentences to run concurrently.’” The following year he was disbarred from practicing before the Bureau of Pension. While imprisoned, Van Leuven petitioned for his release. He claimed he was critically ill with diabetes and said “my confinement is telling on me. I feel dizzy all the time and can scarcely get off my bed.” Prison authorities had been kind, he said, but “I figure it that I shall be a dead man in three months if I remain here.” President Cleveland thought Van Leuven had been “leniently treated,” but granted a pardon “solely and entirely upon the representation of physicians concerning the critical conditions of the convict’s health.”

It’s not know if the referenced physicians were “friendly” to Van Leuven, but his health apparently improved dramatically after his release. He lived another twenty years and he and his family moved to Mitchell County. George Van Leuven, Jr., died in 1915 and was buried in Osage Cemetery.

After George Kessel’s indictment, he had pled guilty to charges filed against him, “was, by an almost unanimous vote, elected mayor of the town in which he resided,” resumed his medical practice and in 1902 opened Cresco’s first hospital, a hospital he later turned over so a larger one could be built. When a school for nurses opened, he was involved in their training and in 1914 was made a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Dr. Kessel died in 1945 and is buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery, Cresco.

Many residents were angry the charges had been brought. The County Attorney for Howard County, who had also been George Kessel’s defense attorney, secured an indictment of Special Examiner Waite who had led the investigation against his client. Waite “was prosecuted by a local jury and convicted, on false testimony, of the unfounded charge of having threatened a witness,” but a federal Court of Appeals ordered his release. Edward Waite resigned from the Bureau, died in 1958 and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis.

Submitted by Carl Ingwalson


Howard Biographies maintained by Constance McDaniel Hall.
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