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A Tricky Question

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When a twenty-eight-year-old, up-start lawyer named David C. Cloud decided to end gambling in the small frontier town of Muscatine, Iowa, back in 1845, the odds were some 12 to 1 that the gamblers would win. But citizens hadn't taken Cloud's ignorance into account.

Young Cloud had become a lawyer after six years of reading law books at night, and must have overlooked the prohibition against trick questions in the courtroom—questions like "when did you stop beating your spouse?"

Attorney Cloud brought the gambling matter before the Muscatine grand jury. One of Muscatine's leading lawyers, J. Scott Richman, was called to give testimony before the grand jury about his knowledge of said gambling. Cloud propounded a question to the senior lawyer. "Do you know of any person," he asked, "other than yourself, being engaged in gaming at any time within two years in the county of Muscatine?"

Mr. Richman did not like the question; it seemed to imply that he was involved in the gambling. He refused to answer.

The judge, however, sided with Cloud, and ordered Richman to answer the question.

Again, Attorney Richman refused, and was fined ten dollars for contempt of court. At this point, it would certainly have been easier and less expensive to pay the fine and leave, but Richman's dander was up. He appealed the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court looked at Cloud's question forward and backward before deciding that Richman was wrong and must pay the fine. The question, they said, was not incriminating. All the grand jury wanted to know was whether Mr. Richman knew of any gambling of which he was not a party.

There is no record of whether Cloud's carefully worded question put a damper on Muscatine gambling interests, but it did bring him to the attention of many Iowans, who subsequently made the young attorney the first elected attorney general of Iowa, and eventually a state legislator—a lot of mileage for one simple question.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.