A Century Ago: Former Iowan Unveiled Nation’s Major Political Scandal

A century ago, a native Iowan sparked America’s interest by blowing the lid off the Teapot Dome scandal.

However, Carl Magee’s testimony before a Senate committee regarding the major corruption scandal was only one of his many claims to fame.

Throughout his amazing life, he was Iowa’s youngest school administrator, founded a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, led the effort to provide water to a thriving metropolis, and invented the parking meter.

He also shot and murdered someone.

Magee was born in Fayette County in 1873, two decades after his influential family moved to Iowa.

His grandpa, David Frampton Magee, organized the Jones County company that fought valiantly at the Battle of Pea Ridge during the Civil War. Later, his father, John Calvin Magee, attended Upper Iowa University and became a Methodist minister, pastoring and ruling over churches throughout northeastern Iowa.

Carl began college at Iowa State Normal School, now known as Northern Iowa University, while John Magee was headquartered in Cedar Falls.

He gained an interest in journalism while working as editor of the school newspaper.

He also fell for Grace Griffin, a college leader from Black Hawk County.

After college, the two married, and Magee worked as a teacher in Charles City and Logan before being recruited by Carroll County to be district administrator at the age of 23.

Magee wants “riches and fame,” however. He left teaching to start a business with his famous uncle, David A. Magee, the former mayor of Sioux City and president of the city’s first streetcar company.

When that enterprise failed, the young Magee family relocated to the oil boomtown of Tulsa.

Magee had “read law,” and when he arrived in Oklahoma, he began practicing law. He dabbled in politics as well but became increasingly interested in civic problems.

He spearheaded a citizens’ anti-vice committee that resulted in the mayor and police chief’s indictments, as well as the push to develop the vast water project that continues to supply Tulsa today.

However, when Grace Magee was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the family was compelled to relocate again, this time to the high, arid environment of New Mexico.

Magee chose to pursue a dream he has had since college: to start a “truth-telling” newspaper.

He purchased the Albuquerque Journal and began exposing the state’s massive corruption. This put him at odds with Albert Fall, the Republican senator who oversaw the political machine.

Their dispute lasted after Warren Harding was elected president and appointed Fall as Secretary of the Interior.

In that capacity, Fall seized command of the massive oil fields designated by the federal government as emergency supplies for the US Navy. He then made no-bid deals with two oil tycoons, granting them exclusive rights to drill in the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills reservoirs – and earn $100 million each.

Magee was highly dubious of these agreements, especially after hearing tales that Fall was suddenly wealthy.

As the Journal questioned the Interior secretary’s increased fortune, Fall retaliated, forcing Magee to sell his publication by arranging for his bank debts to be called.

The editor responded by founding a new newspaper, which would eventually become the Pulitzer Prize-winning Albuquerque Tribune.

Magee’s question, “Where did Fall get his money?” eventually shaped the Teapot Dome probe. Magee was eventually called to Washington to testify about what he had learned.

His statement before the Senate Public Lands Committee elevated a routine political debate into a scandal that shook America in 1924.

Investigators would eventually unearth $400,000 in payments made by oil millionaires to the interior secretary, which is equivalent to around $6.5 million today. Fall was convicted of accepting a bribe.

He became the first cabinet secretary to go to prison.

That wasn’t the end of the Carl Magee story, however.

In New Mexico, a vengeful Republican judge tried him on fabricated counts of libel and contempt. Magee evaded prison only because of a gubernatorial pardon.

Later, the same judge confronted Magee in a hotel lobby and attacked. Beaten to the ground, the editor grabbed a gun and shot his attacker in the arm. However, the gunfire also killed a bystander who attempted to intervene. Magee was accused of manslaughter, but acquitted.

Magee eventually sold his paper to the Scripps-Howard newspaper group, and he relocated to Oklahoma City to run the failing Oklahoma News.

His most enduring achievement came when he was asked to lead a Chamber of Commerce group looking for a solution to Oklahoma City’s downtown parking congestion.

The editor had an idea. Why not create a device that allows vehicles to rent parking spaces for limited visits?

So he created and patented the parking meter. Millions of Magee Park-O-Meters would be sold over the world.

Carl Magee’s ambitious life is now scarcely known. But at Upper Iowa University, where he received an honorary degree, the Andres Center for Business Education proudly displays one of his original parking meters as a tribute to UIU entrepreneurs.

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