Joseph Riley from Erie County, N.Y., was in a train station in New Jersey in 1873 when he overheard a conversation between two men sitting on a bench across from him. They were reminiscing about their experiences in the Civil War. One of the men had fought with the Union and said he had been stationed at Fortress Monroe during the final days of the war and that he had guarded the captured president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. He said he had in his possession a family photo album that belonged to Davis. He guessed that Davis would be willing to pay dearly for the stolen piece of family history.
Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.
Cheryl Mullenbach is the author of non-fiction books for young people. Her work has been recognized by International Literacy Association, American Library Association, National Council for Social Studies, and FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Visit her website at: www.cherylmullenbachink.com
As he listened to the men talk, Riley remained silent but learned that the fellow who had stolen Davis’ album was headed home to Waterloo, Iowa. Riley, who had been a southern sympathizer during the war, was outraged that the Iowan had stolen Davis’ album.
When he returned to his home in New York, Riley sent a letter to Davis, who was living in Memphis, Tenn. Describing the conversation he had overheard, Riley added that he had learned the man’s name—D.E. Moore from Waterloo, Iowa. And Riley had written to Moore urging him to return the album to its rightful owner. Moore offered to sell it for $45.
When Jefferson Davis received Riley’s letter, he turned to an old friend, George W. Jones, a former Iowa senator. “When I was a prisoner…the commanding officer sent some officers to examine the trunks of my family. Those trunks were pillaged…” Davis asked Jones to contact Moore.
Jones traveled to Waterloo from Chicago and learned from the postmaster that Moore had moved to Tama County, about 25 miles away. Jones visited a lawyer who suggested he take a constable to serve Moore a writ of replevin, which would allow them to confiscate the stolen album. In addition, it was suggested that Jones take a six shooter into the “noted abolition county.”
Jones set out, with a six shooter in his pocket. When he got to Tama County, he searched for a constable but learned there was none. The justice of peace offered his son as a substitute. Jones and the boy set out.
Arriving at the Moore home, Jones passed himself off as a Union sympathizer interested in purchasing the album. “I have heard you have the album of Jeff Davis, the secession leader of the South who tried to destroy the liberties of our country…” Jones said. “I would like to get the old traitor’s album…”
Moore brought out the album. Jones commented that it was in very poor condition and that many photos were missing. Moore explained he had given several to neighbors and sold others.
Jones turned to the son of the justice of peace, handing the album to him. “Now serve your writ,” he said. As the boy read the writ of replevin aloud, Moore became outraged. His wife shouted, “You are no gentleman!”
Jones and the boy hopped in their buggy and drove off with the album. Within a few miles, they met up with the lawyer who had drawn up the writ; he asked if they had given a copy to Moore. Learning that they hadn’t, the lawyer said the law required that Moore be given a copy in anticipation of a court trial. He offered to return to Moore’s house to leave a copy of the document.
A short time later after serving Moore with the copy, the lawyer met up with Jones. “If you had gone back you would have been murdered,” he said. “The old man was in a terrible rage.”
The lawyer explained that he wanted to avoid a trial, so had simply paid Moore. By some accounts, $10; by others, $40.
- ”Iowa Items,” Perry Chief, Sept. 19, 1874.
- “Jeff Davis’ Album,” Interocean (Chicago), Sept. 9, 1874.
- “Jeff Davis’s Album,” Leavenworth (Kan.) Weekly Times, Dec. 4, 1884.
- “Jeff Davis’ Album.” Collector, March 1901, no 5, Vol xiv, p 58.
- Lasswell Crist, Lynda, ed. Papers of Jefferson Davis, vol 13, 1871-1879. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.