Politics was a tough game in Burlington in the mid-19th century, and few played the game better than the feisty Irish poet known locally as ‘Fox’.
James Fox Abraham came from a well-connected family in Pittsburgh. His father was a hero of the War of 1812 and his mother was a Quaker who named her son after George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends.
Fox came to town in 1846 to work in the book and stationery business for a relative, James Love. This store would later go through a series of owners until it closed in the 1970s when it was known as Gnahn’s Book Store.
Fox quickly realized that he wasn’t cut out for selling books and turned to speculating in local real estate. But he still found time to use his quick wit, love of language, and caustic tongue to lash out at Democrats and anyone else who drew his ire.
Fox was short but an immaculate dresser. A newspaper account from the 1870s describes him as “a man of brilliant intellect. He is very energetic with a driving disposition and a jittery, active temperament that keeps the mind and body in a state of high activity.”
Fox might have been a real estate agent and political beast, but there was more to his character. He was well liked in the community, was involved in charitable causes and was a local riser in Irish liberation groups.
But his most intriguing quality was a love of poetry and writing. By today’s standards, his surviving poetry is ponderous and sentimental, but in his day it struck a chord.
His work was published in the Hawk Eye newspaper and at least two poems received national attention. The “Tin Bucket Brigade” dealt with workers and “Santa Claus Knows” was common during the holidays.
Fox’s business prospered to such an extent that he was able to build an attractive house near the ravine at North Street and Market Street. This canyon was known as “Abraham’s Hollow,” then “Stoney Lonesome,” and is now the site of the high school football field.
In the 1850s, Fox’s expanding real estate holdings in Burlington earned him a footnote in an important Iowa press freedom case. It began when one of Fox’s properties was leased to a gentleman who ran a house of ill repute outside the building.
Since Fox had legal title to the building, Judge Claggert found him responsible for running a “messy house”. But the indictment had political overtones, for Claggert was both a Democrat, a curmudgeon and a legal bully who often used his office to punish political opponents.
Fox was fined $100 by the judge — a sizable sum at the time — prompting Fox to make a series of inappropriate comments about the judge’s parentage, and Fox threatened to take the verdict to a higher court .
The wily Judge Claggert cut off that avenue of attack by appealing the astronomical $50,000 case. All of Burlington might not have been worth $50,000 then, and the local papers were now jumping into the fray.
Clark Dunham, editor of the Hawk Eye, wrote: “It is easy to see what a machine of injustice and outrage our courts are capable of in the hands of a vengeful and inexorable man.” The judge was outraged and accused the newspaper of disregard for the court before.
The case was appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which sided with the newspaper’s claim to freedom of the press, effectively ending Claggert’s political career. But Fox’s local reputation was only boosted by the decision, and it prompted him to venture into politics.
In 1860 he became a force in Burlington’s Republican Party and was elected Ward Alderman and then Town Trustee. He was appointed postmaster of Burlington and wrote a column for the newspaper. He has built a solid reputation with many voters thanks to his ongoing attack on the practice of letting pigs and cows roam the city streets.
More:Around Burlington: How a herd of hungry cows wreaked havoc on Burlington’s North Hill
His reformist tendencies occasionally got him into trouble, as on the night he was walking past a bar on Main Street when the door of the bar flew open and a crowd of struggling raftsmen rushed into the street.
The neatly dressed councilman didn’t want his town to be besmirched by such street performances, so he resolutely walked up to a particularly large thug and began whacking the man’s head and shoulders with his cane while demanding that the fighting stop .
The Riverman refused Fox’s request and instead delivered a roundhouse straight to Fox’s chin, which lifted the Alderman off the sidewalk and set him unconscious in the middle of the muddy road.
In the weeks following the brawl, friends of Fox’s noticed a change in the former poet. He seemed subdued and content to leave the political stage.
However, he remained an active player in the city’s real estate business until his death in 1875.