Elora man involved in major American bribery scandal

The McGowan name is largely unknown today in Wellington County, but a century ago that was not the case.

John McGowan had a prosperous career as a farmer near Alma, as a politician, sitting for several terms as a Conservative MP, and as a businessman, operating the linseed oil mill at Aboyne. In political matters he acquired the nickname “Honest John.”

One of his sons, Charles, born in 1888, was drawn to Manitoba as a young man. He was intent on capitalizing on the boom in Winnipeg in the years before the First World War. On a train trip between from Chicago to Winnipeg he inadvertently became embroiled in one of the major American political scandals of the era.

The cause of his troubles was an ambitious British-born businessman named William Lorimer. After moving to Chicago as an impoverished immigrant, the ambitious Lorimer prospered in the brick business, and then in real estate. Soon he was involved in the corrupt politics of the Windy City, first as a backroom operator, and then as a Republican Congressman from 1895 to 1901 and 1903 to 1909. He quickly acquired the nickname The Blond Boss, which was used by both friend and foe.

In 1909, he wanted to move up to one of the two Illinois Senate seats. At that time the Senate was elected by the state legislators, not by popular vote.

After a lengthy deadlock in the Illinois legislature, he emerged victorious, with the support of both Republicans and Democrats.

Charges that he had obtained the seat through bribery and corruption followed him to Washington. Denying everything, he demanded an investigation. A Senate committee agreed to the investigation in June 1910.

The committee reported the following December. The members found that there had been corruption and bribery involved in Lorimer’s election, but could not link him directly with the irregularities. It was hardly a vindication of Lorimer, and one Senator submitted a minority report, and that resulted in a debate that lasted six weeks. In the end, Lorimer avoided expulsion from the Senate by a vote of 46 to 40.

By then the American public, fed up with corruption in general, had turned vehemently against Lorimer. At a banquet in Chicago, former president Theodore Roosevelt refused to sit at the same table with him.

A second investigation followed, based on new evidence. In the end, William Lorimer was deprived of his senate seat. He sought to be reimbursed the $35,000 he had spent defending himself, but the senate took no action on the request.

That is the bare outline of the case. Young Charles McGowan became involved when he overheard two of Lorimer’s associates on a train to Winnipeg. The men discussed a $100,000 fund they had collected and distributed “to put Lorimer across,” and one, a lumber merchant, boasted that he had contributed $10,000 himself.

The men seemed oblivious to the fact that other passengers heard all of their incriminating conversation, but afterwards realized that they had exposed key evidence to the other passengers.

Anti-Lorimer personnel hired agents to track Charles McGowan, and found him in Winnipeg. They managed to persuade McGowan to return to the United States to testify. McGowan denied that he had heard any of the incriminating conversation on the train. The Lorimer crowd had either bribed or intimidated McGowan.

The anti-Lorimer forces, growing daily in number and determination, were convinced that McGowan had not been truthful in his testimony. Two anti-corruption senators, Albert Beveridge and Robert LaFollette, were determined to oust Lorimer, even though all were Republicans. Beveridge hired the William Burns detective agency to pursue the investigation. Agents of the firm came to Canada, and found McGowan in Toronto.

They cornered him, and spirited him to a hotel suite, where they interviewed him at length. In the end, he admitted that he had lied under oath after receiving payments from Lorimer’s men.

Under pressure from the Burns men, McGowan wrote out and signed a confession, which was presented to the senate’s investigating committee on Jan. 31, 1912. William Burns himself had interviewed McGowan, and he testified before the committee on the matters pertaining to McGowan.

By then the Lorimer case was front-page news in virtually every daily paper in the United States.

Charles’s father, “Honest John” McGowan, had become alarmed at his son’s activities and his naivety in being drawn into the biggest American political scandal of the year. Accompanied by his son, he went to Washington to attend the senate hearings in January and February 1912.

Though Charles McGowan did not testify, he was watched closely by horde of reporters covering the sessions. Several noted that McGowan turned scarlet red in embarrassment every time his name was mentioned in the testimony.

As this was not a criminal trial, McGowan escaped legal prosecution for perjury. The senate committee went on to hear 140 witnesses. The Lorimer affair dominated Washington politics for weeks prior to the committee report, which concluded “that corrupt methods and practices were employed in his [Lorimer’s] election, and that the election, therefore, was invalid.” It was the end of investigations that had stretched over two years, and consumed a considerable amount of time and energy in the American senate.

Charles McGowan by then had returned to Elora, and backed by his father, had opened a shoe store on Geddes Street, determined to live a quiet life, out of the sight of the American press. Early in 1914, he joined a chain store network as the local agent for the products of the Slater Shoe Company. He settled into a comfortable life as a small town merchant.

In 1912, McGowan joined the 30th Wellington Regiment as a reservist, and participated in annual exercises with the regiment. In the fall of 1915 he was called to active duty in World War I. At Quebec City he was transferred to the 25th Battalion before sailing for Europe.

Charles McGowan, who by then had risen to the rank of lieutenant, was killed in action at Flanders June 3, 1916, and was buried at a military cemetery in Belgium. He was 28 years old.

William Lorimer, the rogue who brought temporary notoriety to McGowan, escaped criminal conviction, but his political career lay in tatters. Unrepentant to the end, he asked his remaining friends in the Senate to reimburse him the $35,000 he had spent on his unsuccessful defence. The Senate snubbed him.

Though his name was by then mud in most of the United States, the people of Chicago still remained loyal to him. When he returned from his disgrace at Washington the natives greeted him with festive celebrations. Attempts at political comebacks, though, in 1916 and 1918, were unsuccessful, though he remained a respected member of Chicago’s Republican clique.

Most of his business ventures turned sour, wiping out much of his fortune. Lorimer tried to restore his finances when he opened a lumber yard, supported by the men who had previously taken his bribes.

He also served as the president of a small bank in his last years.

William Lorimer died in 1934, at the age of 74.

Had he not happened to overhear a conversation in the smoking compartment of a train in Minnesota, Charles McGowan’s life would have taken a substantially different course, whether in Winnipeg or as a businessman in his native Elora. Chance plays a huge role in human affairs.


Stephen Thorning