Dakota Datebook

John Cowan

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

  In November of 1910, John Cowan, a well respected judge from Devils Lake, set a match to the tinderbox of prohibition by refusing to hear a case about two little “blind pigs.”
Three-time attorney general, and the first North Dakota official to be impeached, John Cowan was born in 1858 in Moffat, Scotland. John didn’t stay long in the Scottish low country, leaving with his family for Canada when he was only four. After graduating from high school, Cowan roamed throughout Canada and the United States trying his hand at a number of different fields; medicine, clerking and homesteading. In each he eventually failed, but in Devils Lake he finally found his calling; law. Throughout the 1880s, Cowan quickly built a solid reputation as a capable lawyer and skilled public official; serving as Devils Lake justice of the peace, Ramsey County superintendent and by 1894, state attorney general.
The 1890s proved to be a difficult decade for the state’s law enforcement. North Dakota had entered the Union dry in 1889, and despite the police forces’ best efforts, the sale of alcohol continued. Certainly, the consumption of alcohol diminished in public venues, but blind pigs, saloons that sold alcohol illegally, sprung up throughout the state. Curbing the prevalence of these illicit institutions proved to be a trying job, and after three terms as attorney general, Cowan moved back home to Devils Lake where he was elected judge of North Dakota’s second district in 1900.
But in Devils Lake, the question of prohibition and blind pigs continued to dominate Judge Cowan’s schedule; clogging his court with numerous cases. While the judge certainly didn’t sanction the illegal sale of liquor, Cowan felt it was the obligation of the city or county, not the state courts, to curb their sale. Cowan looked for any excuse to dismiss prohibition cases and free up his docket for more pressing matters. The case he heard about two blind pigs in Devils Lake on this date in 1910 was no different, and Cowan worked to stall the case hoping the complainants, two ladies, would eventually lose interest. However, they refused to yield, and when Cowan continued to stall, they started a campaign to impeach him.
Still a respected official in the state with powerful allies, Cowan felt he had little to fear from the Devils Lake women and let the matter slide. But those ladies had powerful friends of their own. On March 3, 1911 the House of Representatives, for the first time in North Dakota history, forwarded articles calling for Cowan’s impeachment to the Senate. Judge John Cowan would eventually be cleared of all charges brought against him, and was hailed as a hero by many upon his return to Devils Lake. But the impeachment trial had damaged his reputation and Cowan lost his bid for reelection. And so John Cowan, who had been in office for nearly three decades, returned to his law office in Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall
Eriksmoen, Curt. Did You Know That…?: 47 Fascinating Stories About People Who Have Lived in North Dakota. Vol. 2: McCleery & Sons Publishing, 2008.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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