A woman who works with the “special collections” at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant was featured in last night’s “History Detectives” program on public television stations across the country. Joy Conwell helped the show’s producers track down some history about Henry Clay Dean, a minister who lived in Mount Pleasant for 16 years.
Dean was one of the leading critics of the American Civil War, part of the “Peace Democrats” who were labeled the “Copperheads” by their Republican opponents.
“He was often referred to as ‘Dirty Shirt Dean’. He had kind of an aversion to cleanliness. He was an absolute genius. He was a lawyer, a Methodist Episcopal minister, an educator,” Conwell says. “But he was very much outspoken concerning the Lincoln policies on how the Civil War was being handled. He would be considered in his time similar to the peace activists during the Vietnam War era.”
One of Dean’s descendants handed over a cane decorated with a coiled copperhead snake to the producers of the P.B.S. program, and the “History Detectives” revealed in last night’s program that the cane was Dean’s, given to him by his “rebel friends” according to an article in a Michigan newspaper.
Dean was a renowned orator, attracting huge crowds for his speeches. Mark Twain devoted a whole chapter of “Life on the Mississippi” to describing a Dean speech and the crowd’s reaction. Dean helped found the institution now known as Iowa Wesleyan College, where Conwell works.
“He suffered a house fire,” Conwell says. “He was known as a great reader and he had over 3000 books and when his library burned, his collection was so great, that the actual burning was reported in The New York Times.”
A restaurant now sits on the ground where Dean’s house once stood in Mount Pleasant. “And when the ‘History Detectives’ were here, we all went and saw Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Conwell says, with a laugh.
Henry Clay Dean once served as the chaplain of the U.S. Senate and he was a speaker at the 1864 Democratic National Convention. “He was very much a mover and a shaker,” Conwell says.
According to one account, the entire southern Iowa town of Corydon was in a local church for one of Dean’s speeches when Jesse James robbed the town’s bank. James was so enraged at being upstaged by Dean that James went to the church and taunted the crowd with the bags that held the $6000 he’d stolen.
Henry Clay Dean left Mount Pleasant in 1871 and moved to Missouri, settling on an 800-acre farm he called “Rebel’s Cove.” The farm is now part of a conservation area known as Rebel’s Cove. Descendants of Henry Clay Dean plan a reunion in Queen City, Missouri, on July 24 and 25.
Photo courtesy of Keith Dinsmore, Henry Clay Dean descendent