The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Richter, August Paul
(January 25, 1844–February 8, 1926)

–physician, journalist, and historian—was born in the Brandenburg town of Maerkisch-Friedland, Germanic Confederation. His family enjoyed considerable status because of an older brother who had become the official interior decorator for the ruling Hohenzollern family of Prussia.

    After matriculation at the University of Berlin as a medical student, Richter was drafted into the Prussian army. He served in the Royal Artillery during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. The next year he met Anna May, originally from Stettin, Pomerania, and with the prospect of marriage, became more dissatisfied with the emerging patriotic fervor of the Kingdom of Prussia. After marriage on May 12, 1868, he made his plans to migrate to America. After the end of the Franco-Prussian War, he eventually reached New York City on December 19, 1871.

    Richter supported himself by taking over a circulating library of German-language books that he rented to other immigrants, while also working as a reporter for the Arbeiter Union (New York City) and the Anzeiger für Paterson (Paterson, New Jersey). He eventually sent for his wife and resumed his pursuit of a medical degree, graduating from the State Medical College in Buffalo, New York, in 1876. With the immense centennial celebrations under way, he developed an interest in historical matters.

    The Richters moved to eastern Iowa, settling first in Lowden, in Cedar County, then in rural Scott County. He established his medical practice in the period 1878-1888, thereby creating a financial basis for his true passion, journalism. He wrote for a regional German-language newspaper, the Sternen Banner, and after its demise became good friends with the co-owners, Karl Matthey and Heinrich Matthey. They were prominent leaders of the flourishing German population of Davenport, where he met many other intellectual refugees from the newly formed German Empire. Imbued with the idealism of 19th-century liberalism, they tended to reject organized religion and schools, supporting instead free inquiry and private schooling. Richter, like many other German Iowans, joined the Central Turner Society and later belonged to a local chapter of the Society for Ethical Culture.

    Eventually, Richter became a full-time employee of the influential newspaper Der Demokrat. It was called the "low German Bible" because of its linguistic mixture of North German (Plattdüütsch) words and phrases, along with formal or university German. Starting in 1888, Richter became the editor. He continued a political agenda in editorials and articles that strongly advocated "personal liberty."In the 1890s that coded phrase meant support for an individual's beliefs, the noninterference of government agencies in the lives of individuals, and support for the manufacture, distribution, and sale of liquor. In his newspaper writing, Richter gained a reputation for using North German bluntness in expressing his opinions.

    In his habits, Richter was quite rigid; after spending the morning on his newspaper duties, he would walk up the bluff overlooking downtown Davenport to the Cook Memorial Library and conduct hours of historical research on the early history of Davenport and Iowa. After his wife's death in 1904, he immersed himself in historical research, focusing on the importance of national politics. He befriended a young academic at Drake University, Frank Irving Herriott, who came to his attention in 1906. Although they met only three times in person, they maintained an extensive correspondence. Herriott wrote a series of historical monographs based on Richter's research and access to the early German newspapers of the 1850s. Herriott's typed and translated articles from Der Demokrat (held at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines) represent a priceless resource: the original newspapers were destroyed in the 1950s.

    Richter retired in 1913 with his reputation at its peak. He began revising his manuscript, which represented 30 years of systematic research, for publication. Unfortunately, health problems slowed down his work. He had advanced diabetes, and both of his feet had to be amputated. Although he used a wheelchair, he still worked part-time for his old newspaper and eventually invested his life's savings with a Chicago printer to have his first volume, in German, available for sale in 1917. It sold poorly, in part because Iowa Governor William Harding had issued a proclamation banning everything in print that used the German language.

    In poor health and despondent over the end of his life's dream, he moved to Santa Monica, California, to live with his daughter Clara for the last years of his life.
Sources Richter's papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. See also F. I. Herriott, "August P. Richter: An Appreciation," Annals of Iowa 17 (1930), 243–69, 357–90; Ernst-Erich Marhencke, Hans Reimer Claussen, 1804–1894 (1999); and William Roba, German-Iowan Studies: Selected Essays (2004).
Contributor: William Henry Roba