Tipton’s Farm Boy – Judge Emlin McClain.

Judge Emlin McClain, Chancellor of the Department of Law at the State University of Iowa (1890-1901) and author of McClain’s Annotated Statutes of Iowa (1880), was a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court from 1901 – 1912.

In 1865 – in the wake of the Civil War – Iowa Supreme Court Justices George G. Wright and Chester Cole founded – in Des Moines – the first law school west of the Mississippi River, and the following year (1866), there were 12 graduates! Two years later (1868), the school became the State University of Iowa Department of Law, moved to Iowa City, and there, brought together 25 students, 3 faculty members and 1,100 volumes in the law library, all bunched into a handful of second floor rooms in Old Capitol.

In 1869 (see pic above), the school graduated 16 male students, but in 1870, the Iowa Legislature changed the state law on licensing lawyers, dropping the requirement of “white male,” thus opening the door for women and other minorities to be accepted for enrollment. In 1873, Mary Beth Hickey became SUI’s first woman graduate, and in 1879, Alexander Clark, Jr. was the first African-American graduate, with Moung Edwin – from Burma – being the first graduate from another country.

One of the students in that class of 1873, graduating with Mary Beth Hickey, was a young man who grew up on a farm near Tipton in Cedar County, Iowa. Born in Salem, Ohio on November 26, 1851, Emlin McClain came to Iowa in 1855 (age 4) with his parents, William & Rebecca McClain, and his older brother Byran, who was born in 1845.

Both of Emlin’s parents were born into Quaker households in Pennsylvania, and his Scotch-Irish father, William, was the principal and proprietor of Salem Institute in Ohio. According to family records (see below), after ten years of farming in Cedar County, the McClain’s moved into nearby Iowa City in 1865, and its here, Emlin’s father founded The Iowa City Academy, becoming very well-known around the State of Iowa as a quality educator.

So, it’s very explainable then, why – in 1866 – young Emlin McClain – at age 15 – entered the SUI Normal School, where five years later, in 1871, he graduated with a degree in philosophy, followed by a degree in the classics (liberal arts) in 1872, and finally, a degree in law in 1873!

During his college years, Emlin was a member of the Zetagathian literary society – meeting in South Hall – becoming one of its presidents. He was also a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, and was asked to be one of the commencement speakers for both his collegiate and law classes.

Upon the completion of his SUI law degree (1873), Emlin moved to Des Moines – where he became a clerk in the law office of Gatch, Wright (George G.) & Runnells. Wright (above right), who helped form the SUI School of Law in 1865, had became a U.S. Senator in 1870, so Emlin was immediately asked to serve as Wright’s private secretary, clerking for a Senate committee in Washington D.C. during the two sessions of the Forty-fourth Congress – 1875-77.

Over the following four years, 1877-1881, McClain practiced law in Des Moines, and during that time, he wrote McClain’s Annotated Statutes of the State of Iowa – which was first published in 1880, immediately becoming the standard code for all lawyers across Iowa!

With all the fanfare surrounding his writings, McClain was invited to return to Iowa City in 1881 to serve as a Professor of Law, becoming the first graduate of SUI to come back as a professor! By 1887, Emlin was promoted to Vice Chancellor, and then, in 1890, became the Chancellor. Here is a brief timeline of his decade of leadership (1890-1901) – serving as the Chancellor of the SUI School of Law

(C-0302) Here’s a rare 1895 postal cover from Emlin’s publishing company – Callaghan & Co. in Chicago – addressed to Emlin in Iowa City. Maybe a big royalty check from the sale of his many law books! (Below) A receipt postcard from Callaghan – Law Book Sellers & Publishers – 114 Monroe Street in Chicago (from 1897).

Interestingly enough, Chancellor McClain was nominated for the Iowa Supreme Court in March 1891 (above left), but failed to receive the political support necessary to secure the position. Nine years later, in March 1900 (above right), the honor came his way again, and this time, McClain won on the fourth ballet – with a lot of cheers and jeers along the way. Below is part of the story from the August 2, 1900 edition of The Des Moines Leader...

It was in the midst of this nomination process, the August 1st victory, and his first day serving on the Iowa Supreme Court – January 1, 1901 – that Emlin wrote his wife, Ellen, who was already in transition, moving the McClain family from Iowa City to Des Moines.

(JP-015) This rare postal cover & letter – dated November 12, 1900 – is from Emlin McClain in Iowa City to his wife, Ellen, who is in process of moving the McClain family to Des Moines.
(JP-015) Nov. 12, 1900. My darling wife:  Donald (the oldest McClain son-age 20) came all right with the train (Rock Island RR from Des Moines to Iowa City). He looks well & seems to feel in the best condition. There was a great crowd at the station & the tally-ho (cheering on the train) was hailed up by a long line of students. Dr. (George) MacLean (new SUI President 1899), Dr. Knife, Griffith Williams (?) were in a separate carriage. All were taken to the front steps (of Old Capitol) where each one (was) called on for remarks & then the fellows – two of whom had called attention to being hungry – (and) let off for breakfast. There is some kind of a show tonight. The President (MacLean) has asked me to ride with him but where or to what end I do not know. Love to all. Kiss Gwendolyn (youngest daughter-age 6) for me. Your husband.

An interesting sidelight here – in Emlin’s 1900 letter, he mentions SUI President George E. MacLean. When MacLean was chosen as the new University president in 1899, the press – and many SUI students – had trouble distinguishing the two names: MacLean vs. McClain. In an editorial, The Des Moines Leader (below) suggested something be done to clear up the “buttercupped” confusion!

Emlin McClain served faithfully for nearly twelve years on the Iowa Supreme Court (January 1, 1901 to December 31, 1912) and was Chief Justice for two of those years. After his retirement from the Court, the McClains moved to California where Emlin was Professor of Law at Stanford University before returning to Iowa City in 1914 to, once again, serve as Dean of the SUI Law School.

This 1902 picture of fraternity students at SUI shows the two McClain sons – Donald and Henry McClean.

Emlin married Ellen L. Griffiths (born 1855) on February 19, 1879, and together, they had three children – Donald (1880-1963), Henry Griffiths (1881-1965), and Gwendolyn (1894–1984). While in Iowa City, the McClain’s lived on Bloomington Street, housing Emlin’s mother, Rebecca, for fifteen years (1877-1891), after the death of her husband, William.

Judge Emlin McClain died, at age 64, in Iowa City on May 25, 1915 and Ellen passed on February 3, 1917, at age 61. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Quite the set of accomplishments, don’t you think, for a farm boy from Tipton, Iowa? Emlin & Ellen McClain – Godspeed!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Law School History and Milestones, University of Iowa School of Law website

George G. Wright (1855-1860), Iowa Judicial Branch, Iowa Courts website

Wm. M’Clain Portrait Hung, The Iowa City Daily Press, July 28, 1915, p 4

Postcard 258: The Iowa City Academy Experiment, Bob Hibbs, August 21, 2004 

William McClain, Find-A-Grave

Rebecca Harris McClain, Find-A-Grave

Emlin McClain, Wikipedia

McClain, Emlin photograph, The University of Chicago Photographic Archive

Emlin McClain, Source: “Progressive Men of Iowa”. Page 229, Cedar County, Iowa Biographies, IAGenWeb

Emlin McClain, Law Library, University of Iowa

McClain’s Annotated Statutes of the State of Iowa – Vol II, Emlin McClain, Callaghan & Company Chicago, 1884

Supreme Judgeship, The Iowa Citizen, May 22, 1891, p 10

McClain/MacLean, The Iowa State Press, July 1, 1899, p 5

For Supreme Judge, The Iowa State Press, March 3, 1900, p 4

The Supreme Court Nomination, The Des Moines Leader, August 1, 1900, p 4

M’Clain Is Named For Judge, The Des Moines Leader, August 2, 1900, p 1

Emlin M’Clain of Johnson, The Des Moines Leader, August 2, 1900, p 2

M’Clain Won In Fourth, The Des Moines Leader, August 2, 1900, p 3

Emlin McClain (1901-1912), Iowa Judicial Branch, Iowa Courts Website

1902 SUI Fraternity Photo, File:Hawkeye (1902) (14593232480).jpg, Wikimedia

The funeral of Mrs. R. H. McClain, 1891, Iowa City Academy, IAGenWeb – Johnson County, Iowa

Emlin McClain biographical sketch, The Iowa Supreme Court , The Annals of Iowa, Volume XXVI, Issue 2, October 1, 1944, p 154

Famous Iowa Jurist, Emlin M’Clain Dies, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 25, 1915, p 1

Ellen L. Griffiths McClain, Find-A-Grave

Emlin McClain, Find-A-Grave


Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…