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Ever heard of Keokuk, Iowa? Some interesting history on an unusual location….

Keokuk in the mid-1800s

Iowa was admitted to the Union in December of 1846, and its population was about 500. Around that time, a writer named Robert B. Ogden and his brother decided to head over to Iowa to open up a newspaper.

Traveling via steamer, Ogden was warned by a woman not to stop in Keokuk. She said, as quoted from Ogden’s own writings, “It’s the wickedest place in the United States… Nothing but thieves and gamblers and every night somebody’s robbed… and the number of people killed is awful. Get off at Churchville.”

Upon seeing Keokuk, also called “Gate City”, Ogden described it as, “To say the least, it was uninviting.” There were “no paving, no sidewalks” and the town was extremely small. Also, there was an area known as Rat Row. And the biggest attraction was literally “a log house one story, sign in front.. Coffins For Sale.”

Against all odds, Ogden ended up starting the newspaper in Keokuk after traveling around Iowa. The newspaper was named The Register, and it still exists to this day, now under the name of the Daily Gate City.


In 1850, the Sangamo Journal reported that Keokuk was charging its citizens a whopping $400 (today’s equivalent of $14,417.85) to own a grocery store. Needless to say, no one could afford it.

When someone tried to defy this, some rough-and-tumble tough guys (known as b’hoys) wrecked the place and its merchandise. I can’t find any further information on this strange ordinance.

Sangamo Journal (Illinois Daily Journal), Vol. II No. 218, 20 February 1850
Sangamo Journal (Illinois Daily Journal), Vol. II No. 218, 20 February 1850

As of 2020, Koekuk’s population was 9,900 and, according to Money Inc., “was actually voted THE worst place to live in Iowa for the year 2020”. They also said, “Keokuk has one of the highest crime rates in the state at 179.93% above the average.” In fact, CrimeGrade.org rates it a D+ for safety.

Keokuk is rich in history starting long before Iowa’s admittance to the Union. Check it out on cityofkeokuk.org/.


Francis J. Helenthal article originally printed in the Shoppers Free Press, Dec. 4, 1974
Sangamo Journal (Illinois Daily Journal), Vol. II No. 218, 20 February 1850
City of Keokuk website
The Daily Gate City

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