Comrade Rowley’s story actually begins with someone else’s, that of Josephus White Benadom. Benadom, known as “Seph” to family and friends, was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Iowa 31st Infantry, Company E as a fifer. The 31st was a volunteer regiment raised in and around Davenport, Iowa and participated in several major engagements, including (among others) Vicksburg, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge as well as the Battle of Atlanta and Sherman’s March. It was mustered out shortly after the war was over, on June 27, 1865.
Benadom’s Civil War experiences entitled him to membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization founded in 1866 and comprised of Civil War veterans who had worn the Union blue. Benadom, who at this time resided in Maquoketa, Iowa, joined the Ben Paul Post in nearby Wyoming [IA]. The post had been established February 15, 1883. However, Benadom’s name is not among its charter members or even its early members; in fact, his name does not appear in the rosters until 1915. There he would have remained, unnoticed and unknown among the nameless faces peering at us from old photographs, had it not been for Comrade Rowley, who had never served a day in the war but whose Post “membership” nonetheless earned him and his companion instant fame.
Rowley was an unlikely candidate for G.A.R. membership. He was a young robin with a broken wing that Seph Benadom discovered in 1926. Benadom, who by that time had been practicing medicine for decades, set the wing, named the bird Rowley, and kept him as a lifelong companion. Thereafter, bird and savior were connected by mutual affection as well as a string affixed to both Rowley’s leg and a convenient button on Dr. Benadom’s coat. Legend has it that Rowley was fairly content despite being so confined, making only a few feeble attempts at escape. He thrived on a meat-and-fruit diet and accompanied Dr. Benadom wherever he pleased, including the 1926 G.A.R. encampment held in Des Moines, Iowa, where an alert news photographer captured and preserved for posterity a glimpse of Rowley the robin sitting atop his homemade perch stuck into the cork end of Dr. Benadom’s fife. This photograph catapulted Comrade Rowley (and Comrade Benadom) onto the front pages of many a midwestern newspaper and even one as far away as Canandaigua, New York.
If Rowley and Dr. Benadom were to be friends, though, the bird had no choice but to tolerate if not enjoy fife music. The doctor treasured the fife he had made in 1862 from “fine boxwood and brass” and played the old military tunes upon it on many occasions throughout his life. It was, he said, “the best instrument in the whole G.A.R.” It had seen much wartime use, even when the young Benadom and his regiment “marched with Sherman to the sea.” Undoubtedly, it was the same instrument he used at the Great Jones County [Iowa] Fair in 1927, during a truly unforgettable musical performance that also featured Rowley the Robin:
Dr. J. W. Benadom’s Fife and Drum Corp[s], assisted by his sons, and Charles Clark of Maquoketa and Frank Byerly of Anamosa, appeared that year and are still recalled by many. Benadom had trained a Robin, caught the previous spring, to sit quietly on his fife as he played. The two were a familiar sight on Monticello streets for several years.
Rowley lived the good life from 1926 until his demise sometime before or during 1933, since that year Dr. Benadom attended the 67th G.A.R. National Encampment in St. Paul with an eight-week-old successor, another robin named Rowley the Second. Apparently Rowley the Second had inherited the amiable characteristics of the original Rowley, among which were stoicism and a fondness for fife music. Benadom explained to a reporter how he had whittled Rowley’s perch himself. Still, he had worried about bringing him to encampments, “I was kind of afraid he’d get scared of all the noise — these drums and bugles,” but there was no need to fret. Rowley the Second behaved as courteously as did his predecessor. Benadom claimed that Rowley the Second was so talented that he could “chirp a few bars” of his favorite tune, “The Girl I Left Behind.”
Both Rowleys proved perfect companions for the old doctor. For 7 years, first the one robin and then the other had posed contentedly on his perch as the duo’s fame spread in newspaper stories published from within and beyond Iowa. But all good things must come to an end, which they did in 1933, only weeks after Benadom and Rowley the Second had returned from the St. Paul G.A.R. encampment. That’s when Dr. Benadom was murdered:
He was known to take walks in the park in the afternoon near his home at 639 N. Sycamore St, in Monticello, IA. It was on one of these walks that he reported to have been robbed by two thugs in the vicinity of the amphitheater ticket office. The men alleged to have taken $30 to $40. These circumstances of his confrontation frightened him and caused a sinking spell. He laid down on the couch in his reception room and became unconscious and continued so until his death an hour later.
This wasn’t the first time Dr. Benadom was mugged. In September 1902, he had been “waylaid, beaten, and robbed of $42, while walking near his home in Maquoketa. But he was a young, strong 59 years old then, and in 1933 he was 90 and unable to recover from the heart attack induced by the shock of his encounter with two burly thugs. Dr. Benadom was buried on December 9, 1933 in the Mt. Joy Cemetery near Davenport. What became of Rowley the Second is at this point unknown.
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