If there was anything remarkable about that Wednesday in November 1935 in Elkton, it was the new policeman directing traffic on the main thoroughfare from Washington to New York. Seventy-year-old Chief George Potts, having maintained tranquility in the town for twenty-eight years, had recently retired. The rookie, Jake Biddle, was going to make a fine replacement as the top cop in Cecil County’s largest town and its two-man force, the locals remarked.
Eloping couple were streaming into the courthouse, while the marrying parlors were packed with nearly forty weddings, but that was routine. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House struggling with the nation’s economic woes. Far away in the Middle East, the ruler of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi was on the throne, but few people recognized his name. As far as anyone knew, it was going to be another unremarkable day for the town of 3,000 people.
But once that shiny Packard blasted onto Main Street “at a terrible speed,” the town was caught in an incident involving international law, wounded Iranian dignity, and disruption of diplomatic relations.
Chief Biddle was downtown when he noticed the fast-moving vehicle. In it was Iran’s ambassador hurrying from Washington to New York for a dinner date, along with his British born wife, a pet dog, and the chauffeur. When the policeman gave a blast on the whistle the driver pulled to the curb. As Biddle walked up to the Packard, he wasn’t put off by the lettering on its side that read “Ghaffar Khan Djalal, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Imperial Majesty the Shah of Iran.” The diplomatic license plate didn’t register either.
Stories about what happened next vary widely, but whatever the case, the run-in escalated. One local paper said, “When Biddle approached the car, the minister, who it is said had been drinking pushed him away, and when Biddle refused to allow the envoy to proceed, he got out of the car and engaged in a scuffle. “ So unruly had the diplomat become that handcuffs were snapped on his wrists, the paper continued. Constable Clayton Ellison who lived nearby was roused from a catnap by the disturbance so he rushed over to help as did old Chief Potts as a growing crowd watched the tense, unfolding scene downtown.
Producing his State Department credentials and business card identifying his lofty position, the Persian Prince asked to straighten things out by calling Secretary Cordell Hull, the Far East Desk or someone in Washington, D.C. But the officers weren’t letting a little noise distract them from their sworn duty to uphold Maryland Traffic Laws.
At some point the bunch was carted off to the jail. When it was explained to the jailer that the minister of Iran was involved, he wasn’t impressed either, accustomed as he was to so many marrying reverend in the Gretna Green. “Minister, eh? Just another preacher. Throw ‘em in the cell!” quoted the Associated Press.
Everyone had concluded the same thing. From the crowd watching the police action to Biddle and the deputy at the jail, it was universally agreed that he was a “marrying minister” trying to grab some of cupid’s lucrative Elkton business.
At the lockup, the ambassador again protesting that his diplomatic immunity was violated, asked to call Washington, but the request was denied. When the lawmen found that the trial magistrate wasn’t available they packed up the group for a trip to North East. There the justice of the peace, George C. Rawson, thought the situation was a little ticklish so he allowed the Persian representative to call the State Department. When the Far East duty officer got the judge on the line, the charges were quickly dropped as the magistrate told everyone in the hearing room that a “foreign minister can do no wrong.”
Once the judge determined that not all speeders could be treated equally, it wasn’t long before the Elkton police discovered that they had stumbled upon one of “Washington’s prize foreign squawkers,” as a local newspaper labeled the emissary. Djalal grumbled to New York Papers, saying that the “Elkton police were no diplomats,” or a least that’s what the headline screamed. As soon as he returned from New York, where he “rushed for an urgent official engagement” he would make a formal complaint with the State Department, he assured newspapermen.
The Shah of Iran was outraged, when he heard that police officers grappled with his dignitary . . . snapping the degrading shackles of a criminal on his wrist” as Time reported. After a protest was lodged, federal investigators took affidavits, followed by closed-door meetings with officials at the highest level of government. To pacify Iran, the officers, Biddle and Clayton, were convicted of assault and fired, while the president, governor, and mayor issued formal apologies.
It might have all faded into the mist of time right there but for an enterprising photographer from the Baltimore Sun. He got three of the lawmen to pose for picture a few weeks after with a caption reading: “These gyves [shackles] were snapped on Iran’s Envoy.” Local authorities thought they could quietly reinstate the officers, but the photograph and their action once again grabbed headlines. This touched off another international incident for an apology was no longer sufficient for the now furious shah. He ordered the minister recalled, closed the embassy, and evicted U.S. representatives from Persia, breaking off all diplomatic relations with the United States for three years.
So how did it all end? With the federal government carefully monitoring municipal actions, Biddle quickly hung up his holster and badge at the order of the town council. The rookie chief returned to farming at a quiet spot far off the main New York to Washington, road traveled by dignitaries. As for Elkton patrolmen, they steered clear of run-ins with foreign ambassadors or at least we have found any additional references to trouble with the agency in the Journal of International Law. And diplomats, envoys, and marry ministers for that matter were likely to use a little more caution when traveling through this corner of northeastern Maryland.