By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Bethany House, a charitable institution for the reform of wayward girls, opened in Minneapolis in 1879, but "resort" workers who chose not to reform must have had a hard go at it. They may have accounted for periodic news items such as the following, from the Tribune, July 14, 1867: "Shocking--The crime of infanticide is becoming alarmingly prevalent in St. Paul... It seems that those who commit this heartless crime go a mile or so above town, where they throw the children in the river from the cliffs of the adjacent rocks. One of these children was found floating...with a piece of a woman's chemise tied tightly around its neck, signifying that it had been strangled to death, and a bag of sand was attached to it which was not heavy enough to sink the child." Just how these editors identified babies dropped in the Mississippi near Minneapolis as belonging to St. Paul is open to question.
Despite its bout with reformism circa 1910, Minneapolis was nationally notorious for its actively criminal government. Around the turn of the century journalist Lincoln Steffens--who, as the anointed "prince of the muckrakers" and an avid chronicler of Tammany Hall, ought to have known--said that the system of corruption in Minneapolis "for deliberateness, invention, and avarice has never been equaled."
Doctor Alfred Eleisha Ames was one of All Saints' first elected city officials, its very first physician, and a beloved member of the community. Among his good works was the donation of the land that the Gethsemane Episcopal Church stands on, to this day, at 905 Fourth Avenue South. His son, Doctor Albert Alonzo Ames, was not quite so upstanding. Elected mayor of Minneapolis four times, "Doc Ames" headed a crime ring so complex, so blatant, and so successful it might make John Gotti blush.
Doc Ames's first three administrations were corrupt in the ordinary sense, as his administration balanced squeezing local criminals and prostitutes with the job of running the city. But in his fourth term, beginning January 7, 1901, he went for broke. First he appointed his brother, Colonel Fred W. Ames, who had recently evaded court-martial in the Philippines, chief of police. Then, according to Steffens's account in Shame of the Cities (1904), he hired Norman King, a famed gambler, "to invite to Minneapolis thieves, confidence men, pickpockets, and gamblers... They were to be organized into groups, according to their profession, and detectives were assigned to assist and direct them [in] making the terms and collecting the 'graft.'"
Ames commissioned an alleged morphine dealer, "Coffee John" Fitchette, "as captain of police, with no duties except to sell places on the police force." In fact, upon assuming his fourth term of office in 1901, Doc Ames's first act was to fire 107 honest police officers so that Coffee John could sell the positions to various thieves. His second act was to free all the local thieves from jail, who then had to report to King for duty. One swindler, Billy Edwards, reported that the police eventually put a man waiting at the railroad station to dispatch incoming thieves to their assigned police captains. The police even organized burglaries, at one point persuading a Pabst Brewing Company employee to raid the company safe while police officers stood outside guarding the building.
Ames hired an assistant, Irwin Gardner, to take charge of collecting income from prostitutes. There were laws on the books limiting "disorderly houses" to the downtown river area, so Gardner persuaded women to spread out through the city opening "of all things, candy stores, which sold sweets to children... while a nefarious traffic was carried on in the rear." The city's prostitutes paid license fees of up to $100 a month directly to Gardner, as well as medical inspection fees of $5 to $20 a visit whenever he showed up to "inspect" the women. As part of the graft, Steffens reports that prostitutes were also "compelled to buy illustrated biographies of the city officials; they had to give presents of money, jewelry, and gold stars to police officers."
Ames may have inadvertently sounded the death knell for legalized Minneapolis prostitution when he stopped the system of women paying fees to the city. He did this, of course, so that he could intercept the money directly, but it certainly had the effect of leaving women with fewer friends in government generally.
But Doc Ames's vision was not limited to officially sanctioned thievery and prostitution. Peddlers, pawnbrokers, saloonkeepers, and opium den operators were made to pay protection money to the police. Doc Ames also had slot machines set up in saloons throughout the city, which netted him over $15,000 a year.
He further fattened his gambling revenues by means of a game called The Big Mitt. "The 'big mitt' game was swindling by means of a stacked hand at stud poker," Steffens reported. "'Steerers' and 'boosters' met 'suckers' on the street, at hotels, and railway stations, won their confidence, and led them to the 'joint.'" If the suckers dared complain to the police, they were informed that gambling was illegal in Minneapolis and threatened with imprisonment. If the sucker continued to make a fuss, the police would take him to the train station and run him out of town.