Murder, My Sweet

Whispering of St. Paul's hidden lives (and deaths),a new photojournalism exhibit shoots to kill

The lady looks like a marionettewhose strings have just been cut. Her head's flopped against the shoulder of the guy in the passenger seat. Her eyes are shut. She might be in the middle of a romantic swoon, except for the blood seeping through the guy's jacket and the way the weirdly wrong cant of his neck suggests a severed spine. The car's a mess: The front end's been peeled away like the lid of an anchovy tin and the steering wheel's sticking out the driver's window. Everyone's dead. Obviously. The woman is Beverly Maalis, age 18; the guy's her husband Robert, age 31. They're newlyweds--or were, until one February night in 1957 when their car hit a bridge abutment on Highway 36.

The unfortunate couple is also the subject of one of the more chilling photographs in Strange Days, Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era (Minnesota Historical Society Press), Larry Millet's new collection of images culled from the photo archives of St. Paul's two newspapers at the time, the Pioneer Press and the Dispatch. (Beginning December 10, many of the photos will also be featured in an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center). Along with gruesome car crashes, these photos of suicides and slayings paint mid-century St. Paul as a seedy little burg indeed. But what makes them so truly engrossing--as opposed to just gross--is the fact that most of them actually appeared on the paper's front page between 1945 and 1965. Imagine waking up to Beverly Maalis.

Ouch! The aftermath of a car accident captured by photographer Dick "Buzz" Magnuson
Minnesota Historical Society Press
Ouch! The aftermath of a car accident captured by photographer Dick "Buzz" Magnuson

Millet, who also wrote Lost Twin Cities and Twin Cities Then and Now, had a long career at the Pioneer Press, starting as a general-assignment night reporter in 1972. There is--no big surprise--a pretty clear element of nostalgia in Strange Days, not only for a vanished St. Paul, but also for a different era in journalism. As Millet describes it in his introduction, the newsroom was like a Hollywood cliché of itself: floors pocked by ground-out cigarettes; shouting copy boys; clacking typewriters; and a bottle of bourbon in the back of every city-desk hack's drawer.

"When I started, you were already seeing this big generational change," Millet explained over the phone last week. "The early baby boomers were starting to come in, and the older generation was leaving. Though, like every change, it happened gradually. At that time, it was a real smoking, drinking, swearing kind of newsroom culture."

In those pre-Watergate years, a certain air of roughish disrepute still clung to journalists as a species. In the book, Millet tells a story about one of the photographers whose work he features prominently, Hy Paul (Hyman Paulinski): "Born in North Minneapolis, Paul got his start in the news business when an editor from the old Minneapolis Journal found him playing craps in an alley one day and hired him as an office boy.... As Paul later told the story, 'Mr. George Adams, managing editor, came up to me and said, "Hy, would you like to be a photographer?" and I said I'd never run a camera in my life. He said, "Take a camera home and shoot your girlfriend." That's what I did.'"

Paul, like the paper's other shutterbugs, took his photos with the Speed Graphic, a big, boxy one-shot camera produced by the Graflex Corporation of Rochester, New York. Until 35mm photography rolled around in the 1960s, the Speed Graphic was the camera of choice for photojournalists. Infamous New York City tabloid photographer Weegee even advised aspiring freelance night-crawlers to carry the model in order to bluff their way into crime scenes. In addition to looking official, the Speed Graphic had a flashbulb as big as a headlight. It's this that accounts for the Bambi-in-the-high-beams expression everyone seems to wear in Speed Graphic photos, as well as the harsh light and deep shadow that make them look like noir film stills. The Speed Graphic was practically made for photographing buildings burning at night and twisted chunks of metal scattered along empty Midwestern highways. Blood looks terrific in its light: thick and velvety and black.

Since the Speed Graphic could only take one picture at a time, though, there was little room for error: If the photographer missed his shot, it was gone forever. Which makes some of the caught-on-the-fly images in Strange Days all the more riveting. The book's very first picture, for instance, is of a car accident that photographer Dick "Buzz" Magnuson actually witnessed while driving on Highway 169. In the photo, a motorist with blood streaming from his forehead and down the front of his shirt lurches toward the camera, while, behind him, his wife lies slumped in the front seat of their car. The car itself is wedged beneath a semitrailer. The story that ran with the picture seems perversely cheery: "When news photographers say their prayers, they usually include a fervent plea to be at the scene when a big story breaks," it reads. In fact, according to Millet, the Speed Graphic photographers were so adept at being in the right place at the right time that one of them once got a shot of a woman getting hit by a car--as it was happening.

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