Murder, My Sweet

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

The lady looks like a marionette whose 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.

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.

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

"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.

Not all of the pictures in Strange Days are so macabre, of course. Even at its most sordid, sleepy old St. Paul could never compare to Weegee's Naked City. It would have been a slow night in Gotham indeed if Weegee were covering (as did the Pioneer Press on June 23, 1948) a "bathing beauty" contest at the regional convention of the American Taxicab Association, or (on April 12, 1953) Mrs. Oscar Getchell's 47-year-old fern. Yet the most innocuous shots in Strange Days, many of them cheesily staged, also speak volumes about the times. For instance: a 1961 photo of Herb Garske in a well-stocked backyard nuclear fallout shelter; or a 1960 image of racial integration at a Minneapolis Woolworth's lunch counter. Even Roy Dickerson's 1952 portrait of two elaborately wimpled nuns carries the sharp, distinct flavor of a now-vanished world.

"One of the things about these guys is they were close to the ground," Millet says. "They were integrated into the community in a way journalists aren't now, so there's this element of these being like family photos. Back then, if you were having a church supper, you'd call up the paper and say, 'Hey, come on over,' and they'd send a photographer."

But there's a reason Millet didn't call his book Quiet Days, Unexceptional Nights: For all the shots of prize-winning vegetables, Winter Carnival revelers, or now-leveled St. Paul landmarks, it's the crime and accident photos that remain the most riveting--precisely because they're the kind of pictures you'd never see in a newspaper anymore.

There's a noticeably callous streak running through them, too. Take, for example, the photo of a woman who's just jumped off the Lake Street Bridge. It's a forlorn winter day--the last day of 1944, in fact. A few firemen are looking on from the river's edge. The woman's body is a sad little bundle far across the ice. The picture says as much as could be said about loneliness and isolation. Yet some editor has circled the body in black ink, then drawn an arrow down from the bridge to indicate the woman's gravity-assisted vector.

If nothing else, Strange Days is a useful corrective to the notion that today's media are uniquely or even especially sensationalistic. Can you, for instance, imagine today's Pioneer Press covering the murder of an Anoka County sheriff's deputy with a photo of the man slumped across the front seat of his car, brains leaking onto the snow outside? Or then, the next day, following it up with a photo of the deputy's grieving widow and six children looking in shock at the previous day's newspaper? In fairness, that first gruesome picture only ran in the morning edition before being pulled. But the point remains: If the media today often seem shallow and salacious, some of the photos in Strange Days leave the impression of downright sadism.

So what changed? According to Millet, newspaper audiences began to lose their taste for sensationalist imagery in the '60s. "The societal end of it is very odd, because now, in television, and movies, and the internet, there are much more graphic depictions of violence than this. I mean, I was watching CSI last night, and it was about transgendered people being murdered during sex-change operations. I think we're in a state of denial: We don't want to look at this stuff in newspapers anymore. But these guys didn't think about it that way. They chased the news, and if they got the picture, they put it in the paper."

And the era of these photos was also a time when newspapers mattered in a way they simply don't today. The advent of television news, changing public tolerance for violence, and the increasing fustiness of newspaper owners were already conspiring to make this sort of rough-and-ready tabloid fare a thing of the past. Newspapers ceded ground to television, began their slouching retreat from the front lines of civic life, holed up behind the barricades of bourgeois taste. The revelation of Strange Days, its implicit, melancholy insight, is that this decline went hand in hand with the decline of urban America. For all the carnage and chaos these photos capture, perhaps the book's most telling image is its last one, an aerial shot of a vast, treeless subdivision in Cottage Grove. Call it "Death of the City."

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