A new book recounts the grisly murder of a trailblazing Minneapolis dressmaker

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Catherine Ging Courtesy of the MN Historical Society

On a wintry night in December 1894, successful young dressmaker Catherine “Kitty” Ging was found dead in the road near Lake Calhoun.

At first she was presumed to be the victim of a horse-drawn buggy accident, a coroner’s exam revealed that she was shot in the head. The prime murder suspect was 29-year-old Harry Hayward, a local gambler and womanizer who was unusually helpful with the police when he heard the news.

The investigation soon uncovered multiple financial entanglements between Hayward and Ging, including a loan she took out from him to expand her business. Her collateral? A life insurance policy that named Hayward as the beneficiary. Though all signs pointed to Hayward as the murderer, his alibi was rock solid: He was seen at the Grand Opera House with another woman on the night Ging died.

In his new book, The Infamous Harry Hayward, author Shawn Francis Peters takes readers back to the Gilded Age in Minneapolis and into the fray of one of Minnesota’s most notorious murders.

“I wanted to be the first person to tell the whole story from beginning to end with all of the nuance and all of the great stuff that happens in the story,” Peter says. He pored over hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, archives, and newspaper coverage to inform the narrative, which includes immersive scenes and dialogue.

“It was in the paper in the Twin Cities every single day,” Peters says of the crime. Hayward was so ubiquitous in the press that newspaper headlines referred to him as simply “Harry.”

In addition to daily updates on the case, newspapers ran extensive illustrations of the parties involved and scandalous theories on the identity of the murderer and his motives. One story featured a local family that named a litter of puppies after key players in the case, and a publisher issued “collectible postcards” featuring familiar faces from the trial.

“The press really did deeply influence public perception of Harry to this day,” Peter says. “The reason that his legend has lived on the way that it has was because not only the amount of media coverage but the type of media coverage.”

Geographically, the story’s epicenter is The Ozark Flats, an apartment building formerly situated at Hennepin Avenue and Thirteenth Street owned by Hayward’s father. The Melrose Place of its day, the building was home to Ging, Hayward, Hayward’s parents, and Hayward’s brother Adry. It was also where Claus Blixt, a Swedish immigrant and the Ozark Flats’ janitor, lived.

Though Blixt quickly identified himself as the gunman in the murder, the case was far from closed. For starters, Hayward had a big mouth. Source after source shared how Hayward plied insurance agents for information on how certain kinds of deaths would affect life insurance policy payouts. Hayward had also tried to recruit Adry to do his dirty work, but Adry refused.

Both Hayward and Blixt were charged with first-degree murder, and when the trial got underway as many as 5,000 spectators gathered outside the Labor Temple to catch a glimpse of the drama. Blixt’s defense was that Hayward coerced him into committing the crime by threatening to kill Blixt’s wife. There was also a suggestion of mesmerism, hypnotism, or some other kind of “spell” that Hayward cast on Blixt, who had never committed such a crime before.

“As a rule, I don’t believe in supernatural powers, so I don’t believe that Harry had them,” Peter says. “I do think that he was a dynamic, charismatic, and manipulative person. I do think that he had a unique ability to manipulate people.”

Supernaturally-powered or not, the jury agreed that Hayward was responsible for Ging’s death. After seven weeks, almost a hundred witnesses, and $9,826.64 of the state’s dollars (which would translate to around $300K today), Hayward was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. Blixt voluntarily changed his plea to guilty, was convicted, and received a life sentence in Stillwater prison.

Even on death row, Hayward was up to his old tricks. From behind bars, he attempted to hire a hitman to kill a newspaper writer responsible for a damaging article about Hayward in the Minneapolis scandal sheet Town Talk. Hayward also seduced a woman through the mail and even finagled conjugal visits with her. Finally, he attempted – unsuccessfully – to recoup the benefits of Ging’s life insurance policy.

Throughout the trial, and even after sentencing, Hayward denied any wrongdoing, and blamed Ging’s murder on Blixt and Adry. Just before his death, however, Hayward felt compelled to confess – not only to his plot to murder Ging, but to several other murders as well. The confession was later published in a newspaper and as a book.

Though none of the murders mentioned in the confession were ever verified, Peters believes Hayward was just as evil as he claimed to be. “The way he tells the story, to me, has the ring of truth to it,” he says. “I absolutely believe that part of the confession.”

Though the language didn’t exist at the time, by today’s standards, Hayward would likely be diagnosed as a psychopath and a narcissist. As for Catherine Ging, she was a trailblazer. The New York transplant was single, childless, and financially independent. “I don’t know that she would have described herself as feminist, but in retrospect, we can see her as someone who broke free from traditional gender roles of her time,” Peters says. “She was a kind of new, autonomous woman.”

Unfortunately, not everyone saw those qualities as admirable. Father James Keane of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where Ging was a parishioner, considered her a cautionary tale, and preached after her death about “the dangers of young women eschewing the domestic sphere, where they properly belonged,” Peters writes.

But even after her death, Ging’s dream lived on. Her twin sister relocated to Minneapolis and took over the dressmaking business, successfully running it for decades. She was further memorialized in 2002 when a Minneapolis soccer field was named “Kitty Ging Green” in her honor.

In the case of Hayward, who was hung in Hennepin County Jail a little over a year after the murder, many felt that justice was served.

“I’m not an advocate of the death penalty, but given what we knew about Harry and his role in this murder and myriad other crimes, most people were satisfied at the time that justice was done,” Peters says. “I couldn’t find any indication at all in media reports that anybody spoke up and said, ‘This is a terrible injustice. We should have mercy on Harry.’ He was one of those rare people that it’s really impossible to find anything redeeming about him.”

IF YOU GO:

Shawn Francis Peters, The Incredible Harry Hayward
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Friday, April 20
Free


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