Some families celebrate their black sheep, others never speak of them. In some families, the story of the time Aunt Sally was arrested for dancing on a table with sailors is told every Thanksgiving; in others it's as if it had never happened. The same, of course, is true for cities, for states, for regions. Which stories are told, and which are conveniently forgotten? We all know about growing up in a little house on the prairie and James J. Hill's railroad empire--but what about the little houses on the wrong side of the tracks?
This is one version of that story: the dark legends, the scandalous eras, the shady characters. It's a dip in the murkier waters swirling around the sparkling self-image of the City of Lakes: a story of shadows in a town that prides itself on its clean, well-lit places.
Minneapolis's earliest days were painted in haunted tones. Our city is built around the ghost of the Mississippi's only falls, located somewhere between the Third Avenue and Hennepin Avenue bridges. When Father Louis Hennepin got here in 1680 he claimed the falls were 60 feet high, dwarfed only on this continent by Niagara, and that they could be heard for 15 miles on a still day. (120 years later Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the man who coaxed the Sioux to sell the Fort Snelling area for $2,000 worth of goods, said that the falls fell merely 17 feet.) Hennepin then named the falls for his patron saint, St. Anthony, forever obscuring the Sioux names they had been known by: Minirara, "curling water," and Owahmeneh, "falling water."
The Sioux believed that this core of Minneapolis was a creepy place on two counts. The spirit of evil and waters, Oanktehi, lived behind the falls, and was given to making frequent and terrible mischief. To make things worse, the falls were also haunted by the ghost of Ampato Sapa, a young mother who, according to legend, was so heartbroken by her husband's decision to take a second wife that she dressed in her wedding robe, bundled her young son into her canoe, and, as her family watched aghast from shore, sang her death song and paddled over the falls. It was said that you would forever hear her dirge in the wind coming off the water. On these cheery shores Minneapolis's first settlers illegally camped.
Before 1852 all the land extending west from the Mississippi and south from Canada to McGregor, Iowa, was officially Indian land, except for Fort Snelling. Settling in this territory was illegal. That didn't stop the scores of squatters who took up residence in regulation homestead shacks all over Minneapolis--from the Mississippi west to Lake Harriet, between Minnehaha Creek on the south and Shingle Creek to the north. These squatters had every intention of getting rich when the land inevitably became a state.
A nation of budding capitalists could only dream of how much money there was to be made in real estate speculation during westward expansion. Accordingly, land "pirates" (agents acting for interests from the east) gathered in St. Paul to buy the land Minneapolis now stands on as soon as the government declared it for sale. They were right, of course: A corner plot on Hennepin and Fourth Street sold for $1,600 in 1863; in 1891 it went for $132,000, an increase of 8,149 percent, or 291 percent annually. But the squatters already camped there responded to the threat of the land pirates by forming a "secret" organization that swore publicly "to stand by each other to the death and to resist by every means known or unknown to law" efforts to displace the squatters' claims to their illegally occupied land.
These threats so intimidated the land pirates--who would have had to live on the lands they purchased until they were legally cleared for resale, a prospect that made the situation ripe for ambush and murder--that when the government auctioned off the land, the squatters found themselves bidding unopposed.
These settlers had bought up a godforsaken place, which they proceeded to christen All Saints. "All Saints" then meant literally a place where the spirits of the dead mingled with the living: a terrifying, un-Christian place. Perhaps, since it was believed that witches and ghosts couldn't cross a moving stream, they thought that the land west of the Mississippi was especially haunted, rife with the spirits of the untamed territory sprawling out to the west. It wasn't until December 1852 that the town fathers renamed the budding town Minneapolis, the first portion taken from the Dakota word for water, the second from the Greek word for city.
"Water City" was a name heartily endorsed by All Saints' temperance advocates, who hoped to inspire the city's many drunkards to let up a little; All Saints derived much of its income from moonshine, saloons, and the prostitutes who had set up shop to serve the trappers, river-rats, and Fort Snelling soldiers who drifted through for R & R.
In 1856 Minneapolis hired its first police officer, Benjamin Brown. At that time there were about 4,200 people living in Minneapolis. There had been at least four murders. (At about one murder per thousand inhabitants, that would make Minneapolis's current murder rate look fairly tame.) The pioneers built their first jail. But their underpaid sheriff and jailor didn't care to look in on his prisoners at night. "On several occasions," according to Frank Mead's 1899 History of the Police and Fire Departments, "... the enterprising fellows therein caged proceeded to dig themselves out of the prison and leave for parts unknown."
Minneapolis didn't bother to lock up drunks; that was one of its attractions. Men from St. Anthony would come here for the pleasure of our liquor. "Every day," noted the Minneapolis Tribune, "our city is visited by 'denizens from the metropolis' of the male persuasion, who imbibe freely of the general beverage, and so forth (they generally take 'and so forth' straight) so much so that they have to be taken care of until they get better or worse. They are frequently taken outside of the city limits and told to 'git,' which is generally done in 'quick time.' ... How few the number staying home must be."
In 1858 Minnesota became a state, and what a state it was. In Minneapolis, at least, its first two decades were filthy, macho, and drunken. Men were crammed into every pine-plank shack, passed out on every straw-stuffed bed. A Hudson's tour guide characterized Minneapolis as having an "army of homeless young men." In fact it was a city of lumberjacks, railroad builders, and river-rats--that is, hobos of the river, men who drifted up and down the Mississippi, throwing up shelter whenever they wanted it; they made their living trapping, hunting, working odd jobs, or stealing. The roads were unpaved mud-tracks packed with horseshit. Garbage was burned or left to rot in the streets. The whole place stank.
"Dead Dogs" were the subject of a worried Minneapolis Tribune on July 12, 1867: "There are dead dogs laying around where they have died... and this warm weather will soon make them more of a nuisance than they were when alive." Dogs weren't the only problem: "If cows are kept by people in the city," complained the Tribune a month later, "they should be compelled to put them in a yard overnight. It is unsafe for a person to drive through our streets on a dark night for fear of running on to cows lying in the street... They are really a great nuisance, and make streets look like barn yards."
Industrial and domestic waste were dumped in the river or on the streets. By the 1880s the water was befouled and a typhoid epidemic gripped the city, forcing sewer and water lines to be laid. In the winter coal fires warmed the city, and coal soot cloaked the snow. The whole scene was an inducement to drink, and men drank. In 1867 Minneapolis had only about 10,000 residents, but boasted 20 licensed saloons and most likely an equivalent number of unlicensed ones.
Farmers hired Minneapolis's off-season lumberjacks and river-rats as day laborers, so a sea of unemployed men was always found hanging around downtown waiting for jobs. Squalor, though, had its benefits. Low-rent shantytowns had sprung up on the outskirts of the city--along with no-rent enclaves on the flats beside the river, which had to be abandoned with every spring flood.
The most violent of these shantytowns, Hell's Half Acre, occupied the block between Eighth and Ninth Streets and Second and Third Avenues South. Mead's History of the Police and Fire Departments described them as a settlement "of utter darkness, wailing, and woe. Bloody frays were a nightly occurrence.... The alleys were strewn with empty beer kegs and whisky bottles, and the latter were often used as weapons of warfare." Police were strongly discouraged from entering this area: Life was cheap there, and the community displayed such solidarity that police were greeted with the damping of all lanterns and candles, and were frequently pelted with bottles and rocks until they fled.
Life was not all low-brow for criminals in Minneapolis in the 1870s and 1880s. The population boomed from around 13,000 to around 165,000, and, as in any boomtown, fortunes were made and lost with astonishing rapidity. No one helped this process more than John Flanagan, who set up what was perhaps Minneapolis's first gambling syndicate, known as "The Combination," directly after the Civil War. The Combination joined together the formidable forces of Flanagan with those of Colonel Bill Tanner, St. Paul's Frank Shaw, and a handful of other gamblers. Tanner ran the Elite, a "skinning den" at 308 Nicollet Avenue, on Minneapolis's most respectable (and almost only paved) street. Flanagan's own "resort" was at 205 Nicollet. There was a saloon downstairs; upstairs, according to Herbert Asbury's Sucker's Progress, could be found "games of every description, to which the suckers were introduced by a trio of very gifted ropers...who are still remembered by old-timers in Minneapolis for the skill with which they cajoled visiting suckers."
"The Combination," wrote Asbury, was formed both to share information on business and customers and to finance "forays against the suckers of Brainerd, Moorhead, Ironton, and other towns along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad." Civic pride aside, Minneapolis and St. Paul served as training grounds for gamblers and table runners from Chicago, who came to try out their skills in the less dangerous pastures of the Twin Cities, where there were still plenty of suckers with money.
The Minneapolis Tribune ran an article on the hazards these gaming dens posed to young men. "Don't you know that the saloon is a trap, a deadfall, and billiards the bait?... Do you not find billiards rooms mainly filled with men of loose habits, of little refinement, of moderate cultivation, of doubtful honor and standing; men who will take any advantage to drive a cheap bargain; who often use profane language; who will sometimes spend the night in carousal and debauchery?" The advice fell on deaf ears.
For obvious reasons few documents survive to suggest how much money passed through these gamblers' hands, but an idea can be gotten from the report of one Keno table operator who raked in $33,000 in eight months. Much of the money that the city "sharps" won on their plush green felt fields was, in fact, plucked from the plush green old-growth forests of northern Minnesota.
Lumber was a leading regional industry from the 1860s until shortly after the turn of the century, and Minneapolis life was shaped by it. Lumbering was seasonal work, October to April--because it was easier to slide the trees out on ice than to drag them through the summer mud, and because the summer bugs were intolerable. Lumberjacks would cut trees, brand them like cattle with the mark particular to their company, drag them by sleigh to the nearest river, and dump them in. They would then rely on the river to carry the wood down to the lumber mills in the cities. The logs were caught by giant chains stretched across the river, then sorted by brand and dispatched to the appropriate mills.
St. Anthony Falls was tamed in the process, a feat that made Minneapolis quite proud. In August 1869 the Tribune rhapsodized: "St. Anthony Falls...of which poets and writers throughout the world have said so much, will soon be gone forever.... It is a stupendous work to accomplish, yet engineering skill...will overcome all obstacles, and so the mighty Falls of St. Anthony have been made to succumb to man, and are now as subject to his will as a child."
Men amused themselves with more than wine and work; the city's whorehouses were legendary. They were a favorite of soldiers from Fort Snelling, lumberjacks, men passing through on their way west, and Minneapolitans alike. The city had conveniently arranged a red-light district downtown, and the "social evil" was grouped with the saloons, hotels, boarding houses, and railroad stations around the riverfront, from Third Street South through Main Street east of the river. These establishments were also a prominent source of municipal income.
At least 150 brothels did business in Minneapolis at the turn of the century. Some women worked out of riverside shanties, others out of well-appointed hotels; some brothels, oddly, doubled as candy stores. The resorts were licensed indirectly. The proprietors would go into the Municipal Court on a certain day each month, without the formality of arrest, to pay a fine. It ranged from $50 to $100 a month, netting city coffers nearly $50,000 annually. Considering that a four-bedroom house on Kenwood Parkway only cost $4,000 at the time, the prostitutes were contributing a considerable sum to the city. Minneapolis's mayor also appointed two physicians to make weekly examinations of the prostitutes at a cost of $1 per woman. The physicians would then grant a certificate indicating that the woman was disease-free, which she could post in her doorway like a liquor license. Municipal protection of prostitutes wasn't merely tacit, either. One early mayor, George Brackett, was literally run out of office for too vigorously enforcing the state's liquor laws, and for annoying the prostitutes.
The cities' red-light districts were not difficult to find. Guides to them were published, often under the guise of "exposing" their corruption. These guides gave addresses and occasionally included pictures and prices of the women available. One pamphlet, "Holies of Holies of the White Slave Trade," "condemned" one young St. Paul lady, apparently doing business at 443 Broadway, thus: "Her name is Emma, and she is a yellow headed, sloppy speciman. [sic] She can swear like a trooper, and smoke cigarettes like a bad boy hiding in a hay stack."
This state-sanctioned carousing ended after a long and spirited municipal sparring match between pro- and anti-prostitution forces in 1910-1911. "It would not be out of keeping for the city to own the property, the real estate and buildings, and even furnishings devoted to" prostitutes, noted Marion Shutter in the Report of the Vice Commission of Minneapolis, a study commissioned by Minneapolis Mayor James C. Haynes in 1911. Indeed, it wouldn't have been, and Minneapolis would have led the country in establishing municipal houses of ill fame, much like today's municipal liquor stores. Another seriously considered proposal included restricting the red-light district to Nicollet Island. The prostitutes, who had treated Minneapolis so generously, were forced out of business in 1911 when Mayor Haynes outlawed the red-light district and began prosecuting prostitutes.
A sizable minority of Minnesotans were annoyed with this decision. Editor and publisher Howard Guilford of the Saturday Press, weighed in: "The bill was passed by a bunch of country people, who have not had much experience with city life.... In large cities however, with the thousands of transients which come and go from other parts of the world, there is an element which needs the house of ill fame. If this element cannot go to the segregated district, it will slobber its vice all over the streets..."
Not much is known about the daily lives of these women, but ex-lumberjack J. C. Ryan, in his 1988 memoir The Lumberjack Queens, recalled that "most of them came from the farms of Minnesota, along with some immigrant girls... Many of these farm girls went to the big cities looking for work...and had to start in the trade to make a living. Like lumberjacks, they would 'make a stake and blow it.'"
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.
The Big Mitt was run as a business, the details of which are known only because a detailed ledger survives. One week's accounting shows $913 of gross profits, $410.85 of which went to Doc Ames, a flat fee of $25 to the chief of police, $100 for police officers, and $1.75 for lamp oil and firewood. On the one occasion when the Minneapolis sheriff had the audacity to arrest a gambler, he was immediately removed from office.
All these good times did not last. Doc Ames's capos began to quarrel among themselves. They became so involved with their internal conflicts that they neglected to spring two thieves from jail. These two became so irate at being abandoned that they sang to the zealous head of a grand jury, Hovey C. Clark. Indictments followed, and Doc Ames was forced to flee the city on a night train. He was brought back to face charges six years later, but somehow was never convicted.
Minneapolis emerged from these scandals a more conservative town. The growth--by 1910 the population had increased to 301,408--and the city's prosperity had generated a home-grown aristocracy. The city was still the largest grain mill in the nation and was also the largest lumber center in the country. No one lived downtown anymore, not anyone respectable anyway. According to Daniel Rosheim's 1978 The Other Minneapolis, downtown was home to 109 bars, and 113 boarding houses for the transient armies of men.
The Minneapolis Journal had this to say: "Washington Avenue with its oversupply of rum-shops appeals to the vagrant class. In front of any of the saloons of this thoroughfare for four or five blocks the loafers congregate and vie with one another in spitting contests. As a rule they spit towards the curb, but it is usually too far off and the sidewalk is stained a deep brown with tobacco juice.... Hennepin and Washington is the worst because it is the primary street railway [streetcar] transfer point...the women who pass that way have more of a care to their skirts than on a wet day."
Minneapolis took on a reforming tone and a bulldozing approach. Early prohibitionists began to haunt the downtown saloons, breaking glass and shattering bottles in their desire to reform alcoholics. The first casualty in the temperance wars was culinary--on March 25, 1904 Minneapolis officially outlawed the free lunch. Prior to that men could have a free lunch of liver, beans, sausage, lutefisk, or other salty, inexpensive foods that the saloon keepers would set out for their patrons. The next casualty of reformist sentiments was Kohl and Middleton's Dime Museum, a freak show on the Northeast corner of First Avenue South and Washington Avenue where for 10 cents visitors could, according to Henry Broderick's I Remember Minneapolis, climb to the third floor and gawk at the "Fat Lady (425 pounds), the Human Skeleton (7 feet tall, weight 60 pounds), Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Man, the Siamese Twins, Tom Thumb, the midget, the Bearded Lady, the Iron-Jawed Girl, and innumerable other specimens of Nature's detours," or descend to lower floors for vaudeville shows.
Minneapolis was changing rapidly; it still received immigrants at a breakneck speed, but now they were no longer the established Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians. The new immigrants were East Europeans, especially Poles, Romanians, and Slovaks, some of whom were Jewish refugees from pogroms and persecution in Russia and its satellites.
In 1923 an article in American Jewish World identified Minneapolis Jews as having "the painful distinction of being the lowest esteemed community in the land, as far as the non-Jewish population of the city is concerned..." Anti-Semitic plays were performed in public schools; Jews were barred from country clubs and office buildings, from the Minneapolis Athletic Club, the Boat Club, even Minneapolis AAA. Carey McWilliams, the editor of The Nation, summed up the situation in 1946: "Minneapolis is the capital of anti-Semites in the United States. In almost every walk of life an iron curtain separates Jews from non-Jews..."
Certainly many of the late-arriving Jews must have seemed strange to Minneapolitans: urban in their manners, poverty-stricken, dark-skinned, the bearers of strange languages and customs. Some Jews took their exclusion philosophically, slogging through quiet lives as tailors or bakers, but others struck out in more unorthodox channels--a few becoming the most powerful criminals Minneapolis has ever known.
Around the dawn of this century, a Russian-born peddler named Phillip Blumenfeld and his wife, Eva, escaped Romania with their infant son Isadore. Did they survey Duluth from the deck of the S.S. Lakeboat and imagine the prosperity Isadore would know in the New World? In any case, they could hardly have imagined the nature or extent of it: that the FBI would regard their son as having "control over the city of Minneapolis," or that he would amass a fortune of millions of dollars and have the murders of half a dozen men on his conscience.
Once settled in Minneapolis, young Isadore had to drop out of school at the end of the fifth grade to sell newspapers to boost the family income. "Newspaper Row" then was Fourth Street between First Avenue and Nicollet. He found himself a stone's throw from Minneapolis's hundred whorehouses, where he soon discovered there was more money to be made running errands for tips than in selling newspapers. Years later, at the age of 19, "Kid Cann" was first arrested in a disorderly house.
Fittingly enough it was Minnesota's own Andrew J. Vollstead who authored the act of Congress making Prohibition a reality on January 16, 1920, and launching the careers of untold numbers of gangsters in the process. The Minneapolis Tribune characterized Prohibition laws as a "jest" in early 1921; the laws begged to be broken, and Minnesota was ideally suited for bootlegging. There were the countless miles of unpoliceable border with Canada and along the Lake Superior shoreline through which whiskey could be smuggled. Minneapolis's status as a railroad hub helped matters considerably.
Many Minnesotans made their own moonshine out of fruit or grain mash, and that was how Kid Cann started. Later, however, when he had gained political connections and capital, he found it immensely more profitable to set up false corporations and purchase--with the aid of government permits--industrial alcohol at 39 proof. He would then redistill it, soak it with oak chips for color, and rebottle the result as 188-proof whiskey that sold for as much as $18 a quart. (Comparatively, a five-room furnished apartment in Kenwood at the same time cost $75 a month, and a woman's full-length cashmere coat from Dayton's cost $25.) By some estimates Cann was processing 600 gallons of liquor a day.
To anyone raised on images of an Italian organized-crime syndicate, Kid Cann's cronies in the self-named "Minneapolis Combination" sound unlikely: "Brownie" Brownstein, "Barney" Berman, and Jake "Yiddy" Bloom (Kid Cann's brother). These principals and many of their soldiers were Jewish street kids determined to claw their ways to the top by whatever means necessary. Minneapolis's situation was well known nationally; in 1922 Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Elliott Wadsworth repeated a familiar joke: "Ten thousand Jews are selling booze without the law's permission/To fill the needs of a million Swedes who voted Prohibition."
Kid Cann's success was directly attributable to two things. First, he was an acutely smart money launderer. There was hardly a sackful of currency and securities from a bank heist or a briefcase of ransom money in the upper Midwest that did not pass through his hands. Part of his success in the manipulation of money no doubt can be traced to his friendship with Mafia "Chairman of the Board" Meyer Lansky (the basis for Lee Strasberg's Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II), a man who cleaned and managed all of Capone's many millions, helped the U.S. invade Italy during World War II, and supplied brains and capital to the underworld's single most profitable enterprise: Las Vegas.
The rest of Cann's success can be attributed to his habit of prudent generosity. He shared wealth liberally with police and politicians, contributing abundantly to campaign funds and politicians' pockets. For his money he received ample value: Once, facing charges in Oklahoma for money laundering, Cann flew in Minneapolis Chief of Police Joseph Lehmeyer as a defense witness. He was acquitted. Kid Cann was almost always acquitted.
For Cann was not just a wildly successful, if unorthodox, businessman--his bottom line was blood. He was charged with the murder of taxi driver Charles Goldberg, whom he was said to have shot in an argument over a girl. A few years later he was charged with shooting a Minneapolis patrolman. Both times he got off. Taking into account that juries were customarily bribed, that evidence had a way of disappearing from police stations, and that the police were often as not on Cann's payroll, it may be more remarkable that he ever faced charges at all. The widow of newspaper editor Walter Liggett identified Cann as the man who shot her husband as he emerged from his car; even then the Kid walked.
Liggett's murder was a reminder that newspaper editors, particularly those who edited the smaller sheets specializing in scandal and reformist exhortations, were an endangered species in Minneapolis. Liggett himself was a man who could not keep his mouth shut. He established himself as editor of the socialist New York Call after brief stints at the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and the Sun. He likewise founded Plain Talk, a muckraking magazine that folded quickly as the result of a libel suit brought by Governor J.C. Walton of Oklahoma.
Eventually Liggett bought a press and carried his family to Red Wing, Minnesota, where he founded the Mid-West American. He soon moved the paper to Austin, and then to Rochester. It was not unusual for a newspaperman to write, sell advertising, arrange for printing, and distribute his own work in that time; Liggett seemed to be looking for a community that wanted his work. Unfortunately for him, he arrived in Minneapolis in 1934, and soon started up the Mid-West American again.
The conservative Dictionary of American Biography has this to say: "Seldom more than six pages in size and never carrying much advertising, this small sheet was Liggett's vehicle for almost unrestrained attacks on state, county, and city officials. Although he was at times seen with underworld figures, he printed one exposé after another of liquor lords, gambling rings, and criminal groups, and their alleged connections with law enforcement agencies." Liggett's paper repeatedly linked Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson to Kid Cann. Someone didn't like the publicity, and Liggett received a number of hints to that effect.
He might have lived longer if he'd listened, but Liggett did not seem to be susceptible to persuasion. At one point he was arrested for an old and allegedly trumped-up charge of statutory rape. He was beaten so severely by hoods that his ear was almost torn off. His vituperative attacks continued, though, and a few days after running a story reiterating his claim that Olson was in Kid Cann's pocket, Liggett was shot down in the alley behind his house at 18th and Park Avenue South on December 10, 1935, while unloading groceries with his wife and 10-year-old daughter.
He wasn't the first editor to meet that fate. Howard Guilford was attacked twice--first in 1927, shortly after he had charged in his Saturday Press that commercialized gambling was flourishing in Minneapolis. This happened to be Kid Cann's special province; Guilford was shot by men shouting "Damn you, Guilford, we've got you now!" That time he lived. He refused to finger his assailants, and upon recovery was suddenly found to be inexplicably prosperous. He moved into a fine hotel.
A few years later he returned to his old accusations, and was prosecuted by then-County Attorney Floyd B. Olson, who instituted a gag order against him. Guilford won that battle because the gag order, against "malicious, scandalous or defamatory" publications, was found to be unconstitutional. It was a Pyrrhic victory though, for Guilford met his maker in a hail of bullets in 1934. A gag order, one might say, that stuck.
Years later Arthur Kasherman, editor of the scandal sheet the Public Press, "denounced gambling, vice, and liquor racketeering in Minneapolis, charging the administration of [Minneapolis] Mayor Marvin L. Kline with corruption and laxity in law enforcement," reported the Pioneer Press on Wednesday, January 24, 1945. He "was slain in typical gangland fashion Monday night by an assassin who who lurked in a big, dark sedan until [Kasherman] and a woman friend left a restaurant at 15th and Chicago." "Typical gangland fashion" in this case meant a shower of bullets from a .38.
By the time Prohibition ended in 1933 Kid Cann had diversified, making himself into a leading national power in high-stakes sports bookmaking. He had also invested heavily in Miami real estate; back home he was so entrenched in Minneapolis politics that, according to local crime historian Paul Maccabee, even reformist Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey was advised by his close friend and campaign fundraiser Fred Gates to leave Cann's less visible operations alone. In 1954 the Kefauver Crime Commission called Cann the "most outstanding racketeer in Minneapolis," and in 1958 the FBI announced that he was "designated a top hoodlum, to be the subject of a concerted all-out effort designed to effect a penetration of his hoodlum activities." They meant to deport him to his native Romania, a strategy used successfully against Italian mobsters like Lucky Luciano.
But Cann was not easy to catch. He calmly surveyed his domain from the privacy of the Flame Cafe (now the GreatTapes Studio, on the corner of 15th and Nicollet) where he was entertained by such jazz-era greats as Cab Calloway and Sarah Vaughn while his employees came and went. Cann was careful to leave no paper trail, and it can only be assumed that his operatives kept carefully before them the memory of Cann's former accountant, Conrad Althen, who had turned informant for the FBI only to end up riddled by machine-gun fire in a Dakota County field. With nothing else to go on, the FBI tried to nail Cann for "moral turpitude," which they eventually did.
The mighty Cann was convicted in 1961 for "white slavery" after transporting a prostitute from Chicago to Minneapolis. Later he was convicted for bribery and perjury, and served four years in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Upon his release he retired to Miami Beach, where he lived out his years over whitefish and bagels with his brother Yiddy and the notorious Meyer Lansky. Crime historian Robert Lacey estimated that this group of old men owned close to a billion dollars' worth of sun-belt and Caribbean real estate.
Corruption of a different kind did real damage to Minneapolis in the 1930s. The northern forests had been depleted and the lumber barons had moved on to the West Coast, leaving a slew of unemployed lumberjacks in their wake. The price of Mesabi Iron ore plunged after World War I, leaving unemployment and raw, gaping craters behind. Even Minneapolis's greatest skyscraper held hands with disaster--the $25 million Foshay tower opened scant days before Wilbur Foshay's empire went into receivership in November 1929. Foshay was sentenced to 15 years in Leavenworth for fraud.
As if those signs of decline weren't enough, the opening of the Panama Canal had wrought a steady decline in the regional economy. It became cheaper to ship a cartload of apples from Seattle by water to Newark, New Jersey, and then inland as far as Ohio than it was to ship them by rail to Minneapolis and St. Paul and then on to the rest of the world. Buffalo surpassed Minneapolis as the nation's milling center in 1930, also due to the cheapness of water transport. The Twin Cities' status as a commercial hub was effectively eclipsed.
It seemed the only thing that Minneapolis had to offer was a giant pool of unemployed miners, lumberjacks, railroad men, and millers; over 6,000 flour millers were laid off between 1919 and 1929. New industries did move in: linseed processing plants, silk mills, and clothing factories. But wages had lagged far behind the increase in the cost of living, and these were not happy factory workers. A number of strikes rocked the city; the truck drivers' strike of 1934 saw two strikebreakers killed and 50 people wounded.
That fall Floyd B. Olson was elected governor on a platform that declared: "Capitalism has failed and immediate steps must be taken to abolish it." Olson had been brought up in poverty on the streets of Minneapolis, not unlike Kid Cann, and would always side with the poor. He was the first governor in the history of the United States to call in the National Guard to protect labor rather than crush it. Fortune magazine looked at the state of Minneapolis in 1936, and declared: "Violence and bloodshed are recurrent symptoms of what ails the Twin Cities... That labor should be cheap in Minneapolis was long taken for granted. It was true that labor had struck now and then and, encouraged by a radical Governor, had lately strengthened its organization. But that labor should tie up the city's food supply was treason. And that labor should set upon the sons of the founders with clubs and stones and kill one of them was unthinkable. Yet it had happened and it was a sign that the lusty, pioneering, growing youth of Minneapolis was over."
With the solid labor jobs--lumber, milling, mining, and railroads--gone or going, Minneapolis's long-established downtown reservoir of unemployed men seemed an ominous presence. Fortune concluded that unless a canal connected Minneapolis to Lake Superior, "Minneapolis may see the beginning of the Revolution."
There was, of course, no revolution. People voted with their feet. In 1950 Minneapolis's population peaked at 521,718, and since then over 150,000 people have left. The city's response was to demolish itself through urban renewal and highway construction. In the space of 20 years Minneapolis was transformed from a rich, lusty, thriving, and corrupt city to a modestly prosperous, moribund, peaceful one.
These days it's changing again. The population is growing. Unemployment is low. Crime is up. All this comes as a jolt to local sensibilities, shaped for the last generation or two by the self-image of a kind-hearted, well-intentioned, if sometimes chilly utopia. Doug Grow summed it up in an October 7, 1993, Star Tribune column a day after two particularly gratuitous killings: "We've wanted to cling to the notion that we live in a special place. We've wanted to believe that we live in a special urban setting, which may have some cracks on its utopian edges, but still works." In reality old Minneapolis's legacy to the present is as corrupt, as cracked, as carousing as any other town's. It was not a utopia in 1892, or 1942, or 1992. The notion that it was isn't based in history, but nostalgia.
And nostalgia, as Luc Sante wrote in his book Low Life, "can be generally defined as a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future, in concert with a yearning for order, constancy, safety, and community--qualities that were last enjoyed in childhood and are retroactively imagined as gracing the whole of the time before one's birth." Time to grow up?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.