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Shall Make No Law

By Robert O’Connor.

[This is part four of a series on the grittier history of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Part one told of the rise and fall of Doc Ames. Part two told of the rise of the O’Connor system and part three was on the fall of the system during St. Paul’s gangster era.]

When D. Percy Jones was appointed mayor of Minneapolis in 1902, he was given the task of clearing out corruption and graft that had benefited the man he replaced, Doc Ames. The criminal establishment rebelled against Jones after he refused to compromise with them.

Jones and his successor J. C. Haynes reformed the city government to weed out corruption. But the criminal establishment kept on, assisted by the O’Connor system in St. Paul. In 1916, mayor Wallace Nye complained that he couldn’t stop crime because of the protection John O’Connor gave to criminals.

As gangsters became more and more powerful, the city became less and less able to control them. Anti-semitism, anti-Catholicism and racism made combating them all the more difficult.

“Capital of Anti-semitism in America.”

Jews had first arrived in Minneapolis from Germany in the 1880s. Jewish communities grew larger as Eastern European Jews escaped the pogroms for America in later decades. They mostly settled in North Minneapolis and what is now the Phillips neighborhood.

Anti-semitism was common in America, but it was especially severe in Minneapolis. Employers wouldn’t hire Jews, they couldn’t be members of clubs, even the Automotive Club, and there were some neighborhoods that forbade Jews from moving in.

By the start of Prohibition, some Jews had turned to crime to make their living. One of them was Isadore Blumenfeld, better known as “Kid Cann.”

Cann dropped out of high school to sell newspapers to keep up the family income. By the late 1910s he was running errands for  local pimps and prostitutes. When prohibition came into effect, Cann and his brothers Harry and Yiddy sold the famous moonshine Minnesota 13 to the Chicago Outfit, at the time bossed by Al Capone.

The scandal sheets of the 1920s were ripe with anti-Semitic rhetoric. During an expose on prostitution and brothel houses, Howard Guilford in his weekly Twin City Reporter wrote of St. Paul madam Nina Clifford: “‘Nina Clifford’ is only an alias for a Jew name which is almost unpronounceable.” Clifford’s name at birth was Hannah Crowe.

Minneapolis gangsters weren’t all Jewish. Tommy Banks controlled the Irish gangs of the city and had a longtime rivalry with Kid Cann. According to Paul Maccabee, their rivalry was fierce until they settled their territorial disputes with a handshake. Maccabee also says that Edward “Big Ed” Morgan, who led the Minneapolis underworld along with Banks and Cann, was a journalist for the Twin City Reporter.

Walter Liggett in his Plain Talk magazine wrote a poem about prohibition, which he opposed:

Ten thousand Jews are making booze
In endless repetition
To fill the needs of a million Swedes
Who wanted prohibition

Marda Woodbury, Liggett’s daughter, wrote a book about her father in which she dismissed accusations of anti-Semitism against her father and the others. She wrote that most of the criminals they reported on were Jewish, but Liggett was driven by a desire for justice, not by hatred of Jews. She also dismisses the term “scandal sheet” to describe the weeklies her father and others published by saying they exposed truth while the dailies did not.

Walter Liggett was a fierce advocate of progressive causes in Plain Talk and later his Midwest American. He was a strong supporter of the Farmer-Labor Party and its predecessor the Non-Partisan League. He campaigned for Charles Lindberg Sr. (father of the famous aviator) when he ran for Governor in 1918 with the understanding that if Lindberg won, Liggett would become his personal secretary.

Liggett was murdered in 1935. Every witness to the crime named Kid Cann as the shooter, but Cann was aquitted. For the rest of her life, Liggett’s widow Edith, also a muckraking journalist, blamed one man for hiring the gangster to kill her husband, a man her father initially supported, but turned against: Governor Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson.

Floyd B. Olson

In 1919, William Nash was Hennepin County attorney when a young man named Floyd B. Olson was appointed as assistant attorney. The next year, Governor Joseph Burnquist removed Nash after Guilford accused him of bribery. The Republican bosses wanted Nash replaced with one of their own, but Burnquist appointed Olson, a Democrat, to the post.

olsonFloyd B. Olson as Hennepin County Attorney (Attorney’s office)

Olson was born in 1891 in Minneapolis to a Norwegian father and a Swedish mother. His mother chose the name Floyd because it was the most American name she knew. His father chose his middle name Bjornstjerne, after the writer Bjornstjerne Bjornson, who would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903.

Olson grew up poor in North Minneapolis. His best friends were Jewish and according to George Meyer’s biography of him, Olson was taught Jewish customs, learned Yiddish and was a Shabbos Goy at the local synagogue. Olson graduated from North High School (which is still around) and attended the University of Minnesota for a year before dropping out and heading out west. He became a dockworker and joined the Industrial Workers of the World.

Olson returned to Minneapolis in 1913 and completed a law degree at Northwestern College of Law (now William Mitchell College of Law).

As Hennepin County attorney, he established a reputation as a fierce opponent of anti-labor and anti-Semitic groups. His radio speeches also gave him a reputation as a great orator. He would serve in that position until he became Governor of Minnesota in 1931.

Combating Fascists

Several groups had been set up to combat anti-Semitism including a local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and the Minnesota Jewish Council. The latter also opposed corruption, vice and other social ills. On their recommendation, the Minneapolis Journal sent a reporter to investigate the fascist group Silver Shirts, founded by William Pelley.

That young reporter was Eric Sevareid, who would later go on to have a legendary career at CBS. His six-part investigation began running in the paper on September 11, 1936. It was intended to coincide with the Pelley’s claim – supposedly based on inscriptions on the pyramids of Giza – that on September 16th the Jews would rise up and conquer the world. They didn’t.


Eric Sevareid (Corbis)

The series exposed many of the people who attended including George Bedden, the head of the business group Associated Industries of Minneapolis. After the Journal revealed he had attended, fundamentalist preachers defended Bedden from their pulpits. One of them, William Riley, accused the paper “infringed his constitutional right to attend any meeting he wanted.” Riley was the head of Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School (now Northwestern College). After Riley’s death in 1948, Billy Graham served as President of the college until 1952.

The Silver Shirts weren’t the first expressions of racism in the city. In 1915, Wallace Nye ran into controversy when he tried to stop the screening of “Birth of a Nation,” D. W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece that inspired the re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan. A judge filed a temporary injunction preventing Nye from interfering with the showing of the film at the Schubert Theater and an ad hoc censor board voted to allow the film to show.

During the First World War, cities in the North and Midwest experienced labor shortages, and the positions were filled by African-Americans who migrated from the South. Whites saw these black laborers as taking their jobs and racial tensions rose to a fever pitch when the war ended. It spilled over in the summer of 1919 when 25 cities experienced race riots. A year later on June 15, 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth. The crime horrified the state and in 1921, Minnesota passed the nation’s first anti-lynching law. (Twin Cities Public Television produced a documentary a few years ago on the crime)

By that time the Klan had their own chapter in the city. And like the Silver Shirts it gained members from other fraternal orders and clubs. George Leach, the mayor of Minneapolis in the 1920s was a Mason like most Klansmen, but he was not well liked by them. He had appointed a Catholic secretary, banned policemen from joining the Klan and had launched an investigation into the group’s activities at the University of Minnesota.

klanKlan burns a cross on Dayton’s Bluff, 1926 (St. Paul News)

Roy Miner, a fraternal man, was the North Star Klan’s Exalted Cyclops, and the group encouraged him to run for mayor in 1923. While looking for a campaign issue, they settled on Leach’s inability to stop gambling and vice. They found a woman in the city jail who claimed to be intimate with the mayor and other prominent men. These accusations appeared on pamphlets delivered on every doorstep of the city.

A grand jury thought the claims were libelous and the claims were taken up by Olson. Klansmen from around the country traveled to Minneapolis to witness what they thought would be an acquittal. The defense used the opportunity to cross-examine Leach on the charges of allowing vice, gambling and wild parties, but Leach admitted nothing. In the end, the woman who made the claims admitted on the stand the claims were false and the jury returned a guilty verdict. Olson’s combative stance against the Klan in the trial won him fame and admiration throughout the state.

The Saturday Press

For all his successes, Floyd B. Olson’s most well known case is one that he lost. Howard Guilford had started writing his weekly scandal sheet Twin City Reporter in 1913 and was constantly charged with libel. In 1917 the paper opposed the European food aid program. The Postmaster General, using powers given to the office by the Espionage Act, revoked the paper’s second-class mailing privileges, but Guilford kept the paper going. These powers were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1921

Jay M. Near, an associate of Guilford’s founded his own weekly in 1927, The Saturday Press. Fred Friendly (another legendary TV newsman) in his book “Minnesota Rag” called Near “anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-labor.” For nine issues from September to November of that year, The Saturday Press, published articles written by Near and Guilford attacking Mayor Leach, Olson, Frank Brunskill the Chief of Police, the Tribune, the Journal, the Jewish Race and many others.

The two wanted Olson to convict them for libel, but instead, Olson stopped the paper by using the “public nuisance law” also known as the “Minnesota Gag law.”

The Minnesota Gag Law was passed in 1925 as a response to Ripsaw, a Duluth fortnightly produced by John Morrison. Morrison opposed gambling, prostitution and alcohol and beginning in 1917 he attacked all of them and the politicians who supported it. The paper ended in 1926 when Morrison plead guilty to libel charges stemming from an issue in which Morrison accused a probate judge of acquiring syphilis at a brothel. Ripsaw was revived in 1999 as an alternative weekly (gaining membership in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies), but folded again in 2005.

In response to Morrison, state legislators from Duluth and nearby towns crafted the public nuisance law. It was passed in 1925 and provided permanent injunctions against those who “created a public nuisance” by publishing, selling or distributing a “malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper.”

Olson got an injunction against the Saturday Press on November 22, 1927 and that would last until the defendants showed in court to argue why it should not be permanent. Their representation was Thomas Latimer, the future mayor of Minneapolis. Latimer was not sympathetic to the Saturday Press‘ politics, but he did believe the gag law was unconstitutional and he asked for a demurrer. The judge denied it, but certified the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

latimerThomas Latimer, 1935 (Minneapolis Star Journal)

The State Supreme Court heard the case twice – and upheld the law twice. The first time, Latimer argued that the gag law contravened the first amendment. The court wrote a “scandalous material tends to disturb the peace” and upheld the constitutionality of the law. The second time, Latimer argued that the injunction went too far and prevented the two from operating any newspaper. The court disagreed, saying the injunction allowed the two to publish a newspaper, so long as it operated “in harmony with the public welfare.”

When Latimer appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court, he would get help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Chicago Tribune – whose owner and publisher, Robert McCormick, was head of the American Newspaper Publishers Association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press. The ANPE is now the Newspaper Association of America.

The Supreme Court heard the case on January 30, 1930. And on June 1, 1931, they handed down their decision, Near vs. Minnesota.

While the court acknowledged that The Saturday Press printed inflammatory, libelous and controversial articles – one from the last issue was printed in full as a footnote – the government could not censor the newspaper. Prior restraint, the court wrote, violated the first amendment.

The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Justice Pierce Butler, the first Minnesotan to serve on the Court, wrote the paragraph-long dissent of Near, objecting to the majority’s expansion of freedom of the Press and construing the due process clause in a way that was unprecedented. Butler would later object to regulations against businesses and oppose much of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Because of the Near decision, the Freedom of the Press guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution became incorporated against the states. Under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court has said in a series of decisions before and after Near that various rights guaranteed by the US Constitution apply to state and local governments as well as the federal government.

Near is the earliest decision in case law that deals with Freedom of the Press, and would serve as an important precedent to future decisions related to the press like New York Times vs. United States (“Pentagon Papers“).

The End of the Gangster Era

Howard Guilford would go on to write articles on gangsters and their connections to the political establishment.  He criticized Democratic and Republican mayors alike for their unwillingness to combat them. One night in 1934, according to Woodbury, he declared on the radio he would reveal damaging information about Governor Olson. On September 6th of that year, as he was driving home, he was killed by a shotgun blast to the head. Woodbury speculates that “Big Ed” Morgan did it based on a witness’ description of the shooter.

U710502INPHoward Guilford murdered in his car (Corbis)

Liggett would be killed on December 9th, 1935. Another muckraker, Arthur Kasherman, would be gunned down on January 22, 1945. (In 2010, James Eli Shiffer of the Star-Tribune did a fantastic multimedia feature on the murder)

In each instance, the crime was never solved – the police didn’t investigate, the accused were acquitted. The dailies dismissed the men and their work as bigoted scandal-mongers. Newspapers across the country condemned the murders and the cities for fostering an environment where such things were possible. They railed against the gangsters, anti-Semitism and racism in the city.

cannaquitKid Cann after his acquittal (St. Paul Daily News)

In a 1946 article for Common Ground, sociologist and future editor of The Nation Carey McWilliams declared Minneapolis the “capitol [sic] of anti-Semitism in the United States.”

After reading the charge, Hubert Humphrey, then the Mayor of Minneapolis, immediately creating the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights (now the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights) led by Humphrey’s secretary Arthur Naftalin. In 1948, Humphrey followed the commission’s recommendation and passed the nation’s first municipal fair employment law – outlawing employment and housing discrimination against blacks and Jews. Humphrey would champion civil rights as a Senator. Naftalin, who was Jewish, would serve two terms as mayor himself.

Humphrey also combated gangsters, Jewish and Gentile. Arthur Kasherman’s murder took place during Humphrey’s campaign for mayor and just like the Liggett and Guilford murders before, the investigation petered out. Humphrey ran on a campaign to restore “law and order” – the same issue that would cost him the presidency 23 years later. When elected, he appointed Ed Ryan – a friend of Kasherman’s – as police chief.

Minneapolis in the first half of the 20th century, was a turbulent city. Floyd B. Olson’s champion of the underdog won him support and led to a landslide victory for him when he ran for Governor in 1930. But one event would challenge him and his most ardent supporters. It would become a landmark event in labor history and turn the tide in favor of the New Deal.

[Coming up in part five: The 1934 Teamsters Strike]


Robert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 23rd, 2011.