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The Shame of Minneapolis

By Robert O’Connor.

[This is part one of a series intending to tell a brief history of Minneapolis and St. Paul in the early 20th century, specifically the grittier, hardboiled history. It’s intended to be an informal history in the vein of Herbert Asbury’s informal histories of the San Francisco, New York, New Orleans and Chicago underworlds. It’s too bad that he never got around to the Twin Cities, as there would have been more than enough material for him to work with.]

The tragic hero is one of the most compelling characters in American literature. From Captain Ahab to Gatsby to Charles Foster Kane, the most compelling American stories are those of ambitious men and their undoing by their own flaws.

American politics is full of such creatures, from Huey Long to Joseph McCarthy to Richard Nixon. And one name that has been intentionally forgotten, almost like a way of washing away his sins and absolving the rest of theirs: Albert Alonzo “Doc” Ames.

Who was Doc Ames, and why has the city he ruled four times tried forgetting him like Lenore? It is a tale deserving a place alongside the tragedies of Long and Nixon.

Ames was born in Illinois to a doctor who moved the family to Fort Snelling, just south of the Twin Cities, in 1852.  The University of Minnesota had been founded the year before and it would be another six years before Minnesota would become a state. Ames’ father Alfred served two terms in the Territorial Legislature.

Albert worked briefly at a local newspaper before deciding to study medicine, earning his M. D. from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1862 (Alfred had been in the first graduating class of the college). Soon afterwards he joined the 7th Minnesota Regiment and was a medic during the 1862 Dakota War. When that war ended, the Regiment was shipped to Virginia to assist in the Civil War. Ames attained the rank of Surgeon Major in 1864. He was 22 years old.

When the Civil War was over, Ames returned to Minnesota and practiced medicine with his father. He served a year in the State Legislature, but went out west for several years and worked as a newspaperman, only coming back when his father became ill. After his father’s death, he continued the family practice.

Like his father, Ames was popular with the working classes and underprivileged because he would go to great lengths to help them as a doctor, frequently waving fees if they couldn’t pay and traveling great distances to care for patients. He did the same with veterans. With their help he was elected to the first of the four terms he would serve as Mayor of Minneapolis in 1876. He served a term of one year. The following year he ran for Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota and lost.

He would return as mayor in 1882 for two years and again in 1886 for two and a half, the half owing to the city changing their election dates from the spring to the fall. At the beginning of his third term, he ran for Governor of Minnesota as a Democrat. He had the support of labor and the working class while his opponent, Republican Andrew McGill, had the support of industry. The Democrats, along with Ames, strongly endorsed an eight-hour workday – a few months after the Haymarket affair in Chicago that had brought the issue to international attention. The Haymarket affair was a landmark event in labor history and is the reason labor is celebrated around the world on May 1st.

The deciding issue ended up being whether to license saloons. Ames strongly opposed licenses while McGill supported them. After an intense election season, McGill was elected Governor with a margin of victory of 2,600 votes out of 220,000 cast.

Theodore Blegen in his history of Minnesota singles out John Ireland, the Bishop Ordinary of St. Paul, as one of the leading advocates for a saloon license whose influence may have tipped the scales in favor of McGill. Ireland would later become the first Archbishop of St. Paul when it was made an archdiocese in 1888. William Folwell in his history of Minnesota says the tipping point was a story quickly wired across the state about a Democratic mob attacking a Republican march the night before the election.

Ames left the mayorship in 1889, disgusted by state law interfering with local laws – his primary reason for opposing saloon licenses. He was also a frequenter of saloons himself – when his wife, Sarah, was dying in 1892 and wished to see him, a messenger found him in a saloon. He didn’t see her and when she died, he wasn’t invited to the funeral. He married again soon after to a woman named Harriet (not much else is known about her).

In 1899, Minnesota rewrote its election laws. Up until then, voters had decided the winner in the general elections, but the nominees for each party were decided by conventions, with party insiders as the only people with a say. Now, nominees would be decided by popular vote. Additionally, there were no restrictions on who could vote in either primary – which meant that the party nominee wouldn’t necessarily be decided by members of the party.

Ames didn’t have much support in the Democratic Party and he asked his supporters to vote for him as the Republican candidate in the race for Mayor the following year. 1900 was the year Republican William McKinley ran for re-election as President on the heels of the popular Spanish-American war with the immensely popular Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate. Voters in the strongly Republican Minnesota voted the party line and Ames won his fourth term as mayor.

It was at this time that Ames put into plan a system of graft that would earn him infamy and his place in history.


mccluresMcClure’s Magazine, January 1901 cover

McClure’s Magazine was founded in 1893 by Samuel McClure. By the turn of the century it was one of the most popular monthly magazines in the country. Cosmopolitan and Collier’s were immensely popular, but McClure’s stood out to the point that the others copied its style.

McClure’s magazine published investigative journalism – specifically about high crimes and dirty deeds with the intention of stirring up emotions in their readers so that they may work to improve society.

This kind of journalism was given its name by Theodore Roosevelt, who as President, championed the kinds of reforms the public demanded as a result of these investigations. Drawing on a character from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, he called them “Muckrakers” – after a man in that novel who only looked downward and had no regard for even a celestial crown offered to him.

The practitioners of the trade took the word and made it their own. One of them was Lincoln Steffens – who coincidentally was a police reporter for the New York Evening Sun when Roosevelt was Police Commissioner of that city. Steffens had been inspired to investigate corruption and social ills after seeing Jacob Riis’ famous pictures of the poor in New York (Roosevelt had championed reforms to help the poor because of those pictures).

steffensLincoln Steffens, portrait. 1894

Steffens was also familiar with the case of legendary criminal William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, the head of New York’s political machine Tammany Hall in the early 1870s. Tweed had been brought down by a series of investigative articles in the New York Times, which went a long way to making the paper the most influential newspaper in the country.

Steffens revealed in his autobiography that he wanted to study corruption scientifically using techniques he had learned as a student in Germany. McClure didn’t want scientific analysis, since the readers weren’t interested in it. He wanted a description of the corruption with moral outrage accompanying it. They had a big fight and McClure eventually won. Steffens knew of Doc Ames somewhat, but as he learned more, he grew more angry at what he saw, and reflected that in the final article.

Steffens had written an article about the corruption of Ed Butler’s St. Louis in his 1902 article “Tweed Days in St. Louis.” The reaction to the article was strong enough that Steffens was asked to look at other cities in a similar fashion. Minneapolis was the first.

What Steffens Saw

Upon taking office on Jan. 7, 1901, Doc Ames appointed his brother, Fred, as Chief of Police and Norman W. King as Chief of Detectives. The following day, Fred Ames fired 107 police officers out of 225 under him and with the help of “Coffee John” Fichette, sold those positions to more lenient applicants. Doc Ames told members of the city council that he swept out a corrupt gang in the police. Norman King was a former gambler who knew the city’s underworld. He was to gather criminals, organize them by profession and assign detectives to work with each profession.

Ames had promised to get rid of the vices in the city, and he indeed passed laws that put licenses and other restrictions on gambling, prostitution, saloons and other sins. However, the punishments were more than manageable, and a system of graft was set up to benefit Ames.

Prostitution had a fine of $100 a month, which many of the women couldn’t pay. Ames’ collector for women, Irwin Gardner, suggested they find other sources of income including starting candy stores that sold candy and tobacco in the front and had prostitution in the back. Ames later lowered the fee to $100 every two months.

Gambling had been overseen by Gardner’s father, A. L. Gardner. Street gambling could only be done with a license and of course the odds were stacked against the suckers on the street who played. The dealer would keep some money for himself and give the rest to the police detective and to Gardner. If the sucker complained to the police, the first question would be “you were gambling without a license?” And that would scare them out of continuing their complaint.

Ames had not been a good organizer and the system eventually devolved into an every-man-for-himself fray. In April 1902 a grand jury was formed with businessman Hovey Charles Clarke as the foreman.

Steffens met Clarke when reporting on Ames. Clarke had heard testimony from policemen and criminals detailing the extent of corruption and Ames’ tolerance of it. But the key piece of evidence that exposed the operation was to come from two street gamblers.

Clarke met two street gamblers who had been double-crossed by rival police gangs – “Billy” Edwards and “Cheerful Charlie” Howard. They had worked under Detective Christopher Norbeck. Howard handed Clarke a ledger of stealing that detailed payments to Ames and his underlings week by week. A member of the grand jury had allowed Steffens to photograph it and a facsimile of two pages of the ledger were printed in McClure’s along with the final article.



First two pages of “Shame of Minneapolis” with facsimile of ledger (click them for the full page)

Steffens met with Edwards and Howard, who were living on the edge of town in late 1902. In their conversation, they revealed they had been called to work at gambling in Minneapolis by Norbeck. They had run similar operations in cooperation with the police in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles, and told Steffens that the politicians in Minneapolis didn’t know how to run a graft system. Ames, they said, had seen it working and thought it was easy, “And it ain’t. You ought to see the discipline in Frisco,” they told Steffens. “It takes time to work it out right, time and ability…Petty crooks can’t make it, not amateurs like this bunch of bums here.”

In May, Clarke and his grand jury felt they had enough evidence against Ames and his gang. Clarke personally selected Al Smith as the prosecutor, who knew even better than Clarke the reach of Ames’ gang. The jury in the ensuing trial was stunned when various people tried bribing them to quit. Clarke was also offered $28,000 to quit and someone even hired a slugger in Chicago to kill him. But Clarke and the jury held firm, convicting Irwin Gardner on June 10 for accepting a bribe from Edwards. But they weren’t finished.

Roman Meix had lost $775 to gamblers under Norbeck and the jury wanted him to testify. He was found in Idaho, where Norbeck thought he was and he was a surprise witness in Norbeck’s trial. Norbeck jumped to his feet at the sight of Meix and fled town the next day.

Doc Ames was defiant, but he had met his match in Clarke, who confronted him in City Hall and said “Yes, Doc Ames, I’m after you. I’ve been in this town for seventeen years, and all that time you’ve been a moral leper. I hear you were rotten during the ten years before that. Now I’m going to put you where all contagious things are put – where you cannot contaminate anybody else.”

A week later, Norbeck had returned and confessed to the grand jury. On the basis of his confession, Doc was indicted for offering a bribe to have his secretary, Thomas Brown, made Sheriff of Hennepin County by the County Commissioners after Sheriff Philip Megaarden was removed from office by Governor Samuel Van Sant for malfeasance.

The arrangement would have divided the $20,000/year salary of the Sheriff between Brown and three of the commissioners. Fred was convicted and sentenced to six and a half years in the state prison. But suddenly, Doc and Fred disappeared. Doc headed to the resort town of West Baden, Indiana and tried setting up a medical practice there (even filing credentials with the Indiana state board of medical examination) while Fred was believed to be heading to Europe.

Clean Up

“Can a city government deal with vice and crime without some compromising arrangement with the criminals?”

That was the question D. Percy Jones asked Lincoln Steffens when they met. Steffens was going to ask it, but Jones spoke first.

Jones was the head of the City Council during Doc Ames’ time as mayor. He was out east when Ames skipped town and was picked by the grand jury to replace him. Hovey Clarke filled the mayor’s role while he travelled back to town and strictly enforced the law. When Jones took over, he enforced the law, but those who had benefitted from Ames’ system rose up against him.

They offered Jones a deal – gamblers would only be allowed in four gambling places downtown and the gamblers offered to control criminals for the city, and gambling would be forbidden everywhere else in the city. Jones held firm, saying there would be no gambling with police cooperation during his term.

Jones hired a personal friend, a church deacon, as chief of police. He and the deacon hired back the policemen who had been discharged by Ames.

One of the surprises Jones found was that the law against prostitution couldn’t be enforced. Property owners who had benefitted from prostitute tenants – which meant high rent – protested the enforcement. This turned clergy and ordinary citizens against Jones for compromising with lawbreakers. But he stood fast, and Steffens wondered in his autobiography if Jones would have done so if he considered running for reelection. Jones’ successor, J. C. Haynes continued cleaning up after Ames.

Doc Ames was arrested in Hancock, New Hampshire in February 1903, a month after Lincoln Steffen’s article appeared. He was close to being arrested in Frankfort, Kentucky a few months earlier. He was returned to Minnesota and faced trial for the bribe. He was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. He was also convicted for his part in the prostitution scheme, but both convictions were overturned by the state Supreme Court in January, 1904. Two mistrials followed, and the state dropped all actions against him in December, 1904. Fred Ames, meanwhile, had been found and was sent to prison.

After legal action had stopped, Doc Ames returned to practicing medicine. He died on November 16, 1911 at the age of 69 and was buried in Lakewood Cemetery where other, more honorable Minnesotans are buried.

Steffens would later write five more articles on urban corruption, detailing dirty deeds in St. Louis (again), Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. These five, along with “Shame of Minneapolis” and “Tweed Days in St. Louis” would all be collected in his book “Shame of the Cities” (with an added introduction) in 1904.

Contempt of the Law

Steffen’s article “The Shame of Minneapolis” was the first story in the January 1903 issue of McClure’s. In that same issue was the third installment of Ida M. Tarbell’s legendary history of Standard Oil – this particular installment about the South Improvement Company’s attempt in 1872 to lower shipping rates of oil barrels owned by Standard Oil’s refineries. There was also Ray Stannard Baker’s article “Right to Work” which detailed the dangerous conditions scabs worked in during the anthracite coal strike of 1902.

McClure himself wrote an editorial at the end of the issue noting that these three articles had – coincidentally – covered the same subject: Contempt of the law. By labor, by capitalists, by politicians and by citizens. He advocated vigilance and intolerance of such wrongdoing on the part of his readers.

Doc Ames and his scheme was gone, but St. Paul, just across the Mississippi River had set up its own deal with criminals and by the time Ames had fallen, St. Paul’s “O’Connor System” had only just begun.

[Coming up in Part two: The beginnings of the O’Connor system]

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: Wednesday, December 29th, 2010.