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Stopping the Presses

Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett

Marda Liggett Woodbury
Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Stopping the Presses
    Book Description:

    In the 1920s and 30s, Minneapolis was crime city. Gangsters and politicians were partners running the Twin Cities’ illegal gambling, prostitution, and liquor concerns. Stopping the Presses is a searing look at this corrupt time, told through the life of martyred journalist Walter W. Liggett by his daughter, who finally sets the record straight. “Stopping the Presses is a fascinating look at the dangerous world of newspapers in the 1930s. . . . Hats off to Marda Liggett Woodbury, [this is] . . . the kind of work Walter Liggett would be proud of. Stopping the Presses is an important book.” --Steve Thayer, author of Saint Mudd and The Weatherman

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8800-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface. A Daughter’s Journey
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction. Starting Point
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    I always associated my father’s murder with hard times and the bitter Minnesota winter of 1935–36. His death in December of the waning year forever cast a shadow on our family’s Christmas celebrations. Perhaps it was appropriate. If Jesus Christ had died for our sins, as I had learned in Sunday school, I figured—in my ten-year-old way—that my father had died for the sins of Minneapolis.

    On the blustery evening of December 9, 1935, my mother and I, seated beside the groceries in the back seat of our Ford V-8, saw my father gunned down in the...

  5. Part I. Walter’s Story

    • 1. Prairie Activist
      (pp. 3-14)

      My father, Walter W. Liggett, was born on St. Valentine’s Day in 1886 on his father’s stock farm near Benson on the gently rolling prairies of western Minnesota.

      I saw this family homestead once when I was seven or eight, on a summer day when my dad took us down to Benson to show us where he was born. I remember a square white farmhouse, two or three stories high with a porch on two sides, set in a huge yard with leafy, nurturing trees. I was impressed that my father had lived in such a big house on such...

    • 2. The Roaring Twenties
      (pp. 15-20)

      When Walter and Norma Liggett moved to Washington, D.C., in January 1920, the government was still caught up in a wartime mentality, with a void at the center of power. The presidency was run from behind the scenes by President Wilson’s wife and doctor after Wilson suffered a series of strokes. Those who managed the country in his name tried to conceal his illness from reporters, from the cabinet and the vice president, and certainly from the American public.

      Prohibition took effect just two weeks after Walter and Norma arrived in Washington. The ban on the sale and consumption of...

    • 3. Freelance Writer, Freelance Radical
      (pp. 21-36)

      Walter launched his career as a magazine and book author the week Edith learned she was pregnant with me, a month after Wally’s first birthday. On February 14, 1925, Walter’s thirty-ninth birthday, my parents took five dollars from their savings to see a show and drink to the luck I would bring them.

      Edith listened to Walter’s tall tales of the Mounties and his days as an express messenger. Next morning, she went to the library and came back to tell him that no American magazines had recent stories on the Mounties. That afternoon, Walter phoned a friend atCollier’s....

    • 4. Meanwhile, in Minnesota
      (pp. 37-44)

      While Walter was exploring the connection between crime and Prohibition, Minneapolis had become the headquarters and distribution center of the Northwest’s illicit liquor traffic, led by gangs from Minneapolis’s north side. Many were boyhood friends of county attorney Floyd B. Olson, who had grown up in poverty on the wrong side of the tracks.¹ The only son of unhappily married immigrants, Olson grew up in a neighborhood of tumbledown shacks where the only brick buildings were houses of prostitution. This area, a melting pot for immigrant labor, provided most of the city’s criminals and crooked policemen.

      The growth of vice...

    • 5. Return to Minnesota
      (pp. 45-58)

      Our family left New York with a sense of adventure in July 1933, looking forward to an exciting new life in Minnesota. My grandmother prepared a wonderful farewell Sunday dinner for us, with roast beef and glazed potatoes, my favorite spring salad, and Wally’s favorite chocolate cake. We took pictures on the porch and promised to write.

      On the train trip west, I sought out my father in the smoking car, where I found him talking expansively. I felt proud of my handsome father and equally proud of the pretty new dress with green and lavender rickrack that my grandmother...

    • 6. Break with Olson
      (pp. 59-68)

      Walter’s ultimate break with Olson started in Benson, Minnesota, at a Nonpartisan League voters conference held on Labor Day in 1934 to examine All-Party influence on the Farmer-Labor Party. Nearly five hundred old Leaguers attended. The stormy meeting began with League founder Arthur Townley’s eloquent address tracing Minnesota’s historic fight for better government.¹

      “When we formed the Nonpartisan League,” Townley said, “we formed it to redeem control of the state government which was under the absolute domination of the Republican machine…. We chose as our candidate Charles Lindbergh, a man of the Lincoln type, a high-minded, honest statesman, a real...

    • 7. Move to Danger
      (pp. 69-80)

      To carry the campaign against Olson closer to the Twin Cities, our family moved—with printing plant, furniture, and two thousand books—from Rochester to Minneapolis on the last day of 1934.

      When we moved to Minneapolis, we moved into danger. Although St. Paul was in the throes of a cleanup, Minneapolis had not cleaned up since Near and Guilford had written about the buildup of a “colossal criminal ring” in 1927. Neither had it cleaned up after Walter wrote about the interplay of liquor interests and political corruption in 1930. More recently, the Twin Cities had made headlines when...

    • 8. Framed and Beaten Up
      (pp. 81-104)

      While Wallace and I were relishing our summer on the farm, our parents—to pay our board and room—moved from our pleasant house on Harriet Avenue into a house on Portland Avenue owned by Republican U.S. senator Thomas Schall. I recall it as a gloomy old house with mailbags in the attic. Our parents had rented it earlier for employees in return for repairs; it was now available for only fifteen dollars a month. It was tolerable, they figured, with a comfortable sleeping porch. They were close to the poverty line then and economy loomed large.¹

      Whatever the economics,...

    • 9. On Trial
      (pp. 105-116)

      Since Walter was too ill to get out of bed, his friend Joseph Granbeck went to court on October 31 to ask the judge to postpone the trial to December 2 and to postpone a hearing on witnesses until November 9. Granbeck brought a letter from Walter’s doctor, who wrote that Walter was “badly bruised and battered up,” had great difficulty breathing, and was “confined to bed most of the time and should remain quiet for several more days.” The judge merely asked the county attorney to respond on November 2.¹

      The next day, after Edith secured another statement from...

  6. Part II. Death in an Alley

    • 10. Crescendo of Horror
      (pp. 119-128)

      My parents were almost giddy with relief after Walter was acquitted. As Edith put it, “With this hideous frameup off our necks, [we have] nothing to worry about but the ordinary matter of running a business without any capital in the midst of a depression.”¹ They hoped that Harry Peterson, the state attorney general, would bring the frame-up before a grand jury. Walter still aspired to clean up the Farmer-Labor Party and supported Peterson as a candidate for senator.

      “As you can imagine,” Edith wrote Roger Baldwin at the ACLU on November 21, 1935, “in view of Walter’s illness, the...

    • 11. Last Day: Family Recollections
      (pp. 129-132)

      Walter’s last day was—like his last three years—full. After driving Wally and me to school, he spent most of the day at home with Edith working on the next issue of theMidwest Americanand polishing a speech recommending Governor Olson’s impeachment. My parents did not go to the newspaper plant until late in the afternoon. Our apartment was a quieter place to work, and the plant telephone may have been shut off a few days earlier.

      Our telephone figured heavily in Walter’s last afternoon. Edith recalled that evening that our home telephone seemed to ring every eight...

    • 12. The Cops Arrive, a Little Late, with Their Notebooks
      (pp. 133-140)

      Between 5:43 and 5:45 that evening, the police telephone operator had received three calls. The first caller shouted that he thought a man had been shot in the alley behind 1825 Second Avenue South; the second said, “A man has been shot!” and the third, “Liggett has been killed.” Three detective cars were dispatched: number 30 with Schroeder and Higgins, number 8 with Duffy and Hamilton, and number 10 with Fabriz and Seidenstricker. Higgins and Schroeder heard the first call around 5:45 and another around 5:49. Detectives Art Olson and Charles Wetherille, out in a car with their radio open,...

    • 13. The Word Goes Out
      (pp. 141-146)

      In newspaper headlines the next morning, Walter’s murder had replaced the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the Italian assault on Ethiopia. Most of the first few pages of both theMinneapolis Starand theMinneapolis Tribunedealt with my father’s life and death. In New York, my great-grandmother screamed when she saw theNew York Times, and my thirteen-year-old cousin Eda became aware for the first time that evil could reach close to her.¹

      In papers large and small, from Seattle to Alabama, the story made headlines and inspired editorials: in small-town papers in Minnesota and North Dakota, where...

    • 14. No Time to Mourn
      (pp. 147-150)

      As if by magic, Aunt Caroline was there the next morning: she had taken the plane from New York. It was good to have her with us, despite her Christian Science determination to view things positively.

      At Caroline’s instruction, I called Lyndale School to tell them we weren’t coming. “The Liggett children won’t be in today,” I started, “because, because…” I couldn’t go on. I wanted to cry, to wail, to dramatize. Caroline took the phone from me. “The Liggett children won’t be in today,” she stated crisply. Her emphasis had always been more on correct behavior than on feeling.¹...

  7. Part III. Edith’s Story

    • 15. Aftermath of Murder
      (pp. 153-162)

      Widowed and without funds in a hostile city during the coldest winter since 1912, Edith acted with courage, dignity, and grace. Even in these circumstances, she thought of others. Without success, she pressured the ACLU to help Frank Ellis, and she wrote Roger Baldwin suggesting that the ACLU’s proffered reward money be used to repay Joseph Granbeck for Walter’s bail.¹ The debt, she wrote, “was on Walter’s mind at the end.”

      Although the Minneapolis city council and even Meyer Schuldberg had offered rewards, Baldwin responded that the ACLU could not make an outlay for past services. He essentially withdrew his...

    • 16. Hard Times
      (pp. 163-176)

      At least five separate Minnesota agencies—the Minneapolis police, the Hennepin County attorney’s office, the attorney general, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and the Hennepin County sheriff—investigated Walter’s murder in a routine that suggested the Keystone Kops. They seemed reluctant to go below the most trivial level, and they seldom trusted each other or exchanged information—perhaps with good reason.

      While Edith believed that Chief Frank Forestal was honest and John Hilborn, supervisor of detectives, was sympathetic, the Minneapolis Police Department was riddled with corruption and ties to gangsters. Captain James Mullen, in charge of the voluminous but unproductive...

    • 17. Kid Cann Beats the Rap
      (pp. 177-196)

      Prosecutor Frederick Pike opened Kid Cann’s trial on January 29, 1936, by pointing out that Cann was being prosecuted jointly by the county attorney’s office and the state attorney’s office. “We will introduce evidence showing this was a premeditated, powerful, and brutal murder,” Pike said. “We will show there was an auto occupied by at least two persons, one person driving and the other holding a machine gun. We shall offer evidence to show the defendant was the person who handled the gun that killed Liggett.” The state, he said, had no knowledge of who the other person was.¹


    • 18. Loose Ends
      (pp. 197-202)

      Edith, not surprised by the verdict, had prepared a statement:

      The amazing part of the trial, to one unaccustomed to the close tie-up between a large part of the police force and the liquor syndicate to which Kid Cann belonged, was the spectacle of four police officers calmly perjuring themselves in the successful effort to win his freedom.

      This, of course, is an old Minnesota custom….

      No attempt has been made by the police force to discover who drove the car, who provided the machine gun, if there was any mistake in the identification, or to produce the killers.


    • 19. Home to Brooklyn
      (pp. 203-210)

      On the first day of March 1936, we fled Minneapolis in our Ford V-8, the blue sedan that newspaper stories had called “the murder car.” A young friend drove the car, for ever since my father’s death, Edith had been troubled by a racing heart and bouts of nervous exhaustion.¹

      Great drifts of grimy snow four to eight feet high were piled by the roadways as we drove through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. They dwindled and eventually disappeared as we drove farther east, and by the time we reached my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, it was sunny and the streets...

  8. Appendix. Who Done It? And What Happened to Kid Cann?
    (pp. 211-220)
  9. Notes and Sources
    (pp. 221-256)
  10. Index
    (pp. 257-272)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 273-273)
  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 274-289)