Seventy-two years ago this month, a crusading newspaper editor, Walter Liggett, was gunned down in front of his wife and young daughter. Minnesota’s most notorious mobster went on trial for the killing, but Liggett’s family always believed more powerful figures were responsible.
On December 9, 1935, Walter Liggett spent most of the day working at home, preparing stories for the next edition of his small, crusading newspaper, the Midwest American. For that week’s issue, Liggett had drawn up a list of 12 reasons to impeach progressive governor Floyd B. Olson—a favorite and frequent target of Liggett’s.
When Liggett and his wife, Edith, a fellow journalist and partner in the business, finished the day’s work, the couple headed to their print shop on Lake Street, then ran a few errands. They picked up their 10-year-old daughter, Marda, from the library; they stopped to buy groceries, dropping off a friend at the bus station in downtown Minneapolis; they picked up a copy of the Sunday New York Times.
The family then headed back home to 1825 Second Avenue South. Marda sat in the back seat of the car with her mother. The sack of groceries lay beside Walter in the front. It was nearing 5:45 p.m. The air was crisp. Snow was falling. Liggett turned right into the narrow alley behind 1825 and parked close to the building. So tight, in fact, that he had to climb out of the car on the passenger’s side. Edith stepped out of the back seat. Marda stayed in the car.
Walter had turned to pick up the groceries when he noticed a car speeding down the alley, the headlights arcing against the family. It was moving at a clip too fast for anyone’s good. Edith jumped on the running board. Walter stepped around in front of the bumper to avoid being hit. They could see two men in the oncoming sedan. Later, there would be conflicting accounts about where the passenger was sitting, but there was no question about what he was holding: a Thompson submachine gun. It was pointed at Walter’s chest.
The scene seared itself into Edith’s memory. She would later recall the “snarling smile” of the gunman, the awful “spurt of flame” followed by the echoing tat-tat-tat of shots being fired as the car sped past.
Marda screamed. Wallace, the Liggetts’ 11-year-old son, came rushing down from the family’s second-floor apartment. Neighbors left their evening meals on the stove, running to see what had happened. The first police officers arrived inside of five minutes. The press was quick on their heels. A newspaper photographer snapped an image of the stunned Edith, checking for a pulse at her husband’s carotid artery. Another photo caught her in abject shock, staring wide-eyed into the flash of the camera as she knelt beside Walter, clutching his lifeless hand between both of her own. Someone had ripped open his bloody shirt, revealing four bullet holes puncturing his chest in a diamond shape, just above his heart. He was dead in an instant, the coroner said.
There was never any doubt in Edith’s mind about who did the shooting. That night, she told investigators she knew the man who killed her husband; she would remember his face for the rest of her life. But later, up in the family’s apartment, within earshot of the cops and reporters buzzing about the crime scene, Edith leveled another accusation. This was directed not at the gunman—but at the person she was sure was behind the shooting. She picked up the phone and sobbed to her mother in Brooklyn: “Governor Olson’s gang got Walter, mother.”
In a state that prides itself on something called “Minnesota Nice,” it’s a little hard to believe just how violent and corrupt the Twin Cities was 70 years ago. Notorious on a national scale, it was a well-known home-away-from-home for Depression- era gangsters like John Dillinger, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and the Ma Barker Gang, who liked to breeze into St. Paul for some downtime after marauding Midwest banks. Everyone seemed to know there was an unwritten agreement between the local police and the gangsters: The Capital City cops would stay in the doughnut shops as long as the gangs left the good folks of St. Paul alone.
Prohibition painted a veneer of hypocrisy over every level of local society. Crooks and decent citizens mingled in a climate where almost everyone was compromised by the illegal but persistent presence of whiskey and gin. One had to look no further than the capitol itself to see how widespread the faÃ§ade was. Governor Floyd B. Olson—a political hero to much of the state—was known to bend elbows with a number of local gangsters, including Kid Cann, the most notorious mobster Minnesota would ever produce. The two had actually grown up in the same Minneapolis neighborhood; they shared mutual friends; and they both, at one time or another, had found themselves in the cross hairs of the state’s most fearless journalist: Walter Liggett.
Six-feet-four-inches tall and solid, with the look of a G-Man—prominent brow, squinty eyes, square jaw—Walter Liggett was, without question, courageous in pursuit of his ideas. But he could also be reckless to a fault, and he had spent most of his adult life—depending on one’s perspective—either speaking truth to power or dogmatically haranguing the powers-that-be.
His writing career began during World War I at local papers—the Pioneer Press, Minneapolis Journal, and St. Paul Dispatch. At the same time, he started becoming involved in politics. He became a devotee of progressive hero Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and then Minnesota congressman Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. (the famous aviator’s father), for whom he served as a speechwriter during Lindbergh’s failed 1918 gubernatorial bid.
After helping to establish the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota in the 1920s, Liggett headed East. In New York, he worked for a succession of papers, including the Times, Sun, Post, News, and a socialist publication, The Call. He also met and married Edith, who gave birth to Wallace and Marda just as Walter was beginning a successful freelance writing career. He wrote a damning biography of Herbert Hoover, and a series of muckraking articles for a journal called Plain Talk. These last stories were delineations of the corruption that centered on prohibition in cities across the country, including a feature called, “Minneapolis and Vice in Volsteadland,” a reference to Andrew Volstead, the Minnesota congressman who sponsored the legislation that outlawed liquor.
By the summer of 1933, then, when Liggett decided to bring his family back to his home state, he was already familiar with the breadth of criminal activity in the Twin Cities. Once here, he took over the publication of a Farmer-Labor newspaper in southeastern Minnesota, moved it to Minneapolis, and renamed it the Midwest American. He wasted little time with niceties; he began crusading against a host of evils, politicians, and prominent citizens, quickly earning a reputation as a professional pain-in-the-ass to much of what constituted Minnesota’s establishment. He argued that banking and business interests controlled the state, and started criticizing Farmer-Labor governor Floyd B. Olson, whom he believed was not only a patsy to bankers, but in bed with the crooks who ran the rackets and liquor business in Minnesota—the most notorious of which was Isadore Blumenfield, better know as Kid Cann.
Cann was born in Romania, but had grown up in the tight-knit Jewish community of north Minneapolis, beginning his criminal career as a teenage pickpocket. The advent of Prohibition in January 1920 turned him into a “rum-running venture capitalist,” to use the phrase of local crime historian Paul Maccabee. Twice arrested for murder in the 1920s, including a charge that he’d killed a Minneapolis cop in a nightspot called the Cotton Club, Cann was let go in both cases for lack of evidence. According to Maccabee, he spent not a single day in jail in the 1920s.
His bootlegging empire was aided by its proximity to Canada. Trucks made midnight runs down the recently constructed Highway 61 from Ontario to the Twin Cities, where contraband booze was distributed by a gang of Cann’s old North Side buddies, know as the Minneapolis Combination. It was an arrangement made possible by a truce between the Combination and the Irish Syndicate, which monopolized St. Paul’s illicit alcohol trade. Everyone profited in the bargain.
As for Cann’s nickname: It had a couple of possible derivations. One theory is that it was a boxing name, assumed during a brief career as a fighter; another has it that as a boy, Cann (rhymes with man), hid in a local outhouse to avoid brawls with other neighborhood gangs. In either case, Cann himself was never wild about the moniker and was more often called Isadore Bloom among friends. He was a wealthy man by the time Prohibition neared its end in 1933, and smart enough to see that his illicit trade was going the way of the horse and buggy. So Cann began to buy off the requisite local politicians and cops who would allow him to corner the market in legitimate liquor sales in Minneapolis.
These activities didn’t go unnoticed by Liggett, who spilled buckets of ink in the Midwest American painting a portrait of civic corruption centered on the activities of Cann. At the same time, Liggett was waging a war of words against the governor, who Liggett claimed had betrayed the cause of progressivism. He also made a conspicuous link between the two. It was Olson, as Hennepin County Attorney, Liggett reported, who dropped charges against Kid Cann back in 1928, when Cann was accused of killing a Minneapolis cop.
It was no secret that Cann and Olson knew each other. A kid of modest means and Scandinavian descent, Olson was raised in the same part of town as Cann, and enjoyed a strong and lifelong affinity with the Jewish community there.
After he got his law license, though, Olson drifted into politics, first as a Democrat, then later as a member of the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1920, he became Hennepin County Attorney, after his boss was ousted from the office for accepting bribes. He was reelected in 1922 and 1926. Then, in 1930, he ran for governor and won in a landslide, the first Farmer-Labor candidate to win the office.
As governor, he won admirers for his progressive reforms, which included pushing through a moratorium on farm foreclosures, and instituting a state income tax that hit wealthy Minnesotans particularly hard.
He was a charismatic leader, oozing charm and energy. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he used the new medium of radio to warm the hearts of the citizenry. He was not without his personal flaws, including a weakness for booze and women. For the most part, though, he was considered an inspiring, progressive politician with a necessary streak of pragmatism.
That practicality, however, caused some true believers—Liggett among them—to consider Olson a traitor to their cause. Liggett believed that in 1934, facing a tough reelection campaign, Olson had compromised on a number of his progressive principles. In Liggett’s mind—and, hence, in the pages of the Midwest American—Olson had become intertwined with the business interests of the Twin Cities, particularly those of Charley Ward, who ran Brown & Bigelow in St. Paul. By the summer of 1934, the ties to Ward and Cann made the governor a ten-penny nail for Liggett, and he began hammering away at him in his paper.
Though the Midwest American’s circulation was tiny, someone was paying attention. Just a year after his return to Minnesota, Liggett was charged with a “morals” crime. The claim was that he and a union official from Austin had lured two teenage girls to Minneapolis, where the couples spent the night drinking and spooning. This alleged seduction took place in the winter of 1934. Yet, oddly enough, no one said a thing about it for a full year. In fact, it was 13 months before the Hennepin County Attorney brought charges, in June 1935. The chief accusers were the girls themselves, who turned out to have serious credibility issues. They had also been coached in their testimony by a pair of officials who had ties to the Farmer-Labor Party.
Late in October, just as the trial was beginning, Walter Liggett somehow found his way up to Annette Fawcett’s salon at the Radisson Hotel. Fawcett was the glamorous ex-wife of Captain Billy Fawcett, owner of the Breezy Point resort, and a woman who liked to court—and hold court with—the powers of the city. According to Edith’s account, Fawcett told Liggett that she wanted to help him find a good attorney to help with his defense.
But after Liggett arrived, Kid Cann showed up. Drinking ensued; the two men argued. Cann took a swing at Liggett. Eventually, the two men made nice. Cann even offered to drive Liggett home. On the way, however, they stopped for a nightcap at a tavern on Hennepin Avenue. Outside, Liggett was jumped by a gang of Cann’s men. His face remained swollen and battered for the remainder of the trial.
It was just a month after Walter Liggett’s acquittal in the morals case that he was shot in the alley behind his home, and Edith Liggett had no trouble recognizing the man with the snarling smile who had killed her husband. It was the same lowlife who’d orchestrated his beating—Kid Cann.
Twelve days after the shooting, on December 21, 1935, Cann was indicted for the hit. The principal witnesses against him were Edith and a neighbor of the Liggetts named Wesley Andersch, who claimed to have seen the murder from a back window of his apartment.
For his part, Cann told the grand jury that he was nowhere near Liggett on the evening in question. Around 5:30 p.m., after a day spent doing the business of a legitimate liquor distributor, he went to a barbershop on Hennepin between Fifth and Sixth streets. He got a haircut and a shoeshine, he said, and stayed until about 6:30 p.m. To support his contention, he pointed the cops to the shop’s employees. Not surprisingly, everyone there said: Yes, indeed, Mr. Bloom was right here during the time of Walter Liggett’s murder.
The killing was front-page news across the country. The New York Times reported on the murder and on local efforts to get the state’s vice problems under control. The paper also reported on Edith Liggett’s efforts to get the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the case; she doubted that Hennepin County would do a thorough job of prosecuting Cann.
In this last regard, Governor Olson swore that he would do everything within the powers of his office to see that justice was done. In truth, that wasn’t much. Olson could do little but plead with the U.S. Attorney General to take the case, and by the end of December, he had far more serious troubles to deal with. A trip to the Mayo Clinic revealed that his pancreas was riddled with cancer. The governor was a sick man by the time Cann’s trial convened.
Two stories dominated the front page at the time of the trial: the Cann case and the cold weather. It was 16 degrees below zero on January 31, the day Edith Liggett first took the stand to testify that the man sitting at the defense table was the same one who’d sprayed her husband’s chest with bullets. Andersch, the Liggetts’ neighbor, testified to the same fact. But he proved to lack credibility. The defense brought in his ex-wife to tell the jury how he sometimes made things up. Marda Liggett was also called to the stand, but the 10-year-old couldn’t make a positive identification of Kid Cann.
Edith Liggett was dressed in black for the trial, her small-boned frame contrasting with her oversized features, her large dark eyes giving her a child-like countenance.
She was the state’s star witness—a role she played well until her second day on the stand, when defense lawyers asked about the statement she’d made to her mother over the phone the night of the murder. Perhaps if she’d paused to consider the ramifications of accusing a very sick and very popular governor of abetting a murder, she might have been more circumspect. But prudence was not a family trait. She and Walter had spent the last year hammering away at Olson’s administration. How could Olson not have been involved in the murder? How could she be quiet about it now? “The murder would not have been committed without Governor Olson’s permission,” she told Cann’s attorney. His gang “either ordered it or permitted it.”
It is hard to know how much credibility Edith Liggett lost at that moment. A few days later, when a pair of Minneapolis cops took the stand on behalf of the defense to dispute Edith’s version of events, few doubted their stories. They said the alley was darker than Edith claimed; they said there were differing accounts about what kind of car the shooter drove; they said it would have been very difficult to see who was firing at Walter; they said Edith was hysterical that night.
It took the jury just 90 minutes to acquit Kid Cann. When he heard the verdict, he rushed over to the box to thank them, kissing the hands of the four women on the panel.
That day, the weather was almost unbearable, but the forecast was for winds to die down and the temperature to rise. Nonetheless, Edith Liggett had enough of Minnesota. Less than two weeks after the end of the trial, she packed up the kids, sold the Midwest American, and headed home to Brooklyn.
Eight months later, on August 22, 1936, Governor Olson died of pancreatic cancer at 44. He remains a figure of immense stature in the state’s political history, a progressive hero who died young and tragically.
It took another 25 years for Kid Cann to finally face charges that stuck. In 1961, he was caught trying to bribe a juror during a conspiracy trial in Minneapolis. The court sentenced him to eight years in the federal penitentiary, but he served a little more than two before being paroled. At 64, he moved to Florida where he became partners with an old friend, notorious mobster Meyer Lansky. He died a wealthy man in 1981.
Tim Brady is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Monthly.