Lincoln Steffens‘ “The Shame of Minneapolis” was originally published in McClures Magazine in 1903 but can be found today in Arthur and Lila Weinberg’s “The Muckrakers,” Capricorn Books (1961). Steffens Begins thus:

“Whenever anything extraordinary is done in American municipal politics, whether for good or evil, you can trace it almost invariably to one man. The people do not do it. Neither do the “gangs,” “combines” or political parties. These are but instruments by which bosses (not leaders; we Americans are not led, but driven) rule the people and commonly sell them out. But there are at least two forms of autocracy which has supplanted the democracy here as it has everywhere it has been tried. One is that of the organized majority by which, as in Tammany Hall in New York and the Republican machine in Philadelphia, the boss has normal control of more than half the voters. The other is that of the adroitly managed minority. The “good people” are herded into parties and stupefied with convictions and a name, Republican or Democrat; while the “bad people” are so organised or interested by the boss that he can wield their votes to enforce terms with party managers and decide elections.”

Steffens focuses on Minneapolis, New England (an interesting irony), which was in those days the metropolis of the Northwest. The boss in this particular incidence is one Albert Alonzo Ames or “Doc Ames” as he came to be known. A “good fellow” originally: college in Chicago, a doctor of medicine before he was 21, he increased his practice and became one of the best loved men in the community. He was especially good to the poor, but:

“Ames was sunshine not to the sick and destitute only. To the vicious and the depraved also he was a comfort. If a man was a hard drinker, the good Doctor cheered him with another drink; if he has stolen something, the Doctor helped to get him off. He was naturally vain; popularity developed his love of approbation. His loose life brought disapproval only from the good people, so gradually the Doctor came to enjoy best the society of the barroom and the streets. This society, flattered in turn, worshipped the good Doctor, and, active in politics always, put its physician into the arena.”

With growing ambition, Ames sought office, and his progress is a valuable insight into the character of politicians generally:

” Like many a “good fellow” with hosts of miscellaneous friends downtown to whom he was devoted, the good Doctor neglected his own family. From neglect he went on openly to separation from his wife and a second establishment. The climax came not long before the election of 1900. His wife was dying, and his daughter wrote to her father a note saying that her mother wished to see and forgive him. The messenger found him in a saloon. The Doctor read the note, laid it on the bar, and scribbled across it a sentence incredibly obscene. His wife died. The outraged family would not have the father at the funeral, but he appeared, not at the house, but in a carriage on the street. He sat across the way, with his feet up and a cigar in his mouth, till the funeral moved; then he circled around, crossing it and meeting it, and making altogether a scene which might well close any man’s career.”

Not Doc Ames however. By some smooth work in exploiting the vagueness of the voting system and setting his fellow Democrats against one and other and then jumping ship, he squeezed in as Republican Mayor. Up until then Ames had not been personally venal and was guilty of corruption chiefly by proxy, leaving the spoils to his entourage.

“His administrations were no worse than the worst. Now, however, he set out upon a career of corruption which for deliberateness, invention and avarice has never been equalled. It was as if he had made up his mind that he had been careless long enough, and meant to enrich his last years. He began early.”

Immediately upon election, before he took office, he laid plans to turn the city over to outlaws working under police direction and protection who would work for the profit of the administration. The chief of police was to be Colonel Fred W. Ames, his brother (back from the Philippines campaign and rescued by his big brother from a court martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy, clearly a weak vessel). Chief of detectives was to be Norman W. King, an abler man and a former gambler who knew the criminals needed for the work ahead:

“King was to invite the Minneapolis thieves, confidence men, pickpockets, and gamblers and release some that were in the local jail. They were to be organized into groups, according to their profession, and detectives were assigned to assist and direct them. The head of the gambling syndicate was to have charge of the gambling, making the terms and collecting the “graft,” just as King and a Captain Hill were to collect from the thieves. The collector for women of the town was to be Irwin A. Gardener, a medical student in the Doctor’s office, who was made a special policeman for the purpose. These men looked over the force, selected those men who could be trusted, charging them a price for their retention, and marked for dismissal 107 men out of 225, the 107 being the best policemen in the department from the point of view of the citizens who afterward reorganised the force. John Fitchette, better known as “Coffee John,” a Virginian…the keeper of a notorious coffeehouse, was to be a captain of police, with no duties except to sell places on the police force.”

And they did it. Incoming swindlers reported to King for instructions, the gambling and ‘disorderly houses’ being the beginning. Ames then dared to break openly into the municipal system of vice protection:

“Some two hundred slot machines were installed in various parts of the town, with owner’s agent and mayor’s agent watching and collecting from them enough to pay the mayor $15,000 a year as his share. Auction frauds were instituted. Opium joints and unlicensed saloons, called “blind pigs” were protected. Gardner even had a police baseball team, for whose games tickets were sold to people who had to buy them. But the women were the easiest “graft.” They were compelled to buy illustrated biographies of the city officials; they had to give presents of money, jewellery and gold stars to police officers. But the money they still paid direct to the city in fines, some $35,000 a year, fretted the mayor and at last he reached for it. He came out with a declaration, in his old character as friend of the oppressed, that $100 a month was too much for these women to pay. They should be required to pay the city fine only once in two months. This puzzled the town till it became generally known that Gardner collected the other month for the mayor. The final outrage in this department, however, was an order of the mayor for the periodic visits to disorderly houses, by the city’s physicians, at from $5 to $20 per visit. The two physicians he appointed called when they willed, and more and more frequently, till toward the end the calls became a pure formality, with the collections as the one and only object.”

Yes ‘New Labour’ had arrived in Minneapolis. In that inured and familiar way all this was known but did not arouse the citizens. More and more thieves and swindlers poured into the town and were invited to go to work. There is no doubt that all this took place:

“The astonishing fact that the government of a city asked criminals to rob the people is fully established. The police and the criminals have confessed it separately.”

Steffens then regales us with various testimonies , sworn under oath by characters such as “Billy Edwards” a “big mitt” and “Link” Crossman a “confidence man.” Burglaries became so common it may never be known how many the police planned. While Ames indulged in the luxury of utter recklessness, he should have known that even lawlessness must be regulated. Never really much of an organiser he attempted no such control. His followers quarrelled, deceived one another, robbed the thieves, robbed Ames and his brother the Colonel set up his own cabal which soon became bothered by the one man who remained loyal to Doc Ames, A.L. Gardner, who had begun as the mayor’s political agent in the field. When the mayor was away the Colonel’s clique plotted against Gardner, filling the Doc with suspicions against him and a fear of exposure. The Doc was induced to let a “creature” named “Reddy” Cohn do the collecting, instead of Gardner and also that he hand the cash over to Colonel Fred, who had none of his previous cowardice in the face of cash. Gardner made a touching appeal: “I have been honest. I have paid you all,” he told the mayor, “Fred and the rest will rob you.”

And they did. Fred was in charge at last and needless to say the new arrangements went badly. Reddy Cohn was an oppressive collector and Fred Ames was uselessly lenient with him, he also had no sure hold over the police force. The Captains, free of the overseeing Gardner began to undermine the chief by degrees, increasing their private operations and drinking hard. Protected swindlers were being arrested and then let go when brought before Colonel Fred. This was disturbing business. Worse for the lot of them something was brewing elsewhere:

“It was at this juncture. in April 1902, that the grand jury for the summer term was drawn. An ordinary body of unselected citizens, it received no special instructions from the bench; the county prosecutor offered it only routine work to do. But there was a man among them who was a fighter – the foreman, Hovey C. Clarke. He was of an old New England family. Coming to Minneapolis when a young man, seventeen years before, he had fought for employment, fought with his employers for position, fought with his employees, the lumberjacks, for command, fought for his company against competitors; and he had won always, till now he had the habit of command, the impatient, imperious manner of the master, and the assurance of success which begets it. He did not want to be a grand juryman, he did not want to be a foreman; but since he was both, he wanted to accomplish.”

Hovey C. Clarke suggested ripping up the Ames gang and the discouragement he met from every quarter fired him into action. Together with a meagre 2 or 3 others from the grand jury, Clarke (a la Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men) won the rest of them over to the task ahead:

“Then he called for the county prosecutor. The prosecutor was a politician; he knew the Ames crowd; they were too powerful to attack.

” You are excused,” said the foreman.

There was a scene; the prosecutor knew his rights.

” Do you think Mr. Clarke,” he cried, “that you can run the grand jury and my office too?”

“Yes,” said Clarke, “I will run your office if I want to; and I want to. You’re excused.” “

According to Clarke, all he did was to apply “simple business methods to his problem.” Hiring a lot of local detectives (who he knew would talk about what they were doing, and thus be watched by the police) he laid a false trail. Then he hired some other detectives who nobody knew about. This was costly (so were many other things he did) but he paid the price, drawing from his own and his colleague’s pockets. For a long summer’s work the cost to the county was a mere $259. Clarke then got tips from the inside from people who might want to get even because they had been double crossed. Clarke got their story, many of them were in jail under impossible bail conditions. Various individuals (including the “big mitt” Billy Edwards) were persuaded to turn state’s evidence: “because they believed Mr. Clarke was the kind of man to keep his promises and fulfil his threats.”

Clarke was ready by the end of three weeks hard work in the jails. The public prosecutor was ignored in favour of his first assistant (a master stroke), Al J. Smith. Smith initially hesitated, knowing the power and resources of the Ames gang, but he came to believe in Clarke. He led the open fighting in court, winning cases against men with the best lawyers in the State, eventually taking over the negotiations with the criminals for evidence. Bribes, threats and derision were offered to him. Clarke himself was offered $28,000 to quit; a staggering sum in 1903 and fairly reasonable today. A hit man from Chicago was employed for purposes relating to murder. Steffens mentions an interesting aspect to the case:

“What startled the jury most, however, was the character of the citizens who were sent to them to dissuade then from their course. No reform I ever studied has failed to bring out this phenomenon of virtuous cowardice, the baseness of the decent citizen.”

The jury indicted Gardner, a Captain Norbeck, Colonel Fred Ames and many others. Doc Ames was defiant and raised a defence fund to fight Clarke. Once, Clarke actually called at the city hall, the mayor met and challenged him, his minions all around, but Clarke faced them saying:

” ” 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.” “

The trial of Gardner came with efforts to make him surrender the mayor (who had paid him $15,000 to shut up) he was convicted silent. The other trials followed, Colonel Fred, Detective King and so on, with the Ames gang fighting all the way. The grand jury had to put up more of their money to find and extradite various individuals who, being possible informants or bad liars, had been put out of town. Bravely thinking that one of these was hundreds of miles out of town, Detective Norbeck (a top bagman for Gardner) fled his trial on the witness’ reluctant appearance. The jury spent more money and caught him too. He confessed but his evidence was not accepted (Steffens leaves this unexplained, presumably it was the redoubtable work of the defence lawyers). Clarke and his team then faced stiff opposition from the Madames of the disorderly houses, they held their silence because of their first hand experience of the brutality of the Ames gang. To break their confidence Mayor Ames was indicted for offering bribes to make Gardner the Sheriff, a genuine but not the best case against him, the women were eventually brought down to the truth.

People were caving in. Colonel Fred Ames retired from the field and was sentenced to 6 and a half years in the State’s prison, King was sentenced to 3 and a half. The tide had turned:

“Al Smith resigned with the consent and thanks of the grand jury; his chief, who was to run for the same office again, wanted to try the rest of the cases, and he did very well. All men were now on the side of law and order. The panic among the “grafters” was laughable, in spite of its hideous significance. Two heads of departments against whom nothing had been shown suddenly ran away, and thus suggested to the grand jury and inquiry which revealed another source of “graft,” in the sale of supplies to public institutions and the diversion of great quantities of provisions to the private residences of the mayor and other officials.”

Doc Ames was by now a sick and broken man, under indictment and heavy bonds for extortion, conspiracy, and bribe-offering he planed to go into exile to a health resort in Indiana:

“[He] left the state on a night train; a gentleman who knew him by sight saw him sitting up at eleven o’clock in the smoking room of the sleeping car, an unlighted cigar in his mouth, his face ashen and drawn, and at six o’clock the next morning he still was sitting there, his cigar still unlighted.”

Colonel Fred Ames disappeared. The city was without a mayor, the ring without a leader. The various cliques remaining vied for power. The “Tom Brown” clique had full sway, taking over the police department. An alderman, Fred M. Powers, took over the mayor’s office unsure of both authority and policy. The “Coffee John” clique turned to him but Powers proved timid. Astonishingly Colonel Fred returned and took power over the police force, supported by his friends. Together the cliques plotted a deep plot: they would find Doc Ames and ask him to remove his brother and then resign himself. Colonel Fred did resign and all looked well for the cliques.

” But the town was not yet easy. The grand jury, which was the actual head of the government, was about to be discharged, and, besides, their work was destructive. A constructive force was now needed.”

Another Alderman, Percy Jones was called for. He had gained the position as the result of a movement by some young men, themselves convinced by exposure of corrupt municipal practices, that they should go into politics. As acting mayor Jones started the slow process of sorting out the mess. He replaced men who had been removed by Ames, making as head of the police a man with no sympathy for crime:

“Disorderly houses forbidden by law, were permitted, but only within certain patrol lines, and they were to pay nothing, in either blackmail or “fines.” The number and the standing and the point of view of the “good people” who opposed this order was a lesson to Mr. Jones in practical government. One very prominent citizen and church member threatened him for driving women out of two flats owned by him; the rent was the surest means of “support for his wife and children.” Mr. Jones enforced his order. Other interests – saloonkeepers, brewers, etc. – gave him trouble enough, but all these were trifles in comparison with his experience with the gamblers. They represented organised crime, and they asked for a hearing. Mr Jones gave them some six weeks for negotiations. They proposed a solution. They said that if he would let them (a syndicate) open four gambling places downtown, they would see that no others ran in any part of the city.”

The syndicate came back time and time again to face an intransigent new mayor. By an odd coincidence there was what the papers described as “an epidemic of crime.” How the papers got the details puzzled the mayor, it was not from the police. The syndicate returned, prophesying further “epidemics” of an even larger scale. They were as good as their word. One burglary was in the home of a relative of the mayor. The gamblers came back and declared that if the mayor acceded to their wishes they would retrieve the bulk of the stolen goods and perhaps even catch a few thieves, all manner of stuff began to be delivered to the police station. When they returned the mayor told them “there should be no gambling, with police connivance, in the city of Minneapolis during his term of office.” A highly diplomatic phrase. This is the last paragraph of Steffens’ article:

“Mr. Jones told me that if he had before him a long term, he certainly would reconsider this answer. He believed he would decide again as he had already, but he would at least give studious reflection to the question – Can a city be governed without any alliance with crime? It was an open question. He had closed it only for the four months of his emergency administration. Minneapolis should be clean and sweet for a little while at least, and the new administration should begin with a clear deck.”

The editorial of McClure’s noted that it contained 3 articles on one subject which might well have all been called “the American contempt of law.” It then went on to make these observations:

” Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens – all breaking the law or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it? The lawyers? Some of the best lawyers in this country are hired, not to go into court to defend cases, but to advise corporations and business firms how they can get around the law without too great a risk of punishment. The judges? Too many of them so respect the laws that for some “error” or quibble they restore to office and liberty men convicted on evidence overwhelmingly convincing to common sense. The churches? We know of one, an ancient and wealthy establishment, which had to be compelled by a Tammany hold-over health officer to put its tenements in sanitary conditions. The colleges? They do not understand.”

The editorial ends with the hypothesis that there is no one left, none but us all. It maps out what in retrospect is a historic moment in the birth of the 20th century:

“Capital is learning (with indignation at labor’s unlawful acts) that its rival’s contempt of law is a menace to property. Labour has shrieked the belief that the illegal power of capital is a menace to the worker. These two are drawing together. Last November when a strike was threatened by the yard-men on all the railroads centering in Chicago, the men got together and settled by raising wages, and raising freight rates too. They made the public pay. The public is the people. We forget that we are all the people; that while each of us in his group can shove off on the rest the bill of today, the debt is only postponed; the rest are passing it back to us. We have to pay in the end, every one of us. And in the end the sum total of the debt will be our liberty.”

Few readers will at first have noticed the failure of that strike and its and others true repercussions. Things like that seem “normal” to us, since we have had so much of this ritual over the past 100 years. Steffens’ article together with Ida Tarbell’s exposure of Standard Oil set the theme for McClure’s. The proprietor, Samuel S. McClure was reputedly primarily interested only in circulation figures and an insistence on factual accuracy in the writing. Fair enough. The public response was astonishing though, at one time it is estimated that there were more than a dozen magazines engaged in “Muckraking,” the term (an attempt at derision) was provided by the President Roosevelt. He thought the writers were not looking at the bright side of things. According to the Weinberg’s The Muckrakers :

“He charged that the writers who were engaged in the exposure of corruption were “muckrakers,” and likened them to the man with the muckrake in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who could “look no way but downward, with a muckrake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown for his muckrake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.”

The speech, to a club of newsmen was off the record and thus soon became common gossip.

Those were heady days. The country was perhaps simply young enough that writers believed that the slate could be wiped clean, but so little had been written on it compared to today. In any case a nation dominated by lassiaz faire, dedicated to the status quo and paying homage to the dollar as the symbol of success, was genuinely shocked by the writing. We have in one sense returned to this childlike capacity for wonder at such routine and banal facts of government. One must remember too that a vast proportion of the population at the time were immigrants who had just arrived. How were they supposed to know how things were run? This and the process outlined in Steffens work is portrayed masterfully in Upton Sinclair’s “the Jungle” (Sinclair’s work is included in the Weinberg’s anthology). B. Traven’s work (which broadens out to focus on American imperialism in Mexico with comments on US capital and also shares the muckraking influence with “The White Rose,” “The Cotton Pickers” and “The treasure of the Sierra Nevada”) mostly with the Americans as the economic migrants. There are also similar threads running through Steinbeck’s early work “In Dubious Battle” and “The grapes of Wrath.” Muckraking or the journalism of exposure as it was also known is a powerful and easily identified theme running through American literature and sociology with C. Wright Mills, Alvin Gouldner and so on. We can also see it today in the work of Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and Peter Dale Scott to name a few.

As to the end of Steffens’ article and the new mayor’s open question: “can a city be governed without any alliance with organised crime?” ‘Not so far as we can tell,’ is the answer which we could echo back down the tunnel of the years. I have no information as to how long the new mayor lasted, his predecessor, Doc Ames also seems, as you may have noticed, to have got away free. We can offer the new mayor a modicum of hope, we can tell him “there have been many cases of this, but we now have infallible leaders.”


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