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Stopping the Presses

The Murder of Walter W. Liggett

1998
Author:

Marda Liggett Woodbury

Stopping the Presses

An in-depth exploration of corruption and a notorious murder in 1930s Minneapolis.

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

Stopping the Presses is a fascinating look at the dangerous world of newspapers in the 1930s. I wish I’d had this book while researching Saint Mudd. I know how difficult it is to research history on the underworld . . . and even more difficult to research the overworld that protected the underworld. Hats off to Marda Liggett Woodbury: her historical research is excellent . . . 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

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.

Walter Liggett published The Mid-West American, a newspaper that sought to expose machine politics and corruption in Minnesota. At times Liggett seemed alone in this endeavor—very few journalists joined his crusade to detail the links between the political establishment of populist Governor Floyd B. Olson and the crime syndicate in Minneapolis.

For his efforts Liggett was threatened, offered bribes, beaten up, framed, and finally shot to death in the alley behind his home. His wife witnessed the assassination and was able to identify Liggett’s killer as mob leader Kid Cann. Though he was indicted by a grand jury, Cann was not convicted after what appears to be a sloppy investigation and cursory trial.

Liggett’s ten-year-old daughter Marda also witnessed the shooting that night. Decades later, while researching the events surrounding her father’s death, she discovered a historical record that was either woefully inadequate or outright incorrect. She worked for more than eight years to research her father’s life and death, exposing a side of Minnesota’s history that has been often ignored or overlooked.

An intriguing report on the complex intersection between populist politics and corruption, Stopping the Presses is a personal and detailed account of the surprising stories of crime, politics, and journalism of the time.

Stopping the Presses

Marda Liggett Woodbury is a retired library director and author of seven reference books. She lives in Oakland, California.

Stopping the Presses

Stopping the Presses is a fascinating look at the dangerous world of newspapers in the 1930s. I wish I’d had this book while researching Saint Mudd. I know how difficult it is to research history on the underworld . . . and even more difficult to research the overworld that protected the underworld. Hats off to Marda Liggett Woodbury: her historical research is excellent . . . 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

Marda Woodbury’s Stopping the Presses is an emotionally wrenching probe into the 1935 murder of a most unlikely hero-Walter W. Liggett, idealist, progressive, muckraker, newspaper publisher, crime buster, and, not least of all, the author’s beloved father. Woodbury does far more than just clear her father’s name. In writing Walter Liggett’s feisty spirit back to life, Woodbury has reached back a half century to resurrect an era-a forgotten age when corrupt politicians, lethal mobsters, and Liggett’s gullible rivals in the news media intersected with Liggett’s machine-gun slaying. Stopping the Presses is the kind of book that Walter Liggett would have relished, even if it hadn’t been written by his own daughter!

Paul Maccabee, crime historian and author of John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crook’s Tour of Crime and Corruption in Saint Paul

Marda Woodbury has resurrected an important, and long-overlooked, incident in Minnesota history and American journalism in her remarkable account of the 1935 murder of her father, radical journalist Walter W. Liggett. Returning to Minneapolis a half-century later, she has, by her tireless investigative zeal and skillful writing, not only upheld her father’s honor and restored his good name, but illuminated one of the darkest chapters in Minnesota’s modern history. Stopping the Presses is an engrossing story of a long-age crime that is good enough to stop today’s presses.

Albert Eisele, editor of The Hill

Stopping the Presses powerfully reminds us that labor history is multifaceted: the narratives we know and remember depend to a large degree on who has the power to tell any given story. The left wing has long ‘mythologized’ the heroic leaders of Depression-era struggles, but Marda Woodbury casts a different, far less glowing light on the regime overseen by Minnesota Farm-Labor Governor Floyd Olson. Woodbury offers a deeply revisionist work of history-she is out to set the record straight, and her account of her father’s murder seeks to rescue his story from the many distortions of most Minnesota historians. I very much admire the skills, discipline, and drive that allow her to seek the truth and, in the process, reconnect her own adult life and work to the story of her family and the memories of her childhood. Very little history is written with true rigor and true passion, but Stopping the Presses is a product of both these great virtues.

Karen Sawislak, Stanford University

Stopping the Presses offers a fresh angle on perhaps the most important, certainly the most contentious, period in Minnesota’s political history. Marda Woodbury’s painstaking research unearths an important story which has been submerged for sixty years and the processes by which it became so deeply buried. Stopping the Presses demands that we not only reconsider her father’s place in history, but also our understanding of the farmer-labor movement within which he played such a vital part. The self-preservation of Minnesota’s political history will never be the same.

Peter Rachleff, Macalester College

Liggett’s daughter Marda, reference librarian and former library director in Oakland, spent eight years meticulously researching her father’s life and death. Her scholarship exposed a side of Minnesota history that has long been ignored, and in the process, she also restored her father’s honor and good name.

Library Journal

Woodbury depicts her crusading muckraker of a father (1886-1935) as an idealist who rallied against corruption and too-chummy links between crooks and politicos in a one-man crusade that eventually cost him his life. (Gangsters shot him dead in front of his family in a Minneapolis alley.) Readers will find fascinating the trial of Kid Cann, Liggett’s accused killer.

Publishers Weekly

Marda Liggett Woodbury set off on a painful and painstaking research journey exploring the circumstances of her father’s death. This project has led to a gripping book, Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett. This is much much more than a crime book or a tearful memoir. Stopping the Presses places this dramatic story within its important political and historic context, and it challenges the long dominant images of Governor Olson and is political allies. It also argues-passionately-that Walter Liggett be accorded recognition as a progressive and courageous figure in Minnesota politics. In the end, this book forces its readers to rethink the nature of those politics and the legacy they have left for us.

Peter Rachleff, Union Advocate

Oakland author Marda Woodbury’s 10-year study of the rise and fall of journalistic luminary Walter Liggett (the author’s father) reads as a combination of true crime, historic biography and personal memoir of a dark time in American journalism and politics-the late 1930s.

The Montclarion

We all should have children so devoted to the honor of their departed parents as Marda Liggett Woodbury. She has managed, in telling the story of her father, to rehabilitate an honest man maligned before and after his death by people who falsely claimed to be making the world a better place.

San Francisco Chronicle

Marda Woodbury offers a fond memoir of a very interesting couple and their life in radical, grub-street journalism. Their kind of journalism hardly exists anymore, but for decades it was a major force in American politics. Historians of American journalism will profit enormously from reading this book. The implications of Woodbury’s account are truly sensational.

Minnesota History

Woodbury’s book is a successful foray into investigative journalism with an historical edge.

The IRE Journal

Tracing the life and journalistic career of her father, Walter W. Liggett, Woodbury presents a vivid and accurate picture of the time in which he lived and worked, the era of gangsters and Prohibition, when organized crime syndicates co-existed with machine politics in cities like New York, Chicago-and even Minneapolis.

North Coast Xpress

Woodbury has written an exhaustive study of her father’s life and death that illuminates the perils of radical journalism at a time of gangsters and widespread official corruption.

Journalism History

Stopping the Presses

Content

Preface. A Daughter’s Journey

Introduction. Starting Point

Part I. Walter’s Story

01. Prairie Activist
02. The Roaring Twenties
03. Freelance Writer, Freelance Radical
04. Meanwhile, in Minnesota
05. Return to Minnesota
06. Break with Olson
07. Move to Danger
08. Framed and Beaten Up
09. On Trial

Part II. Death in an Alley

10. Crescendo of Horror
11. Last Day:Family Recollections
12. The Cops Arrive, a Little Late, with Their Notebooks
13. The Word Goes Out
14. No Time to Mourn

Part III. Edith’s Story

15. Aftermath of Murder
16. Hard Times
17. Kid Cann Beats the Rap
18. Loose Ends
19. Home to Brooklyn

Appendix. Who Done It? And What Happened to Kid Cann?
Notes and Sources
Index