Most people die in deserved obscurity.
Others have their memory and reputation snatched away by forces eager to diminish and deny their accomplishments.
Walter Liggett was such a person.
Liggett was a pioneering muckraker, a journalist who lived—and
died—pursuing the biggest story of his generation: the collision of
money, power, crime, democracy, and freedom in the United States during
the Great Depression.
I only became aware of Liggett because I stumbled across his book, The Rise of Herbert Hoover,
in a hotel lobby. It laid out the little-told story of Hoover’s leading
role in the alienation of the vast Kaiping Coal Mines in northern
I describe the Kaiping affair, its impact on Hoover’s fortune, and what it revealed about the man and his methods, in Herbert Hoover: Made in China.
As President, Hoover used government agencies and his extensive network of political allies to target Liggett and his book, and several other anti-Hoover biographies, in an extra-legal process which I describe in another post, Walter Liggett: Last of the Muckrakers, from which this piece is excerpted.
Liggett moved to Minnesota and embarked on a local crusade against Minnesota governor Floyd Olson that ended with Liggett's murder.
Liggett's posthumous reputation was trashed by Herbert Hoover's legion of defenders, progressives who supported Olson, and even the American Communist Party.
And that's how it would have ended, if not for the clear-eyed determination, tenacity, and formidable research skills of Liggett's daughter, Marda Liggett Woodbury.
To set the record straight, Ms. Woodbury wrote an entire book.
It’s called Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett (1998, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) (hereinafter STP).
is not only a personal memoir. It is a carefully and intensively
researched and documented portrait of an important figure in American
journalism and a key period in American history.
The portrait of Walter Liggett that emerges from these pages is that of a true American striver and optimist.
guiding principle of his life was radical rural progressivism. Inspired
by a speech by Robert La Follette in 1917, Liggett joined the Farmer
Labor Party. He worked, wrote, and agitated on behalf of the party
through 1920 and founded and managed a network of farmer-owned
newspapers in the party’s stronghold in North Dakota.
then moved east and found success in New York as city editor for a
Socialist paper, the New York Call. Then he worked for mainstream papers
the New York Sun, the New York Times, the New York Post, and the New
York News while promoting the causes of Sacco and Vanzetti and Tom
Liggett made his reputation with a series of articles in Plain Talk
describing the catastrophic impact of Prohibition on the integrity of
law enforcement and local governments. His expose “Bawdy Boston” was
banned in Boston; the Kansas legislature proposed a motion calling him a
liar for “Holy Hypocritical Kansas”; and the Michigan State Police
tried to suppress “Michigan, Soused and Serene”.
[Michigan—ed.] state officials frightened off an independent
distributor, Plain Talk had to hire its own trucks to circulate the
issue. Despite the threats, fifty thousand copies were sold in Michigan.
People borrowed issues, resold them, and rented them out for fifty
cents a day. One Michigan editor estimated that some three hundred
thousand Michiganders had read the article. (STP, p. 29)
successful newspaper and magazine writing provided the opportunity to
publish a book on a long-time interest of his—Herbert Hoover. The book, a serious election-year expose (underpinned by difficult-to-obtain documentation probably provided by Hoover's enemies), didn't do much, thanks to vigorous suppression by Hoover's minions.
In 1933, with the Hoover book out and its
subject gone from office, Liggett decided to abandon big city journalism
to return his roots in farmer populist newspapering in Minnesota.
it was a time in which pseudo-populism, gangsterism, and third party
politics had converged in the person of Floyd Olson, governor of
Olson, a clever, charismatic, and eloquent pol, had
started out as a prosecutor during the wide-open prohibition days and
graduated to machine politics. He aspired both to the US Senate and
leadership of a nationwide Huey Long-esque populist political party and
used the power of his office and his business and gangster connections
to intimidate his enemies, reward his friends, and promote his career.
drew political sustenance from his control of the once-radical
Farmer-Labor Party, which Woodbury describes as having devolved by 1930
...an uneasy amalgam
of machine-dominated county organizations, local Farmer-Labor clubs,
old-time radicals and reformers, and the All-Party clique of Republicans
and Democrats, who contributed to Olson’s “personal campaign funds” and
usually expected a quid pro quo. Racked with patronage problems,
factional disputes, and the cult of personality the party directed its
efforts into pork-barrel enterprises and keeping up appearances rather
than social reform. (STP p. 54)
Olson heightened his
national political profile with by allying with Franklin Roosevelt and
late in his career enjoyed the support of the American Communist Party,
which switched to a pro-Olson line as part of its Popular Front tactics.
Olson met secretly with Earl Browder, head of the American Communist
Party, in October 1935, the Minnesota Communist Party declared:
Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and its progressive leadership can and
must become the leader of all progressive movements in the country...The
Communists will support the Farmer-Labor Sate Administration.” (STP,
Olson’s constellation of Democratic and left-wing affiliations was perhaps fatal to Liggett.
key points in the unfolding drama, progressives such as Upton Sinclair
and Roger Baldwin of the ACLU failed to throw their resources into the
battle behind Liggett because of their faith in Olson as a crucial
Midwest progressive force.
Even today, Olson is revered by those on the left as the paragon and progenitor of Minnesota’s progressive political tradition.
Walter Liggett regarded Olson from the privileged perspective of
someone who had been present at the creation of the political movement
he now saw Olson crassly exploiting:
was present at the conference in 1918 when the Farmer Labor party was
founded, unlike Olson who did not hop aboard the bandwagon until all was
over but the flagwaving. The radical cause in the Northwest means more
to me than political graft. (STP, p. 76)
...John Dewey and all
his third party group...think Olson is the second brother of Jesus
Christ, whereas he is a damned sight more of a racketeer than he is a
radical.” (STP, p. 67)
In his machine politics machinations, Olson was clearly more Huey Long than Hubert Humphrey.
out the significance of Olson’s progressive legislative legacy—which
Liggett and Woodbury derided as empty, ineffectual political show—should
offer plenty of grist for political historians.
In 1934, Olson
showed his less than radical side when, in response to a Teamster
strike, he placed Minneapolis under martial law. The Proclamation of
Martial Law banned “publish[ing] newspapers defaming the state of
Minnesota or any member of the Minnesota National Guard in the field”.
New York Times characterized Olson's actions as the establishment of “a
military dictatorship over the press of Minneapolis.” (STP, p. 56)
combination of Olson and Liggett—who had built his career on attacking
the nexus of gangsterism and machine politics was at the core of Olson’s
reign—was combustible and fatal.
Liggett had returned to
Minnesota to reconnect with his first political love, the Farmer-Labor
Party--and ready to support Floyd Olson as its flagbearer.
by 1934 Liggett’s disillusionment with Olson’s unprincipled political
alliances with Republicans and Democrats, his unsavory gangster ties,
and his ruthless and corrupt machine politics led him to write Upton
I believe that a
third party based on radical principles is IMPERATIVE if this country
is to be saved from the twin threats of Fascism and Communism. I came
back to the middle west to work for such a party—only to find to my
disgust that the Olson regime combines all the worst features of both
the old parties with some new underworld racketeering connections of its
own. (STP, p. 74)
In September 1934, Liggett decided to
support a reform challenge from a splinter group of the Farmer-Laborer
Party and employ the pages of his newspaper, the Midwest American, in a crusade to expose Olson’s transgressions and drive him from public life.
Liggett underestimated the ferocity of the Olson machine’s response.
In the pages of the Midwest American he wrote:
wife and I have lived for several years in New York City under Tammany
Hall and are thoroughly familiar with the underworld tactics of
professional spoilsmen. That is one reason why we object to the
Tammanyization of Minnesota by this All-Party group of racketeers. We
knew precisely what to expect when we began our expose of Floyd Olson
and his crew of political hatchet-men.
don’t think they will have me killed. It wouldn’t look good for one
thing, and for another thing the whole damned cowardly crew know that
they can’t find one scintilla of evidence to besmirch my professional
reputation in an attempt to justify a cold blooded murder...(STP, p. 66)
As if Olson’s allies took his words as a personal challenge, Liggett was proved wrong in every particular.
Liggett was confronted with an escalating campaign of harrassment and intimidation.
began with efforts to steer typesetters, advertiser, suppliers, and
distributors away from the Midwest American and drive it out of
Then came anonymous, threatening phone calls.
In June 1935 came a trumped up charge of sexual felony, meant to discredit, distract, and if possible imprison Liggett.
The case featured obviously coached witnesses, contradictory testimony, and implausible circumstances.
nadir for the prosecution occurred when one of the supposed objects of
Liggett’s interest in “unnatural love” testified that an assistant
Hennepin County attorney had misrepresented himself as a bill collector
and threatened to tell her parents “all about her [previous
transgressions]” if she did not sign an undated affadavit that would
only be used to get Liggett to pay back “a lot of money” he supposedly
The case did not hold up in front of a jury and Liggett was acquitted.
the trial, in October, Liggett was lured to a hotel with the promise of
information and then savagely beaten by a group of more than half a
dozen men led by gangster Kid Conn. The Minneapolis police were content
to propagate the slur that a drunken Liggett had called Conn out when
Liggett’s attempt to shake him down for a bribe had failed.
on December 9, 1935, Walter Liggett was gunned down in front of his
wife, Edith, and ten-year old daughter, Marda. Liggett’s widow insisted
that the grinning hit man who leaned out of the window of a passing car
and fired the five fatal shots was none other than Kid Conn.
Woodbury did not find it likely that Governor Olson ordered the murder.
Instead, she believed the crime looked like the pro-active effort of
the fixers and gangsters who partnered with Olson in the running of the
state—an act that Olson might not initiate, but something he might not
have found necessary to forestall, condemn, or investigate:
belief is that Olson would have preferred not to know the details. I
also assume that he—unlike some Minneapolis hoodlums—was astute enough
to realize that my father’s murder could prove to be more troublesome
than my father alive...certainly, some of [Olson’s] less savory
companions might have undertaken the task as a favor. I believe that the
atmosphere was sufficiently poisonous and that criminals had sufficient
clout to know they would not be convicted. (STP, p. 216)
big city media that could not be interested in the sordid frame-up of
Liggett on a sex charge flocked to Minneapolis to get the story on the
assassination of a fellow scribe.
They found Governor Olson
content to characterize the murder of the journalist who had repeatedly
called for his impeachment on account of his underworld ties as nothing
more than a falling out between gangsters.
Woodbury quotes the reportage of Forrest Davis of Scripps-Howard, a long-time Liggett sympathizer:
his December 10 story, Davis noted that the governor had “proceeded
with finesse, shrewdly, legalistically, to extinguish the reputation of
Liggett.” The “official theory” was that Walter, pressed for funds, had
solicited money frot he same liquor dealers he had been attacking. “A
fable is being constructed of Liggett the blackmailer, the underworld
chiseler,” Davis wrote. “Visitors to his apartment and his printing
office find it difficult to accept this view”...
suppose Liggett was the victim of what the Marxists call economic
determinism,” the governor said. “He had to have the money, and he went
out to get it.” (STP, pp. 159-160)
Walter Liggett left an estate of $1,324.
Kid Conn, in possession of an ironclad alibi, went to trial but was acquitted.
Governor Olson, on whose behalf so much ink and blood had been spilled,
died of stomach cancer in 1936, his dreams of a Senate seat, third
party political power, and, perhaps, national office unfulfilled.
footnote to Liggett’s life and death was the determined effort of
Walter’s widow, Edith, to secure a libel judgment against the Communist
newspaper The Daily Worker.
In the service of the Popular Front
policy of supporting Olson, The Daily Worker published a series of
articles attacking Liggett in early 1936, pushing the line that Liggett
had been murdered in retaliation for his failed shakedown racket against
The first article was entitled Liggett Was Murdered by the Underworld for his Scavenging
and declared of Edith Liggett, “it is especially disgusting to see the
widow of the slain publisher selling the corpse limb by limb to the
highest bidder of the Minnesota Republican Party.” (STP 198-99)
six years of legal and corporate gyrations by The Daily Worker, Edith
Liggett finally prevailed and received a $2100 settlement.
In this libel case, the final irony is that Liggett’s reputation was vindicated
despite the fact that the ACLU was writing The Daily Worker’s appeal
briefs for them.
Liggett’s travails at the hands of Floyd Olson bookend his experiences with Hoover in an interesting manner.
livelihood and reputation were subjected to the same kind of concerted,
unscrupulous extralegal attacks by Hoover, a Republican pillar of the
international business and political establishment at the apex of power
in Washington, and by Floyd Olson, a self-styled radical populist and
FDR ally from the midwest.
In both cases, his enemies used their
power as shield, sword, and cloak, employing their positions of
privilege to obstruct, attack, and denigrate their critics.
and Olson’s reputations have survived, carefully constructed and
lovingly maintained false facades that seem too majestic, too
impervious, and too familiar to even consider tearing down.
price of cherishing these monuments is to disappear Walter Liggett,
together with the facts he collected, the words he wrote, and the impact
The fact that Hoover and his circle did not stoop to murder in the destruction of his enemies is faint praise.
and contrasting Hoover’s methods with those of Olson’s undercuts the
assertion that Hoover’s actions to preserve his reputation were an
isolated response to an unprecedented affront against one of the
misunderstood Paladins of the age.
the actions of Hoover and his circle look depressingly familiar: the
standard operating procedure of every modern manipulator steeped in the
corrupting process of acquiring and preserving political power.
Destroying reputations and lives isn’t just the cost of doing business in modern American politics.
It erects false heroes while it casts down real ones.
it leaves the discovery of the truth, or at least part of it, to a
chance encounter with a battered old book in a hotel lobby—or the
emergence of a woman with the emotional and mental stamina to sift through a
mountain of lies, distortions, and omissions in order to present the
world with a true picture of her father.
Delbert Smith of the New York Times eulogized Walter Liggett:
assassin who struck down Walter Liggett in Minneapolis removed from the
American scene one of the last of the old-school crusading journalists,
miscalled “muckrakers”, who for personal integrity stood head and
shoulders above the common ruck.
As a former editorial associate
of Liggett, I wish to pay my small tribute to a man whose principal
fault, if it can be called that, was his disinclination to look out for
his own interests—the rash courage which made him an easy target for the
guns of the underworld. (STP, p. 144)
Marda Woodbury wrote:
had married my father for love and happiness—for his looks,
intelligence, ideals, warmth, humor, and joie de vivre. In my childhood
cosmogony, our family was a self-sufficient unit. My father was our sun,
warm and benevolent if somewhat distant, and family life revolved
around him. We lost our core when he died. (STP, p. 210)
Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett by Marda Liggett Woodbury is still in print and available on Amazon and at Powell’s.