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.
Walter 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 China.
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).
It 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.
The 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.
Liggett 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 Mooney.
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”.
After [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)
Liggett’s 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.
Fatally, it was a time in which pseudo-populism, gangsterism, and third party politics had converged in the person of Floyd Olson, governor of Minnesota.
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.
Olson drew political sustenance from his control of the once-radical Farmer-Labor Party, which Woodbury describes as having devolved by 1930 into
…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.
After Olson met secretly with Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party, in October 1935, the Minnesota Communist Party declared:
“…the 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, 127)
Olson’s constellation of Democratic and left-wing affiliations was perhaps fatal to Liggett.
At 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.
However, 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:
I 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.
Sorting 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”.
The New York Times characterized Olson’s actions as the establishment of “a military dictatorship over the press of Minneapolis.” (STP, p. 56)
The 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.
However, 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 Sinclair:
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:
My 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.
However, I 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.
It began with efforts to steer typesetters, advertiser, suppliers, and distributors away from the Midwest American and drive it out of business.
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.
The 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 owed people.
The case did not hold up in front of a jury and Liggett was acquitted.
During 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.
Finally, 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.
Marda 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:
My 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)
The 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:
In 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”…
”I 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.
Ironically, 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.
Another 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 liquor interests.
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)
After 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.
Liggett’s 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.
Hoover 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.
The price of cherishing these monuments is to disappear Walter Liggett, together with the facts he collected, the words he wrote, and the impact he made.
The fact that Hoover and his circle did not stoop to murder in the destruction of his enemies is faint praise.
Comparing 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.
Instead 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.
And 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:
The 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:
Edith 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.