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cross posted at China Matters

I would appreciate any feedback from informed Kossacks on this admittedly negative view of Floyd Olson  

Today we expect, if not a free press, one that has been honestly bought and paid for.

And we hope for, if not an independent and professional national security apparatus, one that understands that the political demands of the executive branch are best honored in the breach, cautiously and discretely.

In the first half of the 20th century these boundaries between media and propaganda, and security and oppression, were irrevocably breached in Europe by Fascism and Communism.

One of the fascinating and neglected aspects of American history in this period is how close these boundaries came to dissolving in the United States, as well.

One of the best ways to understand where we were and how far we've come is to look at the career of forgotten muckraker Walter Liggett, his run-in with Herbert Hoover, and his fatal clash with Floyd Olson.

Minnesota’s Governor Floyd Olson frankly used his executive authority to reward his friends, promote his ambitions, and not only intimidate and harass but ruin his enemies.

Olson’s machine grew so powerful that for a short time Olson was recognized as a national power broker both by President Roosevelt and the American Communist Party.

Often his target was the independent press, which he attacked by misuse of his executive, police, and regulatory, and through the business and underworld connections that formed important cogs in his political machine.

And in 1934 and 1935, Olson’s prime target in the Minnesota newspaper world was Walter Liggett, a nationally known investigative journalist who had run exposes of Olson’s regime and was editorializing continually for Olson’s impeachment.

An escalating campaign of harassment and intimidation by Olson’s legal and extra-legal creatures-- including a trumped up legal case and a savage beating-- demonstrated that Liggett had been stripped of the protections that the Constitution is meant to provide an American citizen and a journalist.

Then, in December 1935, Liggett was dead, assassinated in a professional hit probably orchestrated by people close to Olson.

Liggett quickly faded from the public consciousness.

Olson’s died soon after of cancer, but his image as a revered midwest progressive has survived.

Perhaps Liggett’s battle was unsuccessful.

But it may have contributed, albeit incrementally and indirectly, to the creation of the relatively transparent, honest, and restrained American political system we see today.

We are only able to re-examine Liggett’s legacy because of the clear-eyed determination, tenacity, and formidable research skills of his daughter, Marda Liggett Woodbury.

Her book, Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett provides a look at a time when America skated near the brink of totalitarianism, and is a sobering reminder of what we almost lost—and may still lose if we don’t realize that American freedom is a transitory, equivocal phenomenon that is not innate to our nation or to our system.

It persists only because of the struggles and sacrifices of people like Walter Liggett.

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.

Today, more than 80 years after The Rise of Herbert Hoover and a concerted effort by Hoover apologists to consign Liggett to infamy and neglect, one would expect that any attempt to understand the life and legacy of Walter Liggett and take the true measure of the man would be frustrated by a dearth of reliable first-hand material.

Liggett is known to historians primarily as the author of his anti-Hoover biography, one of several books that were ostensibly inspired and promoted by Hoover’s enemies in an attempt to derail Hoover’s presidency.

Since Hoover was ferocious and unscrupulous in the protection of his reputation, Liggett’s profile and reputation suffered accordingly at the hands of Hoover’s protectors both while Hoover was alive and in the present day.

In an article in Spring 1984 The Annals of Iowa (Iowa is Hoover’s birthplace and the location of his presidential library and extensive archives), entitled Hoover and the Smear Books, Ruth Sizer describes some elements of the campaign to diminish the impact of the anti-Hoover tomes:

...the second phase of the refutation campaign began with a systematic collection of documents exonerating Hoover and careful monitoring of the books’ sales. Letters were sent to newspapers nationwide disclosing the nature of the books and strongly suggesting that the papers refuse to print advertisements for them. Moreover, agents were sent to bookstores to collect sales statistics. The efforts to stifle sales became almost comic when Hoover’s supporters shared a limited number of books, fearful that if they bought even one more copy they might encourage another printing.


Enthusiasm for the refutation effort waned after Hoover’s loss to Franklin Roosevelt in the November election. Still Hoover’s die-hard supporters did not unceremoniously forsake their leader; they attempted to buy and dispose of as many of the smear books as possible—some were purchased for as much as fifty dollars a copy.

A fascinating document discovered in 1992 reveals that Hoover’s minions were a little more hands-on and proactive in their attempts to stifle the anti-Hoover publishing industry than Ms. Sizer was perhaps aware.

In the pages of American Heritage, under the title Hoovergate, Barton Bernstein of Stanford University reported on the private diary of one Glenn Howell, director of Naval Intelligence for the New York area under the Hoover administration.

Bernstein quotes at length from the diary, and so shall I. It’s that good.

May 21, 1930

The existing situation is this:

During the Presidential Campaign of 1928 [the Democratic candidate] Al Smith and [John J.] Raskob, his campaign manager, hired a man named O’Brien to collect some documentary dope on Hoover, drag out some written evidence that there were unsavory episodes in his past. However, what O’Brien collected and gave to Smith and Raskob was evidently valueless, for they used no mud during the campaign. For that matter neither did the Republicans.

It now seems that O’Brien didn’t give to Smith and Raskob the worst he got. He is again in the pay of Tammany and is in an office in the Salmon Towers, evidently preparing to publish these letters or whatever the documents are. [Smith’s friend William F.] Kenney owns the Salmon Towers, with Salmon, and Kenny is very thick with the Tammanyites.

Strauss told me that the President is anxious to know what the contents of these mysterious documents are; that he has no fear of them; but that he merely wants to know what they are about so that he will be in a position immediately to rebut them as soon as they are published, since prompt denial and rebuttal are the only things which can properly scotch such accusations.

To Strauss has been entrusted the job of finding these documents and arranging for a secret look at them by one of the President’s Secretaries—probably Larry Richey.... And Strauss is authorized by the President to utilize the services of any one of our various government secret services. So, belonging to the Naval Intelligence Reserve and knowing me, he decided to ask me to do this job. It is my function to arrange matters so that Strauss and Richey can have a look at these documents without their possessor knowing it.

Did Hoover know? There's no smoking gun.

But given Strauss’s assertions about the president’s desire to find out what was in those papers and cognizant of the fact that the campaign was coordinated and perhaps instigated by Hoover’s confidential secretary, Laurence Richey, Bernstein is not going too far out on a limb when he states that the evidence

/... suggests—that is an acceptable inference—that President Hoover himself may have been involved./

In subsequent diary entry, Howell relates the harmless subterfuge used to gain access to the office of a Mr. Meehan, which was adjacent to O’Brien’s:

I had had Meehan thoroughly looked up and knew that he was all right. Then after a little talk with him, I was entirely satisfied that I could take him into my confidence to a certain extent. So I established my identity to his satisfaction, asked if he desired to do his country a patriotic service, and upon his eager affirmative told him that in this building were working the agents of a foreign government against our own United States. I explained to him that it was essential that I get at the files of these foreigners and that I probably would need to photostat some papers.

After a minor glitch (O’Brien had routinely moved himself and all of his files and furnishings out of the building to a new address while the detective shadowing him was off somewhere else and blissfully unaware, resulting in a pulse-pounding nighttime break-in of an absolutely empty office) and some good detective work (they found the destination of the moving van and re-acquired O’Brien!) Howell connected the dots:

I came to the conclusion that no President of the United States need be afraid of a ham-and-egger like this O’Brien.

I told Lewis Strauss that my opinion was that the O’Brien has been these many months stringing along Tammany with the tale that he had the goods on Mr. Hoover. I believe that Tammany provided him with office space and facilities for preparing a book. I further believe that Tammany finally called him for a showdown and that the result of this showdown was the throwing out of Salmon Towers of the O’Brien—on his ear.

All these beliefs I duly retailed to Lewis Strauss, who transmitted them to Larry Richey who informed the President who told Larry to tell Lewis to tell me to call off my watch and to consider the case closed.

So closed it is, and that’s that.

But that wasn’t all for George O’Brien and his Hoover dirt. He purveyed it John Hamill, who incorporated it into The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags (New York, William C. Faro Inc., 1931), which became the main object of Hoover’s fury.

Rehabilitation of John Hamill’s reputation is beyond me and perhaps beyond the power of any historian. The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover is written in a racy, hyperbolic, and sensationalistic style but I believe that the picture of the seamier side of international resource development and finance in the early years of the 20th century, if one-sided, is useful and important.

Bernstein lumps Hamill together with George O’Brien as a "fellow blackmailer" and relates that Hamill and O’Brien had a ruinous falling out that ended up in court with O’Brien suing Hamill for using without compensation material whose acquisition O’Brien had paid for.

Hamill did not help his own cause by signing an affidavit repudiating his own book.

Sizer writes that in February 1932, a friend of Hoover’s, George Barr Baker

...obtained a confession from John Hamill that his book was an utter lie. This confession was soon elaborated into a 188-page affidavit signed by Hamill on June 4, 1932. Although Hamill swore in the affidavit that he had written it without aid or coercion, it seems unlikely that Hamill was the author...George Barr Baker would have been a more likely author...

One can connect a few dots here: Hamill, fighting a losing battle in a lawsuit with his unacknowledged and injured co-author, sees the Hoover forces piling on, raises the white flag, and gives Hoover’s agent the hand-crafted, custom-tailored pro-Hoover affidavit they demand.

In a footnote, Sizer adds:

...some evidence suggests that Baker may have employed strong-arm tactics in dealing with Hamill.

Sizer is remarkably blase about the apparent thuggery involved.

Since the Howell diary had not yet come to light when she wrote her article, she is entitled to her view that the campaign against the smear authors was the expression of simple, honest outrage by Hoover’s upright friends, and not dishonorable skullduggery by Hoover and his minions.

Framing her argument, Sizer writes:

Perhaps indicative of Hoover’s nature, once a campaign of refutation was accepted, it was conducted with the utmost logic and an engineer’s skill...

and concludes: is difficult to fault a campaign, however misguided, which was engendered by such a sense of mutual loyalty and respect.

Ms. Sizer proved to be an unworthy heir to these noble efforts as she illogically and unskillfully tarred Walter Liggett with the same brush as John Hamill.

She characterized Liggett’s The Rise of Herbert Hoover as "one of six unmitigated smear books about Hoover" and wrote "In fact, Liggett plagiarized Hamill’s book heavily".

Sizer attributed Liggett’s hostility to Hoover to Hoover’s closing down of a "pro-Soviet" post-World War I Russian relief organization with which Liggett was affiliated .

A final dig referred to Liggett’s libel suit against Herbert Corey. Corey’s The Truth About Herbert Hoover was a major salvo in the Hoover camp’s campaign to discredit and denigrate the smear books and their authors:

This ironic (emphasis added—ed.) case seems never to have reached court—Liggett was murdered in a gang-land killing in Minneapolis in 1935.

There you have it: Walter Liggett, smear book writer, plagiarist, Com-symp, libeler, and filer of ironic lawsuits who ran with the gangster crowd.

Unfortunately for Ms. Sizer, Walter Liggett’s daughter, Marda Liggett Woodbury was still in a position to defend her father’s memory, which she did in a scathing letter printed in the Winter/Spring 1988 issue of The Annals of Iowa.

Ms. Woodbury noted that Walter Liggett’s papers, preserved at the New York Public Library, clearly show that he had worked on the Hoover book for years and much of it had already been written by September 1931, when the Hamill book came out.

As to the bad blood between Hoover and Liggett, Hoover does not emerge as the innocent or injured party. Woodbury wrote:

...shortly after the Committee [the American Committee for Russian Famine Relief] was launched, Mr. Hoover, then Secretary of FBI investigation of Walter W. Liggett and [the Committee] for alleged radical activities...Congressman Keller [of Minnesota] volunteered [to the FBI agent assigned to the case], "I don’t know whether you know this or not but Hoover...has been doing everything possible to discredit this fellow Liggett."

Most damningly, Ms. Woodbury refuted Ms. Sizer’s lazy conflation of Liggett with gangsterism by citing the resolution by the American Newspaper Publishers Association condemning Liggett’s murder by criminal and political forces in Minneapolis threatened by his investigative reporting:

Whereas the oppressions of the press have been characterized by a campaign of violence against editors criticizing improper political gangster alliances, culminating in the murder of Walter Liggett, therefore be it

Resolved. That the press of this country should resist the attempts of such alliances in Minnesota or any other state to abridge the freedom of the press...

Ms. Woodbury campaign to set the record straight didn’t end with writing a letter.

She 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".

Woodbury writes:

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.

Amid the intimidation and rising violence against newspaper people that characterized the Prohibition era, the strongarming associated with the Hoover book appears as little more than a brief sidebar:

The prospective [Hoover—ed.] book was a hot property...Albert Boni of Boni and Liveright offered royalties of 17.5 percent after 15,000 copies, pointing out that this was higher than royalties paid to best-selling authors Thornton Wilder and Will Rogers...Walter either did not realize or did not care that government and private detectives were investigating and reporting on him while he worked on the biography. But the government investigations may have hurt his rapport with his publisher...Boni abruptly asked him to eliminate certain sections. Then he found another publisher—which later unexpectedly dropped the book.

Peggy Walter wrote in...Plain Talk that "government dicks reminded the publisher that his penchant for taking ladies on weekend parties to his villa" was a violation of the Mann Act. The next publisher’s printer was warned that his father’s estate taxes might balloon if he finished printing the book—and Walter was trailed by government agents when he accompanied the type that was removed from the shop.

(Sam Roth, who had published John M. Hammill’s Strange Career of Mr. Hoover under Two Flags, had a similar story. After Hammill’s book appeared, three income tax detectives ransacked his office. A few days later he heard that a postal inspector was warning booksellers not to buy his other books.) (STP, pp.32-33)

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 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 sordid 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, contra Ruth Sizer, 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 clear-eyed tenacity 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.

Originally posted to China Hand on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 02:13 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Wow, anti-liberal bias run amok (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jay C, ybruti, techno, epppie

    I don't know a lot about exhulted governor Floyd B. Olson, but he's spoken of as one of the giants in Minnesota history. There's a statue of him on the western edge of Minneapolis, along Olson Memorial Highway that leads right into downtown.

    The Farmer-Labor Party was a populist party, supporting the rights of the small farmers and common working folk. They would probably be labeled socialist or communist by today's conservative-fueled chattering classes, but this was back when labor unions were organizing and it was truly a class struggle between the workers and the lords.

    Floyd B. Olson became governor of Minnesota when the state legislature was dominated by conservative republicans. He championed equal pay for women, instituted minimum wage and unemployment insurance. He made the income tax progressive, created the right for collective bargaining and also expanded environmental protections. No wonder the ruling class hated him. He was elected to three terms, so clearly he had the support of Minnesotans.

    By the way, Minnesota's Democratic party is called the DFL (for Democratic-Farmer-Labor) to this day.

    Are you shaking or biting the invisible hand?

    by puppethead on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 02:29:35 PM PST

    •  Floyd B. Olson was a complicated man (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jay C, ybruti, dsteffen, epppie

      living in a complicated time. He was a good populist and worked on the behalf od the working people, but he also wasn't a saint.

      Minnesota, especially the Twin Cities, in the 1930s had its share of gangsters (see "Minneapolis Confidential" in the Oct. 1995 CityPages for background).

      I have not yet read Woodbury's book, but now plan to do so. Right now I think her book is less of "anti-liberal bias run amok" and more seeing history through a different perspective. Remember, Marda Liggett Woodbury was 10 years old when she saw her father killed by Isadore Blumenfeld aka Kid Cann. Despite escaping convicting, I think it is reasonable to believe the eyewitnesses, Marda and her mother, in their belief Cann killed Liggett.

      So, what about the links between Cann and Olson? It is certainly true Liggett was alleging such a connection in his newspaper. It is also true that Olson, as Hennepin County attorney, used Minnesota's Public Nuisance Law of 1925 to file a complaint against a muckraking newspaper that made negative allegations about him. Olson lost in the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 verdict (see Near v. Minnesota in Wikipedia). Here is the State of Minnesota "yellow pages" brief synopsis:

      "Prior Restraint Defeated"

      A law, known as the Public Nuisance Statute, made the publication of a malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper a nuisance which could be prohibited by court. The Saturday Press, published articles alleging complicity of a number of public officials with gangland activities. The Minneapolis Chief of Police attempted to suppress it before it was ever published, but publishers Howard Guilford and Jay M. Near put out nine issues before Hennepin County Attorney Floyd B. Olson asked the district court to prohibit publication on Nov. 21, 1927. The court issued the injunction. The court's decision was appealed through the state court system and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

      By a narrow vote of five to four, Near v. State of Minnesota, 1931, the court declared that freedom of the press, guaranteed by the First Amendment extended to the states by reason of the 14th Amendment:

      ". . . No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person with its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. . ." Any "prior restraint" on publication of a newspaper, no matter its content, was found to be a violation of due process.

      So, where does leave the truth? I think somewhere in the middle.

      Liggett wasn't the first newspaper man to be gunned down the mob in Minnesota and he wasn't the last. As the county attorney in 1930s prohibition-era Minneapolis, Olson was a public figure who used the laws of the state to try to silence the press. He certainly knew of Blumenfeld aka Cann, and Cann was a notorious Minnesota mobster with ties to the American Mafia. Liggett's newspaper alleged connections between Olson and the Minnesota mob and, I doubt, neither men liked that connection.

      Marda Liggett Woodbury's book was published by the University of Minnesota Press, which isn't prone to publishing poorly researched history books. The book has received favorable reviews noting the extensiveness of the author's research and documentation. From a 2000 review in the Columbia Journalism Review:

      Minnesota in the 1930s was no placid Keillorland. Politicians and mobsters ran the state together, and woe to those who stood in their way.


      Liggett was a Minnesota native, a practicing radical; and his little newspapers were the fearless, even reckless, antagonists of bootleggers and corrupt officials. His daughter Marda and her mother were sitting in their parked car when Liggett was gunned down on December 9, 1935... Prepared for research by her career as a librarian, Marda Liggett Woodbury began to reinvestigate her father's murder in the 1980s and has produced this report, which tells as much, it seems, as can possibly be known about the crime without definitively solving it. It is worth reading, even when the tangles of Farmer-Labor party politics in Minnesota become murky, because it gives a lost martyr of the free press his place in history.

      I believe, Marda Liggett Woodbury is trying to make sense of a crime that undoubtedly shattered her life when she was 10 years old. She is trying to connect the dots of who her father was and what he wrote, with what her mother saw and believed. As the CJR suggests the link between Farmer-Labor politics and the mob are "murky", but then so is much of history. At the very least, Woodbury presents the evidence supporting her family's view of Minnesota history, a view of history that wasn't written by the victors. The truth, I suspect, likely lies somewhere in the middle.

  •  As the proprietor (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jay C, epppie

    of ProgressiveHistorians, I can't tell you how much I would be honored if you would cross-post this magnificent diary there.

  •  This is the kind of dishonest "history" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    That always plagues progressives.

    My parents would speak of Floyd Olson in hushed and reverential tones.  Why?  Because they experienced the Depression in Minnesota.  People were utterly desperate.  Olson gave them hope.  And when he threatened to send in the National Guard on the side of the striking truckers, he became a labor legend.

    I have no doubt that people who supported Olson could have killed a miserable right wing hack like Liggett.  When you are seeing your farm blowing away and your children starving, a clown praising Herbert Freaking Hoover is nothing less than a viscous thug.

    But I SERIOUSLY doubt the Olsen himself had anything to do with it.  He had WAY too many other things to do.  Like being sick--he died in office of cancer, you know.

    Keep in mind that while he still lived, Olsen was often criticized from the left for not being radical enough.

    And yes, I understand that the right wing has a vendetta out for Olson.  In fact some dreary acolyte in the Minnesota legislature has already proposed that the Floyd B. Olsen Memorial Highway be renamed for St. Ronnie.  So this silly piece of historical revisionism was inevitable.  And it's a twofor--it not only sets out to destroy the reputation of Olson, but elevates a establishment journalistic mediocrity who was best known for his praise of Hoover.


    Nothing is fool-proof to a sufficiently talented fool

    by techno on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 02:04:35 AM PST

  •  Olson and the Teamsters strike (0+ / 0-)

    Olson's record in the Teamsters' strike--including martial law and a gag rule against the press--is relatively equivocal.  It looks less like a piece of proletarian solidarity than Olson's "Sistah Souljah" moment, when he demonstrated that he was not going to upset the "business-as-usual" applecart by siding wholeheartedly with the strikers.  


    On July 26, Farmer-Labor governor Olson declared martial law and mobilized four thousand National Guardsmen, who began issuing operating permits to (strikebreaking--ed.) truck drivers. On August 1, National Guard troops seized strike headquarters and placed arrested union leaders in a stockade at the state fairgrounds in Saint Paul.

    The next day, the headquarters were restored to the union and the leaders released from the stockade, as the National Guard carried out a token raid on the Citizens Alliance headquarters. The union appealed to the Central Labor Union for a general strike and the governor issued an ultimatum that he would stop all trucks by midnight, August 5, if there was no settlement. Nevertheless, by August 14 there were thousands of trucks operating under military permits. Although the strike was gravely weakened by martial law and economic pressure, union leaders made it clear that it would continue.

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