What led to an alleged mob hit on a former Fargo newspaper editor in 1935?

Walter Liggett was beaten up, framed on rape charges and eventually murdered. In part 1 of this two-part report, Tracy Briggs explores the question: What was he writing about?

old walter liggett MNopedia.jpg
Walter Liggett, pictured with his wife Edith, during his trial on trumped-up morals charges in Nov. 1935. He still has the black eye he received days earlier from a beating he took from mobsters upset about what he was writing in his crusading paper: the Midwest American.
Contributed photo/MNopedia/Minnesota Historical Society

Editor's note: This is part 1 in a two-part series by Tracy Briggs about the murder of Walter Liggett. To read part 2,  go here.

Walter and Edith Liggett of Minneapolis probably figured that Monday night would be perfect for a little errand-running. It was unseasonably warm for Minnesota just two weeks before Christmas. With a temperature nearing 40 degrees, they’d barely need to button their coats as they walked out the door of the newspaper office they shared.

After getting into the car, they drove to their print shop, picked up their daughter from the library, dropped off a friend at the bus station and stopped for a few groceries at Swenson’s Grocery on Lyndale and Lake before heading to their home not far away in south Minneapolis.

A mob hit on a former Fargo newspaper editor?
Wed Apr 12 11:19:00 EDT 2023
Walter Liggett was beaten up, framed on rape charges and eventually murdered. In part 1 of this two-part report, Tracy Briggs explores the question: What was he writing about?

Written by: Tracy Briggs 

Hosted by: Trisha Taurinskas

Full story:

Walter parked the car in an alley outside their apartment building. Just as he was getting out of the car—grocery bag in hand—he was struck in the chest by five bullets fired from the window of a car that sped past. He died instantly. He lay dead in the alley, spilled groceries beside him. His wife and daughter watched it all in horror from the back seat.

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Edith Liggett kneels beside the body of her slain husband, journalist Walter Liggett who had just been gunned down by Tommy gun shots fired from the window of a passing car.
Contributed photo/Minnesota Historical Society

Still, 88 years later, the murder of Walter Liggett remains one of Minnesota’s most intriguing, yet unsolved crimes.


In Part One of “The Slaying of Walter Liggett,” what lead up to the tragic night of Dec. 9, 1935?

Benson born

Walter William Liggett was born on Valentine’s Day 1886 in Benson, Minnesota, to Matilda Root Brown and William Liggett, a one-time dean of the Agricultural College of the University of Minnesota.

Walter enrolled at the university in 1904 where the slender, tall (6’4”) auburn-haired teenager boxed and played on the football team. But he didn't stay long. Walter’s daughter, Marda Liggett Woodbury, later wrote in her 1998 book "Stopping the Presses -The Murder of Walter W. Liggett,” that he left after his freshman year.

“He had a scholarly side and maintained a lifelong interest in agriculture, but he was too restless and perhaps too competitive to stay in college,” she said.

Woodbury said Walter was excited by the idea of the “fearless journalism” he was seeing in the growing muckraking movement. (Muckrakers were reform-minded journalists from around the 1890s to the 1920s who claimed to expose corruption and wrongdoing in established institutions.)

The 19-year-old Liggett found newspaper work close to home as a general reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Journal, and The Minneapolis Daily News. Later he worked at the Duluth News-Tribune and The Fargo Forum. He was just 22 years old when he left Fargo in 1908 to work at papers in Alaska and eventually Washington state. But it wouldn’t be long before he’d find his way back to North Dakota and a movement that would forever change his fate.

The Nonpartisan League

In 1915 a former organizer for the Socialist Party of America, Arthur C. Townley, founded the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a political party that advocated state control of mills, grain elevators, banks, and other farm-related industries in order to reduce the power of big-time corporate interests. The league grew in power after striking a nerve with small farmers in North Dakota who felt exploited by out-of-state companies.

In 1917, Liggett was working at the St. Paul Dispatch where he started to cover NPL candidates. He became so taken by their message that he quit straight journalism to work as head of publicity for the NPL.


liggett npl cartoon.jpg
Newspapers championing the causes of the Nonpartisan League sprung up all over North Dakota during the 1920s, thanks in part to Walter Liggett who worked as head of publicity for the NPL.
Contributed photo/NDSU Archives

Townley moved him to North Dakota where he helped start NPL newspapers in 50 of North Dakota’s 53 counties, including Bismarck’s Capital Daily Press where he was editor, and the Fargo Courier-News where he was managing editor. Their job was to spread the progressive message of the NPL across the Dakotas and beyond.

By 1918, Liggett had turned his attention to his home state of Minnesota where together with Townley, he helped found the Farmer-Labor Party which was basically an offspring of the NPL and the Union Labor Party of Duluth. It's interesting to note that their other co-founder was Charles Lindbergh Sr., the famous aviator's father.

Eventually, Liggett's work took him away from the Midwest to both Washington, D.C., and New York City where he continued to champion progressive causes. In 1929, he vaulted to national prominence with a series of stories he wrote for “Plain Talk” magazine which examined how Prohibition brought about corruption in cities from Boston to Minneapolis.

He became such an expert on Prohibition, he was the first witness called to testify before Congress as it considered a repeal of the 18th Amendment.

While he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for these articles and garnered acclaim for other books and articles published at this time, he was making enemies among the gangsters who got rich during prohibition and the government officials who helped them.

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Walter Liggett was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for a series of articles he wrote for "Plain Talk" about how Prohibition lead to corruption in many American cities, including Minneapolis.
Contributed photo/Library of Congress

Not so 'Minnesota Nice'

By the early 1930s, Liggett and his wife Edith were living comfortably in New York City with their two children, Wallace and Marda. He spent his days writing books — one of them, a scathing, negative biography of Herbert Hoover. But by 1933, the Liggetts were looking to move back to Minnesota.

In her book, daughter Marda explained, “I don’t know exactly why Walter suddenly decided to return to Minnesota to run a country newspaper, the Northland Times in Bemidji, but I’m sure that Walter, a long-time believer in a third party, was in part drawn back to Minnesota by the seeming resurgence of the Farmer-Labor Party under Governor Floyd Olson.”


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Floyd Olson was the first candidate from the Farmer-Labor party to become governor. When Walter Liggett, a founder of the party, moved back to Minnesota, Olson welcomed him with open arms. However, eventually Liggett published scathing articles about Olson demanding he be impeached, in part because he was a traitor to the ideals of the party and for alleged connections to the mob.
Contributed photo/Minnesota Historical Society

Many of Liggett’s friends from the old days of the NPL and the Farmer-Labor Party were excited that a Farmer-Labor candidate had taken the state’s top office for the first time, and in fact, Olson greeted Liggett warmly when he arrived in Minnesota.

But all of that was about to change in a very big way.

Liggett and Edith, who was also a journalist, started a new newspaper, called the Midwest American. As the Liggetts tackled political news of the day, they came to the conclusion that the Farmer-Labor Party Walter had left 12 years ago had changed. They were concerned about corruption under the "political machine" of Gov. Olson.

Liggett believed Olson to be a traitor to the cause because of compromises he had made to get reelected. While Olson remained fairly popular with the public, the Liggetts would have nothing of it. They continued to claim that not only was Olson in bed with big business, but he was also colluding with organized crime.

So Liggett did what he always did. He wrote about it. A lot. In a series of articles for the paper, Liggett demanded Olson be impeached and prosecuted, in part because of his ties to gangster Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld, who Liggett said got immensely wealthy as Minnesota politicians like Olson looked the other way during prohibition.

In fact, Liggett pointed out that Olson and Blumenfeld grew up in the same neighborhood in North Minneapolis and alleged that Olson continued to do favors for his childhood pal. But as Liggett wore out the printing presses with story after story about Twin Cities corruption, he soon faced something completely unexpected.

Isadore "Kid Cann" Blumenfeld became one of the most powerful mobsters in Minnesota during Prohibition.
Minnesota Historical Society

Rape charges

Just a year after his return to Minnesota, and the dozens of scathing articles about Blumenfeld and Olson, Liggett was arrested on statutory rape charges. The claim was that Liggett and a union official had lured two teenage girls to a hotel in Minneapolis where they spent the night “drinking and spooning.”


Liggett categorically denied the charges.

The case went to trial when things were about to get even worse for Liggett.

Stories of exactly what happened the night of October 24, 1935 differ. But in her book, Marda Woodbury, Liggett’s daughter, said her parents’ story was that Walter had been invited to the Radisson hotel by a woman named Antoinette (referred to in some publications as Annette) Fawcett, who had once run a casino of sorts at Breezy Point Resort on Pelican Lake with her husband, Captain Billy Fawcett, a colorful character and the editor and publisher of a bawdy men's humor magazine called “Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.”

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Billy and Antoinette Fawcett ran a casino, of sorts, during Prohibition at Breezy Point on Pelican Lake. Antoinette was rumored to have had an affair with Minnesota governor Floyd Olson and is the person who introduced mobster Isadore Blumenfeld to journalist Walter Liggett prior to Liggett getting beaten up by Blumenfeld's men.
Contributed photo/ Minnesota Historical Society

The Fawcetts hobnobbed with celebrities and high-level officials including Governor Olson. It was also rumored that Antoinette had an affair with Gov. Olson leading to her eventual divorce from Captain Billy. Now in the Twin Cities, she reportedly called the offices of the Midwest American to tell Walter Liggett that she had vital information about his trial. She invited him to come to her hotel suite.

According to Woodbury's book, after Liggett arrived at Fawcett’s suite, he heard the phone ring. Fawcett picked it up. Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld was on the other end of the line.

“Walter heard her say into the phone 'The gentleman is here now,'"wrote Woodbury.

Woodbury said, Blumenfeld arrived a short time later and offered Liggett a bribe, which he refused as he said he’d be “worse than the racketeers” if he took it.

However, in some newspaper reports, Blumenfeld claimed it was Liggett that tried to shake him down for money.


Marda Liggett Woodbury was just 10-years-old when she witnessed the murder of her father, journalist Walter Liggett, allegedly at the hands of the Minnesota mob. She wrote a book about her memories in 1998.
University of Minnesota Press

Again, accounts differ slightly as to what happened next, whether Blumenfeld took a swing at Liggett and the two men fought, or whether Liggett was jumped by Blumenfeld’s thugs. But according to his daughter, “he arrived home at 2 a.m. severely beaten and nearly unconscious.”

Liggett's trial on the rape charges were scheduled just days later and a judge declined a motion to delay it even though Liggett had been beaten.

So as the trial begin, Liggett’s face was still swollen and bruised, he sported a black eye and bruised ribs that wouldn’t let him sit up completely straight.

Fortunately for Liggett, the teenage girls at the center of the morals charges proved to be unreliable witnesses who had been coached in their testimony by a pair of officials who had ties to the Farmer-Labor Party.

Woodbury actually interviewed one of the girls years later. She spoke to "Jenny" for five minutes over the phone. "Jenny" was now in her 70s and a mother and grandmother. She didn't want to get into details with the daughter of the man she had accused 60 years earlier. But she expressed regret and said, "Nothing happened; it was all political. I was just a kid at the time and I didn't know what I was getting into. But I can truthfully say nothing really happened."

A jury found Liggett not guilty of the charges on Nov. 9, 1935. "Editor and Publisher" called the trial "a brazen use of political power to silence a free editor" and the charge itself "a palpable frame up from its start."

But Liggett’s troubles were far from over.

Exactly one month later to the day he would be dead.


In part 2 of “The Slaying of Walter Liggett,” details of the Tommy-gun drive-by shooting and the controversial trial of the high-profile suspect. To read part 2,  go here.

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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