Wife of former Fargo newspaper editor swore Minnesota's governor ordered the 1935 mob hit of her husband
Walter Liggett was shot dead while holding a bag of groceries. In part 2 of “The Slaying of Walter Liggett,” why a Minnesota governor and a former North Dakota governor were players in the tragedy.
Editor's note: This is part 2 in a two-part series by Tracy Briggs about the murder of Walter Liggett. To read part 1, go here.
Walter and Edith Liggett were probably looking forward to that Christmas season of 1935. After all, they had been through a heck of a year.
All at the hands of his enemies.
He had a few of them. Enemies. It was just part of the job.
Written by: Tracy Briggs
Hosted by: Trisha Taurinskas
Link to full story: https://www.inforum.com/news/the-vault/wife-of-former-fargo-newspaper-editor-swore-minnesotas-governor-ordered-the-1935-mob-hit-of-her-husband
As a muckraking journalist who wrote for papers from Alaska to Fargo to New York City, he didn’t pull any punches when he saw what he thought was corruption and wrongdoing. A Minnesota native—he was born on a farm in Benson—he had come back home in 1933 to run a small crusading paper called the Midwest American with his wife Edith, who was also a writer.
Since his printing presses first started rolling in Minneapolis, the man at the center of Liggett’s journalistic attacks was Minnesota Gov. Floyd Olson who Liggett claimed was “notoriously immoral” and in cahoots with mobsters including North Minneapolis bootlegging kingpin Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld. Despite being a one-time ally of Olson in the Farmer-Labor party, Liggett now claimed organized crime had infiltrated Olson’s office, creating and fostering widespread corruption throughout the state.
In less than two years and dozens, if not hundreds, of Olson/Blumenfeld stories, Liggett went through enough ink to rival the water in a small Minnesota lake.
Liggett was relentless in his attacks. And by the fall of ‘35 it appeared he was paying dearly for it.
Although no one was ever charged, it is believed Blumenfeld’s mob thugs beat Liggett within an inch of his life right as he was to go on trial on statutory rape charges believed to have been cooked up by Olson's political cronies.
In November, the still bruised and beaten Liggett was eventually found not guilty on the trumped-up charges, which involved a couple of teenage girls. One newspaper said the trial was "a brazen use of political power to silence a free editor" and the charge itself "a palpable frame up from its start."
Again. A bad stretch for the family heading into Christmas.
The ominous car
That’s why that Monday night, Dec. 9, probably seemed like a nice break. At the time, Liggett’s daughter, Marda Liggett Woodbury, was just 10 years old. In her 1998 book, "Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett,” she recalled her father was in “a relaxed and smiling mood” when he picked her up from the library around 5 p.m. From there the family ran a few more errands, including a stop at the grocery store.
Woodbury said it was about 5:45 p.m. as they drove to their apartment building at 1825 Second Ave. South. She noticed an “almost navy” sky, a full moon rising and a suspicious car nearby.
“As soon as we parked, I noticed a dark car turn purposefully down the alley toward us. Somehow it seemed ominous even as it turned,” she wrote.
Walter had already gotten out of the car and grabbed the grocery bag, but upon seeing the car coming down the narrow alley, he motioned for his wife and daughter to stay in the car as he moved close to the front fender to allow the car to pass. But instead, the car sped up and all hell broke loose.
“Suddenly, I saw a hand with a gun at the window of the moving car,” Woodbury recalled in her book. “ I ducked without thinking and heard five quick shots at the same time. When I looked up my mother was half outside the car and my father was laying in the alley, I remember yelling ‘They killed Daddy!’”
She said the gunman must have been an expert as the five bullets from the Tommy sub-machine gun had formed a crescent around her father’s heart. The coroner said he died instantly. He was 49 years old.
It was a blur from then on. Woodbury recalls the reporters and police officers who descended on the family that night “represented the dregs of their professions. Indifferent, impervious to our loss — laughing, cursing and smoking smelly cigars and cigarettes.”
Despite their unseemly behavior, the police worked fairly quickly to arrest a suspect, thanks to Liggett’s wife, Edith who claimed, at the scene, she knew exactly who killed her husband. She said she’d remember the grin on his face for the rest of her life. It was Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld — the state’s most powerful gangster.
Twelve days after the shooting, on Dec. 21, Blumenfeld was indicted for the murder of Walter Liggett. From the start, the mob boss proclaimed his innocence and said he had an airtight alibi. He was getting a haircut and shoeshine at a barbershop on Hennepin Avenue when the murder happened. Not surprising that employees and customers who were in the shop at that time, (and maybe even some who weren’t) backed up Blumenfeld’s story.
The murder trial
At the trial, Blumenfeld’s attorneys attacked the state’s star witness, Edith Liggett, who with her doe eyes and thin, small frame, appeared almost childlike as she testified.
The defense keyed in on a phone call overheard the night of the murder when reporters and police officers filled the Liggett apartment. Edith called her mother in Brooklyn and sobbed into the receiver, “Gov. Olson’s gang got Walter, Mother.”
Blumenfeld's attorneys argued if she told her mother the governor was the guilty party, why was she pointing fingers at their client? Not to mention, they said, it was way too dark in the alley that night for Edith to have identified anyone.
However, Edith countered that it was Blumenfeld's smiling face she saw pull the trigger, but after a year of enduring attacks in the press from Walter Liggett, the governor had to be the brains behind the crime.
“The murder would not have been committed without Gov. Olson’s permission,” she testified. His gang “either ordered it or permitted it.”
For his part, Olson said he wouldn’t address the stories that had been written about him by the Liggetts but that he fully supported the legal system to find and convict the murderers.
After closing arguments, the jury took just 90 minutes to issue a verdict of “not guilty.”
As the verdict was read, Blumenfeld’s friends cheered while Edith Liggett sobbed. Blumenfeld jumped up and shook the hands of the male jurors and kissed the hands of the female jurors.
An alternate theory involved former ND governor
Over the years, some people have theorized that while Minnesota Gov. Floyd Olson was a possible suspect in the case, a former North Dakota governor might have also been a player in the drama.
Woodbury mentioned in her book that the morning he was killed her father was talking to former North Dakota governor Bill Langer on the phone. Langer, a former NPL colleague of Liggett, had recently been accused of extorting campaign contributions. His trial was starting soon and Liggett was expected to be the star witness for Langer.
Langer had also suggested that Liggett move the Midwest American to Bismarck and continue his muckraking work there.
Woodbury said that conversation had lead some to believe the murder of her father had everything to do with Langer and North Dakota.
Some theories suggest a political enemy of Langer wanted to keep Liggett from testifying. Others suggested the scheme was hatched by a group of Farmer-Laborites who wanted to buy the Midwest American and turn the discourse back in their favor. After realizing Liggett would never agree to be bought out, the decision was made to kill him.
However, none of the theories were ever definitively proven and Liggett’s murder remains officially unsolved.
What happened to everyone?
Gov. Floyd Olson: Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the same month Liggett was shot, Olson was diagnosed with stomach cancer. His health declined quickly. He died in August of 1936 at the age of 44.
Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld: After being acquitted of the Liggett murder, Blumenfeld was convicted in both 1959 and 1961 and imprisoned on charges involving prostitution and gambling. He was released from prison in 1964 and continued amassing a fortune splitting time between homes in Minnesota and Miami. In 1978, Blumenfeld and his brothers were allegedly responsible for manipulating Magic Marker stock prices. He died of heart disease in 1981 with a fortune of 10 million dollars.
Edith Liggett: She left Minneapolis four months after Blumenfeld’s acquittal disappointed in the corruption in the Twin Cities and worried about her family’s safety. She said, “I fear for my life and for my children. Already an attempt has been made to kill me.” She died in California in 1972.
Marda Liggett Woodbury: Liggett’s daughter earned degrees at Bard College and Columbia University. She worked as a librarian, researcher and journalist in the San Francisco Bay area. She spent ten years researching the book on her father. She died in 2008, ten years after it was published.