Almost since the city’s founding, Minneapolis was essentially run by corrupt politicians and the crime lords who pulled their strings. For the first half of the 20th century, Minneapolis was a den of con-men and mobsters. When the Twin Cities Rapid Transit company was seemingly fleeced by men with ties to organized crime, the corruption that had long-plagued the city began to be exposed and prosecuted. By the time the 1960’s hit, many of the local mobsters began to see charges stick to them and the cleanup effort began to see progress. The hold of organized crime on the city of Minneapolis was loosening for the first time in almost 70 years.
From the very beginning, Minneapolis was a rough town. The lumber industry was booming and attracted many drifters looking for work. The drifter population supported a local economy of saloons and brothels (it was reported that the city contained 150 brothels in the 1880’s) which, in turn, spawned violence. There were numerous shanty-towns where crime ran rampant among the poor and desperate men. The worst shanty-town was known as “Hell’s Half Acre”, which lay on the block between 8th and 9th streets and 2nd and 3rd avenues downtown (where the State Theater now resides). Police were discouraged from attempting any law enforcement in the area because it was too dangerous.
Life improved as the city grew and learned to sustain itself and soon a man rose to power who would change the climate of the city forever. His name was Dr. Albert Alonzo (A.A.) Ames. In 1852, Ames’ family moved from Illinois to Minneapolis when his father (a doctor) was stationed at Fort Snelling. Ames grew up in the city and worked in the newspaper industry (an irony that will be revealed later). He eventually became a doctor himself while still being interested in the newspaper industry. He managed a paper in California for a few years before returning to Minneapolis to take over his father’s medical practice upon his death.
In 1876, Doc Ames was elected mayor of Minneapolis.. He made runs at national political office over the years and was almost elected governor, but was never successful on the larger political stage. Minneapolis, however, loved the man and he was elected to four terms as mayor between 1876 and 1902.
Upon his return to the mayoral office in 1900 after a 10 year absence, Doc Ames appointed his brother Fred Chief of Police. The Ames brothers fired many police officers and replaced them with criminals. Some government posts were offered up to the highest bidder and the city fell firmly into the hands of organized crime. Illegal businesses thrived as the government extorted money from them and kept them running. Prostitutes were plentiful and gave a cut of their profits to the court system to stay in business. Word was spread around the country that Minneapolis was a haven for criminals. Through it all, Ames was the Godfather.
Finally, in 1902, a grand jury was convened to investigate what was going on in Minneapolis. They worked tirelessly to build their case against Dr. Ames and even nabbed witnesses who and fled the state to testify. Ames was eventually arrested and stood trial and was convicted of taking bribes. Of course, the charges wouldn’t stick, mistrials were declared and Dr. Ames never served any time (his brother, Fred, did). He died in 1911.
Around this same time, a young boy named Isadore Blumenfeld arrived in the US from Romania with is family. The family eventually made their way to Minneapolis where Isadore attended school until 5th grade. He then dropped out and began selling papers to help support the family. It wasn’t long before he took side jobs running errands for the men in charge of the hundreds of brothels still in operation. His involvement with organized crime had begun and his first of many arrests happened when he was 19 years old.
Blumenfeld rose to the top of the food-chain in Minneapolis by the time prohibition was passed in 1920. Like many gangsters across the country, Blumenfeld used prohibition to build a vast empire of crime based on the underground sale of liquor. His syndicate, called the Minneapolis Combination, was headed up by a number of Jewish men who grew up on the mean streets of the city. For years, Blumenfeld basically ran the entire city of Minneapolis from his private club The Flame Cafe on 15th and Nicollet.
Blumenfeld’s friends called him Fergie. He wore flashy suits and lived large. He would bring in big-name musical acts like Cab Calloway to play at The Flame. Blumenfeld took cues from Doc Ames by generously paying off police and politicians to keep his business running without pressures. Money was always thrown around when you were with Fergie Blumenfeld. But to many people, he was Kid Cann, a ruthless gangster in the mold of Al Capone. The nickname seems to have been derived from his penchant for hiding in the outhouse during fights as a lad.
Prohibition ended in 1933, but Kid Cann’s empire of crime kept rolling. He diversified his interests by branching into gambling and prostitution. He also made sure that any prosecution of his people ended with a bribed jury and an acquittal. Much of the police force was on his payroll and evidence would often disappear from police stations. His influence kept on growing and soon it reached all the way to the office of Governor Floyd B. Olson.
The links between Kid Cann and Floyd Olson were publicized by an independent journalist named Walter Liggett. His story will be fleshed out in the next installment.