February 21, 1916: DNT reporter shown “secret” elevator to Courthouse “dungeon”

On this day in Duluth in 1916, a Duluth News Tribune reporter was shown a “secret elevator” to a “dungeon” in the basement of the 1909 St. Louis County Courthouse. He reported on it the next day, his lead paragraph claiming most Duluthians were unaware “that there are secrests and mysteries in Duluth official life. Gr-r-r-r, ugh and aha!” he then dropped his bombshell: “There is a dungeon in the $1,000,000 St. Louis County Courthouse…there is a secret elevator, known to few by Sheriff Meining and his staff.” Actually, most everyone who worked in the courthouse was well aware of the elevator and dungeon, which was actually a holding cell. At the time the County jail was located along Sixth Avenue East between Second and Third Streets. Prisoners had to be transported to the courthouse and kept somewhere until they were called to a court rooms on the fourth floor and was accessible via the Sheriff’s office on the first floor. The cell was actually on the building’s ground floor, which also contained offices for Soldier’s Memorial Hall and the county superintendent of schools—as well as the boiler. Officials had already planned to connect the courthouse to a proposed new jail (not built until 1923) with a tunnel to transport prisoners. Despite his obsession with the elevator and dungeon, when Sheriff Meining himself asked him to “Step in and take a ride,” his reply was “No-sir-ee, not for the reporter.” Instead of finding the facts for himself, he asked the sheriff to describe the facility. He then wrote “There is a perfectly good, sound jail all fitted up with iron bars and things—and a dungeon, dark as midnight.” Then, after he had mentioned the jail/dungeon several times, he asked his readers “Didn’t know about the jail now did you?” The rest of the report contained a lot of irrelevant references to President Wilson and declared normal legal procedures as “secret indictments!” If you want to read this entire masterpiece of lazy, sensationalistic  journalism, you’ll find it here: Courthouse_Dungeon_2.22.1916_DNT . You can also read a history of the 1909 St. Louis County Courthouse here.

The 1909 St. Louis County Courthouse photographed by Hugh McKenzie, ca. 1916 c. 1910. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

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