January 17, 1920: Police dump $30,000 worth of liquor into sewer

The Duluth Police Headquarters and jail, photographed some time betwee 1890 and 1919. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

On this day in Duluth in 1920—at the stroke of midnight—members of the Duluth Police Department dumped $30,000 worth of confiscated liquor “into the sewer of the garage repair shop under the Duluth police station” (essentially the building’s subbasement, below the Michigan Street level; much of this space is carved out of bedrock). While the DPD tried to keep the event a secret—only Police Chief Murphy, Mayor Magney, and other city officials were aware of it—the Duluth News Tribune reported that “a score of civilians, attracted from the odor pouring from all the doors and windows of the jail, witnessed the ‘ceremony.’” The paper continued, “Whiskey, rum, beer and wine mixed on the concrete floor. Broken glass clogged the sewer beyond immediate repair.” The chief dubbed the basement the “execution room.” They set up an iron target for bottles they called the “safety zone” and then Murphy and a half dozen of his officers—the “executioners”—threw bottles, smashing them against the iron target, sending glass and liquid flying. Safety Commissioner Murnian told the News Tribune that, because of this action, “all the fishes in lake Superior will have a jag next summer. If some of the gulls start climbing the aerial bridge today, don’t be surprised, they’ve been drinking out of the Second Avenue sewer outlet.” The dumping was Magney’s idea; he thought dumping the booze would give Duluth a “clean slate” regarding Prohibition; National Prohibition had recently become the law of the land, but Duluth had already gone back and forth on the “dry” issue twice. Murphy had wanted to keep the liquor and “give as much of the liquor to area hospitals, where it might be of some use.” He may have had other reasons as well: Later that summer, Murphy and ten others were arrested for smuggling whiskey across the Canadian border. Nine years later, on March 24, 1929, officials dumped 305 gallons of confiscated liquor down a drain in the subbasement of the new city hall.

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