The 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters & Jail

A Grand Old Building with a Tarnished History

Trouble with Chief Murphy

Police Chief John Murphy, appointed in 1920 and forced to resign that July. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Murphy, a native of San Francisco, arrived in Duluth in 1898 and took a job as a switchman for the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad. He eventually became general yard manager for the Northern Pacific. From 1917 to 1919 Murphy worked as an inspector for the U. S. Railroad. He left that job when Public Safety Commissioner William Murnian appointed him chief.

Murphy was chief in June of 1920 when a group of black circus workers were falsely accused of rape and imprisoned in the police headquarters and jail on Superior Street. Believing there were more suspects on the circus train heading to the Iron Range, Murphy and Captain Anthony Fiskett headed north in one of the department’s few automobiles. While they were away, a crowd gathered—loosely organized by a rabble rouser named Louis Dondino—eager to take justice in its own hands.

With Murphy gone, Murnian hid himself inside police headquarters as jailer Oscar Olson and a handful of other officers tried to maintain order. Soon police headquarters was under siege. The crowd—which some estimated at 10,000 strong—started throwing rocks, and Olson fought back with a fire hose, his compatriots with clubs. But the numbers were against them. The crowd eventually gained access to headquarters. Three young men—Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton, and Isaac McGhie—were pulled from their cells and hung from a light post on the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street.

A lone Duluth police officer stands outside the headquarters and jail on June 15, 1920—the most notorious day in the history of the Zenith City. (Image: Zenith City)

Murphy and Fiskett didn’t make it back to Duluth until 11:30, just as Clayton—the last to die—was taken from the jail. Murphy was confronted by Major Fred Beecher, a 33-year-old paper company executive who was also a major in the National Guard and had some crowd control training. Murphy essentially handed control of the crowd over to Beecher, who organized the police officers on hand and successfully dispersed the mob. The chief’s experience as a railroad switchman had not prepared him to combat a mob.

Public Safety Commissioner William Murnian. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Murnian blamed Murphy for the entire fiasco, accusing the chief of incompetency, but he didn’t have grounds to fire him. That changed soon enough. On July 7 Murphy, Deputy Marshall Frank Bradley, and cigar store owner Frank Schaeffer were arrested by federal agents and charged with smuggling whiskey over the Canadian border. Eventually eleven men, including Murphy, would be indicted. Murphy quickly tendered a “temporary” resignation. Not that this solved all of Murnian’s problems: On July 15 a grand jury found him incompetent and blamed him for failures that lead to the lynchings.

During the trial Captain Anthony Fiskett filled in as interim chief. Fiskett was born Gaetano Fischetti in Italy. He came to Duluth in the 1890s and anglicized his name to get on the force. In the 1940s his son Ralph would also serve temporarily as chief of police. His great nephew John DeSanto was an assistant St. Louis County Attorney for decades and is now a district court judge.

The trial began on July 19. Two days later it was revealed that evidence in the case had been stolen from a “vault” in the basement of police headquarters. The storage space was actually the alcove in front of the building and under the Superior Street sidewalk. Most buildings in Duluth—and throughout the country—once had this feature. Grates in the sidewalk could be opened to allow freight to be delivered through the sidewalk to a building’s basement. Eighty-six bottles of whiskey were missing from the space; six more were found broken and empty inside the vault. Murnian surmised the theft was an elaborate inside job more akin to a fishing trip than a burglary (see image headlined “It Was a Lead Pipe Cinch”). This apparent advance for the defense was quickly overshadowed when A. R. Burns plead guilty. Burns, of Port Arthur, Ontario (today’s Thunder Bay), had been accused of supplying the liquor Murphy and the others allegedly smuggled.

Commissioner Murnian’s theory of how 84 quarts of liquor was stolen from the department’s “evidence vault” was illustrated and described in the Duluth News Tribune. Click the image to make it more legible. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Surprisingly, it would be Murnian’s testimony that saved Murphy from prison time. Taking the stand on October 23, Murphy stated that he had accidentally stumbled upon the liquor in a shack while on a fishing trip. Further, it wasn’t hard liquor, but bottles of home-made beer. Murphy said he confiscated the beer and brought it to Duluth police headquarters. There he had Murnian open the vault for him and together the two counted the beer—some 600 bottles. If the liquor in question was actually beer home-brewed made in Minnesota, then the smuggling charges wouldn’t hold up. On October 25 13 sacks of beer—allegedly taken from the police station’s vault—was introduced as evidence to substantiate Murphy’s testimony. The next day District Attorney Alfred Jaques cried foul, charging that the “beer evidence” was a hoax. His pleas fell on deaf ears. On November 10 Murphy and the others were found not guilty.

Two days after his acquittal, Murphy tried to regain his position as chief, even submitting a petition signed by 90 percent of Duluth police officers as evidence of the faith of his crew. But Murnian took the opportunity to get rid of Murphy. On November 18 Murnian appointed Warren E. Pugh Chief of Police in November 1921. Pugh had joined the force as a patrolman in 1917 and left to become a U.S. Marshall. In October, during Murphy’s trial, he joined the Duluth Police Department as a detective.

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A Grand Old Building with a Tarnished History

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