July 22, 1920: Evidence in Police Chief’s trial goes missing

On this day in Duluth in 1920, Duluth police reported that 86 bottles of whiskey—evidence in the smuggling trail of Duluth Police Chief John Murphy and ten others. Murphy and the others were accused of smuggling whiskey over the Canadian border at the Pigeon River. Ninety bottles seized by federal agents were placed in a “vault” in the basement of police headquarters. The storage space was actually an 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. While 86 bottles had gone missing missing, 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 burglar. 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. Despite Burns’ guilty plea, the defense argued that Murphy and the others had actually confiscated about 600 bottles of beer from an illegal brewing operation they had stumbled across on a fishing trip. On November 10 Murphy and the other defendants were found not guilty. read more about the case in our history of Duluth’s historic 1890 Police Headquarters & Jail here.

The Duluth News Tribune published this description and diagram of a theory of how evidence in the whiskey smuggling trial of Duluth Police Chief John Murphy and ten others was stolen from police headquarters. Image: Zenith City Press)