Duluth Police Headquarters & Jail (1890)

The 1890 Police Headquarter’ Michigan Street level was home to the Patrol Department. This photograph shows what is thought to be the Duluth’s first patrol wagon—after it regained its city status in 1887. Note the massive doors that lead to the stables inside. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Police Chiefs during the building’s first 20 years

Samuel McQuade took over as chief of police in 1890, appointed by new mayor Marcus J. Davis, becoming the first chief to serve in the new building beginning in January, 1891. In 1887, when it regained its city charter, Duluth had adopted a “Ward & Boss” system of government, which gave the mayor most of the power. Each mayor—elected every two years—could appoint his own officials: city engineer, city attorney, etc., including chief of police. These men did not necessarily have a background in law enforcement, but McQuade did. A true pioneer—and co-founder of Endion—McQuade was first elected St. Louis County sheriff in 1877 and served as such until 1887. McQuade was the first chief of police to develop a conduct code and submit annual reports about the department’s activities.

Despite advancements made by McQuade, politics ruled the day. McQuade was replaced in 1892 by Daniel Horgan, who was replaced in 1894 by Harry R. Armstrong, who was replaced in 1896 by Iwan Hansen, who was replaced in 1900 by Cyrus T. Crandall, who was replaced in 1902 by Chauncy Troyer. Troyer turned out to be the exception to the “two-year appointee” rule, serving 13 years under five different mayors. Troyer had joined the Duluth Police Department as a patrolman in 1891. In 1896 he was promoted to detective. In 1900 Mayor Trevanion Hugo appointed him chief, and Hugo’s successors found no reason to replace Troyer.

During Troyer’s tenure a new building was constructed to the west of the jail at 124 East Superior Street (today’s Shel/Don Reproduction Center). Its second floor was leased by the city and used as the Duluth Municipal Court from 1909 to 1929. Door openings were made and a short enclosed bridge was built to connect the two buildings at the second floor level; this way, prisoners held in the jail could be transported to the courtrooms quickly and safely. This may have been Duluth’s first “skywalk.” Other say that honor belongs to a structure extending from the police headquarters’ east wall to the 1889 city hall, also at the second floor level. It would make sense: city hall was also home to its municipal court from 1889 until 1909, and that bridge would have made sense for prisoner transfers. But historians suggest that this structure was not added until some time in the 1920s.

Duluth changed its system of government while Troyer was chief. The mayor no longer had the power to appoint a police chief, but the commissioner of public safety did. Troyer retired in 1915 to become chief of police in Fargo, North Dakota. He served there for two years and returned to Duluth. He died on November 13, 1920.

Robert D. McKercher served as chief from Troyer’s resignation until 1919, when he too resigned. While McKercher ran the show, the department began the process of phasing out horses for automobiles, and the stables were converted to a garage for the first motor patrol. Gustav Lahti became acting chief until John Murphy was appointed. Murphy’s tenure as chief would be brief, but it would also be the most memorable—and tragic—period in the history of Duluth law enforcement.

Trouble with Chief Murphy

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.

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.

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.

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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