Duluth’s Rip-Roarin’ Rip-Saw Newspaper

John Loyal Morrison. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

John Loyal Morrison, publisher of The Duluth Rip-saw from 1917 to 1926, was a conservative reformer with a highly sarcastic approach. The Duluth of the period was in the midst of both an iron-mining boom and Prohibition. Red-light districts and speakeasies were commonplace. In Duluth, as elsewhere, such businesses could only function only with the tacit approval of the authorities. In the pages of the Rip-saw, Morrison attacked drinking, gambling, brothels, the city’s moneyed “autocrats,” local and regional political machines, and what he called the “unholy and undesirable alliance” among politicians, law enforcement, and criminals.

Maligning McKercher?

One of the Rip-saw’s earliest targets was Duluth Police Chief Robert McKercher. The banner headline of the July 7, 1917 issue informed readers that “FRIENDS FEAR CHIEF M’KERCHER IS GOING BLIND.” In the article, Morrison wondered why McKercher had no trouble seeing such things as the ore docks and his own luxurious automobile (rumored to have been given to him by the owners of the ore docks), but never seemed to notice any of the illegal activities that flourished openly around him.

There are redlight ladies galore on the boulevards. Some have complexions vivid enough to see a block away. Some of these dames should wear dimmers, their complexions are so dazzling. But the genial chief can see them not.

Other redlight ladies avoid the glare of day as much as possible but have elegant and popular gardens of delight where they hold court for entertainment of their male admirers, young and old, gay and sedate, rich and poor, with special emphasis on the rich. These trysting places are utterly beyond the vision of “Uncle Bob,” as they call him when conversing over the telephone. …

This looks very, very bad for “Uncle Bob’s” recovery of normal eyesight. His many admirers greatly fear that, before long, they will see the famous snowshoe catcher of hardened criminals seated in his big Marmon car, in front of the Wolvin building, holding a tin cup in his hand, with a placard on the car, bearing these words: PITY THE SORROWS OF A POOR BLIND MAN.

When it came to Chief McKercher, this was as gentle as Morrison got. In its first two years of publication, the Rip-saw accused the police chief of bribery, perjury, shakedowns, payoffs, beating male prisoners, sexually assaulting female prisoners and other vulnerable women, “abortion, debauchery … and bastardy,” selling illegal liquor, protecting brothels and bootleggers, cuckoldry, cowardice, conducting smear campaigns against his enemies, paying thugs to assault John Morrison, locking an “aged mother” in her attic and taking sexual liberties with her daughter, speeding (the sight of McKercher’s car flying around town seemed to bother Morrison as much as anything else), and generally of being a “big, brutal, morally degenerate, sexually perverted renegade.”

Even in totally unrelated articles, Morrison couldn’t resist needling the police chief. When a local doctor hit a moose with his car and the animal came through the windshield, Morrison commented, “This was the first time a lady moose ever tried to sit in Dr. Bettenhausen’s lap, and, while it might be a pleasing experience for chief McKercher, the doctor feels more than satisfied with the one experience.”

The wealth of specific details used by Morrison—including dates, names, times, addresses, and specific dollar amounts of bribes—combined with the lack of any libel suits or formal complaints from Chief McKercher, lent credence to the Rip-saw’s charges and substantially boosted its circulation. Morrison gleefully asserted that his enemies couldn’t retaliate formally against the Rip-saw because every charge in the paper was true and “they well know that any recourse to the courts would open up the terrible ulcer and show the people the depth and character of the festering sore.”

On January 4, 1918, eight months after starting the Rip-saw, John Morrison was arrested in the Spalding Hotel on a trespassing charge. The story that emerged in the daily papers was that police chief McKercher had received a call from a girl at the Spalding asking for his help in finding a lost brother. When McKercher arrived at her room, accompanied by two officers, he found Morrison and two other men hiding in an adjoining room. The girl, Margaret Langdon, said she was from Chicago and that she had been promised $100 by Morrison if she could get Chief McKercher into a compromising position. A pistol owned by Morrison was found in a drawer, which he said he had purchased the day before “to use in case of emergency.”

The mainstream newspapers immediately assumed that Morrison had attempted to frame his favorite target. “ATTEMPT TO WORK BADGER GAME ON CHIEF M’KERCHER IS FOILED,” announced the Duluth Herald. McKercher claimed that he had received an anonymous tip about the plot the night before. He said that the tipster had told him that Juls Anderson, a “leading Socialist” in Duluth, and Claude Atkinson, editor of the Mesaba Ore in Hibbing, were also involved. Neither man had been present in the hotel; both indignantly denied the charges. Atkinson wrote in an editorial that he would never have tried “to pull off that kind of a stunt on a thirty-third degree framer like Old Bob, who has forgotten more about the frame-up game than some men will ever know.”

[Editor’s note: “thirty-third degree” refers to freemasonry; it is the highest level of masonry achievable, so Aktkinson’s usage implies McKercher’s expertise in framing innocent people.]

After spending the night in jail, Morrison was released and almost immediately re-arrested, this time on a charge of conspiracy to subvert the public morals. Morrison pled not guilty to both charges. The two men who were with him in the hotel room, Emil Swenson and George Hillyer, were not charged with any crime. Morrison commented briefly on the situation in the next Rip-saw, saying that he suspected McKercher was trying to frame him because the police chief was “shivering in his shoes” over the Rip-saw’s exposure of his misdeeds.

A rare image from the Rip-saw, a political cartoon depicting Police Chief McKercher driving recklessly. (Image: John Ramos)

At the trial, the courtroom was packed with interested spectators. City prosecutor John Samuelson waxed eloquent, calling Morrison “a snake in the grass, one who crawled on the ground, made unfit by the Almighty to walk on his feet.” Chief McKercher was the city’s first witness. During cross-examination, Morrison’s attorney A. E. McManus “created a sensation among the spectators when he suddenly asked, ‘Isn’t it true, Mr. McKercher, that you hired Miss Langdon yourself in an attempt to dispose of Morrison?’” McKercher denied this, replying, “Why, that game is so old, Mac, that it’s got whiskers on it.” Miss Langdon herself could not be questioned, having disappeared shortly after giving her statement to McKercher. The statement, over McManus’s objection, was admitted into evidence.

McManus rested the defense’s case without calling Morrison or any other witnesses to the stand. The jury, after deliberating for nineteen hours, declared itself “hopelessly divided” and returned no verdict. A new trial was scheduled for February 13.

In the Rip-saw of February 9, Morrison declared himself “yet unhanged,” but said little regarding the case. Instead, he wrote a lengthy piece on brothels that were protected by Chief McKercher, as well as a few more anecdotes about the chief’s sexual indiscretions. On February 11, McKercher dropped all charges against Morrison.

On February 23, Morrison at last wrote about the case, saying that some unnamed person had “cunningly broached” the frame-up plan to him, but that Morrison had declined to pay any money to anyone. He said that McKercher had been seen driving Margaret Langdon away from the police station on the day before the hotel room incident, and that McKercher had perjured himself when he denied this. He said that McKercher’s “human hounds” had broken into the Rip-saw office and installed a Dictaphone so they could eavesdrop on Morrison. Finally, Morrison expressed no defensiveness over his presence in the hotel room, saying that he “had the right, as a citizen and a publisher, to witness any proof of McKercher’s gross immorality, when such proof was offered freely and without cost.”

The headline of the same issue informed citizens that “M’KERCHER PROTECTS RED-LIGHT LADY.” The story began with the line, “‘Be a good little girl, Dorothy, and I’ll take care of you.’ With a fatherly pat on her shapely shoulder, those were the comforting words that chief McKercher is credited with addressing to Dorothy Hill, a notorious redlight lady.”

McKercher quit his job in 1918, just ahead of an official probe into his actions. “It is barely possible,” Morrison humbly remarked, “that the Rip-saw’s review of the life and adventures of R. D. McKercher…may have hastened his formal resignation just a few days.”

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