The Palmer House Shootings

Jalmer Heikkenen. (Image: Zenith City Press)

As the 1920s began, Saturday nights were for dancing, a weekly break to socialize after the grind of labor and the stress of union struggle. On October 1, 1921, sixteen-year old Anna Arvola was probably anxious to kick up her heels, so she joined her ethnic brethren at the Finnish Workers’ Hall at 314 Sixth Avenue East. Arvola may have had other dance partners, but one she knew well was 34-year-old Finnish immigrant Jalmer Heikkinen. Heikkinen had been pursuing her lately, making a regular point of visiting with her at the hotel where she stayed with her sister and brother-in-law. As she took to the dance floor with her fellow countryman it is doubtful the thought crossed her mind that by morning, Hiekkinen would be lying in a hospital bed, a police officer’s bullet in his lung, accused of shooting three people—and killing one of them.

Prohibition was in full effect, but Heikkinen had been on a days-long bender. Arvola wasn’t pleased to find him stinking of moonshine as they danced. Perhaps she voiced her disgust, or perhaps she simply danced with another man while Heikkinen stewed in jealousy. Whatever happened, Heikkinen left the hall at around midnight with a couple of other men and walked straight down to “the point” (then called Up Town—today’s Canal Park) to score another $2.50 bottle of moonshine whisky from a guy named Eddie.

The next couple hours were a blur, as Heikkinen shared his bottle with various comrades, ducking in and out of raucous boarding houses near his home at the People’s Hotel, previously the Duluth Bethel at Sutphin Street and Lake Avenue. At two o’clock in the morning, Patrolman Gilbert Grinager—walking his beat toward the Aerial Transfer Bridge—found Heikkinen arguing with another Finn named Waimo Pauttu on the curb in front of the hotel. He ordered them inside, saying it was “time to be abed.” So into the lobby they went, where night clerk Mike Tuomisto had to deal with them.

Tuomisto later testified that the two drunken Finns argued vociferously over who had the bigger nose. “I’ve got a bigger nose than you have,” he heard Pauttu say several times. This infuriated Heikkinen. Tuomisto said the pair also appeared to be arguing over a girl at a dance. After a tussle in which Heikkinen recalled getting punched in the nose, he ran upstairs to retrieve his pistol. He returned to the lobby clutching his gun inside his jacket pocket. He demanded his hat, which had been knocked off in the aforementioned fight. As Tuomisto handed over the hat, he and Pauttu both realized that Heikkinen was armed. They ran in different directions, Tuomisto to the rear of the lobby and Pauttu toward the front door. One shot found Pauttu as he ran; he staggered through the door and onto the street before falling dead on the curb. Patrolman Grinager, hearing the gunshot, raised the alarm.

Waino Pauttu. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Heikkinen fled the scene and, by his own account, hid out in the railroad yards on Rice’s Point. By four o’clock in the morning, the police were looking for him at the Palmer House at 108 West First Street, where Anna Arvola was staying with her sister and her sister’s husband, John Maki.

The Palmer House was a long-established Duluth hotel, but its reputation was in decline. Its longtime owner, former police chief Daniel Horgan, sold the place in 1919, likely due to failing health—he passed away that November. He probably wanted to get out of the business anyway, as Duluth’s prohibition ordinance was negatively impacting similar businesses all over town. Indeed, the same month that Horgan died, new owner Al Bennet was sentenced to nearly three months on the county work farm after police raided the Palmer and seized 63 quarts of liquor. By 1921, John Maki owned the hotel.

Maki and Heikkinen were long-time friends, having met when both lived in Red Lodge, Montana, before moving to Duluth. The police did not find Heikkinen at the Palmer House. Fifteen minutes after they left, the doorbell to Maki’s room rang again. Maki had barely opened the door when, without a word, Heikkinen shot him through the shoulder. His wife screamed.

George Parro, who was standing on the corner of First Street and First Avenue West at the time of the shooting, reportedly saw Heikkinen brandishing his revolver and running down the street into the alley going west, where he heard more shots. In the alley, Heikkinen encountered Patrolman Conrad Lading, known as the best marksman on the Duluth Police Force. Heikkinen fired at Lading, and the bullet shattered the officer’s left arm.

John Maki. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Heikkinen disappeared into the darkness of the railroad yards again, and by his own account followed the tracks westward to the county road near Nopeming Sanitarium. There, somewhere in the woods, Heikkinen fell asleep.

Putting Down Duluth’s Murder Demon

As the fugitive slept, the entire Duluth Police Department was in an uproar. Every available officer was called to the downtown headquarters to retrieve pistols, rifles, and shotguns; they were sent after Heikkinen with a shoot-to-kill order should they be sure of their man.

During the search for Heikkinen, a dozen “hoboes” were rousted out of boxcars in the rail yard. Pedestrians, streetcars, and automobiles were stopped on the Interstate Bridge and questioned. Victims of a car accident on the French River Bridge were left to deal with their injuries themselves as Police Chief Warren Pugh dismissed their plight, saying the police wouldn’t have time “until we get this murderous maniac.”

Out on Thompson Hill Road, Chief of Detectives Frank Schulte and Detectives Herman Toewe and Al Youngberg were driving back to town. They spotted a man “slouching toward them,” and stopped to question him. When they told him to get in the car, Heikkinen drew his revolver and opened fire. Detective Toewe exited the car, ran toward Heikkinen under fire, zig-zagging until he was able to draw his own gun and fire back. He shot Heikkinen in the lung. The Finn was brought to St. Mary’s Hospital, where he was arraigned a few days later.

Herman Toewe. (Image: Zenith City Press)

By October 7, the Duluth News Tribune reported that “Duluth’s murder demon” had to be bound to his hospital bed with leg irons and handcuffs, because he’d recovered enough to make five increasingly combative escape attempts.

Heikkinen readily confessed to having killed Waino Pauttu, claiming he reacted in self-defense to an assault. He also agreed to shooting at Detective Toewe, but again claimed self-defense. He completely denied having shot Conrad Lading and John Maki. He also claimed that he always carried a gun on his person, and thus the shooting was not premeditated. He said he barely remembered the shooting because he’d been drunk for several days. In the end, Heikkinen was charged with first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree assault. Due to lack of evidence, he was not indicted for the shooting of Conrad Lading.

Heikkinen was found guilty on November 23, 1921, by a jury that included the first three women ever seated in a murder case in Duluth. Judge Clarence R. Magney sentenced him to life in Stillwater Prison.

Officer Conrad Lading had to fight to get the city to pay his medical bills, as the city council argued that he should have used the police surgeon. Eventually, the city council agreed to pay the bill, amounting to $138 for hospital care, $15 for X-rays, and $258 for medical attention.

Detective Herman Toewe was honored for his bravery in ending Jalmer Heikkinen’s murderous rampage and received a gold medal of honor from the United Spanish War Veterans at their Mardi Gras celebration that same year. In 1922 he retired after 20 years of service.

A drawing of the gold medal Officer Toewe received for his actions to capture Heikkenen. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.