March 18, 1915: Public Safety Commissioner Hicken ignores his “Stool Pigeon” critics

On this day in Duluth in 1915, Public Safety Commissioner John Hicken—who was running for reelection—addressed potential voters at the First Swedish Lutheran Church and managed to avoid addressing the issues raised by his very-vocal critics. Hicken had been on a mission to reduce problem drinking establishments throughout the city, and as the election neared, his efforts ramped up in hopes of gaining more votes. Earlier that month he proposed a new ordinance regarding “disorderly houses” (not to be confused with an “immoral house,” a euphemism for brothel) that could result in a $100 fine or 85 days in jail for the keeper of a such-labeled establishment. One could also be arrested for simply visiting such a place if discovered there during a raid. The ordinance defined disorderly house as ones in which the “peace, comfort and decency of a neighborhood are habitually disturbed.” The biggest issue his critics had was his method to identify such establishments: he hired spies to seek out such establishments, paying them $2 each for every house that was shut down—a fee worth just shy of $46 today. His opponents called this the “Stool Pigeon” approach. On the 8th he shut down Miller’s Bar at 1119 West Michigan Street; on the 9th, the Stockholm Bar at 513 West Superior Street—there were women of “questionable character” inside. On the 10th, the ordinance became law—thanks in part to the recent raids. On the 16th, municipal judge candidate John Norton called Hicken a “czar” and called for “a square deal in law enforcement, a check on fanaticism and the re-establishment of individual liberty and justice in Duluth.” He charged Hicken with not giving those charged a fair hearing, something Bernard Silberstein—Hicken’s opponent in the race—declared he would never do. This is a long and fascinating tale, with many twists, and we will bring it to you again some day in a feature story, but for now, here is the short version: Silberstein handily defeated Hicken in the election. The next day the News Tribune opined, “It was not victory, it was a rout…. The issue was for good government; it was not against law enforcement. The people were sick of misgovernment; not dishonesty, no one can charge that; but incompetency, if not in particular cases, sheer stupidity.”

W. A. Hicken. (Image: Duluth Public Library)