The Shame of the Cities

Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities. March 1904. Introduction: “When I [Steffens] set out to describe the corrupt systems of certain typical cities, I meant to show simply how the people were deceived and betrayed. But in the very first study–St. Louis–the startling truth lay bare that corruption was not merely political; it was financial, commercial, social; the ramifications of boodle were so complex, various, and far-reaching, that one mind could hardly grasp them….” The seven articles in The Shame of the Cities appeared first in McClure’s in 1902 and 1903 in the following order: “Tweed Days in St. Louis;” “The Shame of Minneapolis: The Rescue and Redemption of a City That Was Sold Out;” “The Shamelessness of St. Louis” (a sequel to “Tweed Days”); “Pittsburgh: A City Ashamed;” “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Content;” “Chicago: Half Free and Fighting On;” and “New York: Good Government in Danger.”

Excerpts from The Shame of Minneapolis: The Rescue and Redemption of a City That Was Sold Out:

Whenever anything extraordinary is done in American municipal politics, whether for good or for evil, you can trace it almost invariably to one man…. [In Minneapolis in 1901 this man was Dr. Albert Alonzo Ames.] [Ames] set out upon a career of corruption which for deliberateness, invention, and avarice has never been equaled…. Immediately upon his election [as mayor], before he took office (on January 7, 1901), he organized a cabinet and laid plans to turn the city over to outlaws who were to work under police direction for the profit of his administration. He chose for chief his brother, Colonel Fred W. Ames…. [Ames] picked for chief of detectives…Norman W. King, a former gambler, who knew the criminals needed in the business ahead. King was to invite to Minneapolis thieves, confidence men, pickpockets and gamblers, and release some that were in the local jail. They were to be organized into groups, according to their profession, and detectives were assigned to assist and direct them. The head of the gambling syndicate was to have charge of the gambling, making the terms and collecting the “graft,” just as King and a Captain Hill were to collect from the thieves. The collector for women of the town was to be Irwin A. Gardner, a medical student…who was made a special policeman for the purpose. These men looked over the force, selected those men who could be trusted, charged them a price for their retention, and marked for dismissal 107 men out of 225, the 107 being the best policemen in the department from the point of view of the citizens who afterward reorganized the force….

And they did these things that they planned–all and more. The administration opened with the revolution on the police force. The thieves in the local jail were liberated and it was made known to the Under World generally that “things were doing” in Minneapolis…. Gambling went on openly, and disorderly houses multiplied…. Opium joints and unlicensed saloons, called “blind pigs,” were protected…. But the women were the easiest “graft.” They were compelled to buy illustrated biographies of the city officials; they had to give presents of money, jewelry, and gold stars to police officers. But the money they still paid direct to the city in fines, some $35,000 a year, fretted the mayor, and at last he reached for it. He came out with a declaration, in his old character as friend of the oppressed, that $100 a month was too much for these women to pay. They should be required to pay the city fine only once in two months. This puzzled the town till it became generally known that Gardner collected the other month for the mayor. The final outrage in this department, however, was an order of the mayor for the periodic visits to disorderly houses, by the city’s physicians, at from $45 to $200 per visit. The two physicians he appointed called when they willed, and more and more frequently, till toward the end the calls became a pure formality, with the collections as the one and only object.

In a general way all this business was known. It did not arouse the citizens, but it did attract criminals, and more and more thieves and swindlers came hurrying to Minneapolis. Burglaries were common. How many the police planned may never be known….

Even lawlessness must be regulated. Dr. Ames, never an organizer, attempted no control, and his followers began to quarrel among themselves. They deceived one another; they robbed the thieves; they robbed Ames himself. His brother became dissatisfied with his share of the spoils, and formed cabals with captains who plotted against the administration and set up disorderly houses, “panel games,” and all sorts of “grafts” of their own.

Lincoln Steffens, “The Shame of Minneapolis.” McClure’s Magazine, January 1903. From Longreads, “How One Magazine Shaped Investigative Journalism in America.”