In the last years of his life, Arthur Kasherman roamed about the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the constant company of two ghosts, whose names were Howard Guilford and Walter Liggett. The parallels in the three editors’ lives were so striking that Kasherman knew that his obituary, like those of Guilford and Liggett, would be written in blood.
These three angry men are mostly forgotten now, but they were the main characters of one of the most violent chapters in American journalism. In a crowded, grimy and often lawless Midwestern city, the Minneapolis of the Great Depression, they used the printed page to raise hell. They published when they could scrape together the money. They wrote headlines that bellowed outrage, smashing the crooked politicians and cops who were on the payroll of the bootleggers and mobsters who ran gambling houses, brothels and after-hours gin mills. They may have been one-man operations, but in an era when everybody got the news on paper, what was printed and hawked on the streetcorner got a city’s attention.
The mainstream dailies – the Minneapolis Journal, the Daily Star and the mighty Tribune – dismissed these three publishers as scandal-mongers, much the way the corporate media view today’s bloggers. Indeed, the methods of Guilford and Kasherman, who worked together for a time, were sometimes scurrilous and practiced a journalism more mercenary than factual. But Guilford, Liggett and Kasherman were also willing to investigate the powerful and the wealthy in a way that the big Minneapolis dailies refused. They were rewarded with beatings and arrests on trumped-up charges. Police confiscated their newspapers. Their offices were ransacked. More than anything else, they are forever joined in history by the circumstances of their deaths. The equation was simple: get rid of the editor, then the news will stop. On Sept. 6, 1934, Howard Guilford’s head was practically blown off by a shotgun fired through his car window as he drove home. On Dec. 9, 1935, Walter Liggett was felled by machine gun bullets in an alley behind his home, in front of his wife and 9-year-old daughter. Those deaths, for which no one was ever punished, would define Kasherman for the rest of his life.
The most derided of the three, Kasherman was combative, self-righteous, possibly delusional. Behind the closed door of his cheap apartment, his typewriter chattered deep into the night. Kasherman saw himself as a crusader in a fallen city, unafraid of offending dangerous people even after repeated attacks and repression. He brandished his newspaper like a knife. For all his bombast, though, Kasherman was telling the truth about his city.
Arthur Kasherman was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States at age 10. He grew up in the North Side, where Jews were concentrated in segregated Minneapolis, and graduated from North High School. He had a lifelong desire to become a lawyer, like his brother, Edward. But his life kept gravitating toward the far less savory world of newspapers. He was a newsie, hawking papers at 3 in the morning. Early on he showed an enterprising streak. In the early 1920s, he started publishing a seasonal paper called the Newsboys’ Christmas Greeting, and it earned him some decent money. Still, he pursued his dream by attending the Minnesota College of Law. His time as a law student ended in the late 1920s, when he got mixed up in a corruption investigation involving a suspected bribe between a gangster and the chief of police. He was sent to jail for refusing to testify, because, he said, he was a “newspaperman.”
The rest of Kasherman’s life would be a confrontation. His hangout was Minneapolis’s turn-of-the-century City Hall and Courthouse, an immense Romanesque fortress of caramel-colored granite that squats on an entire city block. Kasherman was the lurking character with the hat brim turned down, the collar turned up to hide his face. Under City Hall’s soaring atrium with its opulent stained glass ceiling, the newspaperman sought out the most sordid stories oozing out of the courtrooms, the grand juries and the police interrogation rooms for the “exposes” that were more diatribes than investigations.
His words survive in letters, fragments of interviews and in the columns of his newspaper, and for all their messianic fervor, occasional pettiness and over-the-top rhetoric, they still offer an endearing glimpse of this Runyonesque character. He would call for the elimination of the rodents running the city, alongside an advertisement offering his services as a public relations consultant.
After one setback, friends urged him to go south and become a lawyer. Kasherman refused.
“Those dirty double-crossing rats can’t do this to me,” he spat back. “I want vindication.”
In October, 1936, the well-known proprietor of a downtown brothel approached the Minneapolis police. She complained that Kasherman had threatened to write about the business carried on in her Dobbs Hotel unless she paid him off. She said she gave him $50 in August, another $50 in September. But she wasn’t going to make it a monthly habit. So she invited the police to help her make the third payment.
It’s interesting that the police found Kasherman’s supposed blackmail a greater menace to the public order than a house of prostitution.
The trial in January 1937 was front page news in the Minneapolis Tribune and the Minneapolis Star. Kasherman didn’t disappoint. He leaped out of his chair, yelled at the jury, once even tried to punch a prosecution witness. Alex Kanter, the lead attorney, stood before the jury and even in his defense, hinted that Kasherman’s self-righteousness had the tinge of delusion. He was “imbued with the idea of becoming a reformer — the Huey Long of Minnesota,” Kanter told the jury.
Kanter linked Kasherman with the slain Guilford and Liggett. Putting him in prison was a calculated effort to silence him, Kanter said, although it was “dealing with him more kindly than his predecessors.”
Though it didn’t persuade the jury, Kanter’s closing argument made an impression on the correspondent from the Minneapolis Star.
“His conviction brought speculation as to whether another Minneapolis ‘scandal sheet’ would succeed Kasherman’s ‘Public Press.’ For the third time in recent years the field was left empty, on two previous occasions by the assassinations of Howard Guilford and Walter Liggett.”
Kasherman emerged from prison in September 1940, after serving three years for his $25 extortion conviction. He immediately went back to work, publishing his “Newsgram” and “Public Press,” accusing Mayor Marvin Kline of breaking his promise to “close up” Minneapolis.
On a Saturday night in December 1942, Kasherman walked out of a restaurant on Nicollet Avenue. He went down the street to a drugstore at 16th Street. Before he could get in, two men jumped him from behind. They pounded him with blackjacks and nightsticks as he lay on the ground, until blood was gushing from his head.
When he came to, Kasherman told the cops he had been threatened in recent weeks, and had written letters to Kline and Gov. Harold Stassen complaining about “vice conditions” in Minneapolis.
In the last issue of his newspaper, published in December 1944, Kasherman included a three paragraph “special request” to the county attorney and the sheriff. Make sure nothing happens to me as the result of his criticism of City Hall and its gangster allies, Kasherman wrote. “No slugging, or anything!” “I am sure that both of you officials believe in Freedom of the Press – and that it isn’t necessary to get the underworld’s permission to publish a newspaper. And that it is perfectly proper to expose CORRUPTION in the city!”