Muckraker Excerpt


 Minneapolis, Minnesota

Christmas Eve 1931

The man eased his temperamental 1924 Oakland as close to the curb on Bloomington Avenue as poor snowplowing by Minneapolis teamsters would allow. Earlier in the day, Bill Anderson¾the Farmer Labor Mayor of Minneapolis¾had cajoled and berated and threatened city plow truck drivers to “Clear the streets boys or start looking for other work!”

The man turned off the key to the Oakland, sat silently behind the steering wheel, and contemplated the waning day. He’d been out that morning, shoveling the sidewalk in front of the upstairs duplex that his family rented. Now, it was near dusk. Wispy clouds of little consequence floated above the gritty, coal-heated city. Despite fires raging in the furnaces of the city’s homes, businesses, and factories—the heating plants spewing clouds of black smoke and foul expressions of burning anthracite into the crisp winter air—the man breathed deeply. After holding his breath for a moment, he exhaled and reached across the Oakland’s front passenger seat and retrieved a brown paper sack containing cheap cuts of lamb and beef purchased at Greene’s Butcher Shop on South Chicago. His family would eat well, if inexpensively, on the lamb shanks, beef brisket, and chuck roast crammed into the sack by Emil Greene, the proprietor of the neighborhood’s only butcher shop. The man grabbed a second paper bag containing modest holiday gifts wrapped and addressed to his two children and his wife. He struggled with the awkward weight of the presents and groceries as he straightened to his full height and exited the Oakland.

         A southbound streetcar, its lights swaying in time to the clickity-clack of the coach, rumbled down the middle of the avenue. A handful of passengers sat inside the streetcar. Many of the trolley riders had packages—likely from Dayton’s or other storefronts lining Hennepin Avenue in downtown—stowed on empty seats.

         “Damned holidays,” the man cursed, using his right overshoe to close the driver’s-side door.

         Though he was a Socialist, he was also a believer. The driver of the Oakland was not a Communist, not an atheist Marxist hell-bent-for leather to upend the American republic and replace it with a Soviet-style dictatorship. His politics were in line with the Democratic Socialism of Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, and Margaret Sanger. His outcry wasn’t because he didn’t celebrate Christmas or appreciate the symbolism of gift giving. His angst came from the fact that, as the owner of a progressive weekly newspaper, his wallet was empty and his savings were insufficient to make next month’s rent. As he stood on the sidewalk, his freshly polished black Oxfords covered by rubber overshoes—the boots’ black metal buckles undone—the man’s attention was drawn to five-year-old Marjorie, his eldest child. It was Christmas Eve. Marjorie greeted her father with childish expectancy. Silhouetted in the warm glow of electric light, the girl left the front door open to reveal an interior staircase leading to the family’s upstairs apartment. It was below freezing. Marjorie shook like a leaf as she waited for her father. Her tiny form was covered only by a thin brown shift against winter’s cold, as she impatiently tapped a stockinged foot against the unyielding boards of the covered porch.

         “Daddy, come inside,” the girl urged. “You’ll catch cold standing out in the street.”

         The man smiled and nodded, fully intending to answer his daughter, but he found his attention drawn to the streetcar. There was nothing extraordinary about the trolley’s journey. But its departure revealed an elegant Cadillac Fleetwood—the sedan’s ebony hood polished to luminescence and reflecting light from an adjacent streetlamp—across the snow-dusted thoroughfare. Though the big motorcar crept along Bloomington Avenue with its headlights off, the reporter recognized the Cadillac and felt his chest tighten. He was about to scuttle up the stairs and into the duplex when the rear passenger-side window of the Cadillac rolled down to reveal the muzzle of a Thompson submachine gun.