When I first stopped by Room 31 in City Hall a few years ago to ask for the Kasherman file, I had no illusions of solving a long-forgotten crime. Instead, I wanted to restore this strange character's pivotal role in the city's history. Arthur Kasherman published a newspaper called the Public Press that aimed to reform Minneapolis with words "saturated with cyanide." It bellowed outrage on every page, smashing the crooked politicians and cops and gangsters who ran the city's ubiquitous gambling houses, brothels and after-hours gin mills.
His methods were suspect. His rhetoric was overheated. His sanity was questionable. Yet Kasherman was telling the truth about the Minneapolis of the 1930s and early 1940s. His reward: beatings, arrests, confiscations of his newspaper, and, finally, a volley of .38-caliber bullets that cut him down on a snowy downtown corner.
Kasherman knew it was coming. Two Minneapolis newspapermen in the same hell-raising tradition died in drive-by shootings -- Howard Guilford in 1934 and Walter Liggett in 1935. No one was ever punished in their deaths, one of the most violent chapters in American journalism.
These days, the killing of a journalist on U.S. soil is rightly viewed as a call to action for the profession. After a newspaper editor named Chauncey Bailey was gunned down in California in 2007, ending his investigation of a criminal gang based in a bakery, dozens of journalists took up the case.
The work of the Chauncey Bailey Project led to an indictment of the suspected killer and a shakeup in the Oakland Police Department, and earned its leaders the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage last month.
No such mobilization of journalists followed the killings of Guilford, Liggett and Kasherman. Their sudden departures were generally regarded in Minneapolis as comeuppance for engaging in blackmail and scandal-mongering. But the rub-out of Kasherman, the most derided of the three, turned out to be the third strike for a city tired of gangster rule.
As I climbed the steps to City Hall that day, I passed the bronze likeness of Hubert Humphrey, who greets visitors with his arms outstretched and a smile over his jutting chin. Humphrey could thank Kasherman for helping launch his political career and setting Minneapolis on a path toward honest government.
In Room 31, the records clerk invited me to take a seat at a desk and comb through the homicide file. Inside were two copies of the Public Press and one copy of Newsgram, another Kasherman publication, collected but apparently never examined closely for clues to his killers. The papers practically came apart in my hands. But the headlines still screamed for justice, summoning forth the ghost of this Runyonesque character.
I could imagine him just around the corner, a lurking figure with hat brim turned down, the collar turned up to hide his face. Under the soaring City Hall atrium with its opulent stained glass skylight, Kasherman sought out the most sordid stories oozing from the courtrooms, the grand juries and the police interrogation rooms for the "exposés" that were more diatribes than investigations.
He spent three years in prison on a charge of extorting $25 from a notorious madam in exchange for keeping silent about her downtown bawdy house. Emerging from prison in 1940, Kasherman immediately went back to work, accusing Mayor Marvin Kline of breaking his promise to "close up" Minneapolis.
In the last issue of his newspaper, published in December 1944, Kasherman called Kline the "most corrupt regime in the history of the city" with the mob in "complete control."
Less than a month later, Kasherman and a lady friend, Pearl Von Wald, drove to Hannah's Café at the corner of 15th Street and Chicago Avenue S. for some late-night chow mein. While they were eating, someone walked up to Kasherman's car and jammed a knife into one of its tires.
The couple finished up in about 30 minutes. They crossed 15th Street, got into Kasherman's car. He tried to pull out, but the hobbled car wouldn't move.
A large, dark sedan swerved around the corner from Chicago Avenue and stopped. A man got out and stepped up to Kasherman's car. In his hand was a .38-caliber pistol.
The gunman fired through the car window. Kasherman threw himself out of the car and ran down the sidewalk, begging for his life. The gunman fired again and again, until Kasherman collapsed at the corner, a bullet in his back and a hole in his face.
The records in the police file include interviews with all the witnesses, with Kasherman's estranged family members, with many of the city's prominent gangsters. Nobody expressed much surprise that someone would bump him off. Nor did anybody seem too eager to help find out who did it.
The killing was an election season gift to Humphrey, then making his second run against Kline for mayor, for it was one more sign that the streets of Minneapolis were ruled by gangsters. "That was just what was needed in Humphrey's campaign because by this time, people are really getting fed up," Ed Ryan, a police officer and a friend of Kasherman, told a historian 30 years later.
Humphrey crushed Kline in the 1945 mayoral election. He chose Ryan as his police chief. Corruption probes and crooked council members would still pop up in Minneapolis, but the city's expectation of its leaders had clearly changed.
Kasherman, however, was gradually forgotten. The halfhearted investigation petered out after a few weeks. The notes were collected, indexed and placed into a manila file, just another cold case. He earns a paragraph in most histories of the city, mostly for how his misfortune elevated the fortunes of Minnesota's most famous 20th-century politician.
On Jan. 22 of this year, the 65th anniversary of Kasherman's murder came and went. His tombstone at United Hebrew Brotherhood Cemetery in Richfield says nothing about his unusual life. He has no statue or plaque at City Hall. The water fountain near the 3rd Avenue entrance that he once called his "office" is long gone. But he's there for anyone to see, preserved as evidence in a manila file folder in Room 31. The three crumbling newspapers inside, the pride of Arthur Kasherman, exist nowhere else.
James Eli Shiffer • 612-673-4271