In turn-of-the-20th-century Minneapolis, out-of-towners arriving by train found themselves accosted by slick characters promising big money from poker games. The games were rigged, and a share of the proceeds went straight to City Hall, which at the time was presided over by one of the most corrupt, outrageous and fascinating figures in Minnesota political history.

Albert Alonzo “Doc” Ames, a physician and on-again, off-again mayor of Minneapolis, won election to his fourth and final term in 1900 on the strength of his populist rhetoric, support of labor rights and free-flowing booze and a fortuitous switch to the Republican Party. Ames was also notorious. His sexual escapades made regular headlines, and his frequent visits to brothels were widely noted, even as he explained he was merely inspecting them to ensure strict compliance with city laws.

In “Dirty Doc Ames and the Scandal That Shook Minneapolis,” Erik Rivenes tells the rise and spectacular fall of a mayor in the wild year of 1901. Rivenes begins by acknowledging the limitations of his sources: His book was fashioned almost entirely from newspaper accounts and surviving court records. Wily Doc Ames likely destroyed his incriminating documents, though the one letter that Rivenes got hold of is a demagogue’s manifesto.

“I like to have bad men like me because then I can control them,” Ames wrote to his son in 1889.

While another former Minneapolis mayor, Hubert Humphrey, rose almost to the presidency, as one biography was titled, Ames has a different distinction. He sank the office lower than anyone else, so low, in fact, that he earned the city widespread infamy when journalist Lincoln Steffens detailed Ames’ gangster rule for a national audience.

Published in McClure’s Magazine in 1903, Steffens’ “The Shame of Minneapolis” exposed one of the worst examples of municipal misrule. Today, Steffens’ article is a tough slog. Not so this book, which is a vivid and rollicking account that gives the Ames saga its rightful place in Minnesota political history.

Upon taking office, Ames appointed his brother to run the police department, and promptly fired half the force. Many of their replacements were a rogue’s gallery. Norm King, the new chief of detectives, had once gouged someone’s eye out in a bar fight. Coffee John Fitchette was a Union war veteran who once led a lynch mob in another state, and challenged customers of his Minneapolis restaurant to oyster-eating competitions.

More significantly, the police force overseen by the Ames brothers became a protection racket, shaking down madams for regular payoffs and profiting from the crooked card rooms that victimized rubes with impunity.

Rivenes describes how a concerned citizenry, energetic press and crusading grand jury brought down the Ames machine, and by 1902 the mayor was a fugitive. While Steffens’ article brought the sordid story to the nation, Rivenes’ book establishes that it was the people of Minneapolis, not a muckraking magazine writer from New York, who chased Doc Ames and his thugs out of City Hall for good.

 

James Eli Shiffer is a Star Tribune editor and author of “The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis.”

Dirty Doc Ames and the Scandal That Shook Minneapolis
By: Erik Rivenes.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 240 pages, $17.95.
Event: 7 p.m. April 12, Mill City Museum, 704 S. 2nd St., Mpls.