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Tuesday December 11th 2018

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Alice’s murder exploited by vagaries of politicos and publishers

Phase I of the fence restoration is scheduled to begin in late July. Thanks to all of you who helped make it possible. Additional funds are needed to complete Phase II, the final phase of the restoration. Enough money has been contributed for 430 of the 1,583 pickets. There’s still plenty of time to adopt a picket

Roosevelt, Taft, politicos, prostitution, Titanic dominate headlines

by Sue Hunter Weir

Alice Mathews led a rather ordinary life except for one thing: she was murdered. On Saturday, March 23, 1912, the night that she was murdered, Alice was twenty years old. She worked as a packer at the Pillsbury C Mill and lived with her father, stepmother and four siblings in South Minneapolis. Alice had spent the evening downtown going to a movie and having a late supper with two of her girlfriends. At 11:06, Alice caught the Cedar Avenue streetcar. She got off on 34th Street and Cedar Avenue, the end of the line, and started to walk home, a distance of about seven blocks. When Alice was within a few houses of her own home, someone attempted to rape her. Failing that, her attacker strangled her.

The story of Alice’s murder was front-page news for the next three weeks. Except for those who were interested in the battle between Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft for the Republican endorsement in the 1912 presidential campaign, there wasn’t much interesting going on, at least not much that would sell papers. But it was an election year for local politicians as well, and Alice’s murder provided an opening for people to vent their frustration or show their support for various local candidates and causes.

The burning political issue of the day was “Social Vice,” a euphemism for prostitution. Although, no one could have thought, nor did anyone suggest, that Alice was a prostitute, that didn’t stop the press and public from associating her death, no matter how tenuous that connection, with the prostitution trade in Minneapolis.

The other hot button issue was corruption within the police department. Again, there was no evidence that the police who investigated Alice’s murder were corrupt: inept at times, certainly, but not corrupt. Two policemen were reprimanded for not having responded to neighbors’ reports that a crime was being committed, but accounts of who called and what they actually said were contradictory and confusing. If anything, in the days following the murder the police were too aggressive in interrogating and arresting possible suspects. Without an eye witness and without the benefit of modern forensic techniques, the only clue that the police had (or thought that they had) was that the killer would have scratch marks on his face. Dozens of working class and homeless men fit the bill and were questioned or detained by the police. Citizens, anxious to help, provided the police with the names of anyone that they thought was behaving suspiciously, including their neighbors. When none of those tips panned out, the police, under increased pressure to solve the case, arrested Alice’s next door neighbor (a man with no scratch marks). His arrest was based on the flimsiest of tips from a man who turned out to be an utterly unreliable witness. After holding Alice’s neighbor in jail for five days, the Grand Jury ordered the police to release him and then chastised them for having arrested him in the first place.

City council members (some with an eye toward running for mayor themselves) and clergy (some of whom supported those city council members) were outspoken in their criticism of the mayor and the police. Citizens wrote letters to the editor of the local papers, offering their own theories about why Alice was killed and suggesting how such crimes could be prevented in the future. Some suggested that the problem was due to the lack of safe recreational activities for young adults; theatres and “chop suey” houses were singled out as hotbeds of criminal activity. Other writers claimed that the changeover from gas-lit to electric streetlamps was a contributing factor, that the new lights didn’t allow police to see as far at night. Some blamed the men who lived in Alice’s neighborhood for failing to protect their families. And, of course, a few hinted that Alice herself was to blame because she chose to go out with her friends rather than staying at home. At the heart of the matter was the fact that life in Minneapolis was changing, and a lot of people didn’t like it. For them, Alice’s murder was a symbol of all that was wrong with the city.

On April 14, 1912, the world’s largest passenger ship, the Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank, killing over 1500 people. Local politics were upstaged by one of the great news stories of the twentieth century, and Alice’s murder was no longer front page news. In fact, it was no longer news at all. Alice’s murderer was never caught. She is buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 18, Block j-1 in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.

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