A career of corruption

Minneapolis Tribune cartoon
A Minneapolis Tribune cartoon, published on July 13, 1902, tried to capture the scandal surrounding widespread corruption in the city.

The story of Albert Alonzo “Doc” Ames is perhaps the greatest political scandal in Minnesota history.

As mayor of Minneapolis, Ames exposed the city to humiliation in the early 1900s — and helped jumpstart an era of reform — due to a stunning level of corruption in multiple branches of city government.

By January 1903, the city’s problems had made national headlines in Lincoln Steffens’ McClure’s Magazine story, The Shame of Minneapolis.

The problems started when Ames, a beloved local doctor and Civil War veteran, started his fourth term as mayor in 1901. He promptly named his brother, Frederick, the police chief and fired half of the city’s police force, replacing them with more than 100 of his own men.

With much of the local police in his control, Ames, according to the magazine story, “set out upon a career of corruption, which — for deliberateness, invention and avarice — has never been equaled.”

Rather than crack down on the seedier parts of Minneapolis, such as gambling houses and brothels, many members of Ames’ administration decided they wanted a cut of the money these establishments earned. Brothels and gambling dens started regularly bribing officials to avoid prosecution and receive police protection.

The city already attempted to regulate the local red-light districts by requiring madams to pay fees to keep operating. But additional brothels existed outside of the red-light districts, often disguised as fake storefronts, candy stores or bathhouses. So Ames named Irwin Gardner a “special” police officer, who was secretly charged with collecting payouts from fringe brothels. And those payments went into several local officials’ pockets.

The ‘big mitt’ game

One rigged gambling scheme, known as a ‘big mitt game,’ was a key part of the Ames administration’s downfall. The plan involved luring some unsuspecting dupe into a poker game, dealing him a seemingly winning hand (or big mitt) and then guaranteeing another player — who was in on the scam — had an even better hand to win the pot. A police officer was paid to break up the game, and if the dupe claimed he’d been swindled, the officer threatened him with jail for gambling without a license.

When a grand jury started investigating local corruption, they found two big-mitt men in jail who were eager to talk, feeling Ames’ men had double-crossed them. They ran a rigged game in Minneapolis for about a month and even had a ledger documenting their expenses, including weekly payoffs to Irwin Gardner, Chris Norbeck (a police detective hired to break up games) and the mayor himself.

Charges started rolling in for several of Ames’ men, and Norbeck confessed, confirming details of the big-mitt scheme. He told the Minneapolis Tribune, “I used to be straight, and the records show it. When I got dead evidence that Mayor Ames was soaking down $16,000 a month from the gamblers, houses of prostitution and other sources, I concluded to get my end of it.”

Albert Alonzo “Doc” Ames, who left the state in the middle of his fourth term as mayor, was arrested in February 1903, but never went to prison.

Mysteriously out of state

Around the same time he was indicted, Ames was preparing to move to West Baden, Indiana, to take a job as surgeon-in-chief at a hotel after his term was up. While he was in West Baden, reports swirled that the mayor was too ill to return to Minneapolis for his case.

Ames eventually resigned as mayor — but didn’t come back to Minneapolis. Instead, in November 1902, his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to treat his “nervous disorders” — but didn’t inform Minneapolis authorities.

He evaded authorities in Kentucky, but was eventually found in Hancock, New Hampshire, at his sister-in-law’s home. Ames’ wife and doctor claimed he was still very ill and on the verge of mental collapse. Rumors suggested Ames might be playing up his illness, and he was arrested in February 1903.

Charges filed

The mayor faced nine indictments, including receiving bribes, conspiracy and extortion. He pled not guilty. Ames’ first trial focused on accepting bribes from several madams, and many former cronies testified against him.

His defense attorneys argued the mayor had problems with memory loss and delusions and was taken advantage of by criminals. But when Ames testified, observers noted that his memory seemed to go from very detailed to suddenly unreliable at convenient times.

After 24 hours, the jury declared Ames guilty, and he was sentenced to six years in prison. Several of Ames’ associates also found themselves convicted, including his brother, Frederick.

But Ames appealed his case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which overturned the verdict. Two more trials ended in mistrials with jurors deadlocked. County prosecutors decided it was unlikely they could seat another jury that would convict the former mayor. Ames never went to prison and maintained a medical practice in Minneapolis until his death in 1911.

Learn more

Read the full story of the infamous Minneapolis mayor in Dirty Doc Ames and the Scandal That Shook Minneapolis by Erik Rivenes, from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.