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Hennepin County officials, bribes and 74 barrels of hidden whiskey: the Winnipeg Liquor Conspiracy

The Hennepin County sheriff provided guards to the smugglers, while the Hennepin County attorney was on hand to head off any prosecution.

portrait of oscar martinson
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Oscar Martinson, ca. 1915
National Prohibition went into effect January 17, 1920. On March 23 — sixty-six days into Prohibition — federal liquor agents arrested Oscar Martinson, sheriff of Hennepin County. Next came William M. Nash, Hennepin County Attorney, indicted April 6, arrested May 13. Martinson pleaded guilty. Nash was acquitted, but Governor J. A. A. Burnquist removed him from office. Nash and Martinson were the highest-ranking Minnesota law enforcement officials prosecuted under Prohibition.

In 1920 William Nash was just thirty-seven; he had for several years been a lawyer and partner with his brother John in a downtown Minneapolis law and real estate business. Oscar Martinson was forty-three, born in Sweden, and had been Minneapolis chief of police from 1913 to 1917 under Mayor William Nye. Both Nash and Martinson had been elected November 1918.

The Volstead Act took effect in January 1920, but by then the importation of whiskey had been forbidden since August 1917, and so-called wartime Prohibition had been in place since November 1918. Criminals and law enforcement both had used the time to practice for the real thing. The later conduct of Nash and Martinson suggests that in Prohibition they saw opportunity for gain.

William M. Nash, April 14, 1918
The plot that brought them down involved just three shipments: 74 barrels of whiskey from Winnipeg hidden in gondola cars of scrap metal and delivered to a Minneapolis scrap yard. The key witness against both men was Minneapolis brothel owner Mike Weisman. He told federal authorities that a bootlegger named Saul Goldberg had asked him to “fix” the sheriff and county attorney so that there would be no trouble with the Winnipeg shipments.

Martinson readily agreed to provide guards — himself and two of his deputies — while the liquor was unloaded. Nash was needed to be on call so that if federal agents appeared the men unloading could quickly be charged in state court, rather than federal court. Nash would ask for low bail, which the men would post, then disappear. Weisman said that when he offered $200 per carload, Nash replied, “I won’t turn a wheel for less than a thousand.” Weisman came up with the thousand. Martinson seems to have gotten less.

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Martinson admitted his rather minor role and got a sentence of two years prison, the maximum. Nash denied everything. At his trial in federal court he had good lawyers and the great advantage that all the witnesses against him were criminals. He was acquitted, but that was not the end of his troubles. Governor Burnquist then moved to remove Nash from office. A week after Nash’s acquittal Burnquist convened a removal hearing at the state capitol.

At the hearing Nash was accused not only of taking bribes in the liquor cases, but also of accepting two thousand dollars to go easy on four Minneapolis madams arrested for prostitution. The contentious proceedings, front page news, went on more than a week. Nash continued to deny everything, but some of the evidence was damning.

Before Martinson had been charged, he and Nash had visited the federal prosecutor at home to ask if anything could be done to stop it. The four Minneapolis madams were revealed to have rented their brothel space from Nash’s brother and partner, John Nash, at a rate so high that it seemed to include protection from prosecution. Before that, they had rented from Mike Weisman. Governor Burnquist removed Nash from office, but the case was still not over. Nash appealed to the Minnesota supreme court. In December 1920 that court affirmed Governor Burnquist in a divided vote over a blistering dissent.

Both Martinson and Nash recovered. Martinson served one year at Leavenworth, then returned to Minneapolis and opened a detective agency. Soon he moved to southern California, where he worked briefly for the Salvation Army and as a traveling evangelist. Then he found the movies. He became chief security officer for the motion picture company town Universal City. His local obituaries, in 1935, recorded that he had worked as a “motion picture studio director.”

William Nash went back to the private practice of law, and apparently did well. He died, a respected attorney, while on a fishing trip near Brainerd, at age fifty-one.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.