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Corruption scandal marred Minneapolis City Hall's 1902 celebration

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minneapolis City Hall, circa 1899.

The civic celebration took place on Dec. 16. On that winter evening in 1902, the event attracted throngs of local residents who came downtown to admire the newly opened city offices in the Minneapolis Municipal Building.

The opening came more than 10 years after the cornerstone had been laid for the monumental structure on Fifth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. During the intervening decade, Hennepin County had taken position of its half of the Municipal Building, but completion of the city’s half had been delayed while the building’s overseers contended with a lawsuit, a labor-union protest and even a squabble between two interior decorators who were vying to furnish the new civic building.

By September 1900, the City Hall section of the building was still little more than a shell, and “almost as useless as when the cornerstone was laid more than ten years ago,” according to the Minneapolis Journal. “It is extremely unlikely that any one will leave the old city hall this fall in order to take up new quarters in the ‘white elephant,’ as some taxpayers persist in calling the building,” the Journal observed.

The paper went on to report that an additional $175,000 would be needed to complete work on the building’s second and third floors, scheduled to house a variety of city offices including the city council, the city engineer, the assessor and the health department. The building’s main entrance and its clock tower were also unfinished, adding another $100,000 to the construction project’s funding needs.

“Now is the time to begin agitating to raise these funds,” the Journal declared. “The amount is not excessive, because it cannot possibly be reduced.”

Doc Ames

Courtesy of the Hennepin History Museum
Albert Alonzo Ames

Later that year, one prominent local official took up the cause and became a chief agitator for an increase in the building’s construction budget. Former Mayor Albert Alonzo Ames had been returned to office by the voters in the November 1900 election. A physician known as Doc Ames, the mayor-elect had served several terms as mayor during the late 1800s. Now, as the city’s first chief executive of the 20th century, Ames was anxious to move into the expansive first-floor office he knew would be waiting for him once the building was completed.

On Dec. 5, just a month after his election, Ames met with the Municipal Building commissioners and pushed for speedy action to complete the new city offices.

“Mayor-elect Ames is plainly very much in earnest in his intention to begin his fourth administration as mayor at the new city hall,” the Journal reported. “Dr. Ames insisted that the board proceed at once to put the mayor’s rooms in shape for use, as he intends to begin his administration therein, notwithstanding the controller’s contention that there is no money available for the maintenance of the new city hall.”

Doc Ames may have wanted to begin his new term in the new City Hall, but that did not happen. In 1901, the Cty Council did vote to issue $250,000 in bonds to finish work on the city offices, but that work did not begin until midyear. Finally, a year later, in late 1902,  construction was  completed and city officials were finally able to move from their cramped quarters in the old city hall near the downtown riverfront to the impressive new municipal building they  shared with their Hennepin County counterparts.

The 'fugitive mayor' nowhere to be seen

On Dec. 16, visitors marveled at the elegant mayor’s office decorated with mahogany moldings and walls painted a pale shade of green. But the man who had expected to occupy the office was not there to greet them. In fact, his whereabouts were unknown, according to a report in the Minneapolis Tribune that same day.

Soon after he took office for a fourth term in 1901, Ames turned his attentions to pursuits that did not involve municipal building construction. During his earlier terms, Doc had not achieved a stellar reputation for probity. Often seen bending his elbow at the bars surrounding the old city hall, Ames was considered little more than a reprobate by many of the city’s upstanding citizens.

Now, in league with his brother Fred, his appointed police chief, Ames decided that the time had come to start lining his own pockets. He and Fred turned the police department into a giant graft machine that shook down the city vice industries and funneled a steady stream of ill-gotten dollars to the two brothers and their henchmen.

The Ames gang, as it came to be known, continued its shakedowns through 1901 and into the early months of 1902 until it was finally brought down by a courageous grand jury foreman named Hovey Clarke. One of Doc’s most outspoken critics, Clarke spent several months quietly gaining enough evidence to issue indictments against Doc, Fred and their fellow gang members.

With an indictment hanging over his head, Ames resigned as mayor on July 31 and quickly slipped out of town to avoid trial. By opening day for the new city offices on Dec. 16, the “fugitive mayor,” as he was now called, had still not returned to Minneapolis.

‘Dr. A.A. Ames has not yet revealed his whereabouts to the authorities of Hennepin County,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported, just as the opening day celebration for the City Hall was about to begin. “While Sheriff Breger and his assistants are on the lookout for the fugitive, they have received no word. It is believed in official circles that the arrest of the mayor would be but the work of a few days were a reward offered for his capture. But the county officials are hampered by a lack of funds and the missing doctor has so many friends that he has the advantage over the sheriff,” the paper continued.

'The Shame of Minneapolis'

City officials may have hoped to put the Ames scandal behind them as they unveiled the new city offices to great city acclaim in December 1902, but that was not to be the case. Two weeks later, in early January, the city found itself in an unwelcome national spotlight when the Ames corruption scandal was the subject of the cover story for the widely read McClure’s Magazine. Written by well-known investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens, the article was entitled “The Shame of Minneapolis.”

The next year, in 1904, the Ames scandal received even more national attention when "The Shame of Minneapolis" was included in a book length compilation of Steffens investigations, "The Shame of the Cities."

Doc Ames finally returned home, and was tried and convicted for bribery, but his conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Eventually the Ames affair would fade from the city’s collective memory, but during those early years of the 20th century, the massive corruption scandal cast a disturbing cloud over Minneapolis and its monumental new City Hall.

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