Once upon a time in Duluth: Mash and moonshine, a missing mail carrier, and a nurse with connections to a high-profile divorce

March 22, 1921, was, as they say in the biz, a big news day.

On March 22, 1921, the News Tribune's front page had stories of murder, moonshine, marital mayhem and more.

A known bootlegger tried to thwart authorities by dumping hot water on them, a rural letter carrier reportedly woke up on a train to Chicago with no recollection of how he got there, and a wealthy divorcee from New York City was on the hunt for a Duluth nurse who helped birth her husband’s child with his mistress.

And, in the middle of a defense attorney’s opening statement’s about his client’s innocence, the client stood up and confessed to murder, in Finnish, in front of hundreds of spectators.

The March 22, 1921, edition of the News Tribune was, as they say in the biz, a big news day.

The day’s dominant headline was a $15,000 booze raid, described as the kickoff to a city-wide war on moonshine plants and bootleggers, conducted by officials nicknamed the “Sponge Squad.”

That day’s total accumulation: 500 gallons of mash and moonshine, two huge stills and a wagon load of accessory material.


“The making of moonshine is going to become an extremely unprofitable business,” chief of police Warren Pugh was quoted as saying. “A concentrated effort to wipe out the top numerous fountains of illicit whisky will be made by the police department and will continue until every available or known still has been seized and destroyed.”

Mash and moonshine

The first raid was on a downtown tailor — who put up a fight.

“(The man) sought to smash a bottle of moonshine uncovered by the officers, and when his methods failed, Sergeant Perry and Patrolman Kraeger declared the tailor threw a bucket of hot water over them,” according to the story.

The more significant bust was in an old brick building near Railroad Street and Lake Avenue, a spot that had held horses and was once a brewery. The Sponge Squad found, according to the report, a three-room, elaborate system of “coils, funnels, syphons and copper boilers. Alcohol, almost pure, was dripping from the spouts under the copper boilers. The stills themselves were as large as any yet found by the police.”

Officers reportedly used axes and sledge hammers to empty the mash and moonshine.

A 53-year-old Teamster was arrested for operating a blind pig.

The curious case of the missing mail carrier

The last thing Clyde H. Dalby, a letter carrier based in Saginaw, said he remembered: a hand reaching into his delivery vehicle, then something slipped over his head, and everything went dark.

He reportedly came back into consciousness — penniless and short the hat he had been wearing — nowhere near where he was supposed to be.


“I think I was drugged,” Dalby reportedly told Deputy Sheriff Bert Duff and the postal inspector, who spent five days looking for him. “I came to on a train. I called over the conductor and asked ‘Where am I?’ ‘You are now in Elroy, Wisconsin,’ the conductor said. I told him I should be delivering mail. He said I was on my way to Chicago and my fare had been paid.”

Turns out the tale Dalby told the postal inspector and law enforcement was a bunch of hooey. Days later, the News Tribune reported that Dalby confessed to throwing away his mail and skipping town. He landed in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where he worked as a farmhand for a few days before returning home, reconnecting with his wife, and sharing the wild lie that included details about spending the weekend in South Chicago with an uncle who gave him a new cap and $30 to return home.

He faced no charges and was reinstated on his route.

Wanted: Nurse Florence Erickson

Nurse Florence Erickson, a Duluth transplant, was believed to be the nurse of a child born to very rich New York City banker James A. Stillman and a Florence Leeds, chorus girl who was not his wife. And Stillman’s wife, Fifi Potter Stillman, was looking for her, according to the front page news story.

“Miss Erickson is sought to solve the child phase at issue as it has to do with Mrs. Leeds, who has disappeared from Miami, has sold her home there, and is reported to have gone to Cuba with (the baby) Jay mentioned in the charges by Mrs. Stillman,” the News Tribune reported.

The Stillmans' divorce was deemed “sensational” in James Stillman’s 1944 obituary, which appeared in the New York Times.

He had inherited the high-ranking position within National City Bank, and his wealth from his late father, according to the obituary, but his domestic affairs interfered with his business. He semi-retired in 1921.

Stillman alleged that his youngest son was not biologically his and, in return, Fifi Stillman accused him of fathering two children with Leeds.


Seemingly, Erickson, who was living in New York City, would be able to provide information to support this.

The News Tribune found her — “in Gotham,” they reported, “a plump, blonde nurse of Norwegian ancestry,” and she was willing to support Mrs. Stillman’s claims.

Erickson assisted in the birth, she said, “reluctantly, but with every appearance of sincerity.” She was at Baby Jay’s 1918 birth, she said, and the partly-bald man identified as the baby’s dad was using the name Franklyn Harold Leeds, but he was very obviously the famous financier James A. Stillman.

“Now don’t print the fact that I live up here in Apartment 43, you know,” the News Tribune reported.

Erickson told the reporter that there were clues that Mr. Leeds was actually Mr. Stillman — like he never stayed long at the apartment, and Mrs. Leeds cut out all newspaper articles about Stillman.

Regardless, the Stillman divorce proceedings reportedly cost about $1 million and lasted years. They ultimately got back together, but broke up again.

Murder, he confessed in Finnish

The murder of Johnny Jones, a Duluth taxicab driver, was a big story during this time period and, on March 22, 1921, two of the men being tried for the crimes interrupted court proceedings to plead guilty.

Mike Inkinen and Swan Luikonen’s attorney had just conducted his opening statements, and the prosecuting attorney was outlining the crime when Inkinen, later described as a dramatic human, “rose from his chair before the bar and, in a long oratorical effort in the Finnish language, unburdened himself of what was translated as a complete confession, a plea of guilty to a charge of murder in the second degree and a plea for the mercy of the trial judge.”

Parts of this story were told as part of Once Upon a Time in Duluth, a Wednesday feature on the News Tribune Minute podcast .

Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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