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Winnipeg Liquor Conspiracy

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Photograph of William Nash

William Nash, April 14, 1918. Minneapolis Newspaper Photograph Collection, Hennepin County Library.

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.

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.

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.

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“Former Chief of Police Dies.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 21, 1935.

Goldberg. United States, 227 Federal Reporter 211 (8th Cir. 1921.)

Holcombe, Return I., and William H. Bingham. “Oscar O. Martinson.” In Compendium of History and Biography of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, Minnesota (Minneapolis: Brookhaven Press, 1914), 480.

“In re the Application of Fred F. Mason to the Honorable J. A. A. Burnquist, Governor of the State of Minnesota, for the Removal of William M Nash, County Attorney of Hennepin County.” 147 Minnesota Reports 383 (1920).

“Liquor Crimes Charged to Sheriff and Aides Exposed.” Minneapolis Tribune, April 16, 1920.

“Martinson Watched Unloading of Whisky, Witness Testifies.” Minneapolis Tribune, May 7, 1920.

Men of Minnesota: A Collection of Portraits of the Men Prominent in Business and Professional Life in Minnesota. St. Paul: Polk & Company, 1915.

Minnesota Supreme Court case file #22065, In re the Application of Fred F. Mason to the Honorable J. A. A. Burnquist, Governor of the State of Minnesota, for the Removal of William M Nash, County Attorney of Hennepin County.

“Nash Acquitted on Liquor Charges.” Minneapolis Journal, July 3, 1920.

“Nash Ousted: Martinson, Weisman Sentenced.” Minneapolis Tribune, August 1, 1920.

“Oscar Martinson is Released on Parole.” Duluth Herald, August 29, 1921.

“Oscar Martinson in Salvation Army.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 27, 1927.

“Oscar Martinson to Preach Here.” Minneapolis Star, October 7, 1929.

“Sheriff and 13 Others Indicted in Liquor Case.” Minneapolis Tribune, April 15, 1920.

Related Images

Photograph of William Nash
Photograph of William Nash
Photograph of Oscar Martinson
Photograph of Oscar Martinson
Photograph of a J.A.A Burnquist campaign poster, 1918
Photograph of a J.A.A Burnquist campaign poster, 1918
Sketch of defendants in Winnipeg Liquor Conspiracy from the Minneapolis Tribune, 1920
Sketch of defendants in Winnipeg Liquor Conspiracy from the Minneapolis Tribune, 1920
Courtroom sketch of Mike Weisman from Minneapolis Tribune
Courtroom sketch of Mike Weisman from Minneapolis Tribune
Photograph of Judge Page Morris
Photograph of Judge Page Morris

Turning Point

Accused of participating in a conspiracy to import illegal whiskey from Canada, Hennepin County Sheriff Oscar Martinson pleads guilty and resigns from office in 1920.

Chronology

1917

In August, Congress bans imports of liquor.

1918

Wartime Prohibition goes into effect in November.

1919

Elected in November 1918, Oscar Martinson and William Nash take office on January 6.

1919

The Winnipeg conspiracy is hatched in December, with the shipments apparently timed to take place before national Prohibition goes into effect.

1920

The second and third shipments arrive in early January; National Prohibition goes into effect on January 17.

1920

Federal authorities arrest Oscar Martinson on March 23.

1920

Martinson resigns as sheriff on May 13 and Nash is arrested the same day. Martinson pleads guilty the next day.

1920

A federal jury acquits Nash of all criminal charges on July 3.

1920

On July 31 Governor Burnquist removes Nash from office; the federal court sentences Martinson to two years in Leavenworth federal prison.

1920

On December 17 the Minnesota supreme court upholds Burnquist’s removal of Nash.

1921

Martinson is released from federal prison on August 28.

1935

Martinson dies in Hollywood in July.

1943

Nash dies near Brainerd in September.