John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

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Welcome to the Promise Zone: Secretary Julian Castro Visits Minneapolis

On October 30, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro participated in a Minneapolis forum on affordable housing. With nothing better to do on a Friday morning, I picked up a notebook and decided to play journalist. Enjoy.

Secretary Castro at Mayflower Church in Minneapolis. From the Star Tribune.

I first saw Julian Castro as the nation did, the keynote speaker of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Young and charismatic, the San Antonio mayor shared the story of his childhood, the influence of his Chicana activist mother, and all the that carried him to that stage that night. Watching live on the small-screen of my iPad, eating leftovers in a Houston apartment I couldn’t afford, like many around the country I wondered if this was his “Audacity of Hope” moment. Like that state senator of Illinois, he stressed the importance of the one thing that makes all the difference for those who find all the world pointed at them: Opportunity. It’s this that allows us the chance to rise above our circumstances—and the more we have, the freer we are to live the life we seek.

I was so enamored with Castro’s message that, afterward, I texted a friend of mine who was a delegate to the convention and asked she bring back one of the placards with the word on it. Hanging on the wall right above my desk, I’d often rest my eyes on it, reminding myself that you can’t fault a man for not trying if he’s never had the chance to. That’s something we forget about—because it’s so much easier to judge a man for staying on the ground than offering a hand.

The next year I saw Castro in person at the 2013 Young Democrats of America convention in San Antonio, though truthfully I can’t recall a word of what was said—either of his speech or at the convention as a whole. All I’ll say of those nights is that the rumors are untrue, I’ve already apologized to the state of Delaware, and yes, I’m also surprised I could fit a whole bottle of wine in my coat pocket. (See you in 2017, young liberals). Continue reading

“Words were powerless”: A Minnesota newspaper’s response to the Lincoln assassination

To recognize the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, this article is a follow-up to my last post,The Funeral of President Lincoln.” If you enjoyed this, you may also like my short piece on Minnesota newspapers’ reaction to the death of Charles Darwin.

"President Lincoln Assassinated!", The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

“President Lincoln Assassinated!”, The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

On April 15, 1865, lying in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater, President Abraham Lincoln died, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. What was a week celebrating an end to four years of bloodshed was capstoned by one last tragedy. Though not everyone felt the same way, tens of millions mourned their fallen hero, and in Minnesota as well as elsewhere, this sorrow turned into disbelief, into anger.

Lincoln has a special importance in the history of Minnesota not only because of his political legacy but also the fact that 1860 was the first presidential election the state could vote in. Although a few counties went for the Democratic candidate, the state overwhelmingly handed its four electoral votes to Lincoln. Months later when the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was one of the first to commit troops to the Union cause, and while the state and administration did not agree on every issue, the two were undoubtedly close. This made it all the more traumatic when news of the assassination reached the state.

One of the first Minnesota newspapers to report on the it was The St. Cloud Democrat, based out of the central part of the state. “He is Dead!” its editor, W. B. Mitchell, frantically announced, adding that God had struck “the light from our eyes” by taking “our great, good and mighty ruler.” He continued:

On Sabbath morning [April 15th] the terrible news fell upon us—crushing, stupefying, sickening. Men heard with blanched cheeks, and the blood cold—frozen—in their veins. To believe seemed impossible, and yet there was no room for hope—the truth was only too well established. Words were powerless. In the formation of language no such deed as this—the assassination of Liberty’s chosen son in a land that boasted to breathe only the air of freedom—had never been contemplated, and the brain of man had framed nothing for the tongue to express that was not weak and impotent. (April 20, 1865)

As the newspaper sorted through the details of the assassination — that John Wilkes Booth was the perpetrator and Secretary Seward a second victim — it worried about what was next. As Mitchell noted, the nation had lost a part of itself: “The heart of the nation had twined around that great body and taken it to themselves, and the great soul it contained had become a part of their soul.” For many, including Mitchell, Lincoln was an American Moses leading the country toward the Promised Land but never reaching it himself. Yet with the prophet gone, visions of this land became dubious and for some stained red.

"Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm," The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

“Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm,” The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

A week later The St. Cloud Democrat published a two-part letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm, an early supporter of Lincoln and one of the state’s most vocal abolitionists. Recording what she saw while in Washington, D.C., her correspondence is fascinating in that, written days apart, the two-halves capture the emotional shift that must have shaken so many. For example, the first is dated April 14, only hours before the assassination, and in it she observes the raised flags and “virtual peace” taking hold in the country: “[O]n this favored day the sun shines gloriously, after a long season of clouds and rain.” But three days later the storm returned:

It is sickening to pass the White House … so recently all gorgeous with flags and all manner of festive devices blazing with many colored lights, and reverberating with triumphant music, and witness the change to the sable emblems of woe. What made these garments even worse was the knowledge that just behind that draped wall lies the mangled body of our sainted, martyred President, and this visible presence adds greatly to the sorrow and gloom.

Finally, she seethed, the true character of the South had revealed itself by murdering the one person who would show them mercy:

The world at large—the masses of the Northern people—had no more just idea than had Mr. Lincoln of the animus of this most fiendish Rebellion[.] He was the one to test generosity, magnanimity, Christian charity and all that class of virtues to the utmost limit, and we have the result. As Christ was murdered by those He came to save, so has President Lincoln been sacrificed by the wretches he would have shielded from the just punishment of their crimes.


Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884)

With the president gone, “Who now will stand between them and the reward of their two centuries’ of crimes against our common humanity, the thought of which makes the blood curdle in one’s veins?” She demanded that Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, not steady his hand in retaliation: “Nations have no hereafter, and National sins must meet their punishment in this life.” This was a position she maintained in successive letters to the newspaper, recanting any benevolence she may have once shown, insisting that “The nation can never be safe while these, her implacable and wily foes, are above the grounds” (May 6, 1865).

In the months following, Swisshelm was not alone in her bloodlust. As the “Radical Republicans” in Congress sought to punish the South and ensure the rights of free blacks, President Johnson advocated a more moderate approach. Trying to reunite the country as quickly as possible, his policies alienated individuals like Swisshelm, who feared weakness would validate treason. The new president’s efforts backfired when, in 1866, the Radicals swept the midterm elections.

Although Reconstruction may not have affected Minnesota in the same way it did the South and New England, it did ignite a debate over how to reach the “Promised Land” Lincoln prophesied. While Minnesota sent several of these Radicals to Washington (including former Governor Alexander Ramsey), on the state-level, Republicans pushed for a black suffrage amendment to the state constitution. This, though, was voted down twice (1865, 1867) before passing in 1868 and was the first step on a path the state would take nearly a century to travel.

There really is no modern parallel to the anguish many Americans felt when President Lincoln was assassinated. Right when the nation’s bloodiest war was drawing to a close, it lost something greater than a man: it lost a symbol. As the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln represented a vision of what the United States could be, and as that “great soul … had become a part of [the people’s] soul,” for many it must have felt as if much more than just the president had died that day. Upon hearing the news, how many asked, What now?

The racial breakdown of police involved shootings in Dallas, TX

Map of Police Involved Shootings in Dallas, TX (2013-2014). Source.

Following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, there was renewed focus on the prevalence of police shootings in the United States. Yet, as was discovered by The Washington Post and scholars everywhere: No federal agency keeps track of this information, and everything the FBI does maintain is limited to raw numbers on “justifiable homicides.” In addition to being self-reported by police (red flag!), this purposely excludes instances when suspects were non-fatally injured or simply shot at and missed. This severely undercounts all instances of police involved shootings (PIS).

Yet, in a highly commendable move, the Dallas Police Department (DPD) released its self-monitored spreadsheets on all PIS incidents from 2003 to 2014 as part of an effort to improve police-community relations. Amazingly, the data includes demographics not only on the victim but also the officer(s) involved. Rightfully so, it was picked up by local and national media with calls that more departments follow the DPD’s lead.

When this release was brought to my attention, the first thing I noticed is that for as rare and rich the DPD’s dataset is, few journalists have actually played with it. The three visuals that exist, which have been copied and shared widely, were made by the DPD themselves — and they’re each pretty similar. Here’s the one that tracks the disposition/outcome of all PIS.

Dallas Police Department - Officer involved Shootings - DIsposition of Suspects

Disposition of Suspects in Police Involved Shootings (Dallas, TX: 2003-2014). Source.

By itself, this is a step forward in that it highlights the deficiencies of monitoring only those instances when the suspect is killed (via “justifiable homicide”). In Dallas, ignoring all cases of injury or shoot and misses would eliminate nearly 2/3 of the data. The fact that this is done elsewhere is egregious and unacceptable.

For as much as I’d like to praise the DPD, though, there was something else that stood out to me. You’ll note in the above that race appears nowhere, even though for researchers interested in this topic, it’s a key component. This is also the case for the DPD’s other visuals (not published here). To simply say that X suspects were involved in police shootings obscures patterns important to policy makers. So, to fix this, I’ve taken the disposition information and broken each down by race. (Note: In my own analyses I’ve removed all females and Asians because they are practically nonexistent in the data).


Suspects Killed in Dallas PIS.


Suspects Injured in Dallas PIS.


Suspects Shot At and Missed in Dallas PIS.

Identifying the race of the suspects presents a whole different picture. For each year in each disposition, black males nearly constitute a majority. This is despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Census, blacks make up only 25% of the city’s population. Next, because the data also includes whether the suspect had a weapon (and what type), we can pull out the race and dispositions of those who were unarmed.

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

From 2003 to 2014, nearly half of all unarmed men killed by Dallas police were black. Blacks also formed nearly two-thirds of all unarmed shoot-and-misses and injuries. This clearly is not a coincidence. (And no, I’m not the first person to suggest that police shootings have a disproportionate effect on the black community).

I want to encourage more journalists and scholars to use this data because until the FBI’s reporting system changes and more police departments release PIS data, we have to squeeze as much as possible out of what’s available. As a researcher at the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I know there are plenty of interesting questions to be asked and answered: What’s the relationship between the disposition and weapon and race of the suspect? What effect does the officer’s race have on the disposition? And lastly, What crimes were these suspects allegedly committing?

So come on, grad students, get moving.

The full DPD dataset can be downloaded from Github (here), though it lacks 2013 data, which will need to be entered manually (or scraped) from the DPD website.

Thoughts on “American Sniper” (and “Nation’s Pride”)

Regardless as to what one may think of Clint Eastwood’s abilities as a filmmaker, his latest American Sniper has earned him the largest opening weekend success of his directorial career. For those unfamiliar with the film’s premise, it’s an adaptation of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, in which he brags about having murdered 255 human beings. The Raw Story notes in “Real ‘American Sniper’ was hate-filled killer — why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?” that in his book he

… described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy”. “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated.

Kyle also looted Iraqi apartments and never doubted his work, seemingly incapable of understanding that the world isn’t black-and-white and that just because a country claims to be on a liberating mission does not, in fact, make it a liberator. Similarly, saying you’re a patriot does not make you a patriot. So when some writers called out Kyle’s narrow-mindedness — and dare I say nationalism? — the, well, nationalistic response was “swift and violent”:

“Move your America hating ass to Iraq, let ISIS rape you then cut your cunt head off, fucking media whore muslim,” wrote a rather unassuming-looking mom named Donna. “Rania, maybe we to take you ass overthere and give it to ISIS … Dumb bitch,” offered a bearded man named Ronald, who enjoys either bass fishing or playing the bass (we may never know). “Waterboarding is far from torture,” explained an army pilot named Benjamin, all helpfulness. “I wouldn’t mind giving you two a demonstration.”

To no one’s surprise, these same people are now, while celebrating the film, talking about how much they “really want to kill some fucking ragheads” (quoted in “Eastwood film ‘American Sniper’ sets box office record while setting off flurry of racist tweets“). It’s obvious there is no part of the neo-con psyche striving to “win the hearts and minds” of a people when they’re idolizing a man who — I can’t say this enough — bragged about personally murdering a record amount of human beings. If any other country celebrated a man who did this to American soldiers, what do you think the response would be? I promise no one would be debating the biopic’s artistic merits.

Years ago when I heard that American Sniper was being made into a film, I was reminded of Nation’s Pride, the film-within-a-film from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). In it a young, attractive Nazi sniper mans a tower heroically gunning down more than 200 soldiers while intermittently carving swastikas into the floorboards. Interesting.

They say Hollywood only has twelve scripts, but nationalism only has one: The culture hero always wins.

Star-Spangled Banner, Royal Palm Hotel, Miami, Florida (from Amerika 1926)

Needing literary inspiration, I’ve decided to start writing poems based on photographs. So, for $5.99 from Half Price Books, I bought E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s (2007, ed. Phillip Prodger). Some of these I may compile into a manuscript (tentatively: Amerika 1926). We’ll see how it goes.

E O Hoppe Star-Spangled Banner, Royal Palm Hotel, Miami, Florida

Star-Spangled Banner, Royal Palm Hotel, Miami, Florida, 1926 by E.O. Hoppe.

Star-Spangled Banner, Royal Palm Hotel, Miami, Florida

Majesty is lost in black-and-white. So many look to the rooftop
where birds gaze down with the same sharpness as the president,

insisting it’s more likely cash will build a man’s soul than condemn it,
that there are other interests a man’s got than what’s on his bank statement.

Eight set of windows beneath the flag, we see the world from inside.
At this angle, the colors are vibrant, those birds doves.

But when the vultures carry off their prey, where do they go?

“Put it down the window and climb out”: Vice-President Humphrey at the University of Minnesota (1969-1970)

In March 2013, while writing my undergraduate history thesis on Hubert Humphrey’s role in the 1944 DFL merger, I spoke with University of Minnesota professor emeritus Dr. Hy Berman. As Minnesota’s “unofficial state historian,” I was excited not only to meet him but also discuss his friendship with the former vice president. One topic we spent much time on was Humphrey’s teaching at the University. All uncited quotations come from the transcript of our interview.


Vice President Humphrey and his rope ladder. (Original photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society).

In 1969, after having lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey was, for the first time in twenty-four years, a private citizen. Having served as Minneapolis mayor (1945-1948), a U.S. Senator (1949-1965), and vice president (1965-1969), he returned home to Waverly, MN, disappointed but unready to retire. As the dust from the campaign settled, Humphrey was already on the phone with University of Minnesota President Malcolm Moos discussing his return to teaching.

Receiving joint appointments at both the University and Macalester College, the former vice president eased into his new life with several public lectures ranging from national security to the legislative process. As an adjunct professor, in the fall of 1969 he taught his first course, the undergraduate-level “Government and Society,” which a press release described as a “colloquium [that] will cover the whole range of public policy and government and society.” Taught one night a week in Blegen Hall, it was an opportunity for Humphrey to share his decades of experience with the next generation of political leaders — and because of this, students were screened ahead of time, having to meet certain prerequisites.

As the director of the University’s Social Science program, Hy Berman was Humphrey’s “boss” (a title the latter jokingly used even on his deathbed) and in a personal interview recalled some of the surprises this came with. For example, as Humphrey was still the head of the Democratic Party, obligations came up forcing him to miss class. Even so,

[H]e made sure that someone covered his classes and we had a string of people come in to my office. One day [Sen.] Barry Goldwater walks in, unannounced, “I’m here to take Hubert’s class cause he had to go somewhere.” A lot of characters came in whenever he couldn’t make a class, they flew in to take his class and flew right back out.

Humphrey’s wealth of experience aside, some students and faculty were disappointed in his teaching style, feeling as though he was incapable of distancing himself from his subject. As Frank Sorauf recalled, who was the chairman of the University’s Political Science Department at the time, when discussing the legislative process,

You would have thought Hubert Humphrey could have talked in an informative, exciting way about the seniority system, draw on some conclusions. [But h]e rambled personal reminiscences … my dear old friend this one and my dear old friend that one …

This just went on and on and you could just see students’ faces falling. This wasn’t what they wanted (31-32).

With tensions from the 1968 election still high, Humphrey faced hostility from faculty and students upset over President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. Anger over the vice president’s politics were especially strong in Minnesota as the primary battle pitted him against the DFL Party’s other favorite son: Senator Eugene McCarthy. What many did not understand, though, was that within the administration Humphrey opposed the war and as early as February 1965 suggested Johnson “cut loose.” Yet

because of his kind of political enthusiasm, he had to support the war. He did it in the most enthusiastic way so people thought that he supported the war. And it was a good number of the faculty [who] held that against him. Most of the people in the DFL held that against him. …

Therefore, safety precautions had to be made:

His office on campus was on the second floor of the Social Science Building — a corner office — and the Secret Service was still … protecting him. When they saw his office, they came to me and said, “That’s unacceptable,” because he was in a corner office, isolated. I said, “Well, that’s the biggest office. We’re going to furnish it nicely,” and they said, “We’re very unhappy.”

That evening I went to the hardware store and bought a rope ladder. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I brought it up the next day, went to the Secret Service guys and said, “This will do: Put it down the window and climb out.”

They were concerned the hostility of the students and faculty was so great that they thought he may be in danger.

Fortunately, Humphrey never had to use his rope ladder.

During these two years, the only students who harassed and humiliated him were from Macalester. In fact, the former vice president told a friend that “by the end of that year his stomach muscles were just tensing up whenever he got near the … campus” (Sorauf 31). In contrast, the worst he experienced at the University was a symbolic protest from faculty members.

Still transitioning into his new position, Berman invited Humphrey to attend a meeting of the 39ers Dining Club, an exclusive faculty gathering on campus. But “[A]s soon as I told everyone he was coming, half of the members quit.” In fact, the historian and future state senator Allan Spear accused Berman of giving a “platform to a war criminal” and then “went at it” with the former vice president (Berman 1984 25-26). Still, these antagonisms did not last long:

[S]ome of the most hostile faculty members invited him to a class hoping to catch him in errors and stuff like that. They invited him in with hostility, they came out with admiration. That’s how he won people over.

Humphrey remained at the University for only two years, deciding in 1970 to replace retiring Sen. Eugene McCarthy. He remained in the U.S. Senate until his death in 1978. At that time, in his honor, the University renamed its public administration school the Humphrey Institute (later the Humphrey School of Public Affairs). Interestingly, this is where his successor and fellow vice president Walter Mondale teaches today.

Sources/Further Reading:

Berman, Hyman; Chambers, Clarke A.. (1984). Interview with Hyman Berman. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,

Berman, Hyman; Preston, Joshua P. (2013). Interview with Hyman Berman. Unpublished Transcript.

Sorauf, Frank J.; Chambers, Clarke A.. (1984). Interview with Frank Sorauf. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,

University of Minnesota News Service. (1969). Press Releases, July – September 1969. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,