Until a buttinsky named Don Mellett came to town, Canton, Ohio, was merrily riding out the Roaring Twenties as a smudge-faced, grubby-handed factory city where vice was not only tolerated but encouraged.
Working fraternally, local cops and vice lords staffed a welcome wagon for bootleggers, dopers, gamblers, pimps and prostitutes.
Turpitude was good business for both.
Cops who served as bagmen scooped up oodles of loot from the underworld and delivered it to chiefs who sprinkled cash down the chain of command.
Officers in full uniform rode shotgun on bootlegger beer trucks, safeguarding the cargo from hijackers. And they helped themselves to bottomless free samples of beer and Cherry Ave. hookers.
In January 1925, Mellett was hired as editor of the financially troubled Canton Daily News. The owner, ex-Ohio Gov. James Cox, urged him to make the News competitive with the dominant local paper, the Repository.
Mellett, born into an Indiana newspaper family, arrived in Canton at age 35 with his high school sweetheart wife, Florence, and their four children.
The new editor wielded an inflexible moral compass, and his needle trembled when he discovered that everyone in town seemed to know which alleys to slip down to scratch an itch for this vice or that.
If every Tom, Dick and Harry knows, he wondered, why don’t the police?
The paper began hyping stories about police complicity in Canton’s world of sin, poking an accusatory finger at Chief Saranus Lengel. In one scoop, the News revealed that a gangster had given each Canton cop a gift of a Thanksgiving turkey.
By July 1926, Mellett had published dozens of exposes and editorials about police corruption, many written by his brother, news editor Lloyd Mellett.
Chief Lengel was briefly suspended, and other cops were fired or disciplined.
The campaign resonated with readers, and sales trended upward.
The boys in blue were not so happy.
“He came in here snortin’ around, crusadin’,” one cop grumbled.
Bent noses got out of joint too.
Mellett began getting telephone threats on his life after a News expose implicated bootlegger Ben Rudner in the murder of Paul Kitzig, a gangster who had gone to the paper to reveal the secrets of official corruption in Canton.
Lengel dismissed the threats, calling Mellett “overwrought.” The editor was shadowed by a personal bodyguard but broke away for a night out on Friday, July 16.
Mellett and his wife went dancing with another couple, then stopped for chocolate sodas. At midnight, he was parking his sedan in the garage behind their home when Florence heard gunshots.
She rushed out to find her husband mortally wounded.
The murder of a fellow newspaperman riled America’s ink-stained wretches from Maine to California. It became national news.
“THEY BELIEVE DON MELLETT NOW!” bellowed one Ohio headline.
Lloyd Mellett told the press, “My brother’s assassination is the result of a cold conspiracy running direct from the underworld up into the high officialdom of Canton.”
Canton cops rounded up the usual suspects — “40 more or less notorious characters from the slums up the creek southeast of the city,” yawned one news report.
Meanwhile, the city’s vice lords escaped scrutiny.
James Cox and a coalition of fellow publishers took the investigation out of Lengel’s hands by creating a $ 25,000 reward fund and hiring Ora Slater, a former Secret Service agent from Cincinnati regarded as Ohio’s shrewdest private eye.
Slater set up camp at Canton’s McKinley Hotel, where he interviewed a procession of reward-seekers. One was a factory grunt who said an armed, red-haired stranger had been bragging at a Cherry Ave. whorehouse that he was “working with police on a criminal errand.”
Another tipster had the stranger’s name: Patrick McDermott, 28, an ex-con from Nanty-Glo, Pa., a mining town east of Pittsburgh.
The second squealer, Steve Kascholk, a mug-for-hire from Cleveland, said his old crime confrere McDermott had lured him to Canton to “slug an editor” for $ 200. He backed out when he learned that murder was planned.
Kascholk fingered others who were in on the gig, including gangster Rudner, his minion Louis Mazer, and a corrupt cop, Floyd Streitenberger, who had been suspended due to Mellett’s reporting.
In a series of trials, McDermott, Rudner and Streitenberger were convicted of murder, with Kascholk and Mazer as key witnesses. Each was spared execution — though sent to prison for life — because no witness could name the triggerman.
After jurors took just 45 minutes to convict him, McDermott muttered, “Gee, they were fast.”
After his conviction, Streitenberger turned on his old boss Lengel, who was first convicted of murder then acquitted in a do-over trial following a successful appeal.
Mazer traded his testimony for a plea deal, serving 10 years. Kascholk escaped charges and walked away with $ 10,000 in reward money.
The Canton Daily News was awarded a Pulitzer Prize “for its brave, patriotic and effective fight for the ending of a vicious state of affairs brought about by collusion between city authorities and the criminal element, a fight which had a tragic result in the assassination of the editor of the paper.”
It was a hollow victory. Four months later, Don Mellett’s newspaper went belly up.
The crusading editor was memorialized for several decades by an annual lecture in his name delivered by a prominent journalist. But nearly a century after his murder, Mellett’s status as a news martyr has dimmed.