Steven Maxwell was way up in the vaulted ceilings of the library in City Hall one night in the 1980s, vacuuming up fallen plaster and dust when he felt the hair on his neck stand up.
All by himself, Maxwell felt a cold chill and then came the voice.
“I heard a voice, go ‘what are you doing up here?’” said Maxwell, who has worked as a night custodian in City Hall for 32 years. “So I just hurried up and got my stuff done up there and left.”
Maxwell, 52, is not the only person in City Hall who believes the 120-year-old building is haunted by the ghost of career criminal John Moshik, the only person ever hanged in the building. Conversations with those who work the night shift — custodians, security guards and Hennepin County deputies — reveal that many are convinced the building is haunted.
Few people today know that City Hall once held prisoners. Fewer yet are aware that it still is a Hennepin County jail, housing up to 509 inmates on the fourth and fifth floors.
In fact, the place where Moshik was hanged is now a waiting area for jail visitors. Just around the corner is a row of booths divided by glass where inmates talk to their family.
A robbery plot gone awry
At 25 years old, John Moshik had spent nearly half his life behind bars, committing his first crime at age 14.
In October 1897, Moshik had just been released from the Stillwater prison, and within three days he had recruited John Lemke to help him rob travelers in the Camden area of North Minneapolis, according to a history complied by retired City Clerk Steve Ristuben.
The only problem was that Lemke didn’t want to rob any travelers, and when he told this to Moshik, Moshik put two bullets in Lemke’s back before beating him with his revolver.
But Lemke didn’t immediately die. He crawled 200 feet to a farmhouse and once he made it to the hospital he told Minneapolis Police that Moshik shot him. Lemke died shortly after.
A jury convicted Moshik of first-degree murder, and Judge Charles Burke Elliot, the namesake of Elliot Park, sentenced him to hang.
After twice trying to escape and once trying commit suicide, Moshik was hanged on March 18, 1898 in an area on the fifth floor of City Hall, just east of the Fifth Street Tower.
Ristuben, who compiled the history of the Moshik hanging, worked 37 years in City Hall before he retired in 2010, said custodians have reported a number of strange incidents. Reports circulated about pictures falling off the wall, lights flicking on and off and doors and windows closing and opening mysteriously.
In 1950, assistant county attorney Roy Brumfield suffered a heart attack in Chapel Courtroom, where Moshik had been sentenced. He died on the way to the hospital, according to the history of the Moshik hanging.
Maxwell said he has also seen a “cloud” moving down the hallway at night and has felt the presence of someone walking behind him up in the attic of City Hall.
Maxwell says he hasn’t had any experiences since the 1980s, though he still works the night shift. Ristuben said most of the stories he heard came from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
“That’s old lore, I would say,” Ristuben said.
Maxwell thinks the Moshik ghost is still around and said his co-workers have reported strange things as well. But, he said, he believes Moshik isn’t out to get people.
“There are friendly ghosts and bad ghosts,” Maxwell said.
A good history lesson
The city of Minneapolis, until a few years ago, hosted an annual “Spooktacular” event at City Hall, where kids came to get candy and play games.
Ristuben used to dress up as Judge Elliot in a courtroom, and when he had a crowd of kids, he would tell them the story of John Moshik.
After telling the story, he would say, “A lot of people believe in ghosts, but I don’t.” And then his son David would pop out, with a rope around his neck and blood on his face.
“He would jump towards the audience and scare the wits out of the kids and adults,” Ristuben said.
But the Moshik story does have some important history.
According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, execution records are hard to tally, but the group estimates that 66 people were executed in Minnesota before the death penalty was abolished by the state Legislature in 1911.
Since City Hall began construction in 1891, it didn’t last long enough to host any executions except the Moshik hanging. Strangely, a room in the South Tower is believed to have been a death row, with three suspended cells that have since been torn out.
It took Moshik three minutes of hanging before he died. But things didn’t go as smoothly in 1906, when William Williams was hanged in St. Paul. It took two attempts and 14 minutes before Williams died. A few years later, the Legislature voted against the death penalty.
“I don’t think it’s something that’s historically known about,” Ristuben said.