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Gangster Era in St. Paul, 1900–1936

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Color scan of a Wanted for Bank Robbery poster, 1930.

Wanted for Bank Robbery poster, 1930.

St. Paul in the late 1920s and early 1930s was known as a “‘crooks’ haven”—a place for gangsters, bank robbers, and bootleggers from all over the Midwest to run their operations or to hide from the FBI. The concentration of local organized crime activity prompted reformers and crime reporters to call for a “cleanup” of the city in the mid-1930s.

St. Paul earned its reputation as the “sanctuary for criminals” in the Midwest with the help of corrupt politicians and police chiefs who agreed to turn a blind eye to gangsters’ underground activities, which included smuggling, racketeering, and gambling. This collaboration began in 1900 with the Layover Agreement, an unofficial contract between criminals and Chief of Police John O’Connor.

In exchange for tip-offs about FBI raids and protection during their “layover” in the city, the gangsters first agreed to check in with the St. Paul police when they were in town. Secondly, they gave a portion of their gains to the police department. Finally, they agreed to commit no crimes within the city limits, though Minneapolis was fair game. Police chiefs after O’Connor, such as Frank Sommer (1922–1923) and Thomas A. Brown (1930–1932), continued to use the “O’Connor System” in an effort to keep crime levels down in St. Paul and to profit from gangsters’ illegal operations.

The prohibition of alcohol from 1919 until 1933 also encouraged the rise of St. Paul as a center for gangsters’ activities. The Volstead Act (or the National Prohibition Act), introduced by Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead in 1919 and made part of the U.S. Constitution as the Eighteenth Amendment, banned the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The closing of breweries and distilleries resulted in the rise of bootlegging (the smuggling and illegal sale of alcohol), and St. Paul became known as one of the “wettest” cities in the nation. The prohibition of liquor also led to an increase in organized crime, since mobs and gangs controlled bootlegging operations.

Knowing that they were generally safe in St. Paul, notorious criminals—including bank robber John Dillinger and his girlfriend Evelyn Frechette; racketeer and mob leader Al “Scarface” Capone; and the outlawed duo Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker—stayed in the city at some point, though most of their crimes were committed in other Midwestern states. In 1932, however, more than 20 percent of the nation’s bank robberies took place in Minnesota.

Gangsters frequented favorite spots throughout the city, such as the Green Lantern Saloon on Wabasha Street and Nina Clifford’s brothel on Washington Street. Some gang leaders used St. Paul as the headquarters of their operations. Leon Gleckman, known as the “Bootlegging Boss” and the “Al Capone of St. Paul,” established the base of his bootlegging business at the St. Paul Hotel.

Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and the Barker family set up a home in West St. Paul. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had his eye on the Karpis-Barker gang after they robbed a store in Missouri and killed a sheriff on December 19, 1931. Hoover targeted Katherine “Ma” Barker, the mother of two Karpis-Barker gang members, as the leader of the gang. FBI files suggest that she was not heavily involved in her sons’ activities. Former gang members later claimed that she tagged along to give the impression of a mother traveling with her sons. Nevertheless, Hoover helped establish Ma Barker’s reputation among FBI agents and the American public as the gang’s mastermind.

Although the Karpis-Barker gang selected St. Paul because it was calmer than other Midwestern cities, they did not stop their criminal activities. In 1932, the gang robbed the Northwestern National Bank and Trust Company in Minneapolis and later the prominent Third Northwestern National Bank.

Although they had close calls with an FBI raid, the gang was able to flee in time to Wisconsin, thanks to tip-offs from a friend with contacts in the St. Paul police department. The gang suspected that Ma Barker’s boyfriend, Arthur Dunlop, had spilled details of their successful heists to their landlady’s son. When the police arrived at their hide-out spot in Webster, Wisconsin, they only found Dunlop’s dead body on the shores of a nearby lake.

In 1933 and 1934, the gang returned to St. Paul to plan the kidnappings of wealthy St. Paul businessmen William Hamm Jr. (president of the Hamm Brewing Company) and Edward Bremer (president of the Commercial State Bank of St. Paul), in exchange for large ransoms. Both victims were released shortly after the gang received the ransoms. But the kidnappings showed signs of the O’Connor system breaking down, since these crimes had been committed inside the city of St. Paul. Federal and local efforts to track down the kidnappers intensified as the story grabbed national headlines, and the Karpis-Barker gang members began to doubt the reliability of their police connections.

Similar FBI hunts for gangsters throughout the Midwestern states dragged on for more than a decade, while reformers such as St. Paul police chief Thomas Dahill and Mayor Mark H. Gehan called for a “war on hoodlums.” In March 1934, Dillinger had a shootout with the police and the FBI at his St. Paul residence, the Lincoln Court Apartments. Although he managed to escape to his doctor’s clinic in Minneapolis to hide and to receive treatment for his wounds, newspaper coverage of the shootout and Dillinger’s escape convinced citizens that the city needed to be “cleaned up.” This incident also made St. Paul a target of federal and state law enforcement agencies when Hoover sent in FBI agents to search the city for evidence of Dillinger.

Dillinger and other “public enemies” fascinated the American public with their ability to survive shootouts and escape police raids. Some local Minnesota residents, however, such as the members of the St. Paul Women’s Club, acted to end the crime wave. They helped elect the reform-minded Mayor Gehan and alerted the FBI to sightings of gangsters. Other Midwestern residents made deals with the FBI, offering them information about gangsters’ whereabouts. This was how Dillinger was finally caught: with a tip-off from a woman who agreed to help capture him. When Dillinger emerged from the Biograph Theater in Chicago with two women (one of whom was the informant), FBI agents cornered him in an alley, shot him five times, and killed him.

After Dillinger’s death, a number of other gangsters were killed by the police or brought to trial for their crimes. In January 1935, Ma Barker and her son Fred were killed during a shootout with the FBI in Florida. In June 1935, Doc Barker and four other gang members were brought to trial at the St. Paul federal court for the kidnapping of Edward Bremer.

In May 1936, Hoover, who had been criticized by a senator for not making any arrests himself, claimed to have personally arrested Alvin Karpis. He brought Karpis to trial in St. Paul, where he was charged for his involvement in the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings. On August 3, 1936, Karpis pled guilty to all charges and received a life sentence in Alcatraz. The “gangster era,” with its sensationalized hunts for wanted criminals throughout the Midwest, was finally winding to a close.

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Brady, Tim. “Crime Capital.” Minnesota Monthly, April 2007.
http://www.minnesotamonthly.com/April-2007/Crime-Capital/

Bull, Brian. Paul Maccabee: Crime Historian & Author of John Dillinger Slept Here. March 18, 2003. "Wayward Soldier: Verne Miller and the Kansas City Massacre." South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
http://www.sdpb.sd.gov/vernemiller/Maccabee.asp

“Curtain Falls on Tragic Era.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday Pictorial Magazine, December 3, 1967.

Eighmey, Rae Katherine. “Andrew Volstead: Prohibition's Public Face.” Minnesota History 63, no. 8 (Winter 2013–2014): 312–323.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). John Dillinger.
https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/john-dillinger

Galvin, Jane. "Alvin Karpis Public Enemy Number One." American History 39, no. 2 (June 2004): 60–67.

Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Girardin, George Russell, William J. Helmer, and Rick Mattix. Dillinger: The Untold Story. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Maccabee, Paul. John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920–1936. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

Mahoney, Timothy R. Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Press, 2013.

Rodgers, Charlie. “St. Paul: Gangster Haven.” Collections Up Close Podcast and Blog, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, December 7, 2010.
http://discussions.mnhs.org/collections/2010/12/st-paul-gangster-haven/

St. Paul Gangster History Research Collection, 1981–1995
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00239.xml
Description: See the interview with Albert Grooms of Topeka, Kansas, June 18, 1993.

St. Paul Police Historical Society. Chiefs of Police.
http://www.spphs.com/history/chiefs.php

Toland, John Willard. The Dillinger Days. New York: Random House, 1963.

Related Images

Color scan of a Wanted for Bank Robbery poster, 1930.
Color scan of a Wanted for Bank Robbery poster, 1930.
Black and white photograph of John O'Connor during the height of his power in St. Paul, c.1912.
Black and white photograph of John O'Connor during the height of his power in St. Paul, c.1912.
Black and white photograph of Fred Barker, 1931. Photographed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Black and white photograph of Fred Barker, 1931. Photographed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Black and white photograph of investigators at the Theodore Hamm home, 671 Greenbrier, St. Paul, following the kidnapping of William Hamm Jr., 1933.
Black and white photograph of investigators at the Theodore Hamm home, 671 Greenbrier, St. Paul, following the kidnapping of William Hamm Jr., 1933.
Black and white scan of John Dillinger criminal file, c.1934.
Black and white scan of John Dillinger criminal file, c.1934.
Black and white photograph of Evelyn "Billie" Frechette. John Dillinger's girlfriend, 1934. Photographed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Black and white photograph of Evelyn "Billie" Frechette. John Dillinger's girlfriend, 1934. Photographed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Black and white photograph of corrupt policeman and St. Paul Chief of Police Tom Brown, c.1934.
Black and white photograph of corrupt policeman and St. Paul Chief of Police Tom Brown, c.1934.
Black and white photograph of a man selling a newspaper with headline related to Bremer kidnapping, 1935.
Black and white photograph of a man selling a newspaper with headline related to Bremer kidnapping, 1935.
Black and white scan of a St. Paul Police record for Harry Sawyer, 1935.
Black and white scan of a St. Paul Police record for Harry Sawyer, 1935.
Black and white photograph of St. Paul underworld boss and bootlegger Leon Gleckman, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of St. Paul underworld boss and bootlegger Leon Gleckman, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of a police raid on slot machines, St. Paul, 1935. Photograph from the St. Paul Daily News.
Black and white photograph of a police raid on slot machines, St. Paul, 1935. Photograph from the St. Paul Daily News.
Black and white photograph of Thomas A. Dahill, St. Paul Chief of Police, 1935. Photograph from the St. Paul Daily News.
Black and white photograph of Thomas A. Dahill, St. Paul Chief of Police, 1935. Photograph from the St. Paul Daily News.
Black and white scan of a reward poster for Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker, c.1936.
Black and white scan of a reward poster for Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker, c.1936.
Black and white photograph of Alvin Karpis captured by federal agents and brought to St. Paul in connection with the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings, 1936.
Black and white photograph of Alvin Karpis captured by federal agents and brought to St. Paul in connection with the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings, 1936.
Black and white photograph of St. Paul gangster Jack Peifer, c.1936.
Black and white photograph of St. Paul gangster Jack Peifer, c.1936.
Black and white photograph of Nina Clifford’s brothel at 147 S. Washington Street, St. Paul, 1937.
Black and white photograph of Nina Clifford’s brothel at 147 S. Washington Street, St. Paul, 1937.
Color image of a St. Paul Police revolver used in shootout with John Dillinger.
Color image of a St. Paul Police revolver used in shootout with John Dillinger.

Turning Point

In 1933 and 1934, the Karpis-Barker gang’s kidnappings of businessmen William Hamm Jr. and Edward Bremer in St. Paul show signs of the O’Connor System starting to break down. The kidnappings bring in the federal government and breach the agreement between gangsters and the police that no crimes would be committed within the city limits.

Chronology

June 1900

The “O’Connor System” is established between Police Chief John O’Connor and gangsters. This agreement allows for St. Paul to become a “haven” for gangsters.

October 28, 1919

Congress approves the Volstead Act, written by Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead. It lays the foundation for the Eighteenth Amendment, which enacts Prohibition.

January 18, 1930

Leon Gleckman, known as the “Al Capone of St. Paul" and the "Bootlegging Boss of St. Paul,” sets up the headquarters of his bootlegging business at the St. Paul Hotel.

August 5, 1932

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Dahill declares war on “hoodlums” and “gun toters.” His efforts are part of a larger campaign to fight against the “Midwestern crime wave.”

March 22, 1933

The Volstead Act is repealed. Later, in December, Congress ratifies the Twenty-first Amendment, which ends fourteen years of Prohibition.

June 15, 1933

The Karpis-Barker gang kidnaps William Hamm Jr., president of St. Paul's Hamm Brewing Company. Hamm is set free in Wyoming, Minnesota, in exchange for a $100,000 ransom.

January 17, 1934

The Karpis-Barker gang kidnaps Edward Bremer, president of the Commercial State Bank of St. Paul. He is released in Rochester in exchange for a two-hundred-thousand-dollar ransom.

March 5, 1934

John Dillinger escapes from jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and moves with his girlfriend Evelyn Frechette to Minneapolis. After several heists in Indiana and South Dakota, he moves into the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul.

March 31, 1934

Dillinger and Homer Van Meter have a shootout with the St. Paul police and the FBI at the Lincoln Court Apartments. A wounded Dillinger escapes to the clinic of Dr. Clayton May in Minneapolis, but federal and state efforts to arrest Dillinger intensify.

June 22, 1934

On Dillinger's birthday, the FBI declares the gangster “Public Enemy Number One” and places him on the national radar.

July 22, 1934

Dillinger is shot and killed by FBI agents outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theater, marking the end of a nation-wide manhunt.

January 16, 1935

Fred and Ma Barker are killed in a shootout with the FBI at Lake Weir, Florida. Their deaths end a long-running pursuit of the Karpis-Barker gang.

June 7, 1935

Volney Davis, a Karpis-Barker gang member, and four accomplices are convicted for the kidnapping of Edward Bremer.

July 1925

The St. Paul Daily News reports on corruption within the St. Paul Police Department revealed by months of wiretapping. Many policemen resign or are convicted of crimes as a result.

May 1, 1936

Alvin Karpis is arrested by J. Edgar Hoover in New Orleans and is brought to St. Paul for trial, where he is sentenced to life imprisonment at Alcatraz.