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Crime Capital

In the ’30s, St. Paul was the hideout of choice for America's most infamous gangsters

Crime Capital
Photo by Minnesota Historical Society
IT’S BEEN MORE THAN 70 YEARS since a Who’s Who of the most notorious criminals in the land blighted St. Paul. At various times, John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Ma Barker’s gang, along with Verne Miller, Fred Goetz, and “Machine Gun” Kelly, holed up here. These were bank robbers and hold-up men, kidnappers and murderers. Some were mean by nature; some had meanness thrust upon them by hard lives. All sought refuge from the law in St. Paul during the 1930s.

This parade of public enemies is well documented by local crime historian Paul Maccabee in John Dillinger Slept Here. Simply put, the gangsters knew they were safe in St. Paul by dint of a notorious deal with the St. Paul Police Department, headed by Chief John O’Connor. It went essentially like this: you’re welcome to visit and enjoy the pleasures of our city. Just let us know you’re here, and don’t bother us once you pull in. Thugs arriving from Chicago, Texas, Reno, and elsewhere contacted go-betweens at the police department. Bribes changed hands, and the crooks avoided harassment as long as they kept their noses clean.

The stain on St. Paul’s reputation was lasting. For years after, officials kept stories of gangster ties on the down low. For the generation that had actually rubbed elbows with the criminals who found safe haven in the city, this was not stuff to brag about.

Though the city isn’t proud of this period, it now has no qualms about polishing up its bad-boy past and selling the romance of gun molls and guys in pinstripe suits. A favorite sightseeing opportunity today is the Gangster Tour, which visits a former Depression-era hangout, the Wabasha Street caves, where re-enactors dolled up in period costume tell tales of the gangsters who once made St. Paul their home-away-from-home.

As much as anyone, Maccabee deserves credit for resurrecting the history of the period. Beginning more than 25 years ago, when he was a journalist with the Twin Cities Reader, Maccabee began researching Twin Cities crime and corruption during Prohibition and into the Depression. Hundreds of interviews, and 100,000 pages of FBI files later, Maccabee published Dillinger, which remains the bible of St. Paul gangster studies.

The writer Steve Thayer, along with Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair reporter Bryan Burrough, have also mined the era’s history with their gangster novels Saint Mudd and Public Enemies, respectively, the latter receiving attention from the film director Michael Mann and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. St. Paul will no doubt have a starring role in any film production that results.

In an autobiography written long after his days in St. Paul (and after a long stint at Alcatraz), Alvin Karpis nicely captured the importance of the city to the criminal element in the early 1930s. “Of all the Midwest cities,” he wrote, “the one I knew best was St. Paul, and it was a crooks’ haven. Every criminal of any importance in the 1930s made his home at one time or another in St. Paul. If you were looking for a guy you hadn’t seen for a few months, you usually thought of two places—prison or St. Paul.”

A surreal climate enveloped Minnesota’s capital as these thugs and thieves mingled with the good citizens of St. Paul. Maccabee describes speakeasies and criminal hangouts dotting the landscape, from a casino called the Hollyhocks Club on South Mississippi Boulevard to the Castle Royal nightclub at the Wabasha Street caves in west St. Paul. A popular joint called the Green Dragon sat at the corner of University and Snelling in the Midway district, while the Commodore Hotel, near the tony mansions of Cathedral Hill, became a choice watering hole as well. Downtown, the Green Lantern was a notorious hangout, operated by local gangster Harry Sawyer, whose work as an intermediary between the underworld and the St. Paul police made him the city’s unofficial greeter for criminal types new to the city.

When they weren’t carousing, these itinerant crooks settled into brief interludes of domesticity and criminal planning, often in area bungalows or in the new, red-brick apartment buildings that had sprung up along and near Grand Avenue. The street thrummed with commerce. Grocery and drug stores dotted every block. Numerous auto dealerships offered gangsters their choice of getaway car. Hudsons, Reos, Studebakers, and Buicks—all could be purchased within four blocks of each other on the street. In addition, the Uptown Theater at Oxford and Grand was said to be a favorite haunt of John Dillinger, who liked aisle seats for quick getaways.

The Ma Barker gang planned its two most notorious crimes, the kidnappings of William Hamm Jr. and Edward Bremer, at separate apartments within four blocks of each other near the corner of Grand and Dale. Dillinger lived just down the street, at the Lincoln Court Apartments near Lexington and Grand. He and his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, shot it out with FBI agents on Lexington Avenue in March 1934. Just two months before, the Barker gang had kidnapped Bremer at the corner of Lexington and Goodrich, only two blocks south.

Karpis was the ringleader of Ma Barker’s gang, and of all the big-time criminals who flitted into and out of St. Paul in the early ’30s, this collection of yahoos defined the excesses of the era through those kidnappings. Both victims were the sons of well-known, wealthy St. Paul brewers; both survived their ordeals; both would live long but scarred lives in the business and civic communities of the Twin Cities.

Hamm graduated from St. Paul Central High School and the University of Minnesota. He served as chairman of Hamm Brewing Company, a business founded by his family on Minnehaha Avenue on St. Paul’s near-east side. He was abducted in June 1933 as he walked home for lunch. A confederate in the Barker gang simply took him by the arm and steered him toward a waiting car.

Karpis drove Hamm along with a couple of gang members to a safe house in Illinois. Back in St. Paul, fellow conspirators delivered a ransom note to the family, demanding $100,000 for his release. As the gang waited for a response, Karpis offered Hamm copies of the Saturday Evening Post and an occasional beer.

Karpis had no apparent qualms about kidnapping a man, yet he was “worried about the beer,” he later wrote in his autobiography. “There wasn’t any Hamm’s in the house, and I didn’t want to offend him by serving a rival brand.” Karpis explains that he actually washed the labels off the bottles, but then got curious about whether Hamm knew if he was drinking his own product. “Can you tell by the taste if it’s your beer?” Karpis asked, after handing over a bottle. Hamm inspected the label-less ale and confessed, “I don’t know what the hell brand this beer is.” In Karpis’s estimation, that made him a good egg.

The Barker group was encouraged by its success with Hamm. Not only did it get its $100,000, but the blame for the crime was assigned elsewhere. The FBI arrested and charged a bootlegger from Chicago named Roger Touhy, along with several others. The Touhy gang was tried for the abduction in November 1933 in St. Paul, but Hamm himself, released unharmed in Wyoming, Minnesota, couldn’t verify that Touhy and company were the men who had snatched him. All were acquitted.

Enter the next victim, Edward Bremer, who was more obstreperous than Hamm, and less popular with his abductors. The heir to the president of the Schmidt Brewing Company and a banking executive with Commercial State Bank, Bremer was apprehended in January 1934, just after he’d dropped his daughter off at the Summit School on Goodrich Avenue.

Bremer came from one of the wealthiest families in the city, and his father was a major contributor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign. Karpis and the Barkers decided to up the ante, asking for and receiving $200,000 in ransom. They were advised and encouraged by Harry Sawyer of Green Lantern fame, who took a sizable portion of the cut, after the ransom was paid in February 1934. Bremer was then released unharmed, near Rochester.

The sheer audacity of the crime, less than a year after Hamm’s abduction, brought a wave of federal law enforcement down upon the city, and sufficiently shamed local powers into serious reform. With these crimes, the corruption of the St. Paul Police Department was fading into history, as was the gangster era in the city. Furthermore, the outrageousness of the Barker/Karpis gang made them infamous in the eyes of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. As 1934 wound down, he and a small army of feds became ever more relentless in their pursuit of the gang, forcing Karpis and the Barkers, who’d left St. Paul after the kidnapping, to split up and head to different parts of the country.

Despite the group’s colorful moniker, the “Ma” in the Barker gang—Kate—led her boys in a maternal sense only. She had nothing to do with the planning of any criminal activities, and according to Karpis, was primarily “an old-fashioned homebody from the Ozarks” who liked jigsaw puzzles and listening to the radio. She traipsed after her sons, Doc and Fred, as they, along with Karpis, raised Cain from Oklahoma all the way up to St. Paul. Hoover trumped up the legend of her criminal genius after she perished in a hail of FBI bullets in January 1935 in Florida.
Fred Barker died with her, while brother Doc, who had been arrested a few days earlier in Chicago, would die trying to escape from Alcatraz in 1939.

By the time Karpis was arrested on May 1, 1936, in New Orleans, Hoover had branded him Public Enemy Number One. The FBI chief was proud to be on hand at his arrest and flew with Karpis to St. Paul.

What was left of the gang stood trial in St. Paul on the second floor of the federal courthouse, now Landmark Center. The Bremer trials resulted in the conviction of Doc Barker in 1935. Harry Sawyer was likewise found guilty and sent to prison. Karpis didn’t even bother with a trial. In the summer of 1936, he pled guilty to kidnapping and received a life sentence in federal prison. His incarceration signaled the end of the gangster era in St. Paul.

There’s a coda to the story, however: before he went to prison, Karpis squirreled away his “ill-gotten gains” in a number of Midwest banks, according to Maccabee. After he was released on parole, he met up with a nephew bearing a large check. The old gangster retired in comfort on the coast of Spain.

But, alas, the notoriety that was Karpis’s particular currency had no value in Europe. According to Burrough, he spent much of his time there drowning in tequila, trying to convince people that he’d been a tough guy back in the day. He died in 1979.

Tim Brady is a writer in St. Paul.

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