Like many local history buffs, I’m intrigued by St. Paul’s notorious gangster era. The crazy nicknames, the pinstripe suits, the Tommy guns, the bathtub gin, the flappers, the hideouts, and yes, the corruption—spurred by the desperation of The Great Depression and a lovely little thing called Prohibition.
I think this time in history intrigues me because it seems so, I don’t know, impossible. Bank robberies, jailbreaks, kidnapping for ransom, holding up trains, bootlegging, gambling, bribes, prostitution, murder. How did these thugs get away with it all? I’m sure the FBI (aka the “G-men” or “government men”) didn’t appreciate the media sensationalizing organized crime, either. There was an almost romantic Robin Hood-type spin to some of the headlines and news stories of the 1930s.
A few years ago, I read in Where Twin Cities magazine (find it in your hotel room!) that the Wabasha Street Caves offered The Saint Paul Gangster Tour and I knew—without hesitation—that I wanted to celebrate my birthday on one of those tours.
After doing some research, I realized that if we gathered a large enough group, we could get a special group rate and reserve a private bus, with a driver and costumed guide taking us around on a tour of the city. I had nothing against the public tour, but isn’t it always more meaningful when you can celebrate another birthday surrounded by close friends and family?
It didn’t take much prompting to get others interested in the tour. After a few emails and phone calls, 30 people signed up.
We met in a parking lot near Wabasha Street Caves (not actually the caves), where our guide was Edna “The Kissing Bandit” Murray. She never broke character. She was fun and sassy, cracking jokes and kissing my dad on top of his bald head (leaving bright red lipstick marks). Through Edna’s highly entertaining narrative, we learned about St. Paul’s sordid history, such as how Chief John O’Connor agreed not to prosecute the gangsters as long as they didn’t commit crimes within the city. For St. Paul, it was a win-win. The residents were protected and the gangsters spent their money in the city. We drove to the spot where the Ma Barker gang kidnapped William Hamm Jr. for a $100,000 ransom as he was unsuspectingly walking home; we drove past John Dillinger’s Lincoln Court Apartments; we saw where Ma Barker and the Barker gang lived. We learned what happened at the St. Paul Hotel and on the front steps of the Landmark Center (which was the federal courthouse back then).
I would recommend this tour to anyone, although I think it might be most appreciated by history buffs and those looking to impress out-of-town guests.
The tours can book weeks out, so it’s not a bad idea to order tickets in advance. For reservations or more information, call 651-292-1220. Tickets are $24/person.