Gangsters in St. Paul?

St. Paul is known for being a quiet city with a small town feel. However, that wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century, we had a national reputation as “the poison spot of American crime.” (Maccabee, p.250) We were a haven for some of the most famous crooks and criminals in the country thanks to the O’Connor System.

John O'Connor
John O’Connor during the height of his power in St. Paul, c.1912. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

John J. “The Big Fellow” O’Connor (1855-1924) was the Chief of Police from 1900-12 and then again from 1914-20. (It was a politically appointed position, so as mayors came and went, so might the police chief.) He was a big man with a big personality, and he believed that the best way to control crime was to work with the criminals instead of against them. “If they behaved themselves, I let them alone,” he [O’Connor] admitted. “If they didn’t, I got them. Under other administrations there were as many thieves here as when I was chief, and they pillaged and robbed; I chose the lesser of two evils.” (Maccabee, p.9). Working with him was his brother Richard O’Connor, the Democratic Party boss, a police commissioner, and a sometime city alderman.

John O’Connor set up the ‘Layover Agreement.’ Any crook who visited the city would remain unmolested if they followed three rules:

  1. Checked in with the police on their arrival.
  2. Made a ‘donation.’
  3. Promised to commit crimes only outside the city limits.

St. Paul became a place where criminals lived free. As time went on the Agreement expanded beyond the police department and encompassed the entire St. Paul justice system, as well as a good portion of Ramsey County’s. It became not only almost impossible to convict a major criminal in St. Paul, but the city refused extradition to other jurisdictions as well. Law enforcement even went so far as to tip criminals off if they were being hunted.

This was a great deal for the citizens of St. Paul. Not only did crooks refrain from committing felonious acts within the city limits, but they also policed their own. All sorts of crime was way down in the city, because the major criminals didn’t want anything to threaten their sweet deal.

St. Paul also benefited financially, well beyond the ‘donations’ to those in the criminal justice system. The city became a center for all of the business surrounding big crime. There was a thriving economy (only sometimes underground) in criminal planning, the fencing of goods, money laundering, providing the tools of crime, and entertaining criminals living high on the hog, not to mention prostitution and, during Prohibition, bootlegging. Citizens thrilled at rubbing elbows with well-known criminals on an evening out.

The rest of the state and the Midwest were not so happy. Surrounding communities tried various schemes to keep their crime rates down, but they varied in effectiveness. Crime rates outside St. Paul skyrocketed, especially after the country-wide explosion of villainy that Prohibition and bootlegging initiated. With illegal fortunes being made in alcohol, and the lack of support for Prohibition from ordinary citizens (the word scofflaw was coined during America’s Big Dry Spell), policing the new lawbreakers became increasingly difficult all over, and relatively minor criminals became celebrities, who then moved on to more serious crimes like bank robbery and kidnapping. Many of them spent at least some time in St. Paul.

The Agreement worked well (for St. Paul) for decades, partially because of self-interest, partially because of a web of informants and overseers maintained by the criminal element and police working together, but also due to the personal and careful control exerted by the iron hand of Police Chief O’Connor. There were stories of him ‘inviting’ criminals who didn’t follow the rules into his office and ‘persuading’ them that it was in their best interest to amend their behavior. When O’Connor retired in 1920, his system stayed stable for a while, but then started fraying. The crooks, with the looming loss of income from the end of Prohibition (1933), became bolder and their crimes bigger.

The beginning of the end really came with the kidnapping of two prominent St. Paul businessmen from inside the city limits. The Barker-Karpis gang kidnapped William Hamm, Jr, owner of Hamm brewery and held him June15-19, 1933 and Edward Bremer, banker, held Jan 17-Feb 7 1934. The Gang was thumbing its collective nose at the Agreement, as well as serving notice that not even the wealthy and powerful were safe anymore. Amid long-time and growing demands to clean up the city, with Howard Kahn, editor of the St. Paul Daily News at the forefront, affluent citizens finally demanded a crack-down, and put together a fund to hire a criminal science expert to bug the new police headquarters.

The results were astounding. After spending the spring of 1935 gathering overwhelming evidence of police corruption and collaboration with the criminal element, the scandal erupted over the front pages of the St. Paul Daily News in June. 13 policemen, many of them high ranking, were either suspended or dismissed, and the Police Chief was forced to resign. The clean-up effort spread throughout the criminal justice system, and safeguards were put in place to make it very difficult for such a system to ever arise again.

Landmark Center-Old Federal Building
The Landmark Center, formerly the Federal Building. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, had previously been unable to crack the O’Connor system, and not for lack of trying. With the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings, they were able to successfully chase down and arrest or kill members of the Barker-Karpis gang with the help of influential victims from inside the city who were willing to talk. St. Paul’s corruption scandal widened the FBI’s access and gave them the Dillinger gang. The FBI prosecuted criminals in a parade of high-profile trials that took place at the Federal Building, now the Landmark Center, where you can visit the famous courtrooms.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the gangsters, you should take the St. Paul Gangster Tour. From their website:  “Our famous crook’s tour! Explore with us the sites of nightclubs, kidnappings, and gun battles associated with the 1930’s gangsters like John Dillinger, Ma Barker and Babyface Nelson. See the sights where the gangsters lived it up as they planned and executed some of the most notorious crimes ever perpetrated in the upper Midwest. Your guide takes you past the most infamous gangster hideouts and the famous nightclubs where many gangsters spent time socializing with the public.” Reservations are required.

Further Information:

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. Highly recommended; it’s fascinating.

There is also the self guided “John Dillinger Slept Here” tour put together from the definitive book about St. Paul’s Gangster era:  John Dillinger Slept Here:  A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936 by Paul Maccabee. With this tour and Google maps’ street view, you’re able to take a tour from your own living room.

1919 Yearbook – John J. O’Connor, St. Paul’s Chief of Police
This is taken from Souvenir Book, St. Paul Police Benevolent Association, 1919, a 1919 publication.
I’m fascinated by the fact that this came out at the height of O’Connor’s power, was written by people who were close to the police department and must have known about the rampant corruption, and yet is so wholeheartedly supportive of O’Connor. It’s also so carefully written that, even though a few things are probably tweaked, and some of it is undoubtedly seen through rose-colored glasses, there don’t seem to be many (if any) outright lies. If you know what’s going on, some statements read very differently than they would otherwise. “He developed a registry bureau for the identification of criminals that has been of the greatest benefit to St. Paul.” and “opposing “Organized crime with organized intelligence.” It’s a masterpiece. Calling John J. O’Connor “honest” is pushing it, however.

1904 Souvenir Book – The Police Commissioners
This is taken from Souvenir Book, St. Paul Police Benevolent Association, 1904, a 1904 publication.
A little more about Richard O’Connor.


Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:08 pm  Comments (2)