by Erik Hare
Every city in America had a serious problem with gangsters during Prohibition. Saint Paul's problem was somewhat unique, showing that even in our darkest times we do things our own way. The story of is fascinating, and one of our city's favorite tales of sleaze.
It all starts with what is usually known as "The O'Connor System", after Police Chief John J. O'Connor. The local police would not bother criminals who came to Saint Paul as long as they checked in with the police, promised to behave, and made a small contribution to the Police Benevolent Association. It seems like a cozy bit of corruption.
The truth of the matter is that this system pre-dated O'Connor, and was how the city's brothels stayed in business for many years. This system was also far from unusual in the Midwest as well. But up until O'Connor's death in 1924 it secured the one thing that was important – a sense of order in the streets. The hoodlums knew that as long as the Good Citizens of Saint Paul weren't bothered, they could do what they wanted. Besides, Prohibition was not exactly popular, and the rising organized crime from 1920 on was often seen as providing a service.
As much as keeping the peace seemed like a noble goal, Saint Paul lay between legal booze in Canada and the vicious gangs of Chicago. That meant that no matter how hard the city tried to stay out of gang matters it was impossible. The first sign that serious trouble lay ahead came in 1928, when local mob boss Danny "Dapper Dan" Hogan was killed by a bomb wired to the starter of his car.
"Dapper Dan" was a peacemaker between gang members, and insisted that there was more for everyone if they divided up the turf and behaved like respected businessmen. He also worked closely with the police, often acting as a go-between. His death signaled an end to any sense that an agreement and a small bribe could keep the peace.
From that time on, there were a number of small dust-ups in the streets, including a shoot-out between John Dillinger (pictured) and the FBI and pistol fights between rival gangs. Stores sold machine guns and armor plated cars in a growing gangster bazaar that caught the notice of everyone. Creepy Karpis, Machine-Gun Kelly, and all the big names of crime walked our streets. It was only a matter of time before something happened to force the city to do something about it.
In 1933, the Ma Barker Gang kidnapped William Hamm, owner of Hamm's Brewery, in broad daylight on Lexington Avenue. He was returned safely after a large ransom was paid, so the gang kidnapped Edward Bremer of the town's other brewing family in 1934. The cops were powerless to stop this one as well. The outraged citizens elected a reform-minded Mayor, and soon the offices of the police were bugged with the help of the FBI. By 1935 they had enough evidence to put 9 cops in jail, including the chief of police.
Since that time, Saint Paul has been a very clean city. Our Police under John Harrington are the pride of the town, and we tend to look back on those dark days and laugh. More than anything, we've learned our lesson and we don't assume that bad guys from elsewhere are just passing through with no intentions of being bad guys here, too.
The places where these crimes took place can be found in "Dillinger Slept Here" by Paul Maccabee, a local writer who is the husband of a former Council member. There are several places where tours can be arranged of various gangster hideouts and scenes of mayhem. Saint Paul is, if anything, honest about its sleaze.