5 Most Ruthless Gangsters From the 20-30s You Haven’t Heard Of

5 Most Ruthless Gangsters From the 20-30s You Haven’t Heard Of

Matthew - January 31, 2017

When Prohibition became law in the United States in 1920, a crime wave of unprecedented proportions was unleashed across the country. Thugs, murderers, and syndicates all took advantage of the new law to create criminal enterprises from coast to coast. Bootlegging of now-illegal liquor left bodies in the streets of America’s big cities, as rival gangs fought for control of the booze trade. Bank robbers and thieves also flourished in what seemed to many to be a lawless society.

Many men thrived and many men died during this era, and the term “public enemy” was first introduced into the American lexicon. Newspapers covered the exploits of these gangsters and made many of them household names. Most people are familiar with the famous criminals of this period such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Below are the stories of 5 gangsters, bootleggers, and public enemies who you might not be familiar with.

5 Most Ruthless Gangsters From the 20-30s You Haven’t Heard Of
Charlie Birger going to the gallows in 1928. American Hauntings

Charlie Birger

Not all Prohibition-era gangsters operated in large cities like New York, Boston, or Chicago. Small towns and rural parts of the country were flush with criminals, bootleggers, and murderers as well. Charlie Birger may have run his criminal empire in rural Southern Illinois, but he was born a world away as Shachna Itzik Birger in Russia around 1880. Birger’s family emigrated to the St. Louis area when he was a youngster.

The man who now called himself “Charlie” served in the military in the early 1900s, stayed out west for a while and worked as a cowboy, and then eventually settled in Harrisburg, Illinois, in the southern part of the state. Here, Birger first worked as a coal miner and eventually opened up his own saloon. When Prohibition became national law in 1920, Birger teamed up with the Shelton Brother Gang and built a heavily-guarded speakeasy in Williamson County.

Birger and the Shelton Brothers fought a common enemy in the early 1920s: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan supported national Prohibition, and the two factions went to war. In 1925 and 1926, the groups took up arms against each other. Several KKK members were shot and killed, and for all intents and purposes, any stronghold the Klan had on Williamson County was effectively over. After the Klan was gone, Birger went to war with a new adversary; the Shelton Brothers.

The two gangs engaged in a bloody battle for control over bootlegging throughout Southern Illinois. Birger targeted Joe Adams, the mayor of nearby West City, for assassination because he was a member of the Shelton Gang. Adams was gunned down in December 1926. The Sheltons responded to Adams’s death by killing members of Birger’s crew and burning down his speakeasy, the Shady Rest.

Birger was arrested in June 1927 for ordering the death of Mayor Joe Adams. Birger had been arrested many times throughout his criminal career, and had always been released quickly because he was connected with local police and prosecutors. However, West City was in neighboring Franklin County, and Birger did not hold as much, if any, power there. Birger and two of his associates were found guilty of Adams’ murder, and Birger was hanged publicly on April 19, 1928.

Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll

Like Charlie Birger, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll was also born far away from America. Unlike Birger, Coll became a big-city gangster during the Prohibition years, using his adopted hometown of New York City to. Coll was born in County Donegal, Ireland in 1908. His family emigrated from Ireland to the United States when Coll was still an infant, settling in the Bronx in New York. The Coll family included 7 children and the impoverished immigrants struggled to make ends meet in the U.S.

5 Most Ruthless Gangsters From the 20-30s You Haven’t Heard Of
Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Alchetron

Coll joined a street gang at a young age, and was constantly in trouble with school officials and the law. He was expelled from school and was now free to run the streets of New York with other young hoodlums. When Prohibition became law in 1920, crime became rampant in New York as it did in other parts of the country. Criminals of all stripes took advantage of New York’s ports and and bootlegging flourished. Vincent Coll took advantage as well. He joined up with Dutch Schultz’s crew and worked as an enforcer and an assassin for the gang.

Coll was wild and unpredictable, and Dutch Schultz and his men grew tired of his behavior. Coll robbed a dairy in the Bronx in 1929 without Schultz’s permission, and the head gangster was furious. When he confronted the brash, young Coll about the incident, the Irishman demanded Schultz make him an equal partner in his enterprise. Predictably, Schultz was not interested in sharing his criminal gains with a young, wild-eyed lunatic, so he told Coll he was on his own. Coll formed his own gang and went to war with Schultz and anyone else who he deemed a threat to his ambition.

Schultz’s men killed Coll’s brother Peter in May 1931, and Coll went on a rampage, gunning down four of Schultz’s men in the next three weeks. The gangs fought back and forth and left the streets of New York littered with dead bodies. On July 28, 1931, Coll and some of his men attempted to kidnap a rival bootlegger named Joseph Rao. Coll’s men opened fire on Rao during the struggle, and stray bullets hit five young children who were playing nearby. One of the children, a 5-year-old boy, died from his wounds. New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker knew Coll was behind the attack and he called the gangster a “Mad Dog.” A nickname was born and Vincent Coll went into hiding.

Coll was captured a few months later in the Bronx and stood trial. The prosecution, however, presented a weak case and Coll was acquitted in December 1931. After his release, a rival Irish gangster and bootlegger named Owney Madden put a $50,000 bounty on Coll’s head. Headlines and condemnation from the mayor of New York were not good for anyone involved in the illegal alcohol business. On February 8, 1932, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll was gunned down in a phone booth in a Manhattan drug store. The “Mad Dog” was dead at the age of 23.

Fred “Killer” Burke

During his criminal career, Fred Burke gained a reputation as one of the most feared hitmen in the United States. He was born Thomas A. Camp in Mapleton, Kansas in 1893. He got in trouble with the law when he was still a teenager, and he fled to Kansas City and changed his name to Fred Burke. The man who now called himself Fred Burke then ventured to St. Louis, where he fell in with a notorious gang known as Egan’s Rats.

5 Most Ruthless Gangsters From the 20-30s You Haven’t Heard Of
Fred “Killer” Burke in custody. Berrien County

To avoid jail time in 1917, Burke enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a tank sergeant in France during World War I. He spent some time in prison in Michigan and in Missouri after the war, and ended up back in St. Louis with his old gangster buddies after his time behind bars. Burke then floated around the Midwest, committing robberies in St. Louis and Detroit, before landing in Chicago in 1927.

Chicago kingpin Al Capone welcomed Burke and his crew to Chicago, and immediately put them to work. Using Chicago as a home base, Burke and his men committed robberies and murders all over the eastern half of the United States, from New York to Kentucky to Ohio. Burke became a seasoned killer during this time, including a police officer in Toledo, Ohio in 1928.

Burke’s main claim to fame, however, was being the main suspect in the notorious St. Valentine’s Massacre that took place in Chicago on February 14, 1929. Seven men belonging to a rival gang of Capone’s were executed that day, and the crime shocked the nation and receive extensive press coverage. No one was ever charged with the murders, but Chicago police named Burke as the main suspect in the massacre.

Burke continued his reign of robberies and murders after the famous Chicago killings. He murdered a police officer in Michigan in December 1929 and went underground, living under a variety of assumed names in Missouri until he was captured in Green City, Missouri on March 26, 1931. Burke was returned to Michigan to stand trial for the murder of the police officer. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Burke died of a heart attack behind bars in 1940 at the age of 47.

Homer Van Meter

While he isn’t a household name, Homer Van Meter ran with some celebrity gangsters during his life of crime in the 1920s and 1930s. His two most notable associates were none other than John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Van Meter was born in Indiana in 1905. He ran away from home as a young boy and ended up in Chicago. Throughout his early years, Van Meter had several scrapes with the law and served time for crimes including larceny and car theft. In early 1925, he was arrested for robbing trains and was given a lengthy sentence at Pendleton Reformatory in his native Indiana. It was at Pendleton that Van Meter met John Dillinger.

5 Most Ruthless Gangsters From the 20-30s You Haven’t Heard Of
FBI Wanted poster for Homer Van Meter. Alchetron

Van Meter was paroled in May 1933. He immediately hooked up with George “Baby Face” Nelson (real name Lester Gillis) and robbed a bank in Grand Haven, Michigan of $30,000. He robbed another bank with Nelson in Minnesota and again made off with more than $30,000. John Dillinger broke out of prison in March 1934, and joined forces with Van Meter and Nelson. The trio, along with other gang members, robbed banks in South Dakota, Iowa, and Indiana. The gang maintained a hideout/safe house in St. Paul, Minnesota where they kept their loot.

By the summer of 1934, authorities all over the country were on the lookout for Homer Van Meter due to his criminal activity. In June, Van Meter and Dillinger both underwent plastic surgery in order to avoid police detection. Van Meter, Dillinger, and Nelson pulled one last heist together on June 30, 1934. The group robbed a bank in South Bend, Indiana, and killed a policeman in the process. On July 22, Dillinger was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, and Van Meter and his girlfriend split town for St. Paul.

A month later, on August 23, 1934, police officers confronted Van Meter on a street corner in St. Paul. Van Meter fired at the officers and was chased into an alley. The officers opened fire and Homer Van Meter was shot dead. He was 28-years-old.

5 Most Ruthless Gangsters From the 20-30s You Haven’t Heard Of
Mugshot of Frank Nash. Legends of America

Frank Nash

Frank Nash excelled at one thing in life: robbing banks. The FBI, police, and his fellow criminals all agreed that Nash was one of the best bank robbers in history. Nash was born in 1887 in Birdseye, Indiana. From a young age, Nash worked in the hotels that his father owned in Arkansas and Oklahoma. He also developed a penchant for robbery and violence from a young age. His first conviction came in 1913 after he murdered his friend Humpy Wortman after a robbery in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. He was sentenced to life in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, but his sentence was reduced when he agreed to join the army and fight in World War I in 1918.

After the war, Nash was soon in trouble again when he was sentenced to 25 years for safecracking, again in Oklahoma. His sentence was reduced, and he was released in 1922 after serving only a couple years behind bars. The seasoned thief immediately joined up with a group of bank robbers following his release. Nash and some his fellow gang members were arrested again in 1924, this time for bank robbery and sent away to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. After serving six years at Leavenworth, Nash had gained the trust of the prison staff. He was allowed to leave the prison on an errand on October 19, 1930 and he never returned.

Nash fled to Chicago, where he once again embarked on a life of crime, including assisting in a breaking 7 prisoners out of Leavenworth in December 1931. Between robberies and other criminal capers, Nash enjoyed spending time in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which was known as a town where gangsters and criminals vacationed.

On June 16, 1933, Frank Nash was apprehended by FBI agents in Hot Springs. The agents and Nash boarded a train bound for Kansas City. Word spread among the vast underground network of criminals about Nash’s arrest and his trip to Kansas City. A group of his friends were determined to set him free. On the morning of June 17, the train carrying Nash and the FBI agents arrived in Kansas City. As Nash was herded into a waiting car in front of Union Station, two or three armed men approached the vehicle and gunfire erupted. In the ensuing gun battle, an FBI agent, two Kansas City police officers, and Frank Nash were all killed.