This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters

Aimee Heidelberg - October 31, 2023

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
The Bensonville house where William Hamm was taken during kidnapping. Minneapolis Tribune, April 19, 1936.

A Quick Resolution

En route to Bensonville, the group had Hamm sign ransom notes, then sent them to William Dunn. Dunn arranged the ransom payment for drop at a location north of St Paul. The ransom payment had to be delivered by a car with doors removed (to prove there weren’t extra people inside) and displaying a red light. They didn’t know the FBI developed latent fingerprint identification for the first time, but had not yet identified them. With the ransom paid (and ransom notes on their way to the FBI), Hamm was taken from captivity to a spot about fifty miles north of St. Paul and dropped off safely. As the FBI investigated the kidnapping, the group was tipped off by Jack Peifer to a raid at their money-laundering location. They fled their hideout with time enough to remove all evidence of their crime. The Hamm kidnapping was over in three days.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
Harry Sawyer. Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (1935).

Barker-Karpis Strike Again: The Bremer Kidnapping

In December 1933, the Barker-Karpis gang accepted another kidnapping job. This time, at the suggestion of fixer Harry Sawyer, they would target bank president and heir to the Schmidt Brewing fortune Edward Bremer for a ransom of $200,000. Unlike Hamm, Bremer was less a political kidnapping and more personal. Karpis said, “I don’t know what Sawyer’s beef was, but he sure didn’t like Bremer.” (Maccabee, pg. 187). There were disagreements over alcohol, but even Bremer, who worked with FBI agents to solve his kidnapping, wouldn’t reveal what these were. But the Bremer kidnapping wouldn’t be as smooth as the Hamm job. Karpis felt the plan was a bad move right off the bat, but went along with it anyway (hindsight proves his instincts correct; he was brought to court for Hamm and Bremer kidnapping charges. He pled guilty). The gang and their associates were arguing just days before it happened.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
Edward Bremer (1934). Minnesota Historical Society.

Gangsters vs. Bremer

As Bremer dropped his daughter off at school on January 17, 1934, the group “greeted” him and hustled him into a car, much as they did during the Hamm kidnapping. This time, however, the greeting was less cordial. Blocking Bremer’s car with theirs, a gang member put a gun to his stomach, threatening to kill him if he moved. Bremer put up a fight, trying to block the car door from closing. The gang member hit him over the head with the gun, drawing blood and slammed the door so hard it injured Bremer’s knees as he tried to keep the door open. Bremer decided to comply when it became clear that the beatings would continue if he did not. A call to Bremer’s friend set up the ransom demand.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, personal friend of the Bremer family. Public domain (1932).

Gangsters Ran into Trouble

Unfortunately for the gang, the FBI was on high alert in St. Paul after the Hamm kidnapping. And the Bremer family was friends with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The FBI wanted to resolve this kidnapping and ensure there would be no more. This kidnapping was a more difficult experience for the gang than the Hamm job. There was a great deal of blood in the car. The FBI tapped the Bremer phones. The family claimed they were “cash poor,” and offered half the ransom. Hamm’s family paid their ransom within a couple days. Bremer’s was dragging for weeks. Where Hamm had been reasonably pleasant to kidnap, the injured Bremer was proving to be more vocal about his injuries and his grievances with his situation. Despite the FBI’s resolve to capture the kidnappers, Bremer’s family refused to cooperate with them, preferring to deal with the kidnappers directly.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
An FBI fingerprint kit from the 1930s. Federal Bureau of Investigation (2016, public domain).

Bremer Gangsters Revealed by Fingerprint Technology

After three weeks, the family put together the $200,000 for the ransom. Bremer was released near Rochester, Minnesota, injured but alive. But it was a close call; the negotiation dragged on so long Karpis worried they might have to “do something he didn’t want to do” to take care of the problem. The FBI caught a break in the Bremer case, however, when a farmer in Wisconsin found gas cans in his field. The cans had Doc Barker’s fingerprints on them. Within two years, the fingerprints helped the FBI identify the Barker-Karpis gang and their associates as the kidnappers. Despite the gang moving away from St. Paul in the wake of the Bremer kidnapping and their efforts to hide, theFBI captured them. Everyone involved was jailed or killed. But the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings put a deep crack in the O’Connor system, one from which it never recovered.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas A. Brown. Public domain.

Gangsters find their Safe Haven Breaking

The Hamm and Bremer kidnappings ended with the safe return of the victim. The official line was that the kidnappings were shocking because the underworld had intruded on the “overworld,” the criminals picked non-criminal targets. This isn’t quite right, according to historian Paul Maccabee. He claims the two worlds blended for years. St. Paul citizens were perfectly content – even excited – about their scandalous neighbors. The biggest concern centered around the crimes happening in St. Paul. The O’Connor system was clear – St. Paul was off limits. These crimes violated the oath. Additionally, the FBI identified Police Chief Thomas A. Brown, a chief supported by the underworld, as the source of leaks that allowed the Barker-Karpis gang to get away before the FBI could raid their compounds. The St. Paul Police Department fired Brown, but the crooked chief never faced charges.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
John Dillinger, 1924. Public domain.

A Famous Gangster’s Face and a Notorious Place

Despite the crack in the oath, FBI’s Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, called St. Paul his home in March 1934. He had recently broken out of jail in Indiana, robbed an Iowa bank resulting in a gunshot wound. Dillinger came to the Twin Cities to recover, preparing for the next round of robberies. He and girlfriend Evelyn Frechette, under the pseudonym Hellman, rented an apartment in the Grand Avenue area, the Lincoln Court Apartments. The couple took great pains to be discreet. They only used the back door. They refused to let anyone aside from their associates into the apartment. But this discretion actually caught the attention of the couple’s landlord, Daisy Coffey. When the couple refused to let a maintenance worker into the apartment for maintenance, her suspicions flared. She contacted the FBI about the couple, who sent St. Paul Police officers to observe the building.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
John Dillinger’s girlfriend Evelyn Frechette (1934). MN HIstorical Society, public domain.

The Quiet Couple Gets Loud

The police watched the Lincoln Court Apartments for suspicious activity all night. In the morning, FBI agents R. C. Coulter and Rosser Nails, with St. Paul police officer Henry Cummings approached unit 303, where the low-key couple resided, and knocked on the door. The woman, Dillinger’s girlfriend Evelyn Frechette, asked the officers for a minute so she could dress before speaking with them. As they waited, Dillinger gang associate Homer Van Meter sauntered toward the apartment. Cummings and Coulter requested identification from the young man. Van Meter claimed he was a soap salesman and walked with Coulter to the first floor of the building. Instead of handing over his wallet, Van Meter pulled out a pistol. Coulter fled the building, Nails following, exchanging gunfire with Van Meter. Van Meter encountered a garbage collector, stole the collector’s horse and hat, and fled the scene.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
A Thompson submachine gun, 1928 model. National Park Service (NPS), 2005, CC 3.0 .

A Painful Escape

While Coulter and Nails were battling it out with Van Meter, Dillinger opened his door just wide enough to stick the barrel of his Thompson submachine gun into the hallway and spray it with bullets. Cummings took cover around a corner, returning fire. A shot hit Dillinger, who was already recovering from a bullet wound, in the leg. The wounded Dillinger and Frechette, taking advantage of the melee, escaped down the back stairs. Frechette retrieved a car while Dillinger continued the gunfight. He hopped in, and they drove to the clinic of Dr. Clayton May in Minneapolis. Dillinger and Frechette stayed four days while his leg healed. They left for upper Michigan, where they would lay low until their next exposure at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, scene of an infamous shootout with FBI agents.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
Postcard of Ramsey County Courthouse and St. Paul City Hall. McGhiever (2012, CC 3.0)

St. Paul Declared Crime Free

Around the time Dillinger set up residence at the Lincoln Court Apartments, the Ramsey County grand jury investigated claims that St. Paul’s police were riddled with corruption, and the city harbored the worst gangsters of the time. Ironically, on the day of the Dillinger shootout, a grand jury submitted their findings. The report claims, “We believe there is no justification for any charges that an excess of crime exists here.” They declared St. Paul did not have a serious crime problem. The newspaper St. Paul Pioneer Press called out the problem, asking “Why do these dangerous gangsters all head for St. Paul when they want to hide out from authorities or take a rest?” The ensuing outrage led to a campaign by the newspaper to raise money for better police weapons than just their pistols. The effort raised almost $2,000 for Thompson submachine guns.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
Crowd outside Biograph theater in Indiana shortly after Dillinger’s death, 24 July, 1934. Public domain.

The Noose Tightens

By late July 1934, Dillinger was dead, shot by FBI agents outside the Biograph theater in Indiana. The FBI set its sights on the notorious criminals taking advantage of the St. Paul safe haven. Van Meter and the Barker-Karpis gang became the next targets. As the net tightened, the Barkers saw the winds of change. They left to find their fate elsewhere. But the gangsters were just a means to an end; they wanted to end corruption in the St. Paul police force. The FBI wanted to give St. Paul the actual clean bill of health the Ramsey County grand jury tried to give it on the day of Dillinger’s shootout. While the other gangsters laid exceptionally low, Van Meter lived openly in St. Paul. The underworld was growing concerned about Van Meter’s gallivanting. His handlers warned him about the FBI crackdowns, but Van Meter ignored warnings.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
Homer Van Meter. FBI, Public domain.

Gangster Homer Van Meter’s final stroll

On August 23, 1934, just month after Dillinger died, Homer Van Meter went to the St. Paul Auto Company to consider buying a new car, possibly to leave town. He didn’t know there were four police officers lying in wait for him armed with shotguns. The shop, with its underworld connections, knew Van Meter would be there. As Van Meter left the shop and strolled down the street, the officers told Van Meter to stop. Van Meter ran into an alley, firing at the officers. Twenty-six shots hit Van Meter, some blasting off some of his fingers. Van Meter’s family would say the severity of his wounds (warning: link contains graphic content) made it seem to be an execution. The FBI indicated Harry Sawyer set Van Meter up. Sawyer allegedly wanted the money Van Meter was carrying, splitting it with the four officers involved in the shootout.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
Landmark Center, served as Federal Courthouse from 1934 until 1966. w_lemay (2021, CC2.0).

St. Paul Wrecked it for the Rest of the State

After O’Connor’s death, his system lived on through two subsequent Police Chiefs. Minnesota accounted for more than 20% of the nation’s bank robberies, although this statistic was unsurprisingly lower in the city of St. Paul. But by 1933, the O’Connor system was eroding. The Hamm and Bremer kidnappings and the Dillinger shootout in 1934 happened within St. Paul borders, violating the terms of the agreement. The FBI caught and tried gangsters on federal charges. The FBI watched St. Paul law enforcement closely and exposed the corruption in the St. Paul Police Department. St. Paul’s mayor Mark Gehan and the new police chief Thomas Dahill declared a “war on hoodlums.” The O’Connor system was in turmoil, and with a police chief no longer on the take and criminals no longer being left alone, St. Paul was no longer the sanctuary city they had enjoyed during the O’Connor years.

This Random City Was A Literal Paradise For Prohibition Gangsters
Aerial view of St. Paul, c. 1930s. Joe Haupt, CC BY-SA 2.0.

How the O’Connor System Lasted for so Long

The O’Connor system lasted for about forty years, even after O’Connor’s death in 1924. St. Paul gangsters knew when they had a good thing going. Anyone caught violating the rules or breaking their pledge not to commit a crime was dealt with quickly and severely. According to St. Paul historian Paul Maccabee, St. Paul was a very safe place to be. Not just for criminals, but also for citizens and police. Safety aside, many of St. Paul’s residents resisted Prohibition and being treated like criminals for buying a beer. They were happy to flout, even help violate, a rule with which they didn’t agree. But the system broke down once criminals became bold. They were committing crimes within the city, ignoring the terms of the O’Connor agreement. The glory years were over, gone out with a literal bang, one as loud as the car bomb that killed Dapper Dan Hogan.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

A shootout at St. Paul’s Lincoln Court Apartments. Ron Dansley,, 14 July 2021.

Crooks’ haven: The gangster era in St. Paul. Sharon Park, MinnPost, 10 November 2015.

Gangster era in St. Paul, 1900-1936. Sharon Park, MNopedia, 4 November 2015.

John Dillinger Slept Here. Paul Maccabee (1995). Minnesota Historical Society Press.

O’Connor Layover Agreement. Matt Reicher, MNopedia, 14 July 2014.

That time John Dillinger shot his way out of a St. Paul apartment building. Nick Woltman, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 31 March 2016.

The O’Connor Layover System. Edward J. Steenberg, Saint Paul Police Historical Society, (n.d.).

Next chief of police: John J. O’Connor, whose reputation as a thief-catcher is national. (n.a.) The St. Paul Globe, 3 June 1900.

Lincoln Court Apartments. HTC, Historic Twin Cities, 5 December 2019.

The Volstead Act. Kerry C. Kelly, National Archives, 24 February 2017.

St. Paul’s Nina Clifford: the richest woman of the underworld. Alexandra Scholten, MNopedia.