Gangsters left a mark in Minnesota

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

“Baby Face” Nelson. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. John Dillinger. “Dapper” Don Hogan.

Author Chad Lewis wrote about gangster hot spots in Minnesota, and talked about them during a stop in Elk River.
Author Chad Lewis wrote about gangster hot spots in Minnesota, and talked about them during a stop in Elk River.

Chad Lewis has studied these gangsters and others with ties to Minnesota and written about them in his book, “The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hotspots.”

In a presentation July 11 at the Elk River Library, Lewis said gangsters “robbed our banks, kidnapped our citizens and mowed down anybody who got in their way.”

There are many reasons why gangsters were attracted to Minnesota, Lewis said, but the No. 1 reason was St. Paul Police Chief John O’Connor.

O’Connor “is credited with allowing gangsters to freely roam St. Paul as long as they stayed out of trouble and paid a percentage of their earnings to the department,” according to Lewis’ book.

Lewis said bank robber Alvin “Creepy” Karpis once noted that if you were looking for a buddy you immediately thought of two places: prison or St. Paul.

One of the gangsters Lewis finds most compelling is George “Baby Face” Nelson, whose actual name was Lester Gillis.

Lewis said he was probably the best connected gangster of all time. He could provide a safe house, an arsenal of weapons and an introduction to the “right people.”

At a time when most gangsters traveled with beautiful mistresses or “molls,” Nelson was reportedly devoted to his wife, Helen, and their two young children. But Nelson had a dark side: his legendary temper.

“Many of his colleagues refused to work with him because they never knew what he was going to do,” Lewis said.

One of the exploits he was involved in was the Oct. 22, 1933, robbery of the First National Bank in Brainerd. Nelson and four other men pulled off the heist.

Witnesses described seeing a man standing outside the bank with a picnic basket.

“They thought it was odd that this man was carrying a picnic basket,” Lewis said. But inside the picnic basket was a Tommy Gun.

As the gangsters left the bank, they opened fire in downtown Brainerd. More than 50 shots were fired, and the bullet marks are still visible on some buildings, Lewis said.

The gangsters got away from pursuing officers by throwing roofing tacks on the road, which popped the tires of the police cars in pursuit. The robbers drove back their safe haven in St. Paul, Lewis said.

The historical society in Brainerd still has the picnic basket, he said.

“Dapper” Don Hogan was another notable gangster. He ended up becoming one of the first victims of a car bombing in the United States, Lewis said. His car blew up in St. Paul on Dec. 4, 1928. Hogan didn’t immediately die because he was a large man so his seat was pushed all the way back and he didn’t get the full force of the blast. He was a beloved figure and hundreds lined up at the hospital to offer to give him blood, but he eventually died from his injuries. The murder was never officially solved, Lewis said.

Then there was the Barker-Karpis Gang, which included Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Doc and Fred Barker.

“They terrorized this state,” Lewis said.

On Dec. 16, 1932, the gang robbed the Third Northwestern Bank at Hennepin and Central in Minneapolis. Two officers initially responded, and there was a huge gun fight. Both officers would die from their injuries but the gangsters got away.

The gang went on to kidnap William Hamm of the Hamm brewing fortune in 1933 and Edward Bremer of Bremer banking fame in 1934. Both were released after ransom was paid.

Then there was John Dillinger. A noted bank robber, Dillinger was a native of Indiana but also spent time in Minnesota.

Dillinger made a memorable appearance in Wisconsin as well.

On April 20, 1934, Dillinger and other deadly criminals were relaxing at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin when authorities got a tip that they were there.

A gun battle broke out.

“Baby Face” Nelson came out of his cabin, firing at police before running into the woods. Dillinger and other gangsters got away by slipping out the back of the lodge. Dillinger and two others wanted to get back to St. Paul and led officers on a 40-mile gun fight before getting away.

Back at the lodge, the gangsters had left behind clothing, weapons, shaving items and other personal items that are still on display there, Lewis said.

While Dillinger survived that raid, his days were numbered. He was at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934, when authorities moved in. Dillinger was shot and died in an alley.

Every year on the anniversary of Dillinger’s death, the theater shows the same movie he was watching that night, Lewis said.

Homer Van Meter, who was Dillinger’s right-hand man, was gunned down by authorities on Aug. 23, 1934. He died in an alley in St. Paul.

“Baby Face” Nelson was the next to go. He died from gunshot wounds sustained in a gun fight with the FBI.

The last Barker boy still free and alive, Fred died in 1935 in a gunfight with authorities in Florida. His mother was also killed.

The gangster era ended for several reasons, Lewis said. One was the end of Prohibition. The gangsters had made millions in bootlegging and once Prohibition was repealed, that money dried up, he said.

Another reason for their demise was improved federal crime fighting. Lastly, Lewis said the public didn’t care about bootlegging and bank robbery, but when the gangsters began kidnapping wealthy citizens and shooting innocent bystanders, citizens turned on them.

“The gangsters couldn’t continue on forever,” Lewis said. “Death came knocking, and it came very quickly for many of them.”