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Morast: Minnesota was a gangster's paradise

Chad Lewis is an author who began researching the history of Midwest gangsters by accident. Special to The Forum

Whether hanging around the Red River Valley or traveling around the continent, we hear a lot about "Minnesota nice."

Sure, we're a friendly bunch.

But if you listen to Chad Lewis talk about the state's gangster history, you don't hear about how pleasant Minnesotans were.

Rather, you'll get stories of town judges showing stag films in speakeasies, gangsters sitting in hotel lobbies waiting for hush money and well-known criminals dumping bodies into rivers.

It's the dark side of Minnesota, a state Lewis says was a gangster's paradise in the early 1930s.

"Back in the '20s and '30s, more gangsters lived in St. Paul than anywhere else in the U.S.," Lewis says. "You were able to do whatever there as long as the police got a kickback."

Not very nice, eh?

Lewis will be addressing this questionable chapter of Minnesota history at 7 p.m. Monday during a free presentation in the Moorhead Public Library.

And while he'll be sharing some stories that connect Moorhead to the gangsters' heyday - like when the city went into a frenzy because the police thought John Dillinger was in town - most of the presentation will deal with the state's past. And for much of that, the focal point is its capital city.

"It seemed to be absolute chaos," Lewis says. "I'd say on some levels Minnesota was much more run by gangsters than Chicago was."

And like Chicago, which became known for its celebrity gangsters like Al Capone, Minnesota had its share of stars.

Ma Barker's Boys ran through the streets. And Leon Gleckman was a bootlegger who moved into the St. Paul Hotel and had his men sit in the hotel's lobby during the day to collect police bribes from local businesses.

"(Gleckman) was in there so much the FBI moved in, too," Lewis says.

These gangster personalities are fascinating. But perhaps even more interesting is the level of corruption in St. Paul.

"I was amazed that anything was able to get done," Lewis says. "Everything was corrupt. Banks were being robbed. Trains were being robbed. These things were just right out there (in the open)."

In the age of Prohibition, bars and gambling houses were common. And one brothel even had a tunnel running to the City Council building.

And the people didn't seem to mind. In fact, they cheered the gangsters.

"These people were folk heroes back then," Lewis says of the gangsters. "Whenever they showed a picture of Dillinger before a movie, like a trailer today, people in the audience stood up and cheered for him. People envied them for bucking the system and being anti-authority."

But the gangster love didn't last long.

Even though some of us might think the gangster era lasted a decade or more, Lewis says it was just a few years long, from 1931 to 1934.

In St. Paul, a city that was surprisingly safe despite the saturation of criminals, Lewis says the public opinion turned when Barker's Boys started shooting civilians.

After that, Minnesota began convicting a lot of the people who previously paid off the police and judges. By 1935, Minnesota's gangster heyday had hit a sunset.

They were all either dead or (in) prison at that time," Lewis says. "That's when they say Minnesota cleaned itself up, though some people say it never has."

If you go

* What: Minnesota's Gangster Past, presented by Chad Lewis

* When: 7 p.m. Monday

* Where: Moorhead Public Library, 118 5th St. S.

* Info: Admission is free

Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518 or