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Minnesota's top mobsters: When organized crime ruled the state

Minnesota in the 1930s. While St. Paul was considered a crook’s haven for mobsters to lay low, the infamous Al Capone was known to wander up North for rest and respite. Some point to St. Paul law enforcement as the key instigators in making Minnesota mob-friendly.

Pictured are infamous mobsters that made their way to Minnesota in the early 1930s. From left to right: Al Capone, Kate "Ma"Barker, Alvin Karpis, Leon Gleckman
Pictured are infamous mobsters that made their way to Minnesota in the early 1930s. From left to right: Al Capone, Kate "Ma"Barker, Alvin Karpis and Leon Gleckman.
Photo illustration - Trisha Taurinskas/Photos courtesy of FBI and Newspapers.com archive
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In the midst of the Northern pines and quaint Scandinavian communities of the early 1930s, a sinister underbelly of organized crime was brewing in Minnesota.

While St. Paul was considered a crook’s haven for mobsters to lay low, the infamous Al Capone was known to wander up North for rest and respite.

Some point to St. Paul law enforcement as the key instigators in making Minnesota mob-friendly.

The O’Connor Layover Agreement was created by Saint Paul Police Chief John O’Connor in 1900, essentially giving criminals free rein to lay low in St. Paul.

There were a few specifics the gangsters needed to follow, though — they had to agree to pay bribes to the police department, they had to check in at Hotel Savoy and they couldn’t carry out their criminal operations in St. Paul, according to Visit Saint Paul.

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The “agreement” didn’t work out well for anyone — the criminals that had made Minnesota their safe space began committing their crimes locally, particularly when prohibition entered the scene and O’Connor retired.

By 1920, those criminals began committing other high-profile crimes, including kidnapping, tax evasion and illegal gaming operations.

Minnesota's top mobsters: When organized crime ruled the state
Fri Aug 19 08:24:57 EDT 2022
In the midst of the Northern pines and quaint Scandinavian communities of the early 1930s, a sinister underbelly of organized crime was brewing in Minnesota.

While St. Paul was considered a crook’s haven for mobsters to lay low, the infamous Al Capone was known to wander up North for rest and respite.

Some point to St. Paul law enforcement as the key instigators in making Minnesota mob-friendly.

Ma Barker's Boys

In the 1930s, the FBI had it out for Kate Barker, the matriarchal leader otherwise known as Ma Barker, who allegedly led the Barker-Karpis Gang, known for kidnapping high-profile businessmen in the St. Paul area.

Like many other organized crime organizations, the Barker-Karpis gang made its home in St. Paul in the early 1930s. Their hideout home, located at 1031 S Robert Street in St. Paul, still stands today.

Pictured is the home of the hideout that belonged to The Barker-Karpis The home still stands today, and is occupied by a business.
The Barker-Karpis Gang hideout home, located at 1031 S Robert Street in St. Paul, still stands today.
Photo courtesy of Google

The gang was made up of her four sons, Fred, Arthur, Lloyd and Herman Barker, along with a number of accomplices, including the infamous Alvin Karpis and Charles Fitzgerald.

Their crime spree shook Minnesota in the summer of 1933 when the gang kidnapped William A. Hamm Jr., the president of Hamm Brewing Company as he was leaving work, according to the FBI.

Hamm Brewing Company was a lucrative beer company in St. Paul, making the kidnapping a high-profile crime in Minnesota and beyond.

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The Barker-Karpis Gang collected ransom on Hamm after he was forced to pen four ransom notes, according to the FBI. He was released to family near Wyoming, Minn. in a successful ransom handoff.


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Fingerprint technology was advancing at the time, though, and fingerprints of Karpis and Arthur Barker were extracted from the ransom note, giving the FBI the evidence they needed to go after the gang.

A year later, the gang was at it again. This time, they targeted Edward George Bremer Jr., the president of Commercial State Bank and son of the owner of Schmidt Brewery.

The gang took Bremer on Jan. 17, 1934. He was released three weeks later after his family handed over roughly $200,000.

With a combined effort that included fingerprint extracted from ransom notes, tips provided by Bremer and a gas can covered with the fingerprints of Arthur Barker, the FBI had enough evidence to hone in on the Barker-Karpis Gang.

And they did.

Ma Barker’s Boys fled Minnesota in an effort to escape the law. The FBI notes they were believed to have altered their fingerprints and appearances through “back-room plastic surgeries.”

It didn’t exactly work, though. Arthur Barker was arrested on Jan. 8, 1935 in Chicago. FBI investigators didn’t stop there — just a few days later, they tracked more associates of the Barker-Karpis gang to a hideout cottage in Florida. It was there that the shootout between the FBI and the Barker-Karpis gang began — and ended with the death of Kate “Ma” Barker.

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In April of 1936, the FBI closed in on another key figure of the gang: Alvin Karpis. In a full-circle Minnesota moment, Karpis was taken back to the scene of the Hamm kidnapping: St. Paul.

He pleaded guilty to kidnapping Hamm and was sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled in the 1960s and eventually made his way to Spain, where he died in 1979.

Leon Gleckman

Leon Gleckman was known as the Al Capone of St. Paul, as he ran a powerful bootlegging operation known throughout the country.

In the 1930s, Gleckman made his home at the St. Paul Hotel, where he ran his operations. Among those operations was a scheme in which members of his criminal organization would set up shop in the hotel lobby and collect police bribes, typically from local businesses, according to a 2010 Inforum article .

Pictured is a photo of Leon Gleckman, a notorious bootlegger and organized crime leader who called St. Paul home in the early 1900s.
Leon Gleckman, a notorious bootlegger and organized crime leader, called St. Paul home in the early 1900s. Despite facing multiple prison sentences, Gleckman ultimately died in a one-vehicle car accident.

Gleckman began to be known in St. Paul as a big player in the world of organized crime well before prohibition took over in 1920. A business owner with connections to politicians and law enforcement, Gleckman was a savvy player. So, when alcohol was outlawed, he moved into the bootlegging industry — and began a major nationwide operation. Still, he continued to call St. Paul home.

Gleckman used his political ties and businesses for his bootlegging operation. Simply put, his operation was a hit.

That came to a temporary halt in 1922 when he was arrested for violating prohibition laws. While he ditched law enforcement for years, he eventually turned himself over in 1927. He served roughly a year in prison, and was released in 1928.

His stint in prison didn’t slow him down — he returned to St. Paul, where he operated from the St. Paul Hotel and made connections with key law enforcement players. It allowed him to control gambling within the city and rise through the ranks of organized crime.

Gleckman headed back to prison in 1936 for tax evasion. A year later, he was taken back to St. Paul, where he was found guilty for contempt of court after it surfaced that he payed a juror in his original tax evasion trial. He was sentenced to six months.

Pictured is a 1932 headline in the Minneapolis Star that reads, "Leon Gleckman challenges U.S. to arrest him."
Leon Gleckman, considered the Al Capone of Minnesota, operated a successful bootlegging and illegal gaming operation in Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of Newspapers.com archive

A couple of years later, he was back in serving a six month sentence for criminal conspiracy. As the FBI was attempting to get Gleckman on anything that would stick, he died in a 1940 single-vehicle car accident.

Al Capone 

The co-founder of the Chicago Outfit was known to take respite up on Minnesota’s peaceful North Shore, along with his criminal counterparts in the bootlegging sphere.

Capone is rumored to have had many hideouts in the North woods, spanning from Wisconsin to Minnesota. His history of hiding out on the North Shore, away from his Chicago-based bootlegging operation, is well known among locals.

Capone and Dillinger were known to get away at Lutsen Resort, according to Exploring North Shore. Capone was also rumored to have had a permanent hideout lodge just outside of Silver Bay in Finland.

A story in Northern Wilds provides details of the Lodge, naming the location as Heffelfinger Road. The residence included a main lodge, a swimming pool, a horse stable and a number of cabins. Most notably, there was also a large underground safe.

The infamous Capone was sentenced in 1931 for charges related to tax evasion. He served eight years in prison. He eventually died in 1947 from a heart attack.

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Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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