Any police investigator will tell you it’s good to have a few friends in low places. But there’s a fine line between knowing someone who might know something and letting someone who should be in jail walk free.
In the 1930s, St. Paul Police Chief Tom Brown not only had too many connections with the underworld but also was a full player in some of the most blatant crimes committed by the city’s Prohibition-fueled gangland — including murder. And he got away with it all.
Tim Mahoney, a longtime Pioneer Press copy editor and novelist, has pieced together a riveting account of a criminal scene that operated in the Twin Cities and beyond with full knowledge of the police department, thanks to Brown.
“Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang” (Minnesota Historical Society Press) draws the connections between the St. Paul Police Department and the criminals that terrorized (and yes, sometimes thrilled) the city with their misdeeds. These weren’t small-time crooks — many of the era’s most notorious gangsters did “business” in St. Paul, especially with the city’s breweries. Banks were robbed, innocents were kidnapped, bodies were dumped in the woods, and the infamous Ma Barker gang set up shop in West St. Paul and made nice with the neighbors, all with Brown’s approval.
Mahoney talked with me about the era, his research and his book:
MinnPost: Where did your interest in gangsters begin?
Tim Mahoney: I had no special interest in St. Paul’s gangsters until I read a newspaper account that mentioned the Hamm kidnapping of 1933. The article said some people suspected the police chief was involved. That intrigued me, because I had never considered what role police corruption might have played in the Public Enemies era.
MP: How did that lead to this book?
TM: I went to the St. Paul Public Library and read in the reserve room a copy of Alvin Karpis’ biography. In it, Karpis writes that a St. Paul police official had conspired in the Barker Gang’s kidnappings. So the confirmation was right there. I couldn’t help but push on in the research.
The most dangerous part of Tom Brown’s life came when he was briefly in the sights of J. Edgar Hoover. This lasted only for a month or two, in the spring of 1936. Hoover sent his agents around to find eyewitnesses to Brown’s crimes, but nobody would talk. There was a climate of fear in St. Paul in those days that would be hard for us moderns to believe. Even his fellow cops were afraid of Brown. Hoover’s focus soon shifted away from Brown. But the FBI kept good records, and in those reports, Tom Brown still lives as a highly suspect character.
MP: Did he leave any lasting shadow on today’s SPPD?
TM: I really doubt that. St. Paul reformed itself in the mid- to late 1930s. A coalition of businessmen concluded that St. Paul’s rough reputation was bad for business. They hired freelance investigators to bust the police department, using a primitive form of wiretaps. I have no insider information about the modern St. Paul Police Department, but my experience as a citizen suggests that it’s a pretty good outfit now.
MP: How do you feel about the fact that he “got away with it”?
TM: I really don’t believe we have a justice system, so I don’t feel any sort of angst over Tom Brown’s escape from it. We have a court system, and that’s quite different from a justice system. The court system works reasonably well in keeping our society from devolving into vengeance and mob rule. That’s its purpose. It was never meant to administer perfect justice.
Tom Brown “got away with it” essentially because J. Edgar Hoover saw no gain for the FBI in his arrest. Hoover was after the big headline names of the time: Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and of course he was obsessed with [John] Dillinger. In Hoover’s defense, he was trying to garner public support for a tiny, beleaguered federal police agency. Many of his political enemies hated the idea of a national police agency. Hoover needed good PR, and he eventually became a master of it. In short, the arrest and prosecution of Tom Brown was not, in Hoover’s judgment, the best use of the FBI’s resources.
MP: A lot has been written about the gangsters of this era. Why wasn’t the Tom Brown book done sooner — he seemed to be connected to everyone in the underworld?
TM: I’ve often wondered about that. In order to buy into the Tom Brown story, you’ve got to believe that the people we pay to protect us might actually be working to do us harm. That’s a difficult idea for many people to accept. Mythology is very strong, and the mythology of the Gangster Era is that rogue romantic machine-gunners roamed the country living fabulous movie-star lives, taking what they pleased, and laughing as they drove away in a hail of bullets. In reality, most of those gangsters were operating under a police protection racket. That’s not very romantic. It’s prettier to believe the romance of the era than its reality.
MP: You have so many fairly intimate, amazing details about these folks, especially Ma Barker. Tell me about your research process.
TM: It was labor intensive, but simple. I gathered the FBI files and combed through them, making notes. I cranked through year after year of newspaper articles. I studied pictures. I tracked down federal court transcripts. I read memoirs, and letters written from prisons. I wrote out chronologies. If you do this kind of thing for a while, the jigsaw puzzle begins to assemble itself. The neurons begin to connect. The trick, if there is one, is multiple sources. Everybody who encounters a person has a slightly different version, and when you put them together, you get a fuller character.
MP: Did you have any notable experiences during your site research?
TM: Very few. I’ve never even taken the famous Gangster Tour, though I intend to some day. But I do love the Landmark Center, and pass it a couple of times a week. Often I stop in just to be there. History fascinates me because when we go to the places where the great events occurred, we are only one dimension — time — removed from those events. I remember feeling this strongly when I walked in the Roman forum. Romans walked here. Caesar’s subjects! And so have I. That connection is the real romance of history.
MP: The old Hamm and Schmidt brewery buildings are coming back to life. What signs of the gangster era can still be found in these places, or anywhere around town?
TM: I don’t know about the breweries, but for me, it’s that old piece of St. Paul, the Landmark, Rice Park, the St. Paul Hotel. Imagine Rice Park swarming with an angry mob, demanding that Hamm’s kidnappers be hanged. That’s what it was like in those days.
MP: Many people romanticize the gangsters of this era. You clearly don’t, as you describe some fairly gruesome killings in vivid detail. Why do you think these gangsters still fascinate the public?
TM: I feel sorry for the gangsters of this era, especially the women, who were mostly innocent of any serious crimes. These men and women were poorly educated and desperate. Most of them drank heavily and rarely could they live in one place for more than a few weeks at a time. Many of them gambled away their “profits.” In a strange way, the gangsters were victims of the system, suckers in a game where the true winners were corrupt cops, prosecutors, lawyers and politicians. At the end of his life, Dillinger realized this, that he was a patsy who would soon become a victim.
But this point of view is not an easy sell. We’d much rather believe in the gloriously free rogues portrayed by the movies.
I think the Public Enemies fascinate the public because they were rebels, who did not knuckle under but had the courage, the lunatic courage, to take what they wanted and felt they deserved. I find it telling that the era’s gangsters dressed like bankers, even when engaged in bank robbery and kidnapping. It’s as if these grade school dropouts wanted to force their way into the upper classes.
For us moderns, the mythologized gangster holds a lot of power. No alarm clocks. No performance reviews. No freeway commutes. No PTA meetings. No gangster ever worried about his FICO score. The myth of the gangster life involved nightclubs, free spending, fashionable clothing, jewelry, swell cars … you were a man who inspired respect and fear, and were admired by the most adventurous women. It’s the myth of the free-living anti-hero that goes from Dillinger to James Dean to Keith Richards.
MP: What advantages did your work at the Pioneer Press give you as you worked on this book?
TM: Well, working at the paper for the past 13 years has given me a solid grounding, I hope, in the psyche, the politics and the fun of living in this unique little city. A great stroke of luck for me was the graciousness of the Pioneer Press managers, who allowed me to research the photo archives and use the fabulous pictures I found. The book would not have been as effective without those photos.
• Oct. 24, 7 p.m., Subtext Bookstore, St. Paul
• Nov. 8, 8-10 p.m., Bootleggers Ball, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” event opening, Minnesota History Center, St. Paul
• Nov. 19, History Lounge, 7 p.m., Minnesota History Center, St. Paul
• Nov. 20, 7 p.m., Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis
• Dec. 4, 4:30-6 p.m., Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour, hosted by Valley Bookseller at Dock Café, Stillwater.