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When St. Paul — officially — served as a safe haven for criminals

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
John O’Connor, c.1912.

The O’Connor layover agreement was instituted by John O’Connor shortly after his promotion from St. Paul Detective to Chief of Police on June 1, 1900. It allowed criminals to stay in the city under three conditions: that they checked-in with police upon their arrival; agreed to pay bribes to city officials; and committed no major crimes in the city of St. Paul. This arrangement lasted for almost forty years, ending when rampant corruption forced crusading local citizens and the federal government to step in.

After becoming police chief, O’Connor re-organized the police force and gave himself nearly absolute power. He then reached out to criminals throughout the Midwest, letting them know that St. Paul was a safe place for them. He promised that the police would disregard offenders who performed their deeds beyond St. Paul as long as they remained law abiding while in the city.

To accomplish his plan, O’Connor required a liaison from within the criminal ranks to keep an eye on his peers. William “Reddy” Griffin was the first keeper of O’Connor’s system. After arriving in town and meeting with the police, criminals stopped to “check in” with Griffin at the Hotel Savoy in downtown St. Paul. Among his many duties, Griffin collected bribes and brought the money to O’Connor. When Griffin died of apoplexy in 1913 at the age of sixty-five, “Dapper” Dan Hogan took over his role.

Thanks to the layover agreement, St. Paul in the first half of the twentieth century became a refuge for many of the most notorious gangsters of modern American history. John Dillinger and Billie Frechette, Ma Barker and her boys, “Babyface” Nelson, Alvin Karpis, and others considered St. Paul a safe haven at some point during their “careers.” Minnesota became an epicenter of illegal activity, with major crimes committed across the state. While surrounding towns and cities suffered, St. Paul remained nearly free of major crime.

The layover agreement remained in force for so long because each side benefited financially. As long as criminals stayed in the city, bribes flowed toward corrupt officials and the system remained intact. It was so lucrative that criminals policed their colleagues to ensure that no one ruined a good thing. If anyone broke O’Connor’s rules, the “heat” would be too hot to overcome, and the financial windfall would quickly come to an end.

O’Connor retired from the police force on May 29, 1920. A car bomb killed Hogan on December 4, 1928; his murder remains unsolved. The layover system persisted, but without O’Connor’s heavy hand to police it, things began to change. St. Paul’s crime rate eventually surged. The city that had enjoyed a reputation for safety in the 1920s became a “poison spot of crime” in the eyes of the nation.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the city’s criminals took over. No longer able to make money selling illegal liquor, many turned to ransom. In June, the city was shocked to learn of the kidnapping of Hamm’s Brewery president William Hamm Jr. by the Barker-Karpis gang. In January of 1934 the gang struck again, this time carrying off Schmidt Brewing Company heir Edward Bremer. The kidnapping of such public figures alerted the nation and forced the federal government to intervene.

The arrival of federal agents in St. Paul spelled the beginning of the end of the layover agreement. Under surveillance by a higher authority, local officials could no longer ignore crime and accept bribes with impunity. In 1934 the federal government passed a series of crime laws that increased the FBI’s jurisdiction. This allowed the Bureau to attack the gangster menace throughout the country.

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That same year, frustrated St. Paul citizens, led by journalist Howard Kahn, took the fight to local corruption. Chicago detective Jamie Wallace, hired by Kahn and Commissioner of Public Safety Henry Warren, wiretapped the St. Paul Police Department for over a year. Those wiretaps exposed a bevy of crimes and provided transcripts of officials tipping off organized crime members. In July 1935, reporters at Kahn’s newspaper (the St. Paul Daily News) wrote a story about corruption within the police ranks.

The O’Connor layover agreement ended in 1935 with the conviction or resignation of many of the city’s police force. The old guard was gone, and the new guard made sure that O’Connor’s system did not return.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/29/2014 - 11:05 am.

    Why?

    Matt, you write that “He (O’Connor) then reached out to criminals throughout the Midwest, letting them know that St. Paul was a safe place for them.”

    This strikes me as a kind of odd idea for him to have come up with. Do you know anything about why he decided to pursue this particular course of action? Was it literally that he realized it would keep St. Paul “safe” (despite the cost to surrounding communities) or did he maybe have some pre-existing ties to the criminal community that predisposed him to lean in that direction?

    I just found the whole idea fairly curious, and wonder whether you know anything about its origins.

    • Submitted by Matt Becker on 07/29/2014 - 11:33 am.

      short answer

      $$$$$$$

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 07/29/2014 - 11:53 am.

      Economic development? Crime as sport?

      Sorry I couldn’t resist.

      I think that this is similar to what old Las Vegas was similar to this only the enforcement was the mob.

      I don’t think this is an unusual business model.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/29/2014 - 01:10 pm.

    it would be nice for you to have cited at least one or two of your sources here. Most of us who have looked into this situation know that your article contains nothing new that’s not in books like John Dillinger Slept Here and other histories of St. Paul’s 20th century.

    It’s wonderful to post interesting stuff, but there were people before you who actually dug this stuff up. Name them. Refer to their books. Respect the work.

  3. Submitted by Lance Groth on 07/29/2014 - 03:29 pm.

    Novel

    For a fun read in novel form covering events in St. Paul during the ’32-’35 period, from the perspective of the crusading journalist (renamed Grover Mudd) try “Saint Mudd”, by local writer Steve Thayer. Mr. Thayer seems to have done due diligence in his research, and the gangsters, corrupt officials, newspaper anti-corruption campaign, and G-men are all there. It makes for a fun summertime read, particularly appealing to St. Paulites as the locations are all familiar.

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