Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

90 years ago, Hamm's heir kidnapped in broad daylight in St. Paul

historic photo of a brick building that reads Hamm's Brewery
The Hamm's Brewery complex in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul opened in 1900 and at one point had its own ZIP code and post office.
Courtesy of Field Guide Inc.

Ninety years ago this week, a St. Paul brewery magnate was kidnapped in broad daylight — snatched by four men on his way home.

The dramatic kidnapping of 39-year-old Hamm’s brewery heir, William Hamm Jr., made regional and national headlines in 1933.

His kidnappers asked for $100,000 ransom — equivalent to over $2 million in today’s money.

The story paints a picture of 1930s St. Paul. The so-called “O’Connor System,” named after the city’s police chief John O’Connor, made the city a refuge for criminals, Paul Maccabee told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

Maccabee is author of “John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul.

“John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, any gangster could come to St. Paul. As long as they were on their good behavior,” he said. “They could go to Minneapolis and kill whoever they wanted to. They could go to Iowa and rob a bank. But when they came to St. Paul, they had to be on their best behavior.”

The Barker-Karpis gang were behind this crime. Fred Barker, Alvin Karpis and Arthur “Doc” Barker were known for robbing banks and trains, and they flocked to the city as a haven.

Folks in St. Paul didn’t mind — for a while. They bragged about rubbing elbows with famous gangsters. But Hamm’s kidnapping shook St. Paul, and cracks began to show in the O’Connor System.

“In four days, the ransom was paid. And the Barker-Karpis gang got away with it. The money has never been recovered,” Maccabee said. Hamm was released unharmed.

“And needless to say, the wealthy people, the people in the mansions on Summit Avenue, they were terrified that they would be next.”

At the time of the kidnapping, prohibition was winding down. The Theodore Hamm Brewing Company had already been operating for nearly 78 years, and its owners were wealthy, influential people in Minnesota.

The FBI got involved. They used then state-of-the-art technology to “dust” for fingerprints on the ransom note — tying the gang to the crime.

Months later, the same gang would kidnap wealthy banker Edward Bremmer, Jr., heir to the Schmidt brewery fortune. Then, things really started to fall apart with the “O’Connor System.”

“Ten families from St. Paul hired a private detective. He wiretapped the St. Paul Police Department,” Maccabee said. “It had the cops talking to the crooks, on on tape, as it were, that was published in the St. Paul Daily News. And the embarrassment, the humiliation in St. Paul, that they tolerated the crooks caused a clean house in St. Paul.”

The crooked cops of O’Connor’s era were driven out.

As for the gangsters in the kidnapping: Fred Barker was killed in a shootout with FBI agents in 1935. Doc Barker and Karpis were sent to Alcatraz, where Doc died shortly after an escape attempt in 1939.

Hamm died in 1970 at the age of 87.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Oh, a little '30s music fits really well with this next story. It was big news in our region, making all the newspapers and big banner headlines and the top story on radio station newscasts, the dramatic kidnapping of St. Paul's Hamm's Brewery heir, William Hamm Jr. His abduction was 90 years ago tomorrow, Thursday.

And this story paints a picture of 1930s St. Paul, an era rife with gangs amid a corrupt judicial system. We're going to dive into all of that today as part of our Minnesota Now and Then series. To help us is Paul Maccabee. Paul's on the line. He's the author of John Dillinger Slept Here-- A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul. How have you been, Paul Maccabee?

PAUL MACCABEE: Well, thank you, Cathy. And how delightful to talk about the notorious, shall we say, infamous history of Dillinger era St. Paul.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, well, you of all people are well steeped in this. So you are the source on this. OK. Now, for folks who have never heard about this story, it's fascinating. Take us back. June 15, 1933, what went down?

PAUL MACCABEE: William Hamm Jr. is walking toward the Hamm Brewery that his family owns. A gentleman comes up, a kind of 6-foot-tall distinguished gentleman and says, you are Mr. Hamm, are you not? And just like a good Minnesotan, William Hamm says, yes, yes, I'm William Hamm. And the gentleman immediately, along with the Barker-Karpis Gang, throws Hamm into a car. They drive to Illinois. And he is held for $100,000 ransom.

And fortunately, in four days, the ransom was paid. And the Barker-Karpis Gang got away with it. The money has never been recovered. And needless to say, the wealthy people, the people in the mansions on Summit Avenue, they were terrified that they would be next.

CATHY WURZER: I'm sure they were freaked out. $100,000 back then was a whole lot of money. I think it's what? Maybe $2 and 1/2 million today. Now, I presume the Hamm family had that kind of money, right? They were very wealthy.

PAUL MACCABEE: They did indeed. In fact, Alvin Karpis, known as Creepy Karpis because you can never make it in the gang without having a gang name, drove by the Hamm Brewery, which, remember, Cathy, this was just after prohibition had been repealed.

So suddenly, you had all these breweries doing land office business. And apparently, Creepy Karpis looked at the Hamm Brewery, turned to the other members of the gang and said, do you think the guy that owns that brewery could pay $100,000? And the answer, of course, was yes.

CATHY WURZER: Now, I don't know much about William Hamm. I'm presuming that his father had other kids. Why was William targeted?

PAUL MACCABEE: Well, that is interesting. And it gets to the point of the deal that the crooks and the cops had in St. Paul. It was called the O'Connor System after the Police Chief John O'Connor. And the deal was John Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, any gangster could come to St. Paul as long as they were on their good behavior.

They could go to Minneapolis and kill whoever they wanted to. They could go to Iowa and rob a bank. But when they came to St. Paul, they had to be on their best behavior. And the good people of St. Paul, the Bremers, the Hamms, the people in the mansions, they loved that because St. Paul was a safe city until William Hamm was snatched off the streets of St. Paul.

And the interesting thing to me is the people of St. Paul knew about the deal that the crooks had with the cops. I thought it would be a dirty secret, but no. In the official 1914 Police Yearbook, it describes the, shall we say, understanding that the St. Paul Police had were the crooks. So it really was just a matter of when with that 30-year understanding that corrupt deal between the cops and the crooks, when would it fall apart? And it fell apart in June of 1933.

CATHY WURZER: Interestingly, that was the Barker-Karpis Gang that did this. I mean, I wonder if there was some bad blood between the Barker-Karpis Gang and St. Paul cops or someone in the police force that would have caused this.

PAUL MACCABEE: Cathy, you are an investigative journalist. In fact, when the gang was talking about the amount that they should charge, the $1,000, they wanted more Alvin Karpis said, let's ask $200,000. Let's ask $300,000. But their kidnap consultant-- I swear, they actually have kidnapping consultants named Freddie Goetz from Al Capone's area-- said, no, no, no, no, let's start small with $100,000. And then we'll kidnap somebody else, like they did Ed Bremer five months later.

And Karpis wrote, he thought that there was some politics involved, that there was some either bad blood between the Hamm family and the Barker-Karpis Gang. Again, if you had a wedding in St. Paul and you wanted illegal liquor, you went to the underworld during prohibition. So it was a permeable membrane between the underworld and the overworld. And Hamm got himself mixed in.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. OK. So William Hamm was kidnapped in broad daylight. They got the money. He was freed. I mean, did he ever write about this? What was it like? Was he treated well or what?

PAUL MACCABEE: It must have been terrifying. And what's interesting is the good Minnesotan. So apparently, Hamm was grabbed, thrown into the back of the car. And suddenly, Karpis had this horrible itch in the back of his head, oh no, did we kidnap the wrong guy?

So they looked down, because Hamm was pushed to the bottom of the seating well of the car, and said, are you William Hamm? And again, like a great Minnesotan, the kidnap victim William Hamm looks up at these notorious killers and gangsters and says, yes, I'm William Hamm.

And he said it with such aplomb that the gang didn't believe him that he would actually say that he was William Hamm, they kidnapped the right guy. So they had to look at the name that was sewn into his shirts. And they saw, OK, we did kidnap the right guy.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. So what did Mr. Hamm, the father, say? This was obviously a huge story in the newspapers, as I mentioned in the introduction. Any official statement from the Hamm family?

PAUL MACCABEE: You know, I think a lot of what happened-- and again, it was only five, six months later in January of 1934 that the next millionaire, Ed Bremer, of Bremer, the famous banking family--


PAUL MACCABEE: Exactly. He was kidnapped. And really what it was was the collapse of the O'Connor System. When they kidnapped William Hamm and then they kidnapped Ed Bremer, the wealthy people of St. Paul who had tolerated this corruption openly for so long-- and this is how open it was.

You would go to a restaurant in University Avenue, the Boulevards of Paris opposite where White Castle is today. And you would see John Dillinger eating spaghetti with his girlfriend one table away from you and you weren't scared. You knew that the fix was in. And you'd go home. And you'd tell your partner, oh my God, you wouldn't believe who I had lunch with today, John Dillinger or Alvin Karpis.

So really, it's a story of over and over in history, not just in Minnesota but in American history, we've thought we can find common ground with gangsters. Famously, the CIA worked with the Mafia to try to kill Fidel Castro. It goes on and on. And the tale, the lesson of the kidnapping of William Hamm and the subsequent kidnapping of Ed Bremer is that you simply can't tolerate crime and expect that it won't affect your life.

CATHY WURZER: Final question. I don't know if you came across any newspaper clippings on this. So what led to the downfall? You mentioned the two kidnappings, obviously. Were cops exposed and corrupt officials exposed? Was there a mechanism?

PAUL MACCABEE: Great question, Cathy. The saddest thing is the corrupt police chief Tom Brown who headed, I swear to goodness, the kidnap squad of the St. Paul Police. Mind you, that was the squad that was supposed to protect people from being kidnapped. He was the go between. He was the corrupt link between them. He never spent a day in jail.

None of the bad cops, shall we say, who participated in these kidnappings, none of them faced any justice. However what happened is 10 families from St. Paul hired a private detective. He wiretapped the St. Paul Police Department.

They got-- I think they called them Permagraphic disks. They didn't have digital at the time, of course. And it had the cops talking to the crooks on tape, as it were. That was published in the St. Paul Daily News. And the embarrassment, the humiliation in St. Paul that they had tolerated the crooks, that caused a clean house in St. Paul.

CATHY WURZER: What a story. By the way, before you go, about 30 seconds, how did you get in-- what sparked your interest in all this?

PAUL MACCABEE: I'm not from Minnesota. I'm not from St. Paul. I'm from Boston, Massachusetts. I always thought that Minnesota history was Bob Dylan, J.J. Hill, and then more recently, obviously, Prince. And then someone ran into the newsroom at the late newspaper Twin Cities Reader, said, "The godfather is dead." That was Kid Cann the gangster. And I wanted to learn more about the unknown underworld history of Minnesota.

CATHY WURZER: And that's what sparked it? Oh my God, Paul, what a story. Thanks so much.

PAUL MACCABEE: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Paul Mackabee is the author of John Dillinger Slept Here-- A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul. Interesting guy. Thank you for joining us today on Minnesota Now from MPR News.

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