June 15, 1933 to January 17, 1934
“The brazen kidnappings of prominent businessmen William Hamm (June 15, 1933) and Edward Bremer (January 17, 1934) by the “Ma” Barker gang put an end to Chief O’Connor’s hands-off crime policy in Saint Paul. Both men are returned unhurt after large ransoms are paid.” *
In the Prohibition Era of our largely blue-collar city of Saint Paul, there was an empathy and a real motive to look the other way at bootlegging. Physically, the city is located on the Mississippi River, and is the first big stop downstream from Canada. There’s a plethora of natural caves, which made effective stealth warehouses for the product. One also wonders if its populace, mostly of the Catholic regions of Europe, did not share the same moral objections to beer and whiskey of their dry Protestant counterparts in Minneapolis?
To continue the narrative, its people were comfortable with playing dumb to Johnny Law if it meant lucrative cash jobs working for the gangs, and if it kept St. Paul a “wet” city. Civic leadership, allegedly, were on the payrolls of major gangsters from Chicago, and were apt to play it cool if the gangsters kept a low profile. Apparently, this unspoken agreement between Chicago crime and St. Paul police began decades before the Volstead Act.
“This collaboration began in 1900 with the Layover Agreement, an unofficial contract between criminals and Chief of Police John O’Connor.
In exchange for tip-offs about FBI raids and protection during their “layover” in the city, the gangsters first agreed to check in with the St. Paul police when they were in town. Second, they gave a portion of their gains to the police department. Finally, they agreed to commit no crimes within the city limits, though Minneapolis was fair game.”**
During the era of the Great Depression, Hamm and Bremer would likely stand out as targets for kidnapping. Mr. Bremer was affiliated with banking, and Mr. Hamm with brewing. Though very different personalities, Hamm being an affable sort and Bremer more shielded type, both men were visible leaders from noteworthy families in Saint Paul.
Ma Barker also led a prominent family known as the Barker-Karpis Gang. “Though her children were undoubtedly murderers and their Barker-Karpis Gang committed a spree of robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes between 1931 and 1935, there is no evidence that “Ma” was their leader or was even significantly involved.” What is apparent, however, is that she stuck by her sons and their associates throughout their criminal careers.
Alvin Karpis, the probable real leader of the gang, later said that Ma was just “an old-fashioned homebody from the Ozarks … superstitious, gullible, simple, cantankerous and, well, generally law abiding”.**** He concluded that,
‘The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang. … She wasn’t a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive … she knew we were criminals but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?’ *****
So we come to You, Jesus, to watch and pray over this event. What do you want to reveal to us today through it? What blessing can come from an enabling mother, this gang, the corruption of police, and the crime of kidnapping?
We ask forgiveness for these past offenses to You in our city and state. Will You forgive Ma Barker for being an enabler of her criminal sons, and the impact of their crimes to our city? Will You forgive us today of similar co-dependence within the families of Minnesota? Give us grace to face our failures as parents, commitment to stand by our kids going the wrong way, and love that affirms them, yet calls out their sin. Will You bless our present and future mothers of Minnesota, and especially the relationships with their sons?
We acknowledge to You the damage done to innocent lives through the willful actions of the Karpis-Barker Gang. Will You bring restitution to all who suffered their crimes, as well as the heritage of the Bremer and Hamm families? Conversely, will You cut off the curses passed down to any generation of the Karpis or Barker clans?
How we need Your healing for our men, and especially our men enticed into gang life! We acknowledge to You that we have not followed Your laws to honor our fathers and mothers, or practiced proper diligence in the raising of some of our sons. We have driven them away at times: from our families, from schools or job training, from the Church, and, most painfully, from You! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy!
Though we try, we have failed them somehow as: sons, husbands, fathers, and friends. Protect and shield our sons from the enticement of a life of crime, and the arms of surrogate families in the underworld. May these vulnerable boys find a good man to call out their holy masculinity. May they forgive their fathers’ offenses, and break with the spirit of vengeance.
We remember to You how we have subtly yielded to the Enemy in St. Paul, by looking the other way. Our police, it seems, were corruptible because they were internally incomplete. It is hard to bribe a content man. You have said, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”******* Have mercy on these policemen past, and free those similarly tempted in the present. We ask Your protections over Minnesota’s police both now and forever; be their shield and very great reward!
We end by thanking You for Your eternal justice! You are our advocate within our broken families, though they may seem beyond hope. You bring us back to our Everlasting Father, no matter our state of lawlessness. You used the Catholic priest Lucien Galtier to rename the city of L’oeil de Cochon, so named for the alleged bootlegger and first resident of St. Paul, Minnesota; Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant.
“Pig’s Eye, converted thou shalt be, like Saul; Arise, and be, henceforth, Saint Paul!”
** Sharon Park “Gangster Era in St. Paul, 1900–1936”. http://www.mnopedia.org/gangster-era-st-paul-1900-1936
***, **** Paul Maccabee, John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936, Minnesota Historical Society, 1995, p.105.