Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Excerpt from Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang by Tim Mahoney
Click on the link above for more info and upcoming events with Tim Mahoney.
Among the most dangerous criminals of the public enemies era was a man who has long hidden in history’s shadows: Big Tom Brown. In the early 1930s, while police chief of St. Paul, Minnesota, Brown became a secret partner of the infamous Ma Barker gang. He helped plan the gang’s kidnappings and profited from their bank robberies, even as they gunned down cops and citizens in his hometown. He teamed up with a corrupt prosecutor to railroad men to prison, he beat confessions out of prisoners, and he was suspected by some of engineering two execution slayings.
Yet justice never caught up to Tom Brown. An overwhelming volume of evidence points to Brown’s involvement in illegal activities throughout his tenure as a policeman. But because of decisions made in St. Paul and Washington, Brown was never prosecuted for his crimes and the evidence was tested only at a civil service hearing, and not in court. The investigation of Brown never reached whatever allies he had among the city’s elite.
The Barker gang’s stalwarts, Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis, led a bumbling band of hillbilly burglars until they moved to St. Paul during Brown’s tenure as police chief. In the Ozarks, “My life in crime was minor league stuff,” admitted Karpis. But under the protection of Tom Brown, and the tutelage of St. Paul’s master criminals, his gang evolved into notorious and feared public enemies. Soon Karpis was pulling his “first genuine major league stickup,” at a Minneapolis bank.
Barker gangster Volney Davis confessed to the FBI that without the protection of Tom Brown, the gang “would have all been caught in St. Paul.” Edna Murray, the “Kissing Bandit,” told the FBI that if not for Tom Brown and James Crumley of the St. Paul police, the gang’s most infamous crime “could not have been successfully accomplished and certain members of this [Barker] mob would have been in jail a long time ago.”
Had the Barker gang never come under Brown’s protection, Ma Barker might have died lonesome in the Ozarks, an impoverished, obscure widow. Her son Fred and his pal Karpis would likely have been executed in Missouri before the nation knew who they were. The vicious killer Doc Barker would have remained in prison until he was an old man. At least seven murders and two grievous woundings might never have happened.
But Brown’s dark influence spread beyond the Barker gang. If not for the corrupt police force that crystallized during Brown’s tenure, the legend of John Dillinger might have ended on an Easter weekend in a snowy St. Paul parking lot. The Lady in Red would have been just another immigrant with visa troubles. No trap would have been set for Dillinger outside the Biograph theater. Newsreel hero Melvin Purvis might have retired as just another FBI functionary. Little Bohemia would be just another rustic Wisconsin resort, and not the site of a legendary FBI fiasco.
Many of Tom Brown’s fellow gangsters were shot dead, while others were locked up in Leavenworth or Alcatraz. But Brown proved to be the Houdini of gangster-cops. He outsmarted J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, retiring to collect his police pension and run a tavern in the north country. Despite all the blood on his conscience, all the families whose lives he devastated, and all the dark money he collected, he never spent a night behind bars.
In 1978 seven Norman Rockwell paintings and a supposed Renoir, later discovered to be a forgery, were stolen from Elayne Galleries in St. Louis Park. It is still the biggest theft in Minnesota history, and no one was ever convicted of the crime. Veteran crime writer Bruce Rubenstein, author of the new book The Rockwell Heist, details the story of the theft, the investigation, and the twenty-year quest to return the art to its rightful owners. Mr. Rubenstein recently answered some questions about his new book.
Why do you write crime stories, Mr. Rubenstein?
Because I always have something to write about. At least that was my standard answer when I was a freelancer selling articles to weeklies and monthlies. There is more to it than that, of course. People who write about business, or politics, or any number of other things always have something to write about too. But with crime your story has a dramatic hinge. And people are fascinated by crime.
Why were you drawn to the story of The Rockwell Heist?
It had everything a writer could ask for–feisty, sympathetic victims, bold villains who were part of a colorful local underworld, a sexy female con artist and her quasi-sympathetic dupe, a quest to recover the stolen paintings that went on for decades with one twist after another, hundreds of pages of files and many knowledgeable people to interview. And nobody got killed. I’ve been writing about crime for a long time, and I’m pretty tired of murders. This art theft and the many attempts to trade the loot for cash or something else of value seemed good-natured compared to the kind of crimes I’ve written about in the past.
Did you manage to solve the crime?
I found out who did it. So had the investigators. Like many crimes, it went into the books unsolved, even though the perpetrators, locally based professional criminals, were identified. There simply was not enough evidence to indict them. Their names were blacked out of the files, but I got in touch with one of the FBI’s informants and he told me who they were.
Why? Did he want credit? Notoriety?
No, in fact he went to great lengths to remain anonymous. It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered many times. There are people who like to talk. There’s nothing in it for them. Just the opposite. In many cases they are risking their lives.
You say that the value of the paintings that were stolen has mushroomed to more than $1 million by now. How much did the thieves realize?
Not much. The value of Norman Rockwell’s work waxed and waned during the time they retained possession of the art, but it didn’t really take off until long after they’d turned it over for a pretty minimal price to the mobsters who’d hired them to steal it.
So the theft was a failure, even though they got away with it?
Not at all. It accomplished exactly what the real authors of the act, Miami-based mobsters, wanted it to accomplish.
What was that?
I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to find out. I’ll tell you this much: the Rockwell paintings were peripheral to their real objective.
Well, if the mobsters didn’t really want the Rockwell paintings, what did they do once they got them?
They offered them for sale through a stolen art network in Europe. The evidence suggests that the paintings were bought and sold several times there, and maybe again in Argentina, before someone who was attempting to enter Brazil surrendered them to the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro, probably in return for expedited processing of an application for Brazilian citizenship. Brazil doesn’t extradite its citizens to face charges in other countries, and wanted criminals often seek refuge there.
How much are the paintings worth now?
Rockwell’s work has undergone a critical re-evaluation in the last decade or so, and several of his paintings have sold for more than $1 million. The collective value of the Rockwells that were stolen from Elayne Galleries is conservatively $4 million.
Bruce Rubenstein will talk about his book and sign copies next Thursday, March 28, at 7 pm at Common Good Books, and Thursday, April 4, at 7 pm at Once Upon a Crime. Please click the hyperlink to the title, above, for details.
Explore the dark side of Minnesota history with three veteran writers who have unearthed incredible stories of murder and mayhem. The event is Wednesday evening at Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.
Larry Millett, William Swanson, and Joe Kimball discuss their books about infamous crimes in Minnesota.
Wednesday February 27 at 7:00 p.m.
Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church
217 Mackubin Street, St. Paul, MN
Hosted by SubText: A Bookstore
Black White Blue: The Assassination of Patrolman Sackett revisits a tumultuous period of Minnesota history, tracking the consequences of a St. Paul police officer’s murder forty years forward into the here and now. Twin Cities-based journalist William Swanson, previously the author of Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson, about the 1963 slaying of a St. Paul wife and mother, recently answered questions about his new book.
What drew your interest to the Sackett case?
The conversation of a group of retired St. Paul police officers I met in the summer of 2008, when I was speaking about Dial M to an East Side book club. I had followed the Sackett case from the beginning, but had not given it much thought as a possible book topic until I heard the old cops discussing it. For them, James Sackett’s assassination, in May 1970, was a defining moment in their long lives and eventful careers. And the more I learned about it, the more the case seemed a defining moment in many people’s lives, maybe even the life of the community.
You’ve remarked that you’re drawn as an author to “dark subjects”––such as murder.
Blame my gloomy Swedish background, where the watchword was, “Every silver lining has a dark cloud.” Seriously, I think crime offers writers an irresistible entree into the lives of ordinary people––some extraordinary people as well––who find themselves, willy nilly, in extreme situations. The most interesting component of a riveting crime story is rarely the crime itself, but what occurred before and after, even long after. Patrolman Sackett’s assassination fascinated me for many reasons, but first and foremost was the effect it had even several decades later on the lives of his family and friends, the brotherhood of St. Paul officers, and the city at large.
You were twenty-five when Sackett was murdered. How do you personally recall those times?
As a college student and Army draftee, I would have described the period as wild––both exhilarating and ominous––and incredibly interesting. Beginning in 1963 and for roughly the next decade we experienced a half-dozen major assassinations and assassination attempts, the most devastating race riots in U.S. history, the Indochina war and a massive antiwar resistance, the civil rights revolution and women’s liberation, the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, Charles Manson, Kent State, and Chappaquiddick––all that plus “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll”! In Germany, where I was stationed, we hunkered down among frequent bombings, shootings, and other radical “political action,” often targeted at us. Race relations at military bases such as ours were tense and frequently violent. In retrospect, given what was going on around the world circa 1970, one of the more unexpected aspects of the Sackett story is how surprised St. Paul’s police were that people were trying to kill them.
At the end of Black White Blue, you remind your audience that you’re speaking as a white man and that there’s a significant gulf between black and white perspectives on matters of crime and punishment.
I’m sure that African American readers will be able to discern the author’s color without having to glance at his jacket photo or peek at the Afterword. For white readers, I felt a reminder of that perspective gap was appropriate because most white Americans, including myself, have taken for granted that our law enforcement establishment and legal system, for all their faults, are mostly fair and equitable. I believe the system got it right in the Sackett case, but I thought I should acknowledge the fact that a lot of black people were skeptical, to say the least––and, given their history, with no small reason. That said, I had no qualms as a white civilian Minneapolitan writing about blacks and cops in St. Paul. If we only wrote about our own kind, place, and experience our bookshelves would be pretty thin and uninteresting.
What’s the best part about writing a book?
Writing the book. Poring over the transcripts and files, finding and interviewing sources, then creating an organizational architecture and writing the damn thing. It’s a tiring process that can swallow years of your life, but I love the work only slightly less than I love my grandkids. What comes after the writing, the production hassles and the need to help sell the result––well, not so much.
Care to say anything about your next book?
Only that I’ve just begun the research, it involves a very well-known crime, and most of the action takes place on the west side of the Mississippi River.
Meet William Swanson this Friday at 7 pm at Common Good Books as he talks about Black White Blue. Click on the title for more event info.
Explorer and history buff Don Wildman had braved an underground Titan II nuclear missile silo in Arizona, prison cells inside San Quentin, and a former Nazi military compound for his Off Limits TV show on the Travel Channel. But would Wildman survive a visit to the St. Paul gangster haunts frequented by such Public Enemies as John Dillinger, Alvin “Creepy’ Karpis, and Babyface Nelson?
As the author of the MHS Press book John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, I got to serve as Wildman’s on-camera guide to the Minnesota underworld for a segment that was shot in July and began airing on November 17.
Easily our grisliest adventure was filmed in the basement of the downtown St. Paul Police Department. The TV crew secured a rare view of the bullet hole-filled hat last worn by John Dillinger’s machine-gunner Homer Van Meter–a hat autographed by the four police officers who shot Homer to death on August 23, 1934, just outside the Minnesota State Capital off University Avenue. Van Meter’s hat, which had vanished and was missing for more than three decades, was rediscovered in time for display during the show. Members of the St. Paul Police Historical Society also unearthed artifacts from the 1928 gangland assassination of St. Paul’s Irish Godfather Danny Hogan, who had guided the underworld from his Green Lantern bar. Wildman was enchanted by these artifacts from St. Paul’s dark past, perhaps most by the bullet holes, blood, and cerebral matter that were still visible inside Van Meter’s unlucky straw hat. Here’s an outtake from that creepy moment.
Appropriately, the Travel Channel’s TV crew lunched at Cosetta’s on West 7th Street, where I regaled them with tales of Minnesota mobster Rocky Lupino and other homegrown Mafioso over bites of ravioli and meatballs.
Then, Wildman toured the courtrooms of the Old Federal Courts Building (now Landmark Center), where members of the Dillinger and Barker-Karpis Gang were tried for kidnapping and other federal crimes. We retraced the steps of Dillinger’s comely girlfriend, Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, who attempted to escape from federal authorities on the third floor, and slipped inside the detention room where FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had chained Alvin “Creepy” Karpis before dragging him into court. But Off Limits is dedicated to bringing its camera to places where the public cannot go, so we also climbed to Landmark Center’s guano-spattered roof for a panoramic view that included the 1920s Bucket of Blood brothel area once presided over by madame Nina Clifford (now the site of the Science Museum), landmarks associated with the 1933-34 kidnappings of millionaires Ed Bremer and William Hamm, the gangland caves along the Mississippi River where bootleggers kept their illicit liquor, and hotels that were frequented by mobsters Bugsy Seigel and Al Capone. Catch it on reruns, or pick up a copy of John Dillinger Slept Here and take your own personal gangland tour.
–Follow Paul Maccabee @maccabeepr
Peg Meier, retired Star Tribune reporter and MHS author (Bring Warm Clothes and Too Hot Went to Lake), wrote an interesting article about a long-lost letter in the Minnesota Historical Society archives that revealed what really happened to Clell Miller’s body after the botched Northfield bank robbery led by Cole Younger. Cole Younger wrote about the raid in his lengthily titled autobiography The Story of Cole Younger: Being an Autobiography of the Missouri Guerilla Captain and Outlaw, His Capture and Prison Life, and the Only Authentic Account of the Northfield Raid Ever Published.
The opening of the St. Paul’s Landmark Center’s Public Enemies: A Restospective was last weekend, but there is still plenty more to see, including a re-enactment of 1934 trial of Dillinger’s girlfriend Evelyn Frechette, in the very building in which it occurred on July 15th and 16th, 7:00 pm. It’s also free! E-mail Kate at Kthompson@landmarkcenter.org to reserve a spot.
Also, on July 28th at 7:00pm, Paul Maccabbee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here, will share the stage with Ellen Poulsen, author of Don’t Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang, will reveal the secrets of some of the country’s most notorious outlaws. This is also free, although it is recommended that you e-mail ahead of time to reserve a spot.
This is the gun of Henry Cummings, the police officer in St. Paul who wounded Dillinger at a shootout in his St. Paul Lincoln Court hideout. Dillinger, shot in the hip, escaped out the back, which was unguarded by police. We brought the gun and holster up from our Minnesota Historical Society archives, which also houses thousands of FBI documents pertaining to Dillinger, for an upcoming newspaper article interviewing our author Paul Maccabee.
Paul Maccabee is the author of John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936.