Excerpt from Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang by Tim Mahoney
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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.