Gun Molls, Getaway Cars, and...a Good Burger?
LearningLife instructor and author of John Dillinger Slept Here Paul Maccabee looks at infamy and edibles in Twin Cities history
Snag a slice of pizza at Savoy; take flight with a craft beer or two at the Happy Gnome; enjoy the local walleye at Tavern on Grand; order your steak still mooing at Kincaid's; reserve a table for fine dining at W.A. Frost's... No matter what your culinary curiosity asks for, chances are, you can find it in St. Paul.
And, of course, being the metropolitan area that it is, there's always a chance for a celebrity sighting or two when you are out and about. Maybe you'll end up having a drink next to Lady Gaga at the Turf Club, or catch a glimpse of hometown hero and Twins catcher Joe Mauer as he chows down on a Juicy Lucy at the Nook in Highland Park.
While it sometimes gets short shrift compared to its larger twin on the other side of the river, as it turns out, the Capital City is just as "happening," and has long been a hangout for the rich and famous...or, in some cases, infamous.
Not too long ago, in the early-1930s days of Prohibition, you could still go out and about for a good meal and a better-than-average chance to see stars...except the elbows you'd rub with in the Saintly City back then weren't quite as benevolent as they are today.
Thanks to the protection of the infamous O'Connor System agreement between the St. Paul Police and criminals across America, the city served as a haven for public enemies, allowing them to rest, relax, plot, and, yes, dine, unmolested--provided they followed the (unwritten) rules.
Says Paul Maccabee, crime historian and author of John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. PauI, "Back in the 1930s, in particular 1932-34...that was the heyday of John Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, etc. At that time, it wasn't unusual to go to a restaurant, like Vince Guarnera's place in White Bear Lake or Boulevards of Paris on University and Lex in St. Paul, and you would be having dinner with your wife or husband and kids, and there would be John Dillinger sitting there eating a sausage at a table nearby with his gun moll, or Babyface Nelson having a steak. And you'd RECOGNIZE them...but you wouldn't be scared."
Continues Maccabee, "Here they are, the most dangerous, most wanted men in America--named Public Enemy Number One by the FBI, pictures on wanted posters at the post office, etc. But when you saw them dining, literally just feet from you, not only would you not report them to the police, you wouldn't feel like you were in danger."
And that, he explains, was because the "fix was in." Otherwise known as the "O'Connor Agreement," the arrangement came about when St. Paul chief of police John O'Connor made a bargain with the underworld community welcoming outlaws as long as they checked in with police, paid a small bribe, and promised not to kill, kidnap, or rob within city limits.
"So people knew that as long as you didn't try to turn them in, or arrest them or whatever, they were safe. Sitting down to eat, with John Dillinger five feet away from you eating spaghetti, wasn't a terrifying experience--it was a celebrity moment. It was like eating next to O.J. Simpson. Someone who was notorious, infamous, and a famous criminal...but not someone who you are worried about. It would be like having dinner next to Babe Ruth or Clark Gable. People would go home afterwards and excitedly tell all their friends, 'You will NEVER guess who I got to sit by! John Dillinger!' And their friends would say, 'No way! Did you get his autograph?'"
That type of celebrity dinner dish was common in that era, because gangsters liked to eat...and they liked to eat good food. "Sure, they were on the lam, but they had a lot of money," says Maccabee. "You'd hear about how Dillinger would drive up to the Hollyhocks Club and send a henchman in to get a steak and bring it back out to him. And he'd sit in his car, there on the bluffs above the river, eating his dinner, and then send the plate back in. So here's the most wanted man in America, a guy with a huge price on his head, and he's risking his freedom, his life, because he wanted a good steak--and the Hollyhocks reportedly had the best steaks in town."
In fact, St. Paul was not just the place for good food; it was a regular vacation hotspot (or on-the-lam hidey hole) for some of the most nefarious names in history. "For a period of about 30 years, this arrangement with the police meant that St. Paul was everything the crooks needed," says Maccabee.
"The fix was in, so they had protection. They could get guns--machine guns, tommy guns--the best in the world were flown in to Minnesota. They could get girls (in fact, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis met the love of his life in St. Paul). And they could get getaway cars. If you needed a high performance car, the best getaway cars for bank robbery in America were sold here in St. Paul. Specialty heavily armored cars."
Gun molls, getaway cars, and good burgers... basically, Maccabee says, "St. Paul was a WalMart for gangsters. One-stop shopping."
The Era of the Infamous finally came to an end in the mid-1930s, when 10 St. Paul businessmen pooled their money to hire a detective to bug the city police department. "They wiretapped the phones, and the transcripts of those calls showed, very plainly, cops talking with crooks."
And when those transcripts got turned over to the newspaper, and then the story was printed, exposing in black and white the "dirty little secret that everyone already knew," it was an end of an era. "Everybody knew what was going on already, but it was like they were rubbing the people of St. Paul's noses in it. So in 1935-36, they cleaned house--and it was quite the undertaking, as it involved not just police on the take, but politicians of all levels, judges, mayors, etc."
These days, even though the "fix" may have been "out" for going on three-quarters of a century, in true Minnesota "pride of ownership" fashion, St. Paul not only acknowledges, but also embraces, its semi-sordid past and (in)famous adopted sons and daughters. Maccabee is a leading expert on the topic, and in addition to penning the book John Dillinger Slept Here, he has also been featured in numerous TV documentaries on Prohibition-era gangsters and crime.
For those who hunger to learn more about the era, Maccabee will bring his knowledge of all-things-shady-in-St. Paul to the LearningLife daylong immersion course, A Haven for Public Enemies: St. Paul in the Gangster Era, on June 25. A combination presentation and tour, the course will visit the sites of brothels, crime scenes, speakeasies, and mob hideouts, and learn the underworld secrets of Dillinger, Nelson, and Karpis, and many more, including Bugsy Siegel and Ma Barker. Details and registration information are on the LearningLife website.
All this spaghetti talk whet your appetite?
The gangsters are long gone, and Maccabee's course isn't until June, but if you want to indulge in some gangster gastronomy, check out some of these local watering holes with ties to the Twin Cities most notorious n'er-do-wells:
Café (inside Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, open during limited hours), is in the Old Federal Courts Building where members of the Dillinger and Barker-Karpis Gang were tried and convicted of kidnapping and other crimes.
The Eagle Street Grille (W. 7th, St. Paul) features a gangster-themed menu and décor as a tribute to the city's infamous history.
Phil's Tara Hideaway (Highway 36, Stillwater) is a historic landmark that has been operating since the mid-twenties. It was originally opened as Lynch's Chicken Shack, a popular speakeasy that fed such "dignitaries" as Al Capone and John Dillinger.
DeGidio's (W. 7th, St. Paul) was founded by bootlegger Joe "Kid Bullets" DeGidio in 1933 and was a favorite watering hole for many of the most notorious mob figures of the era. Still family-owned, it is a popular Italian restaurant known for its Hot Dagos.