On June 15, 1933, a kidnapping shook St. Paul.
William Hamm Jr., the president of Hamm’s Brewing Co., was grabbed by the Barker-Karpis gang while walking home on his lunch break.
A $100,000 ransom secured Hamm’s release a few days later on June 19, but the case marked a new era in St. Paul crime.
St. Paul already had a well-established reputation as a gangster haven, due to an agreement instituted by Chief of Police John O’Connor in 1900.
The police would allow criminals to stay in St. Paul as long as they checked in when they arrived, paid bribes and agreed to commit no major crimes within city limits.
Over the years, everyone from John Dillinger to Bonnie and Clyde spent time in St. Paul, taking advantage of the deal.
The Barker-Karpis gang was well known for bank robberies, but in 1933, they turned to kidnapping and ransom as a new source of income.
While many breweries went under during Prohibition and the Great Depression, Hamm’s persisted. In 1933, it was one of the country’s most profitable breweries, making its president an attractive target.
The gang carefully planned Hamm’s kidnapping, even bringing in a strategist from Al Capone’s Chicago syndicate to help.
Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis frequently tailed Hamm to study his habits and case his Cable Avenue mansion.
They also offered a St. Paul officer $25,000 of the ransom money in exchange for keeping the gang a step ahead of the police.
At 12:45 p.m. on June 15, Hamm left his office and was stopped by a man who reached to shake his hand, asking,
“You are Mr. Hamm, are you not?”
Hamm was steered to the curb and pushed into a waiting car. The gang drove to a hideout in Bensenville, Ill.
When asked to name a trusted intermediary between the gang and his family, Hamm chose his brewery’s sales manager, William Dunn.
When the ransom demand came, Dunn, called the police, and the FBI quickly got involved as well.
The gang communicated their demands through typed ransom notes, and it soon became clear that they were anticipating the police’s moves.
When cops considered setting a trap at the ransom drop spot, the next note demanded Dunn remove his vehicle’s doors and hang a red light to prove no one was hiding inside.
On June 17, Dunn drove to the instructed drop spot on a highway outside of Pine City, waited for five headlight flashes and then placed $100,000 on the side of the road.
Two days later, Hamm was released in a farm field, 50 miles north of St. Paul.
Within a few months, the Barker- Karpis gang struck again in January 1934, kidnapping Edward Bremer, president of Commercial State Bank and heir to Schmidt Brewing Company. Bremer was released a few weeks later in exchange for $200,000.
Throughout the Hamm and Bremer cases, the FBI became increasingly suspicious that someone was leaking information.
The head of St. Paul’s kidnap squad, Thomas A. Brown, a former chief of police with a history of connections to organized crime.
He was ultimately dismissed from the force, but never prosecuted.
The Barker-Karpis gang managed to elude the FBI for a few more years.
Fred Barker died in a gun battle with FBI agents in 1935. (His brother, Doc, was eventually arrested in Chicago and found guilty of Bremer’s kidnapping.)
Alvin Karpis remained at large and became Public Enemy No. 1. When Karpis was finally caught, J. Edgar Hoover personally escorted him to St. Paul. He ultimately pled guilty to the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings and was sentenced to life in prison in 1936.
By then, after years of FBI work, many of the gang’s colleagues had also been caught or killed by police, and St. Paul’s gangster era was on its way out.
Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Learn more about St. Paul’s gangster history in John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936 by Paul Maccabee.
Beer aficionados can also delve into St. Paul’s alcohol-soaked past from Hamm’s to Summit — and sample some modern-day brews — on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Brewing History Bus Tour. See mnhs.org for details.