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Enter Prohibition... and the Gangsters

The citizens, business, police and politicians of St. Paul flouted the 18th Amendment,
creating an anything-goes atmosphere that led to the era of gangsters,
speakeasies and civic corruption.

Provided to the Saint Paul Police Historical Society by reporter Nick Woltman.
Originally printed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press as a part of a "BREW TOWN" premium
section in October, 2015

By Nick Woltman


Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Carry Nation        When temperance activist Carry Nation, famous for defacing saloons with her trademark hatchet, briefly visited St. Paul in 1903, she found little sympathy for her cause.

Nation stormed into a Wabasha Street tavern and chastised its patrons as "scoundrels" and "beasts," according to an account in the St. Paul Globe.

"Aren't you ashamed to be seen in here?" she hollered. "How dare you pass your time in this place? Oh! every one of you should be locked up!"

Nation's tirade was interrupted by the bartender, who doused her with a seltzer bottle.

In stark contrast to Minneapolis, St. Paul had long been a stronghold of anti-temperance sentiment. Its prosperous breweries and hundreds of saloons were vital to the city's economy, and alcohol was integral to the culture of its largely immigrant population, according to local historian Mary Lethert Wingerd.

That sentiment had not abated when Congress passed the 18th Amendment, outlawing "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."

"Perhaps the single issue on which the citizens of St. Paul were in nearly unanimous agreement in 1920, was their opposition to the recently passed Eighteenth Amendment," Wingerd writes in her 2001 book "Claiming the City." "St. Paul residents responded to this economic and cultural assault in predictable fashion: they ignored it."


Prohibition was only the latest of many attempts to rein in the alcohol trade in St. Paul. The city's residents had a long tradition of defying them, says Sabine Meyer, a historian who studied the battle over temperance in Minnesota.

"This was something St. Paulites were well-practiced in," Meyer said. "The more the temperance advocates were doing, the more spite emerged within St. Paul against the movement."

Police Chief John O'Connor        When the Minnesota Legislature in 1887 mandated higher license fees for saloon owners, the number of licensed bars in St. Paul fell from 763 to 361 in just one year. But that didn't mean they were gone.

"Not all of them vanished," Meyer said. "A lot of them went underground.

This established an early speakeasy culture in the city that would fully flower during Prohibition, Meyer said, adding that enforcement efforts were lax.

The City would similarly flout a Sunday sales ban and mandated saloon closing times.

St. Paul's tendency toward lawlessness was exacerbated with the appointment of Police Chief John O'Connor in 1900, says local crime historian Paul Maccabee. O'Connor made it known among the nation's criminals that they were safe in St. Paul, as long as they promised to behave while in town.

"The civic corruption in St. Paul was simply extraordinary," Maccabee said. "That system of corruption was in place long before Prohibition was passed."


It was a dour, mustachioed Minnesota congressman named Andrew Volstead who drafted the legislation that would outlaw alcohol. Volstead "was about as colorful as the snow that each winter blanketed his hometown of Granite Falls," writes Daniel Okrent in his 2010 history of Prohibition.

After failing to win re-election in 1922, Volstead took a job in St. Paul's Federal Courts Building -- now Landmark Center -- as a lawyer for the Prohibition Enforcement Bureau, drawing up indictments against violators of the so-called Volstead Act.

Federal Courts Building        Although it may not have halted the alcohol trade in St. Paul, the new law certainly changed it.

Many of the city's breweries, including Hamm and Schmidt, began selling "near beer," which contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume and was legal under the Volstead Act.

The brewing process for near beer is the same as for full-strength beer, but the alcohol is cooked off at the end.

"You have to make real beer to make near beer," said Minnesota brewing historian Doug Hoverson. "You brew near beer not because you think you're going to sell much of it, but because you want to keep your brewmaster employed."

And it wasn't unheard of for brewers to neglect that all-important last step and for barrels of full-strength beer to end up at local speakeasies, Maccabee says.

A tunnel between the Schmidt brewery and the home of an employee was used to smuggle illegal beer, according to Maccabee's book, "John Dillinger Slept Here."

Schmidt's Near BeerMichael Gebhart, who succeeded John O'Connor as St. Paul's police chief, estimated in 1922 that 75 percent of the city's residents were making their own beer, wine or whiskey, according to a report Maccabee found in the St. Paul Dispatch.

Beer that was brewed and consumed at home was legal under the Volstead Act.

"You could go to just about any store and buy a can of malt, a box of hops," Hoverson said. "It just so happened that the standard can of malt and the standard box of hops were the right size to be combined together" to make beer.

But if you didn't feel like brewing your own, St. Paul had countless speakeasies where you could buy it.

Leon Gleckman, St. Paul's "beer baron," supplied the city's clandestine bars -- and many of its finest restaurants -- with illegal alcohol, Maccabee said. Gleckman maintained an office in the posh St. Paul Hotel -- right across the street from Volstead's office in the Federal Courts building.

Many of the Twin Cities' most respectable citizens drank alcohol delivered by Gleckman's outfit. And he used the considerable profits of his criminal enterprise to buy the loyalty of the city's police force, judges and politicians.

"Everybody was complicit," Maccabee said. "There was a permeable membrane between the underworld and the overworld -- between the good guys and the bad guys."


By the early 1930s, many Americans were clamoring for the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the re-legalization of alcohol. In 1933, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt promised to do just that.

While this was good for the brewers, it was bad for the city's criminals, who had come to depend on the illegal alcohol trade for revenue.

"When Prohibition was repealed, the gangsters were still here," Maccabee said. "They had to make money somehow, so they turned to bank robbery, extortion, racketeering."

And kidnapping.

Hamm mansion        In 1933, nine months before it repealed the 18th Amendment, Congress passed a law that re-legalized 3.2 beer. St. Paul's breweries were inundated with orders.

The infamous Barker-Karpis Gang, which called St. Paul home at the time, saw their own opportunity in this bonanza.

"All the breweries were doing a landslide business, and in St. Paul the Hamm plant was open twenty-four hours a day trying to keep up with orders," Alvin Karpis wrote in his autobiography.

Karpis was confident the Hamm family "had quite a chunk of dough handy," he wrote.

The Barker-Karpis Gang snatched William Hamm Jr., The brewery's president, as he walked home for lunch one day in June 1933.

Hamm was released four days later after a $1000,000 ransom was paid to the kidnappers -- much of it ending ujp in the hands of local police complicit in the crime.

Following the success of the Hamm kidnapping, the Barker-Karpis Gang next targeted banking scion Edward Bremer, whose family also owned the Schmidt Brewery.

Alvin KarpisCarjacked by members of the gang in January 1934, Bremer was released after a $200,000 ransom was paid.

Karpis was declared Public Enemy No. 1 by the FBI and was eventually arrested.

These shocking abductions shook St. Paulites, Maccabee said, and led to the cleaning up of city hall and the police department.

"It was a very dangerous time," Maccabee said. "We romanticize bootlegging as a, quote, 'victimless crime,' but a lot of people died."


Prohibition was repealed in December 1933. The Hamm's and Schmidt breweries would undertake enormous expansion projects during the next decades, eventually becoming the fifth- and seventh-largest U.S. brewers, respectively.

But the damage from Prohibition was irreversible at some of St. Paul's smaller breweries, including its first -- Yoerg Brewing Co., which folded in the 1950s.

The era of mega-breweries and mass-produced beer had dawned.

But St. Paul's brewers would never regain the economic and political power they enjoyed in the years before Prohibition. New regulations prohibited them from owning saloons and placed new restrictions on how they sold their beer.


Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.


"Land of Amber Waters: The history of Brewing in Minnesota." Doug Hoverson, 2007, University of Minnesota Press.

"We Are What We Drink: The Temperance Battle in Minnesota." Sabine Meyer, 2015, University of Illinois Press.

"Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul." Mary Lethert Wingerd, 2001, Cornell University Press.

"Last Call: The rise and fall of Prohibition." Daniel Okrent, 2010, Scribner.

"John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour Of Crime And Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936." Paul Maccabee, 1995, Minnesota Historical Society Press.