Crime is a Window Into History

The time and place I’ve written about, St. Paul in the 1930s, is so familiar it’s (almost) mundane, especially to me since I grew up there not too many years later. But the closer you look at what went on, the more remote and foreign it seems.

“The Layover,” a protection racket that the St. Paul police ran for high profile gangsters, unimaginable today, was a fact of life in Depression era St. Paul. Once a gangster paid the requisite fee, the police could guarantee him (very few hers – Ma Barker, a couple of John Dillinger’s girlfriends) city-wide, foolproof immunity from capture by the feds. And the gangsters didn’t have to lay low either. The practical impediments that the police put in place made arrests by the feds impossible in St. Paul. When the feds got so frustrated they simply had to make a move, they tried setting up ambushes and killing the fugitives they were after. That didn’t work either, because the police came to the rescue, but it made for some dramatic shootouts.

Police protecting gangsters wasn’t the only way justice was turned upside down in 30s St. Paul. According to the rules of The Layover, protection was rescinded if a fugitive committed any crimes within the city limits. That should have made St. Paul virtually crime free, but it actually served to increase the frequency of low-end robberies and other instances of what we call street crime today. The presence of celebrity criminals around town spawned a cadre of acolytes whose determination to make headlines trumped any common sense they might have possessed. Car thefts and grocery store holdups became common. Small banks were hit so often that many of them hired armed guards. The situation these wannabees created made the gangsters uneasy, and they often turned in groupies who tailed them around bragging about their exploits.

The feds tried to kill Dillinger at the Lincoln Court apartments in St Paul in 1934, and a wild gunfight ensued. I put it in a novel titled Smoke, published by Calumet Editions. Dillinger escaped with a leg wound. It’s hard to imagine in these days of GPS systems, drones and instant communication, but he and his girlfriend Billie Frechette got away in an easily identifiable blue car by weaving their way down side streets to Minneapolis, where a doctor who specialized in treating gangsters patched Dillinger up. He laid low awhile longer, then headed for Chicago and his rendevous with fate at the Biograph Theater.