A gossip columnist who wrote until the 1970s was the last newspaper man to use the appellation The Saintly City to describe St. Paul, but that was the tongue-in-cheek term that everyone, including cops and judges, once used in reference to what was a wide open town in many respects. The protection racket that the St. Paul Police ran for gangsters in the 1930s, and the peculiar culture it spawned, turned the Depression era into St. Paul’s own jazz age. Some of that attitude persisted for decades.
In the 30s, any gangster could pay local crime lord Dan Hogan a fee that varied from $2000 to $30,000 depending on the payer’s means and notoriety, good for two years immunity from arrest and renewable at the discretion of the parties. Hogan split 50-50 with Police Chief John O’Connor. He pocketed the lion’s share of his end, but saw to it that all his men down to the lowliest turnkey at the city jail got a little something. That way they had skin in the game, and when an emergency arose, i.e. an attempted bust by the Bureau of Investigation (predecessor to the FBI), the cops functioned like a well-oiled machine to protect their wards.
“The Layover,” as the racket was called, was common knowledge among the citizenry. They also knew about the upside for them. Protection was a privilege not a right, and any crime committed within the city limits of St. Paul meant revocation. Thus, St. Paul was spared the robberies and deadly shootouts that plagued the rest of the Midwest. Relations were cordial between the likes of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and the local citizenry. Daring young folks even pestered the gangsters for autographs, and bought them drinks in local saloons in hopes of hearing tales of their exploits.
Alvin “Creepy” Karpis got his nickname from his unique autographing style. When a pretty girl approached him at a saloon like The Green Lantern or The Wabasha Caves, he would offer to sign her thigh if she would hike up her skirt while he knelt and slowly wrote his name. According to local legend, John Dillinger witnessed one of these signings, took note of the lip-smacking grimaces and lewd faces Karpis pulled while he was en flagrante graffito, and muttered “Creepy.” The name stuck, mostly because Alvin had a wry sense of humor that his semi-literate colleagues couldn’t appreciate. He also had a bone-chilling smile.
Sometimes the BI tried to ambush gangsters in St. Paul, but the Police usually managed to rescue them. I put a famous shootout between John Dillinger and the Feds into Smoke, a novel I wrote that is set in 1930s St. Paul, published by Calumet Editions. Dillinger escaped with a leg wound thanks to the cops, but the Feds killed him in Chicago a few months later. He never should have left The Saintly City.