Jelly’s Gold is a work of fiction. Frank “Jelly” Nash most certainly was not. Neither was Verne Miller, Tommy Holden, Jimmy Keating, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, the Barker brothers, Jack Peifer, and all the other ne’er-do-wells who lived in St. Paul—my hometown—during those heady days when it was “an open city.”
Start with the erudite Nash. He actually had an alibi for the Huron, South Dakota, bank heist that I described—he was in Aurora, Minnesota, with his wife, Frances, at the time. However, his movements immediately afterward were exactly as I related them. He was in St. Paul on June 9, 1933, and he spent the evening with Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Doc and Freddie Barker, and they most certainly told him about their plans to kidnap William Hamm—and yes, Frank did blow town the very next day, eventually reaching Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he was arrested.
My account of the Kansas City Massacre, however, is open to debate. I tapped six different sources in my research, so I’m sure it occurred pretty much as I described it. There is some confusion in historical accounts though—not so much about what happened but about why it happened. Most people believe it was a botched attempt by underworld hit man Verne Miller to rescue his friend. (Some are convinced that Nash, Special Agent Raymond Caffrey, and Detective Frank Hermanson were accidentally killed by Special Agent L. Joseph Lackey, who misfired his shotgun.) Still others steadfastly believe that the Pendergast crime family, which operated the rackets in Kansas City, hired Miller to assassinate his friend to keep him quiet. As for me, well, if you’ve already read the book you know that I have an entirely different theory. (Hey, it could have happened.)
I also attempted to faithfully reproduce the city of St. Paul that existed in those days. On this point I expect some argument from local readers.
I have spoken with a lot of people who have tales to tell from that era, many of them passed down from generation to generation like heirlooms. They told me about the gangsters, the bootleggers, the prostitutes, the gamblers, and the cops. Many even bragged—yes, bragged—that their long-dead relatives were involved in various criminal mischiefs.
Most of these people are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their stories, but many of them simply are not true. At least my research can’t confirm them. (For example, I have uncovered no evidence to suggest that Al Capone set foot anywhere near the place, although Bugsy Siegel most certainly did.) On the other hand, some stories were presented with crystal clarity and contained details that even newspaper reports from that time were vague about. Still other stories have reached the level of myth. Yes, the local cops did shoot it out with John Dillinger at the Lincoln Court Apartments on Lexington Parkway (there are guided tours that will take you to all the old gangster haunts)—but some yarn spinners made it sound like a scene from the Die Hard movies with Bruce Willis playing Dillinger, and if all the people whose relatives claim they were there had been there, they would have filled the old Lexington Park baseball stadium.
Yet while a great many people know about St. Paul’s “gangster era”—meaning the mid-1930s, when much of Jelly’s Gold takes place—precious few seem to appreciate just how widespread the corruption was and how long it lasted. Our collective memories suggest that it sprang up during Prohibition and disappeared soon after Repeal. In reality, it lasted over thirty-five years and reached the highest echelons of society. St. Paul was so laughably corrupt that what I learned during my research reminded me of Gotham City of Batman comic book fame.
As I attempted to explain early in the novel, the corruption began at the turn of the century when a nondescript deputy court clerk named Richard O’Connor rose to become St. Paul’s most notorious fixer. It was “the Cardinal” who installed John “the Big Fellow” O’Connor as chief of police and organized an alliance with “Dapper Dan” Hogan (everyone had a nickname in those days) to control the city’s criminal activities. Called the O’Connor System, it allowed even the most villainous killers and cutthroats to live comfortably among us as long as they committed no crime within the city limits. Most St. Paulites not only knew about it, they approved. When he died in 1924, four thousand people attended the Big Fellow’s funeral; the St. Paul Pioneer Press praised him, noting that while his “methods were those of a bygone day, the fact remains that they generally accomplished results.”
At least the results were favorable for citizens of St. Paul; not so much for our neighbors. St. Paul might have been one of the safest cities in America, but in 1916, Minneapolis mayor Wallace Nye complained publicly that there was little he could do to stem the rising crime rate in his town because the perpetrators so easily escaped across the Mississippi River into St. Paul, where they were protected.