On and on the system went, lasting ten years after the Big Fellow died, Dapper Dan was blown up, and the Cardinal retired.

Which brings me to the characters of Kathryn and Brent Messer and the Dahlins. They are figments of my imagination, meant to serve as a reminder of just how involved St. Paul society was with the criminals—and they were involved. To this day, a portrait of Nina Clifford, the city’s most notorious madam, hangs in a place of honor in St. Paul’s Minnesota Club, only a stone’s throw—or, some believe, a tunnel’s length—from the house where she plied her trade.


Of course, all good things—if you want to call it that—must come to an end and the O’Connor System collapsed with almost astonishing speed. There were three reasons for this; I list all of them in the book.

The first was the Kansas City Massacre. The killing of three police officers and an agent of the FBI in broad daylight in a public place not only outraged the nation, it mortified the citizens of St. Paul. Jelly Nash and Verne Miller were “local boys,” after all. Nash was married to an Aurora girl; Miller was involved with a woman from Brainerd, Minnesota; they were practically fixtures in the community. The second, of course, was the kidnappings of William Hamm and Edward Bremer. This proved that the citizens of St. Paul were no longer safe from the criminals they had welcomed for over three decades.

I believe a newspaper landed the most telling blow in June 1935. The St. Paul Daily News hired Wallace Ness Jamie, a criminologist from Chicago—who just happened to be the nephew of Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame—to prove police corruption in St. Paul. Jamie was a pioneer in the use of surveillance equipment, and with the permission of Public Safety Commissioner H. E. Warren, he bugged the phones and offices of the St. Paul Police Department. Over three thousand pages of transcripts were generated, proving without a doubt just how low the cops had sunk, confirming just how corrupt St. Paulites had allowed their city to become—and the Daily News printed them!

It was a watershed moment, not unlike the printing of the Watergate Tapes forty years later. There was no hiding from the truth, now. Like Captain Renault of Casablanca, St. Paulites were outraged—outraged!—to discover that there was gambling and a whole lot of other criminal activities on the premises, and they moved to rid themselves of it. Cops were imprisoned, politicians were ruined, and many of our wealthiest citizens were embarrassed. In fact, the cleansing of St. Paul took place so quickly that by April 1937 prominent citizens sought “a clean bill of health” from D.C. bigwigs who had disparaged their city for so long. They didn’t get it, but they felt “honest” enough to try.

Meanwhile, bad things were happening to bad people. I noted in the novel what fates greeted Nash, Miller, Karpis, the Barkers, and a lot of the other miscreants who lived here at one time or another. As for Nash’s pals Jimmy Keating and Tommy Holden—both ended up breaking rocks in the hot sun at Alcatraz. After he was released in the late forties, Holden got into a drunken quarrel with his wife and shot her and two others. He died of heart failure in Stateville Prison in Illinois in 1953. Keating, on the other hand, went straight. He became first a florist at the Calhoun Beach Club in Minneapolis and later an organizer for a St. Paul machinists union. One of his best friends was a former member of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension—go figure. He died in July 1978 at age seventy-nine.

I wish I had met him. I wish I had met Frank Nash, too. This isn’t to suggest that I wish St. Paul were still an open city (although people who read my book and who have heard the stories that my research has given me might believe otherwise). Far from it. I like the city just the way it is. Honestly, though, wouldn’t you love to have taken a short vacation here when St. Paul roared?

David Housewright

St. Paul, Minnesota

September 2008

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