O’Connor smiled at the remembrance of it. He enjoyed the role of kingmaker. Still, he tended to ignore state politics to concentrate on his city—emphasis on his. He saw to it that all of the city’s most important positions were filled with his cronies and that his brother John was made chief of police in 1900, a position that “the Big Fellow,” as John was dubbed, would hold for nearly twenty years. O’Connor made every corporation, contractor, or individual doing business with St. Paul pay for the privilege—starting at twenty-five hundred dollars each. Heads of departments paid one hundred to one-fifty for their jobs annually, members of honorary boards paid one hundred, and the breweries were expected to supply free beer and line up their employees and saloon owners behind whatever initiatives O’Connor favored.
For additional income, O’Connor established the Twin Cities Jockey Club and organized horse races at the state fairgrounds, ran a book out of the Fremont Exchange on Robert Street, and operated a numbers game modeled after the Louisiana Lottery. He also skimmed a percentage of every dollar earned by the city’s many saloons, brothels, and gambling establishments, much of which also found its way into the pockets of St. Paul police detectives, aldermen, grand jury members, judges, and prosecutors. In exchange, the city honored a “layover agreement” ensuring that criminals would receive police protection if they followed three simple rules: check in with Chief O’Connor, donate a small bribe, and promise to commit no crimes within the city limits. The Big Fellow enforced the system with ruthless efficiency. As a result, St. Paul became one of the safest cities in America. A punk snatching a woman’s purse would be tracked down and taught a lesson by other criminals; a man who had the audacity to rob a bank in the Midway District was turned over to the police the very next day by his colleagues in crime. All this two full decades before Prohibition and thirty years before the city would become a home away from home for killers like John Dillinger.
Of course, the O’Connor System didn’t apply to surrounding communities. Gangsters sworn to keep their noses clean in St. Paul thought nothing of raiding neighboring cities. The Minnesota Bankers’ Association would later report that 21 percent of all the bank holdups in the United States in 1932—an amazing forty-three daylight robberies—occurred in Minnesota. As long as they didn’t occur in St. Paul, O’Connor didn’t care.
The original liaison between the criminals and the O’Connors was a red-haired Irishman named Billy Griffin who held court at the old Hotel Savoy on Minnesota Street. When he died of apoplexy in 1913, Dapper Dan Hogan replaced him. Now, with Hogan’s murder, a vacuum existed. Not only had he been a mob peacekeeper who helped make sure the O’Connor System operated smoothly, Hogan was the city’s most accomplished fence. He could launder any amount of cash stolen with either gun or pen; he offered criminals thirty-five to forty cents on the dollar for stolen railroad bonds and security bonds and eighty-five to ninety cents for Liberty Bonds.
What, though, did they expect the Cardinal to do about Hogan’s departure from this earth? The Big Fellow usually dealt with that end of the O’Connor System, and he had died four years earlier.
“If you don’t step in to help us fill the void that now exists, we believe that Leon Gleckman will,” said the young man.
“Gleckman,” said O’Connor. “The bootlegger?”
“He is indiscreet, not a man of good judgment, not a man we can trust.” There was that “we” again, O’Connor thought. “He has actually announced publicly his intention of running for the office of mayor of St. Paul.”
O’Connor laughed at the suggestion. Well, why not, he asked himself. O’Connor had known seventeen mayors in his time and felt that Gleckman would easily fit in.
“Mr. O’Connor,” the young man said. “We believe if something isn’t done immediately, the system by which we have all lived and profited these many years will collapse, the reformers will take over, and who knows who might be compromised as a result.”
The Cardinal smiled. He knew a threat when he heard one.
“I’m retired,” he said.
I wondered—with Dapper Dan Hogan gone, would Nash have entrusted his gold to Gleckman? Nash was a meticulous planner, and somehow I couldn’t see him working with a fence that had a reputation for recklessness. I dug deeper. Other names surfaced: Harry “Dutch” Sawyer, Hogan’s protégé, who took over the Green Lantern nightclub when Hogan was killed; Jack Peifer, owner of the Hollyhocks Casino, a popular gangster and high society hangout (the FBI reported that there had been an unusual amount of telephone traffic in and out of the Hollyhocks just before and after the Kansas City Massacre); Robert Hamilton, the gambling impresario who directed the casino operations at the Boulevards of Paris, where Nash was seen the evening of the gold heist. I didn’t like any of them, but that didn’t mean Nash agreed. He had been bosom pals with Verne Miller, and he was a stone killer. He associated with Ma Barker’s brood, and they were maniacs.