“This is where it all started going bad, where the O’Connor System began to break apart. The system could only exist as long as the gangsters refrained from committing crimes within the city limits; it was the only way citizens could condone their presence. Except Alvin Karpis and the Barker boys, they couldn’t have cared less about the rules, and there was no Big Fellow O’Connor or Dapper Dan Hogan to keep them in line. First they kidnapped William Hamm of Hamm Beer fame and held him for one hundred thousand dollars. A lot of people helped, too, including the former chief of police, guy named Tom Brown. That went so well, they turned around and kidnapped Edward Bremer for two hundred thousand dollars.
“Bremer—that was like kidnapping a Kennedy. His family was so wealthy, had so many ties to the community—citizens were outraged. They simply could not believe that the criminals they had welcomed as if they were long-lost relatives would turn on them. So, for the first time in decades, they overwhelmingly supported the reformers who had been fighting the system, and the reformers cleaned house, starting with the cops. It didn’t take long, either. Twenty-one indictments—some of the cops were fired, some went to jail. Brown escaped prison because the statute of limitations ran out on the crimes that they could actually prove he committed, but he was dismissed from the cops just the same. Next came the city government, and that was cleaned up, too.”
“It’s kind of amazing to think that level of corruption existed here,” Nina said. “St. Paul is so squeaky clean now, a councilman could be disciplined for calling a campaign contributor on his office phone. That cop who was caught trying to fix a DWI for his brother-in-law, they jailed him—you’d think he was dealing drugs to grade school kids.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Nina. Stuff still happens, only it’s well hidden now. The days when St. Paul was an open city are long, long gone.”
1878 Jefferson Avenue
Harry “Dutch” Sawyer had lived in a modest one-story white stucco house with tan trim that was actually smaller than the Barker-Karpis gang hideout—only about thirteen hundred square feet built on about a tenth of an acre. It was hard to imagine him using it to throw the lavish parties for underworld associates that he had been famous for.
“I’ve seen garages bigger than this,” Nina said. “How wealthy was this guy?”
“Pretty wealthy,” I said. “Sawyer took over most of Dapper Dan Hogan’s rackets after Hogan was killed. In fact, some people claim Sawyer was responsible for Hogan’s murder, and from the evidence I read, I’m on their side. I suppose Frank could have trusted him with the gold.”
“What do you think?” Nina asked. She was leaning forward in her seat to get an unobstructed view of the front door. “Think he buried it in the basement?”
“Among other things, Sawyer ran the Green Lantern saloon in downtown St. Paul, which was a popular hangout for gangsters—Creepy Karpis called it his ‘private headquarters.’ Only it closed in 1934 and was razed to make way for the Wabasha Street Apartments in the 1950s, so we know the gold’s not there. Sawyer could have hidden it here, or he could have buried it on his farm in Shoreview, but I kinda doubt it. Sawyer was months on the dodge before they busted him for his part in the Bremer kidnapping. If he had the gold, I think he would have used it.”
August 3, 1936
1590 South Mississippi River Boulevard
The Hollyhocks Casino had always been crowded. St. Paul’s finest dressed in tuxedos and gowns and mingled with the most notorious gangsters of the age. Spectacular dinners were created by a Japanese chef and served downstairs in semiprivate dining rooms by Japanese waiters. The bar was stocked with European liqueurs. There was a spacious dance floor and a live band. Music drifted to the second floor, where there was roulette and dice and blackjack—the games supervised by professional croupiers who moved like dancers. On the third floor there were three large bedrooms where some of the guests often stayed the night, sometimes with their wives, sometimes with the wives of others. Above it all Jack Peifer soared.
Jack was a big-hearted German American kid from tiny Litchfield, Minnesota, good-looking and charming and no crook—he made sure Violet Nordquist understood that the only thing he had ever been arrested for was running liquor out of a “soft drink bar” in downtown St. Paul when he was a kid. He served three months and learned his lesson, he told her. He must have been telling the truth, because Vi noticed that he was rarely in town when anything illegal happened.
Jack seemed to know everybody. Among his friends were bank robbers and police chiefs, mobsters and politicians. He introduced Vi to them when they came to the casino. Violet had never known a more exciting man. Or more exciting times. Thinking back, that was probably why she gave up her career as a much sought-after fashion model to marry him. For the excitement.