A Hamm’s ransom: How the kidnapping of one of St. Paul’s most prosperous brewers reshaped a corrupt system

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Left: Notorious gangster Alvin Karpis in federal custody in St. Paul following his 1936 arrest in connection with the kidnappings of William Hamm Jr. and Edward Bremer. Right: William Hamm Jr. circa 1933 // Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

As president of the Theodore Hamm’s Brewery, William Hamm Jr. had an important schedule to keep. Every day at 12:45 in the afternoon, Hamm began the short walk from his brewery to the front steps of his twenty-room, red brick mansion for lunch. However, on one sweltering summer day in June 1933, Hamm’s lunch plans were violently interrupted.

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Investigators outside of the Hamm residence following the June 1933 kidnapping of William Hamm Jr. // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

As Hamm neared his house, a black sedan emerged from behind the brewery and pulled up beside Hamm. Four shadowy figures threw a hood over Hamm’s head, and then shoved the wealthy capitalist onto the floor of their car before speeding off for the Wisconsin border. The kidnapping took seconds, but it would haunt Hamm for the rest of his life.

During the ordeal, Hamm, an unflappable gentleman, remained calm and subdued. In fact, his kidnappers felt that Hamm was so relaxed that they worried they had kidnapped the wrong man. Good-naturedly, Hamm assured the criminals that he was the man they were looking for, but the gang continued to panic until they found Hamm’s name on the tailor’s labels in his coat.

Once in a safe house in Bensenville, Illinois, Hamm was placed in a sparsely furnished room with boarded windows and forced to sign four separate ransom notes demanding $100,000. Within days, Hamm would be returned safely home without a scratch on his head, and the men responsible for his kidnapping—better known as the Barker-Karpis gang—would be padding their wallets. It seemed like the perfect crime; little did the Barker-Karpis gang know that they had just detonated a societal bomb that would end their outlaw careers and completely reshape Minnesota’s legal system.

Cozying up to crime

Around the turn of the century, Minnesota had a cozy relationship with crime. In the 1920s especially, a number of factors helped make Minnesota a bootlegger’s dream, including the large number of breweries started by German-Americans prior to Prohibition, the availability of of clean water, and the fact that the Twin Cities was a railroad hub, which facilitated transportation of liquor. However, there was one more important factor that made Minnesota a crime haven: a corrupt judicial system.

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St. Paul Police Chief John O’Connor, circa 1900 // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

As far back as 1900, St. Paul’s Chief of Police, John O’Connor, began quietly telling criminals that St. Paul could be a refuge—as long as they took their illegal activity outside of the city. Criminals were free to murder, steal, or extort in any other state, but when they visited St. Paul, they had to pretend to be upstanding citizens.

“Under the O’Connor system, if you were a criminal, when you came to St. Paul you would actually introduce yourself to the cops,” says ex-Twin Cities Reader reporter Paul Maccabee, who spent more than 12 years working on the book “John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920–1936.” “The cops would go, ‘Great to see you. What do you need?’ If you needed a place to stay, the cops would get one for you. If you needed a woman, the cops would get one for you. If you needed to launder money, the cops knew where to launder money. St. Paul was a Walmart for gangsters.”

Even corporations weren’t free from this corruption. In order to remain afloat during Prohibition, many breweries sold legal soft drinks and near-beers out the front door, while working with criminals to bootleg beer and other alcohol out the back door. In St. Paul, there were even whispers that the respectable William Hamm Jr. was in business with the mob. At the very least, Hamm’s sales manager—a man named William Dunn—was a well-known middleman for bootleggers who delivered bribes to the police.

The kidnapping profession experienced a renaissance during Prohibition. Ransoming bootleggers for a cut of their illegal profits was a crime no one wanted to report to the authorities. Unfortunately, when Prohibition ended the bootleggers went out of business, and the professional kidnappers had to start looking for new marks.

Lulled into danger

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William Hamm Jr. circa 1935 // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

By all accounts, William Hamm Jr. was one of Minnesota’s most eligible bachelors. Even at the age of 39-years-old, Hamm was tall and good looking. He was even-keeled and friendly, and well-liked around town. However, it was the family’s wealth that St. Paul’s thugs found most attractive.

The Barker-Karpis gang was a collection of some of the most notorious gangsters of the era, including Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis. For the Hamm kidnapping, the team enlisted infamous gangster Freddy Goetz—one of Al Capone’s trigger men who had participated in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Of course, these gangsters wouldn’t have been about to pull off the Hamm kidnapping without the help of a few crooked cops within the St. Paul police department, who were happy to supply inside knowledge about the hunt for these fugitives for a cut of the profits. In fact, St. Paul Police executive Tom Brown received $25,000 of the total $100,000 Hamm kidnapping ransom—more than any of the actual kidnappers received.

“The Hamm kidnapping was portrayed as the underworld intruding on the overworld, but there wasn’t a great deal of distance between the law-abiding citizens of St. Paul and the crooks,” says Maccabee. “The people of St. Paul knew their city was a safe city for almost 20 or 30 years. It was not unusual to walk down Wabasha or St. Peter Street in St. Paul and see John Dillinger, the most wanted man in America, across the way. The most wanted men in America were eating spaghetti next to you in a restaurant. The people of St. Paul knew the gangsters were there, and they thought they could coexist with bootleggers, kidnappers, and hitmen.”

Due to this false sense of security, the kidnapping of William Hamm Jr. shook St. Paul like an earthquake. Suddenly the citizens realized that the criminals in their midst didn’t merely want to sell them alcohol. These were sociopaths and other social misfits who were only looking out for their own interests. The kidnapping of William Hamm Jr. was on the front page of every paper in the country, and it helped expose Minnesota’s political corruption to the world. It was humiliating to the Pillsburys, the Daytons, the Ordways, and the rest of Minnesota’s upper crust who couldn’t stand to live with that kind of reputation.

Goodbye, cruel underworld

Just a handful of days after William Hamm Jr. was abducted, the Barker-Karpis gang was holding a satchel filled with $100,000 (more than $1.8 million in today’s dollars). The next day, Hamm was dropped off on the side of the road near Wyoming, Minnesota. Even though he’d only been captive for a few days, the kidnapping changed Hamm. Accounts of those who knew him later in life show that Hamm suffered from post-traumatic stress as he developed a nervous and introverted persona.

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William Hamm Jr., right, talks with reporters following his release from being kidnapped // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Barker-Karpis gang, on the other hand, were bolstered by their success. Six months later, they kidnapped wealthy banker Edward Bremer. This turned out to be a mistake, as the Bremer family was friends with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who unleashed the full force of the FBI on Barker-Karpis gang, scattering them to the wind, according to author Tim Mahoney.

But the kidnappings also woke St. Paul residents up from their complacency toward the corruption in the police department. “The people of St. Paul figured they were safer in a corrupt system, because the corrupt system of bribes had rules,” says Maccabee. “At least they felt that way until William Hamm was kidnapped.”

A year after the Hamm kidnapping, a group of concerned local citizens, led by the St. Paul Daily News, helped set up a wiretap in the St. Paul Police Department, which exposed dozens of corrupt officials. By July of 1935, most of the city’s police had either resigned or were facing jail time, and St. Paul’s reputation for being a crime haven was finally laid to rest.

 
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