Law Enforcement’s Agreement with Gangsters

Police Chief John O’Connor and the O’Connor Layover Agreement

Courtesy of the Saint Paul Police Historical Society

~Alvin “Creepy” Karpis (Public Enemy №1)

Saint Paul, MN, was a haven for gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the country’s worst criminals came to the city to hide out from law enforcement until the “heat” on them cooled. They were able to do so because of an agreement between law enforcement and lawbreakers called the O’Connor Layover Agreement, named in honor of long-time Police Chief John O’Connor.

The era of O’Connor began on June 1, 1900. Mayor-Elect Robert A. Smith appointed him to the position and deemed it a positive change for a city infested with criminals. O’Connor was one of the top detectives in the country. He’d quickly risen through the ranks and gained a reputation for decisiveness. In the June 3, 1900 edition of the Saint Paul Globe, the paper boastfully noted that no one could best the 6'3" behemoth in a fight. His stature and size made him a formidable ally in the eyes of St. Paul’s citizens.

Four steady years of rampant crime had plagued the city. O’Connor reorganized the police force shortly after his arrival and almost instantly stopped the criminality. He then put out the word to criminals throughout the Midwest that St. Paul was a haven for them — as long as they didn’t commit crimes within city limits. The idea was simple if law enforcement kept tabs on potential lawbreakers, they could keep laws from being broken.

The agreement allowed criminals safe travels within the city limits of St. Paul. However, they needed to follow three simple rules; they checked in with the police when they arrived, committed no serious criminal activity within the city’s borders, and paid all of the necessary bribes. As long as these three things happened, city officials turned a blind eye to their misdeeds. The police force even went as far as protecting returning criminals that committed crimes outside of St. Paul — even from federal agents, who lacked the jurisdiction to try these kinds of cases until the mid-1930s.

For the system to work correctly, the police needed to have a go-between to ensure that criminals understood the rules and paid the requisite bribes. William “Reddy” Griffin was the agreement’s first gatekeeper, and after his death due to a stroke in 1913, “Dapper” Dan Hogan became his successor. Not long after its inception, gangsters from all over the country could be found on the streets of St. Paul. Citizens enjoyed rubbing elbows with men and women they considered celebrities, and local businesses appreciated the money they brought in.

St. Paul during the roaring 1920s was an epicenter of illegality, but since the vast majority of unlawful acts took place beyond its limits, no one cared. By the early part of the twentieth century, St. Paul was either home to or a stopping place for many of the most notorious gangsters of modern folklore. John Dillinger and Billie Frechette, Ma Barker and her boys, “Babyface” Nelson, Leon Gleckman, and Alvin Karpis all called the city a haven at one point during their criminal careers.

Chief O’Connor in 1912 (via Minnesota Historical Society)

Throughout the tenure of Chief O’Connor — and even beyond — the city remained mostly crime-free. Unfortunately, its neighboring cities weren’t nearly as lucky. In 1916 Minneapolis mayor William Nye complained to anyone who would listen that his city couldn’t stem its tide of crime due to the goings-on in St. Paul. Despite the obvious issues, O’Connors status as an incredible detective and adept criminologist remained unscathed.

The system allowed the police to watch over the city and keep petty crimes from becoming significant problems. To its credit, the agreement reduced substantial crimes, but it encouraged open gambling and prostitution. Interestingly, it put the criminals in a position to police their criminal counterparts to make sure that no one ruined a good thing. If officials ever overturned the Layover Agreement, the “heat” on them would be too hot to overcome, and their financial windfall would come to an end.

Things remained mostly quiet for the city until Chief O’Connor retired in 1920. Nicknamed “Big Fellow.” he was a loud, overbearing man adept at keeping lawlessness to a minimum. He ruled with a heavy hand, and in some cases, summoned criminals to his office and accosted them for breaking his rules. O’Connor’s predecessors didn’t elicit the same respectful fear that the chief did.

Lacking a strict authority figure to watch over them, criminals began to commit more egregious acts in St. Paul. The first real slap in local law enforcement’s face occurred on December 4, 1928, with the car bomb killing of Layover Agreement liaison Dan Hogan. The repeal of the 19th Amendment in December 1933 opened the floodgates of illegal behavior.

Shortly before the liquor repeal, criminals turned to abducting high profile local citizens and holding them for ransom. Both the kidnappings of brewery president William Hamm Jr. and bank president Edward Bremer took place in St. Paul. The national exposure of the crimes gave the Federal Government more power to act — and they attacked the criminals (now known publicly as “gangsters”) with a vengeance.

The arrival of the FBI to St. Paul signaled the beginning of the end of the Layover Agreement. Under its watchful eye, the city’s local officials could no longer safely accept bribes, and the gangsters were forced to fend for themselves. In response, criminals became more brazen, and ordinary people — regular citizens of the city — were getting hurt.

Soon, the corruption at the hand of law enforcement moved to center stage. In 1934, St. Paul Daily News editor began using his newspaper’s front page to call out the illegal misdeeds of city officials. Kahn and Commissioner of Public Safety Henry Warren brought in FBI detective Jamie Wallace and tasked him with wiretapping the St. Paul Police for the year. Those wiretaps exposed those within the police force that were tipping off criminals.

In July 1935, Kahn’s newspaper published a story about corruption in the police ranks. A short time later, many of the city’s police force’s unscrupulous members were either convicted for their crimes or resigned. The O’Connor Layover Agreement started in 1900 with the appointment of John O’Connor as chief of police. It ended in 1936 when the last member of the crooked regime was removed from office. The past administrations’ corrupt behavior was officially over, and St. Paul stopped laying out the red carpet to criminals.

O’Connor instituted a program that brought the city of St. Paul to its knees but remains relatively unscathed in the eyes of history. Many people benefited financially over the course of the Layover Agreement, but there remains no proof — beyond circumstantial — that O’Connor was one of them. To the people that tell his story, he remains an honest, competent, highly respected part of local lore.

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