:: Article

The Big Fellow and The Cardinal

By Robert O’Connor.

[This is part two in a series on the grittier history of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Part one detailed the rise and fall of Minneapolis mayor Doc Ames]

When Doc Ames instituted his system of graft in 1901, his intention was to pull enough money for him and his allies that they wouldn’t have to worry about political opposition toppling them. However, thanks to his lack of organization skills and a head-strong grand jury foreman, the system dissolved in two years.

In St. Paul, Minneapolis’ twin city, a similar agreement with criminals was made around the same time. But their system was well organized and wasn’t made to consolidate political power. It was made to control crime in the city and it was highly successful at that. It was kept in place and a series of events turned it into a creator of nightmares for the city.

And while Minneapolis has tried to forget Ames, in the last ten years St. Paul has somewhat embraced its criminal past.

The O’Connor System

The system was known as “The O’Connor System” (no relation) because of the police chief who created it: John Joseph “The Big Fellow” O’Connor. O’Connor was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1855 and moved with his parents to St. Paul the following year. His father owned a hotel on Robert Street next to the German American bank building. The hotel was torn down to make way for the First National Bank building. As a boy, John began working at the wholesale retail firm Beaupre and Kelly and showed great talent as an organizer.

In 1881, tired of working in the business world, he accepted an appointment to the Police Department as a detective, where he established a reputation around the country as one of the shrewdest detectives around, to the point that criminals avoided St. Paul for fear of being caught.

His brother, Richard Thomas O’Connor was also a fierce organizer, heavily involved in the Democratic Party even while serving as both an alderman and clerk of the district court. Along with brewer William Hamm Sr., he was a close advisor to almost every local Democratic politician of the era. O’Connor was nicknamed “The Cardinal” which biographer Charles Clarke thinks is a reference to how he was more influential, charismatic and powerful than the Archbishop of St. Paul, John Ireland.

In 1892, newly elected mayor of St. Paul Frederick P. Wright chose John McGinn to replace O’Connor as chief of detectives along with a new chief of police. Crime returned to St. Paul with a vengeance. The Merchants National Bank was held up on Aug. 14 and was the police event of the year.

In 1894, Charles Ermisch and Otto Wonigkeit were hanged in St. Paul after murdering a bartender. The trial and execution were covered sensationally and there was much protest against the execution given the boys age (they were both 19). Later that year, Robert A. Smith was elected mayor and put O’Connor back in his old job. But he couldn’t do much with it after Smith and O’Connor (along with the entire police department) were ousted again in 1896.

For the next four years, O’Connor carried out private detective work. He also devised plans for a model police force.  Robert Smith was elected mayor in 1900 and had been mayor for only an hour when he dismissed the entire police regime and made O’Connor the police chief. O’Connor was given the chance to put his models into force.

The state legislature passed a law in the previous session allowing for the appointment of a police commission. Smith appointed a commission that included Dick, who had just retired as a US Marshall and was beginning his career as a grain stockbroker. The office of the chief of detectives was abolished, giving John complete charge of detective work.

Finally, the rule that started the O’Connor system was put in place: Criminals were allowed to stay in St. Paul without fear of extradition so long as they obeyed the law within the city limits.

A policeman who knew the faces of known criminals would wait at the Union Depot and would tell the criminals once they got off the train to report to the police station to register. They would report to police headquarters and pay a fee. It was made clear that if they broke the law, the hammer would come down.

In a 1934 column, Westbrook Pegler brought the system to national attention, saying that criminals who had registered with the city who broke the law would be brought to O’Connor’s office, where he would berate them and beat them if necessary, throwing them out and telling them to leave St. Paul and never come back. Pegler’s father Arthur was a reporter in the Twin Cities in the 1890s who combated criminals later protected by the system.

O’Connor defended the system saying criminals who knew they were being watched didn’t commit crimes and that it had made the city crime free. The Democrat-leaning St. Paul Globe praised O’Connor and the police force in 1903 for the very low crime rate, and when O’Connor died, the Pioneer Press praised the system, saying it “accomplished results.”

Early on, there were critics of the system. In 1904, Two religious leaders alleged from their pulpits that graft was common. But neither of them could prove anything beyond hearsay evidence in front of a grand jury, and the allegations were dismissed.

Also, in 1916, the mayor of Minneapolis, Wallace Nye complained that there was little he could do to stop the rise in crime in his city because the criminals could escape to St. Paul.

Other cities were frustrated by the system, but St. Paul judges, many of them political allies of O’Connor, refused extradition requests from them.

While the system was popular, when offenses within it were exposed, the public disapproved of them. The acting chief of Police in 1913, Michael Flanagan was charged with bribery and grand larceny. Flanagan, along with a city detective, were found guilty of accepting a bribe of a thousand dollars from a woman in return for police protection. The National Municipal League, who printed the story, said that a citizens group were “still looking for the man higher up,” but the group isn’t named and there’s no evidence that anyone else was punished or pursued.

O’Connor left the police force for good in 1920, and died in 1924. But the system he devised remained in place. The city had been convinced that the system worked for the benefit of the people and the people believed it had gotten rid of crime. But one event would begin to turn the system against the people.


prohibitionMen in Detroit, stocking up on alcohol the day before Prohibition (Wayne State University)

The temperance movement had been around in America since the early days of the colonies. It’s biggest success was Maine banning alcohol in 1850, but the ban was overturned six years later and the movement lost strength during the Civil War.

In 1869, the Prohibition Party was convened for the first time and brought the issue back to public consciousness. In 1881, Kansas was the first state to ban alcohol in its constitution, thanks in large part to Carrie Nation, a temperance activist who gained infamy for walking into a saloon and smashing the bar with a hatchet. The amendment was repealed in 1948, but the sale of alcohol is still heavily regulated.

In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League started and soon it overtook the Prohibition Party as the leading voice for prohibition of alcohol. By 1920, when Prohibition went into force, 46 of Minnesota’s 86 counties had banned alcohol.  It was also one of 16 states that hadn’t passed a statewide prohibition act before the 18th amendment.

Neither of the major parties took up the issue in any election up to and including the 1916 Presidential Election. When the US entered World War I against Germany on May 6, 1917, German-Americans, who had been the leading opponents of prohibition, were shunned and discredited.

On December 18, 1917, Congress approved an amendment to the Constitution that would ban the manufacture, sale or transport of alcohol. It was ratified on January 16, 1919 when Nebraska became the 36th state to approve it. Minnesota approved it the following day and acting Secretary of State Frank Polk certified the ratification on January 29th.

The enabling legislation for the 18th amendment was the Volstead Act, named for the man who proposed it, Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead. Volstead had crafted the bill along with Wayne Wheeler, the head lobbyist of the Anti-Saloon League.

The bill was approved by Congress, but President Woodrow Wilson vetoed it on October 28, 1919. Congress overrode the veto the following day.

Volstead was defeated in reelection to Congress in 1922 by Ole J. Kvale. After leaving Congress, Volstead practiced law in Minnesota and in 1924 was hired as the legal adviser to the Prohibition Bureau in St. Paul.

No one quite expected what would happen on January 16, 1920 or in the thirteen years between then and the repeal of the amendment. Prohibition was generally supported when it began, as it was believed that it would improve society and lower crime.

Organized crime exploded in the era. Ordinary people ran moonshine operations, while gangsters were seen by more and more people as Robin Hood-esque figures. The government had taken away alcohol, and the gangsters were bringing it back.  And the high profile criminals – especially ones that didn’t have good police connections – needed a place to hide from time to time. St. Paul was the perfect place.

“Of all the Midwest cities, the one I knew best was St. Paul.  It was a crook’s haven. If you were looking for a guy you hadn’t seen in a few months, you usually thought of two places – prison or St. Paul.” -Alvin Karpis, autobiography

Madam Clifford

Nina Clifford was the most notorious madam in Minnesota history. Her bordello at 147 Washington Street, across from the police station and the county morgue, serviced high-end clients with high-end ladies. Meridel Le Sueur once wrote that “three powers had divided St. Paul among them – Bishop Ireland took ‘the Hill,’ [James J.] Hill took the city for his trains, and Nina Clifford took all that was below ‘the Hill.'”

Larry Hodgson, a prolific writer for St. Paul newspapers who served two terms as mayor even wrote a poem of her when the brothel was demolished in 1937, eight years after her death, to make way for the city morgue:

“The Lay of Nina Clifford”

The windows are grimy and covered with dust
In that old house under the hill
The door hinges rusty, the lock is bust
The spider webs cover it still
No longer do gay lights their welcome convey
Inviting the wayfarer in
To choose from the bevy, his favorite lay
To dally a while and sin
Gone are the sofas and plush covered chairs
From the parlor once happy and bright
No longer do douche pans in bedrooms upstairs
Clank busily all thru the night
No more do fat durghers play and carouse
And some pretty blonds on their backs
For Nina is dead and her once famous house
Is sold to pay up the back tax
They’re widening the street so they’re tearing it down
The whorehouse that was once the pride of the town
Soon won’t be worth more than a fart
It’s stone they are taking the morgue to repair
A purpose appropriate – true
For many a stiff has been laid in them both
Even as me and you

Rumor had it that secret tunnels were built between Clifford’s brothel and the Minnesota Club, a gentleman’s club down the street. After her death, the Club renamed its billiard room after her, and after the building was torn down, saved a brick from the building and hung it all the wall. They also had a portrait of her on their wall. The former location of the club is now the headquarters of the Minnesota Wild.

In 1998, during the construction of the Science Museum of Minnesota, archaeologists from the 106 Group (PDF) revealed the unsanitary and harsh conditions the women lived in despite earning nine to ten times what most other women were earning at the time. The group also speculated that John O’Connor’s wife Annie may have run a nearby bordello.

Nearby was another brothel, “Bucket of Blood” run by Italian immigrants Carmine and Josephine Ruberto. Paul Maccabee in his entertaining book John Dillinger Slept Here suggests that the two slipped money to the police to look the other way.  Clifford may have done the same.

Wettest City in America

Moonshine was common in St. Paul. It was so common that the police chief in 1922, Michael Gebhardt, estimated that 75 percent of the city’s residents made it. By the following year, US Attorneys in Minneapolis logged 60 percent or more of their hours on alcohol cases.

M. L. Harney was the field chief in charge of prohibition enforcement, who looked into violations of the Volstead Act.  His chief legal counsel was Volstead. Helen Warren Pfleger, the receptionist and switchboard operator for the office, told her story in Ramsey County History in 1975. She said that Volstead was not recognized by anyone in St. Paul as the man who wrote the law on prohibition, even though his name was known around the world for bringing it about.

When the FBI questioned Beth Green, John Dillinger’s girlfriend, she revealed that “Dapper Dan” Hogan, the police’s fixer for the underworld in the 1920’s had a woman informant in the Prohibition Bureau that would tip-off bootleggers as the agents prepared sweeps.

In 1925, a Collier’s Magazine survey ranked St. Paul and San Francisco as the two wettest cities in the nation. In a 2007 article in the Star Tribune, Linnea Gordon told of how she and her husband, Vernon Buck, made liquor in their south Minneapolis basement while her mom made the labels.

The Man Inside

hogan“Dapper Dan” Hogan (Minneapolis Morning Tribune)

The police always had a man on the inside of the underworld who was the fixer for the two spheres. At the beginning of the O’Connor system, that responsibility belonged to William “Reddy” Griffin, who ran the Hotel Savoy on Minnesota street. He would fix a room for the arriving criminals and collect money from the brothels to give to the police.

Griffin died of apoplexy in 1913, and his role was taken over by Danny “Dapper Dan” Hogan, who owned The Green Lantern on Wabasha Street (since demolished), not far from the State Capitol.

Hogan was an experienced bootlegger who arrived in the city from California in 1906. The Green Lantern soon gained a national reputation as the source for illicit bonds and stolen goods.

On December 4, 1928, Hogan got in his car and turned the ignition. A bomb underneath the floor exploded. He was rushed to a hospital and his leg was amputated. Mike O’Dowd, a local boxer who had been the middleweight champion of the world offered his blood to Hogan, but Hogan died nine hours after the blast. Hogan’s death was one of the first instances of a car bombing.

His funeral was attended by policemen, mobsters and businessmen. The underground stopped its activities temporarily – with Bugs Moran even standing watch outside Hogan’s house in case the culprits tried striking again. Hogan’s coffin was surrounded by $5,000 worth of flowers from all over the country. After the funeral, the Pioneer Press editorialized “Do the police run the town?  Or do the gangsters, bootleggers, gunmen and other racketeers?”

The initial speculation of who did it lay on gunmen from New York, hired by Minneapolis gamblers. However, recently declassified FBI files have pointed to Hogan’s underling Harry Sawyer as the man who hired the bombers. Hogan had stashed $50,000 in the Green Lantern’s safety deposit box. When Hogan’s widow went to collect the money, she found it missing – only Hogan and Sawyer had a key to the box.

Dapper Dan’s death broke confidence in the system. A few months later the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre erased whatever public support there was for Prohibition.

Police chief Edward Murnane told reporters the evening of Hogan’s death “If there are gangsters or undesirables in the city they certainly will be cleaned out,” and “The gangster must go.”

The gangster would go, but it took many years to get rid of them. It took a new President, the end of Prohibition, a more vigorous FBI and a series of major crimes to expose the O’Connor system and finally put it to an end.

[Coming up in part three: The fall of the O’Connor system and St. Paul’s gangster era]


Robert O’Connor is not related to the John or Richard mentioned in the piece. He is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 7th, 2011.