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Impact of the Hamm Jr. Kidnapping

On Thursday, June 15, 1933, at 12:45 p.m. kidnappers abducted Hamm’s Brewery President William Hamm Jr. as he walked home from work to have lunch. The thirty-nine-year-old Hamm, the grandson of Theodore Hamm, was approached as he climbed a set of stairs that led up from the brewery grounds to Greenbrier Street and his nearby home. After a brief exchange, the men grabbed Hamm on either side and shoved him into the back seat of a waiting black sedan. They followed him in, placed a white hood over his eyes, and forced him to the floor as a third man drove away. The struggle took place only a couple of hundred feet from Hamm’s office.

Four days later, after his family had met the ransom demands of his abductors in a late-night exchange along Highway 61, Hamm was released. Outwardly Hamm seemed unaffected by the events of the previous weekend, but the experience changed him. The man who had once embraced the celebrity of his name now preferred to live his life beyond the glow of the spotlight. Formerly outgoing and affable, he became much more introverted and reserved after the kidnapping. His celebrity had contributed his capture, as Alvin Karpis, one of the kidnappers, noted that Hamm's routine was well known to them, making him an easy target.

After the kidnapping, Hamm lived with the fear that he could be abducted again and took precautions to try and ensure his safety. He continued to walk up and down the bluff stairs near the brewery each work day but now did so while accompanied by armed escorts. Hamm was an affable, well-liked personality that became nervous and introverted in public after his harrowing experience. His home became akin to a feudal castle, replete with guards hired to investigate every noise. Efforts to become less of a public figure even carried over into his work life, as Hamm now chose to wear overalls instead of suits to try and blend in with the other employees at the brewery. Three years of courtroom trials forced him to relive the kidnapping over and over again.

Hamm's ordeal was a brazen attack on overworld society by the criminal element in the city. The waning days of Prohibition had forced the underworld to consider crimes that weren't intoxicating liquors-related, and kidnapping Hamm, member of the wealthy Hamm family and unofficial "Prince of Saint Paul" provided a chance for a big financial score. While the gangsters received ransom money, and Hamm was returned unharmed, the crime, coupled with the Edward Bremer kidnapping only months later, galvanized a populace against the criminal element in the country and soon spelled the end of the era of gangsters.

Saint Paulites had become an unwitting party to the increasingly violent crimes, and if for no reason other than self-preservation needed to fight back. Saint Paul Daily News Editor Howard Kahn championed their cause, publicly pushing for the removal of the corrupt officials that had allowed the criminals to move about the city unscathed under the rules of the Layover Agreement. The populace soon heeded Kahn's calls for change, voting out those that had benefitted from the lawlessness and replacing them with people willing to take on the criminals. Those newly installed officials helped to remove employees complicit in the illegal acts of previous administrations. Within a couple of years, Saint Paul’s crime rate had fallen well below the national average for a city of its size.

A series of significant crimes that occurred in the country in the early 1930s, including the kidnapping of Hamm, resulted in the federal government's first official "war on crime." Those events were the catalyst needed to arm federal investigators with the tools to properly engage the nation's public enemies. Two played a role in the Hamm kidnapping trials. President Hoover's June 22, 1932, signing of the "Lindbergh Law" allowed the FBI to spearhead the apprehension of interstate kidnappers. In November 1933 Hamm testified a trial that he was taken from Minnesota into Wisconsin during his abduction, invoking the "Lindbergh Law" and allowing federal investigators to take the lead in the search for the perpetrators. Later the Silver Nitrate Method was successfully used for the first time to garner the fingerprints of Hamm's captors.

A nationwide manhunt ensued. It took time, but the labor of all involved eventually bore fruit. On May 1, 1936, Alvin Karpis, member of the Barker-Karpis gang and the country's "Public Enemy #1" was arrested in New Orleans for his role in the Hamm kidnapping. In July of 1936, he was sentenced to serve life in prison at Alcatraz for his involvement in the crime. His capture essentially ended the reign of the depression era criminals. The traumatic event now completely behind him, Hamm would have to live with the label of "kidnap victim" for the rest of his days. Although shaken by the experience, Hamm managed to recover to live a meaningful life with many personal and professional successes. He passed away on August 21, 1970, at the age of 76.

Bibliography available here.

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Matt Reicher

Matt has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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