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John O’Connor and the Layover Agreement

Early in the twentieth century, Saint Paul was a stomping ground for many of the most notorious gangsters of the era. John Dillinger and Billie Frechette, Ma Barker and her boys, Alvin Karpis, Leon Gleckman, and others all called it a safe-haven at one point during their careers-in-crime. The city was an epicenter of illegal activity during the 1920s and beyond, and the man to thank was the architect of the Layover Agreement, long-time Police Chief John O’Connor.

The agreement allowed criminals to safely travel within the city limits of Saint Paul as long as they followed three rules; they checked in with police when they arrived, committed no major crimes in the city, and paid all of the necessary bribes. As long as these three things happened, local officials turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of the city’s criminal element. Local police went as far as to protect criminals returning after committing crimes outside of Saint Paul. This protection also included federal crimes, as federal agents lacked the jurisdiction to try these types of cases until the mid-1930s

The era of O’Connor, the city’s Chief of Police for the majority of the Layover Agreement, began on June 1, 1900. He was first appointed to the position by Mayor-Elect Robert A. Smith and deemed to be a necessary positive change for a city that had been infested with rampant criminal activity for the previous four years. O’Connor, considered one of the country’s top detectives, immediately reorganized the police force and soon brought the city’s crime rate down significantly. Soon After, he began quietly letting criminals throughout the Midwest know that Saint Paul was a refuge for them as long as they didn’t commit crimes within its city limits.

O’Connor was considered both an incredible detective and adept criminologist. In the eyes of many, his system allowed the police force a chance to watch over the city and keep petty crimes in check. It put criminals in the position to want to police their criminal counterparts to ensure that no one ruined a good thing. If the Layover Agreement were overturned the “heat” on them would be too much to overcome, and their financial windfall would come to an end. Because of this, the city remained mostly crime free throughout the O’Connor System tenure and beyond. Unfortunately, neighboring municipalities weren’t as lucky. In 1916 Minneapolis Mayor William Nye repeatedly complained that his city couldn’t stem its tide of crime due to the goings on in Saint Paul.

Things went relatively well in the city until Chief O’Connor retired on May 29, 1920. The 6-foot 3-inch O’Connor, nicknamed the “Big Fellow,” was a loud, overbearing man who was pretty adept at keeping lawlessness in the city to a minimum. His replacements, however, were not. The lack of a dominant character to watch over the hiding in plain site criminals of Saint Paul, as well as the end of a significant portion of illegal alcohol trafficking due to the overturning of the National Prohibition Act in 1933, saw the criminal element in the city begin to commit more egregious acts.

With the repeal of the 18th Amendment likely imminent, criminals of the city started engaging in more high-risk crimes. Over an eighteen-month period, four prominent citizens were kidnapped for ransom in Saint Paul, including Hamm’s Brewery President William Hamm Jr in June of 1933, and Edward Bremer, heir to the Schmidt Brewery fortune, in January of 1934. Due to the notable names involved in the crimes, the Federal Government was given more power to act. This jurisdictional change helped end the Layover Agreement in Saint Paul. Federal officials attacked the criminal element with a vengeance, and now under the watchful eye of the FBI, local officials could no longer safely accept bribes. Gangsters were forced to fend for themselves.

In 1934, local citizens, including Saint Paul Daily News editor Howard Kahn, joined the fight against corruption. FBI detective Jamie Wallace was brought in to wiretap the Saint Paul Police force over the course of a year. Those wiretaps exposed the police officials that were tipping off criminals. In July 1935, the St. Paul Daily News printed a story about corruption within the ranks of the Saint Paul Police. A short time later, a significant portion of the city’s police force was either convicted of their crimes or had resigned. The Layover Agreement ended when a new guard of reputable law enforcement officials replaced the old guard of criminals.

Bibliography available here.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

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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